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Jan 15, 2007 11:57 PM


Is NC BBQ really that spectacular? I feel that I am missing out some something.

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  1. It's not a question of spectacularity. It's a subtle greatness. If you're the sort of person who clings to the notion that BBQ can be made with beef, for instance, you might not get it. ;-) Or if you believe that BBQ sauce can contain tomato products, or things such as brown sugar or molasses, then you might not get it.

    (Those assertions are as much an elaborate NC-BBQ inside joke as anything else. I spent 4 years in Houston TX, and if I were in Houston right now, I'd be sitting at an outside table at Goode Company laying into a brisket sandwich on jalapeno bread. It's really only people who insist on judging NC BBQ restaurants on their beef, or the lack thereof, who set themselves up for heartbreak.)

    At its finest, NC BBQ is about the long slow erotic marriage of pork and smoke, and VERY LITTLE ELSE. Sorry to shout, but that needs to be emphasized. A truly enlightened NC BBQ purveyor would happily serve his pork to you without any sauce added, and if it were truly exceptional NC BBQ, you might well elect not to add any yourself.

    If it proves necessary to moisten or liven it up just a bit, then just a splash of vinegar and red pepper should spark up the flavor (in the same way that a splash of lemon juice brightens the flavor of so many dishes, both meat & veggie) *without* masking the inherent goodness of pork+smoke that is the bedrock of the NC BBQ experience.

    When I speak of pork, I'm speaking of the whole hog, chopped. There are pockets of good ribs to be had in NC (the finest BBQ of any species/cut that I ever ate were the dry-rubbed ribs at Mitchell's, in Wilson NC) but they're not really the ne plus ultra of NC BBQ, if only because they aren't really a distinct regional subcuisine in the same way that NC chopped-pork BBQ is. Ribs in NC, east and west, quite often appear slathered in the same kind of thick sweet sauce that is common in other states. (Even at Mitchells, they'd dunk your ribs in some goop if you weren't careful to ask them not to).

    Great NC BBQ is sublime. It's fairly straightforward to produce in small quantities--you need a hog, a smoker, some beers, and some friends willing to sit up all night drinking & tending the low, slow fire that's producing the smoke that's actually doing the cooking. But very difficult to produce in the quantities necessary to serve the needs of even the smallest, most out-of-the-way restaurant operation.

    As such, a large part of the mystique of NC BBQ lies in the fact that so many of us devote so much time to visiting the 100s of small-time old-fashioned BBQ restaurants, despite knowing in our hearts that truly great NC BBQ is unlikely to be served at any of them.

    Or as a good friend of mine once said, he rates NC BBQ on a five-pig scale, and no restaurant BBQ can earn more than four pigs. More on that here:

    Is this some kind of obscurantist joke, some inverse snobbery practiced by the locals at the expense of the out-of-towners? I'd answer maybe, if not for the fact that it's really not too hard to get invited to a pig pickin' in NC.

    The best restaurant BBQ in NC, on a good day, will occasionally approximate that experience, and perhaps it's a [slightly perverse] mark of just how sublime great NC BBQ is that so many of us are so devoted to trying to reproduce it, even though deep down we may know it's not fully possible to do so.

    Plus, even pretty good NC BBQ is pretty damn good.

    9 Replies
    1. re: rossgrady

      Jesus lord, that was poetry.

      (I was born and raised in the Winston-Salem area, for the record.)

      1. re: uptown jimmy

        Amen to that. I will print that off and keep it!
        (Rutherfordton raised)

        1. re: Tee

          Yeah, just to reiterate his main point: the best NC BBQ is usually to be found in somebody's back yard. All the restaurants I've tried are less than stellar.

          Question for Ross: was there a time back in the day when the various "Lexington BBQ" type places were putting out a better product? Have they gone downhill? Because I remember them being better back in the '70s; maybe I was too young to know better and my palate has gotten pickier...

          1. re: uptown jimmy

            The difference between the quality of the barbecue produced by Lexington joints of thirty years ago and today is probably attributable to the difference in commercially available pork products. Today's "other white meat" is far less flavorful than it was back then.
            Better pork = better barbecue.

            1. re: Hushpuppy

              I was living in a pathetic state of non-BBQ-enlightenment (um, well, South Carolina, to be exact ;-) ) during the time period you're talking about, but in addition to the marked decrease in fat content in modern pork that Hushpuppy mentions, I'd wager that 20-30 years ago, a MUCH larger percentage of BBQ joints, both in NC and nationwide, were still cooking with wood.

              1. re: Hushpuppy

                Riiiiight. The pork is drier and less flavorful. That's it.

                And the wood going Dodo on us, like Ross says...

                I love this website.

                1. re: uptown jimmy

                  Thank Smithfield for that. Their disgusting slaughter houses are pumping out plenty of inedible pork by the ton. Great BBQ starts with great meat. Avoiding Smithfield would be a good start.

        2. re: rossgrady

          Whats the point of linking to a website full of 10 year old resturant reviews? How helpful is 10 year old information, especially when the writer lacks any sense of an open mind towards enjoying the various permutations of NC BBQ? There is no wrong way prepare it, no one style inherently bettter than another, despite the authors statements to the contrary. Plus, check out this unbelievable distortion of the truth from his review of Lexngton BBQ #1:

          "lex #1. best all day. very smokey. soggy. three fire boxes and six pits
          line the back porch. wayne monk is quoted in bob garner's book that lex
          #1 will be going to gas soon."

          Going to gas soon??! Well, its 2007, and Wayne Monk is still using wood! Here's the actual quote from Garner's book:

          "Monk vows that as long as he has anything to do with it, Lexington Barbecue will continue to cook with wood. While he shakes his head in mock disbelief over the number of Lexington restaurants that have switched to cooking with electricity, he acknowledges that in ten, fiteen or perhaps twenty years, all the restaurants in town may have given up hope of cooking over live coals because of the expense and the unertainties of environmental regulation. "But I'm only fifty-nine," he adds. "I've got quite a few more years in me, and as long as I'm the one making the decisions, we'll continue to cook and serve our barbecue the way we always have."

          What does the author of that website have against Mr. Monk?

          1. re: rossgrady

            You da man!

            Here's a place that never seems to get mentioned but I think is really good: Nunnery-Freeman Barbecue in Henderson, NC, just off I-85. Unusual thin, brown sauce goes great on the cue. Nunnery-Freeman also has great fried chicken, as does Parker's in Wilson, Moore's in Kenly, and I'm sure other eastern NC cue joints too.

          2. rossgrady describes eastern NC 'que. And describes it about as well as I've ever known. Beautiful! Kudos!

            I learned to love vinegar and pepper que even though I was reared eating the western variety, which incorporates a sweeter red sauce. Still my favorite, but one thing remains - it's the pork/smoke combination that is the essence of good barbeque in North Carolina.

            Gas, electric, or even coal - forget it. Has to be slow cooked over hardwood. Hickory is best.

            The sauce is usually added after the cooking process, and it's to enhance, not overcome, the smokey flavor. My favorite little BBQ place in my hometown of Statesville - Little Pigs - serves a chopped pork sandwich on a bun that has been lightly touched with their red sauce. The smoke is the star; the sauce just sweetens the deal.

            1. In Charlotte, NC Bill Spoons on South Blvd. Is worth checking out! Oh and Bring Cash.. He doesn't take Plastic! :) Slightly on the high side but worth it.
              On I-85 close to Lexington NC? Find the white house I think its Lexington BBQ Not sure on the name but its on Business 85...

              In Blowing Rock, NC from my old College days The Woodlands!
              Himmmmm maybe I will drive up for lunch soon!

              1. Do any NC BBQ restaurants serve hash? Does everyone put ketchup in the cole slaw?

                6 Replies
                1. re: byteme55

                  I suspect that if any NC BBQ restaurants served hash, you'd discover they were really South Carolinians in disguise. NC does have a long tradition of Brunswick Stew, which starts with some of the same ingredients, but ends up someplace different. I wouldn't recommend it as a substitute, but rather as an anthropological investigation for you to make into the differences between our two states.

                  The phenomenon of "red slaw" (which sometimes tastes more like slaw with cocktail sauce in it, rather than ketchup, though recipes are many & varied and often kept as secret as the sauce recipes) is characteristic of NC BBQ from Lexington westward. In the east, slaw is of the more ordinary white variety.

                  And just for clarification, my long initial essay above was specific to *eastern* NC BBQ; I have had some fine Lexington-style BBQ, but the addition of tomato products to the sauce tilts the balance away from the pure smoke-plus-pork equation that I was describing, and positions the Q more in line with the larger American BBQ tradition as practiced most everywhere else, where it's more about sauce-plus-meat.

                  So if we are to deduce from your followup that you've perhaps only had NC BBQ from the western half of the state, then I'd encourage you to head east (though not too far east--it's hard to find good BBQ too far into the coastal plain). Next time you're traveling I-95 up towards VA, plan some side trips to Goldsboro, Wilson, or Ayden, which make up sort of a Golden Triangle of eastern NC BBQ. You'd be heading for Wilbur's in Goldsboro, Bill's & Parker's in Wilson (assuming that Mitchell's hasn't reopened--does anybody know?), and the Skylight Inn in Ayden, but you could also just roll down the window & drive slow, and let your nose lead you to the smoke.

                  1. re: rossgrady

                    You are correct about the western N.C. experience. My experience w/ N.C. 'q has been from Spartanburg, through Shelby, Rutherfordton, Marion, Linville, to Boone. It was in Spartanburg that I noticed Hash disappearing and Red Slaw appearing. The Hickory Log in Shelby seems to be the Big Dog (Big Hog?) in the region. The sauce is more thick/tomato-y. There is a place in Linville (The Old Hamption Store, I think) that cooks over apple wood and it was exceptional.

                    As for my native 'q (edge of S.C. piedmont/low country), hash is always served. My favorite is the gray, stringy hash as compared to the smooth-slurry red hash (too sweet for me). There is a strong, yellow, vinegary smooth hash that runs through a band midstate (Batesburg, Nieces); and skins too........mmmmmmmmm- skins; but I digress.

                    We will be traveling the I-95 corridor to Fayetteville. I will make it a point to locate some 'q places of note. Thanks!

                    1. re: byteme55

                      Hickory Log in Shelby? I've been to Shelby several times and never heard of it. where is it, and is it worth a try?

                      In Shelby, I would rank Bridges BBQ Lodge tops, and Alston Bridges a distant 2nd but still worth having occasionally.

                      1. re: Lindenin

                        The Hickory Log is located in Forest City. Mediocre, oven cooked barbecue. Hushpuppies are really something else. More like one long, continuous pup. They're very similar to the hushpuppies served at Fuzzy's in Madison.

                        1. re: Hushpuppy

                          You are absolutely right. The Hickory Log is in Forest City. My mistake.

                  2. re: byteme55

                    BBQ slaw is made with the Lexington style dip, as far as I know--not ketchup. Cole slaw just doesn't taste right on a bbq sandwich to me--it has to be bbq slaw. Oh, and I prefer bbq slaw on my hot dogs, too.

                    As for Brunswick stew, I had never seen it at a bbq joint until I moved to the eastern side of the state.

                  3. I really have a hard time comparing KC, memphis, TX and other regional BBQ with each other as far as choosing a favorite style is concerned. But I can say I never met a BBQ style that I did not like.

                    As far as the NC BBQ is concerned my favorite rendition is at Allan and Son's near chapel Hill, NC. The things that really do it for me at this place are: I get really a taste of the smoke, the meat is very juicy (don't know if it from fat or the sauce), and the sauce is a perfect balance is flavors (e.g., vinegary, salty and hot). Not sure how they do it but they get it right every time I've gone there.

                    I've had other NC style BBQ, (e.g., Stamey's, not yet been to lexington's) but Allan and Son's has great BBQ. And great hush puppies.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Soup

                      I occasionally wind up in Hickory. Any good 'q in the Hickory area?

                      1. re: byteme55

                        Little Pigs in Newton is pretty good. It is NOT, however, traditional NC barbecue. It's a holdover from a long-gone Memphis based chain. Strangely, it's not really Memphis style either. Nevertheless, they're log burners and the meat is usually fresh and pretty tasty. I've yet to find any good, real barbecue in Hickory.

                        1. re: byteme55

                          I've found Hickory to be a bit of desert when it comes to authentic BBQ. I'd suggest going the 30 or so miles east (if my memory is correct) and trying Carolina BBQ or some of the other Statesville offerings.

                          Also, going west to Asheville you find several good BBQ spots, but they really aren't the classic carolina type.