Barbeque and Beyond in Winston-Salem
I just spent two days in Winston-Salem, NC, with a seven-hour drive down I-81 from Harrisburg to get there and come back. I came prepared -- I scoured this board for recommendations both in W-S and on the highway, and was able to make informed dining decision for every meal. Here's my report, copied over from my blog, The Dilettante's Dilemma (www.cruzich.com/dd.html)
I'm down here for a few days on business, attending the South Atlantic Fire Exposition. This was a long drive for what is going to be, I expect, a pretty boring show, so I was not too excited about going. I got a little more excited, however, when I learned about something called the North Carolina Barbeque Society's Historic Barbeque Trail. When it became apparent that my path would be crossing the trail, I suddenly got a little more interested in my first-ever trip to the Tarheel State.
So I spent a little time poking around on Chowhound, looking for barbeque recommendations in W-S and the surrounding area. Also, since I would be driving for seven hours to get here, I looked for recommendations in the towns along I-81 and US-202, and I was not disappointed.
I stopped off for lunch in Staunton, VA, at Mrs. Rowe's. This restaurant has been around for 60 years, specializing in fried chicken. So of course that's what I had, along with some mac & cheese and greens. The restaurant itself felt like a Shoney's on the side of any highway anywhere in America, but don't be fooled -- the fried chicken is something special. Juicy and flavorful, with a light coating that didn't overpower the chicken. I wasn't particularly impressed with the sides, but the excellence of the chicken more than made up for that.
Once I arrived in W-S and checked into my hotel, my thoughts turned immediately to BARBEQUE. There are, of course, several difference schools of barbeque in America: Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, etc. I had no idea that North Carolina alone had three different styles, or that I was in the home of one (Lexington-style) that I had never heard of. Since I'm barbeque-agnostic (I love 'em all), I was excited to check out a new style, so I drove down to the city of Lexington to try the pork shoulder at Lexington Barbeque (aka Honey Monk's). This was, based on the reviews at Chowhound, the acknowledged leader in this particular style, which calls for smoked shoulder only, with a thin, vinegar-based sauce with no ketchup whatsoever.
The place was packed on a Thursday at 6:00, which seemed like a good sign. We sat down and ordered the basics: coarse-chopped outside brown, cole slaw, hush puppies, beans, and a sweet tea.
This was among the best barbeque I've ever had. It was a little surprising upon first bite to not be getting any ketchupy sweetness (and, truth be told, I do like KC-style the best), but the meat was perfect. Not so cooked that it was falling apart, it put up a bit of resistance as you chewed it but gave up terrific smoked flavor while doing so. Outside brown is totally the way to go -- the additional smokiness and slight caramelization was fantastic, and the thin sauce imparted a vinegary zip and just the slightest bit of heat from the red pepper flakes. The sides were also great; the cole slaw (vinegar-based, no mayo, just like DJo makes it) carried over the flavors of the sauce, the hush puppies were light & airy, and the beans were smoky & sweet and were improved by a spot of (Texas-style) barbeque sauce.
Given the preponderance of barbeque joints littered throughout Winston-Salem, I was skeptical of the need to drive 20 miles to go to a particular joint, but rest assured the additional effort was worth it. I think any time you're within 50 miles of Lexington you are required to make the drive to Honey Monk's. You will not be disappointed.
After a great meal at Lexington Barbeque on Thursday night, I was looking forward to trying a few other places. First up was lunch at Sweet Potatoes, a little bistro in the Arts District, which was, conveniently, only a block from the Convention Center. They were packed at lunchtime but I sat at the bar and had an absolutely fantastic steak sandwich, and the best. Sweet potato fries. Ever. Crispy and nicely salted on the outside, creamy on the inside. They were heavenly.
Unfortunately my second barbeque experience was totally different from the first. First of all my phone totally LIED TO ME and Don's Barbeque was nowhere near my hotel, as it had claimed. Not a big deal, it just meant I had to drive out to the edge of town. I actually welcomed the opportunity to explore a little bit more of the city, as otherwise I was pretty much seeing my hotel by the Interstate and the two blocks around the convention center.
Don's is apparently one of the only Western-style places in Winston-Salem, which is why I decided to give it a try. Alas, it wasn't that great, but I don't know if that's because I don't like Western-style (more ketchup in sauce, therefore sweeter & wetter) as much or if it just wasn't very good. Either way, it was a let-down, although I will point out that even "not very good" barbeque is still really really good, especially when consumed with an ice-cold mass-produced domestic beer.
On Saturday, after another fantastic lunch at Sweet Potatoes (summer sausage with fried onions & corn relish, cup of three-cheese bacon soup, and seriously you have to eat at this place any time you're anywhere near The Triad), I packed up the truck and headed home. First, though, I had to make one more barbeque stop, this time at Clark's in Kernersville. I got a pound of coarse chopped to bring home, since it had been made clear to me that I wouldn't be welcome back in my home without it.
I was so pleasantly full from my lunch that I didn't even break into it until I was home, and then it was just to have a couple of bites. But the next day we made ourselves some sandwiches with the 'que and the barbeque slaw, which was their vinegar-based cole slaw with some of their barbeque sauce mixed in.
Clark's was, in my opinion, even better than Lexington Barbeque. Their coarse-chopped was actually big chunks of shoulder, and the tenderness of the meat was perfectly matched to the tangyness of the sauce. The meat benefited from a night spent marinating, and once we had piled the barbeque slaw on top, it made for a perfect sandwich.
I didn't get a chance to try Little Richard's, and I did see a sign for an Eastern-style barbeque place, but I'll be back in W-S in January and both of those places (along with the upscale restaurant that the owners of Sweet Potatoes are apparently opening) and already on my "to eat" list.
529 N Trade St, Winston Salem, NC 27101
W US Old Highway 64, Lexington, NC 27295
74 Rowe Rd, Staunton, VA 24401
Don's BBQ & Restaurant
Old Hollow Rd, Winston Salem, NC 27101
1331 Nc Highway 66 S, Kernersville, NC 27284
Nice report, and I'm glad you enjoyed your visit to Winston-Salem! Sweet Potatoes is indeed wonderful. I've lived here 6 years and I've never even heard of Don's BBQ, but it sounds like I'm not missing much. I've only been to Clark's once, and I wasn't all that impressed; sounds like I need to try it again.
Btw, NC only has 2 styles of BBQ, eastern and lexington (also called western). The biggest difference is that lexington has a little ketchup or tomato paste in it, and frequently eastern is spicier. I can assure you Honey Monk's sauce has a tomato component in it.
Thanks for the feedback...I'm sure there was a bit of ketchup in Honey Monk's sauce, but as a Chicago native I'm used to a whole lot more.
You're right, Don's is not worth checking out. BTW, I got the Don's recommendation, and the implied distinction between Western style and Lexington style, from this Chowhound thread and a poster named "Lee":
"Don's Barbeque is highly recommended as it is about the only Western Style BBQ restaurant in the area as opposed to all the Lexington style places."
Looks like I was passing on bad information...
Well, way out west in the mountains of NC, you're more likely to get BBQ with a heavy tomato/sweet component to the sauce, more like what you'd find in other parts of the US. This isn't a Carolina innovation, however, and thus isn't really considered one of the two proper NC styles.
I have no idea why Lee would want to steer you away from our indigenous specialties, though. It's like sending a visitor to Austin to a Taco Bell . . .
The owners of Sweet Potatoes have opened another, more upscale restaurant called The Cotton Mill. I haven't tried it yet.
And...great report...but that is true, we've just got two true styles of barbecue here. A place in Kernersville sells both - I think it's called Prissy Polly's. If you are ever east of Greensboro, look on these boards for eastern-style recs. I prefer it.
Maybe you were thinking of South Carolina barbecue - it's mustard-based, and sweet and yellow.
>Maybe you were thinking of South Carolina barbecue - it's mustard-based, and sweet and yellow.
True, some SC Q sauce is sweet mustard. You can also find mustard based sauce that is savory. Mustard based sauce is found mainly in central SC. In the upstate they tend to use tomato based sauces. However, in the SC Lowcountry they most often use a vinegar based sauce that may or may not contain a little sugar but most definitely will have red pepper. The Lowcountry sauce is the best.
Don's is a locally famous and very old BBQ place. I think he was one of the original in W-S. I checked out a lot of BBQ books from the library, and Don's history was mentioned. Don's is not my favorite, and I haven't eaten there since the 1990s, but it does have a place in NC BBQ history.