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Jul 10, 2008 11:19 AM

Eastern and Western North Carolina Barbecue Report

Road-tripping through North Carolina recently, we wanted to sample both Eastern and Western style barbecue.

Our first stop was Eastern style at Allen & Son Barbeque in Chapel Hill. We ordered a BBQ and stew plate. No chopped vs sliced options were listed. My research indicated that asking for "outside brown" was the way to go, but when I asked for it I was rebuffed with "it's all mixed together". Not sure if this is a consequence of whole-hog barbecue, or if it is just time-saving on their part.

My first impression of the meat wasn't great - the texture was soft and soggy. After a few bites, though, it began to grow on me. The smoke flavor started hitting me - especially when I got the odd crispy edge bit.

On the stew front, this was our first experience with Brunswick Stew. I didn't expect to like it, but it was actually sort of ok.

We also ordered a pork sandwich which was very good. The vinegar mixed in with the meat really accentuated the smoked pork flavor and helped it not get overpowered by the bun - something that I often find a problem with barbecue sandwiches.

The next day we headed west to Lexington and stopped in at Barbecue Center (we had planned to stop in at Lexington #1 as well, but ended up being too full). Unlike Allen & Son, here there were many options when ordering your barbecue. We settled on a small tray of coarsely chopped outside brown. The tray, as advertised, was small but it was *packed*. The meat was in nice-sized chunks, with lots of charred outside goodness. Very tasty.

We also had a sandwich, but this time tried it with sliced pork instead of pulled. It was good, but not as good as the sandwich from Allen & Son. I am definitely coming to believe that different styles are best suited to sandwiches vs straight barbecue.

Pictures here:

Allen & Son

Barbecue Center

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  1. I almost forgot - we also tried South Carolina barbecue. We stopped in at Bessinger's, just outside of Charleston and hand their pork sandwich.

    Bessinger's uses a mustard-based sauce, which I've read is prototypical of SC bbq. Not being a big fan of American mustard, I was a bit put off by the yellow sandwich, but it actually tasted more vinegary than mustardy.


    1. I was raised in South Carolina and absolutely cannot stand that mustard sauce. There are lots of people who love the stuff so much that they practically drink it, though. Glad you enjoyed your NC style, too

      Curious, though - why did you expect not to like Brunswick stew? Hardly anyone makes it with squirrel meat anymore. :-) All kidding aside, though, it's hard to beat good Brunswick stew. Surprisingly enough, some of the best Brunswick stew I've had comes from the Smithfield Chicken & BBQ chain. Goooood stuff.

      19 Replies
      1. re: Suzy Q

        2nd on the Brunswick Stew at Smithfield Chicken & BBQ - it's quite fresh tasting, not the overcooked melange you might expect, well worth a bucket on its own, or for the fridge as late night snacks etc.

        1. re: bob192


          Smithfield's Chicken and Barbecue is top of the Eastern NC barbecue plate!!

          1. re: Preston Page

            Are you saying Smithfield's Chicken and BBQ chain has the best eastern style bbq in NC?

            1. re: carolinadawg

              Personally I wouldn't say they are best, but they've gotten better.

              1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                Oh please...better than what? Do they cook with wood? If not, then its just roast pork with sauce in it, its not bbq. The worst owner-operated bbq joint in NC that cooks with wood is infinitely better than Smithfield's. If there's no other option, and you need a pork fix, it'll do, but outside of that circumstance its not anything to celebrated or recommended.

                  1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                    To my knowledge, there isn't an Eastern NC barbecue chain worth noting. Smithfields beats out Gardners, but neither one is good. I will eat at Smithfields when traveling and your other options are fast food joints. Only then does their barbecue sandwich with slaw seem appetizing.

                    1. re: veganhater

                      How do you define chain? Are we talking about more than one location? I know that Parker's and King's both had at least 2 locations..not that that counts for anything. I thought White Swan use to as well, but I could be mistaken. Note I'm not recommending any of these places but just suggesting that they had more than once location.

                      Given the fact that having one good traditional East NC joint is hard enough (I don't know about cost), it doesn't surprise me that there isn't a chain.

                      1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                        Although I wouldn't define 2 locations a chain, Parker's and King's fall into the same mediocre category. One of the Parker's locations is not affiliated with the other/others as well.

                        As far as not seeing a good barbecue chain out there, it has always surprised me. Having a business model where you only have to prepare four items with low food cost and can be successful (Skylight) seems like a dream for restauranteurs. I don't think making great barbecue is easy, but if you know how to do it why not try expanding? Maybe I'll have to do it myself.

                        1. re: veganhater

                          I think it's one of those cases where giving a fuck is the main ingredient in the recipe, and it's difficult to find hired help who do.

                          1. re: Naco

                            That is true for most things!


                            1. re: meatn3

                              One of the most difficult things to do in cooking is to keep it simple. I have eaten at Smithfield's but steered clear of the Q so I can't comment. That said, I do know people that like the Q there.

                              1. re: Bluemold

                                I'm probably stretching this but I look at true East NC BBQ and Artisan Bakeries in somewhat the same light. You have something that takes time, dedication, skill, and tradition (especially with bbq lore). If you think about it, there really aren't artisan bread chains either and I'm not talking about Great Harvest and Panera BS.

                                Like Naco said, there just aren't that many people in the BBQ field that give a crap enough to want to get up early and tend the coals and do what it takes to produce a product and those that do are dying out and aren't able to find the help they need to keep it going.

                                I don't recall the video about Skylight but even there who was actually doing the bbqing was it the Jones family or some help?

                                1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                                  Great Harvest and Panera are 2 totally diffferent things. Every Great Harvest is owned by a baker who likes supporting family owned wheat fields. The Wilmington NC Great Harvest has an amazing line of artisan breads and I have lived and eaten all over the world. Perhaps you meant to say Atlanta Bread Co?

                      2. re: veganhater

                        Their tea is always good though and the drive-through windows are convenient.

              2. re: Preston Page

                Yes, Smithfield Chicken & BBQ is the best, even now that it is a chain. OK, I was born in Smithfield, NC!

            2. re: Suzy Q

              The idea of Brunswick stew puts me off somehow - something about the corn, I think. I definitely find it to be visually unappealing stuff. Tastes better than it looks, though...

              1. re: menuinprogress

                I never thought I'd see barbeque and "visually appealing" in the same sentence. Maybe that's why all Bay Area California places that try to serve "barbeque" (and I use that term lightly) where I am this summer try to make it look all froo-froo on the plate. Sorry, but I don't want to see a sprig of dill with my pulled pork. Dude, with bbq, one needs to chill. Close your eyes, imagine heaven, and the taste will complement those visions quite nicely.

                1. re: mikeh

                  i'm not sure why brunswick stew is considered visually unappealing.

                  the mustard-based sauces are good but must be done right -- there isn't a lot of margin for error i believe. i've had some that have been bad and some that are very good (i like dillards and the spicy version at trenton bbq in trenton, sc)

                  i think hursey's in burlington has good brunswick stew. there's are few things better in the winter than finding that pound of Q you forgot about in the freezer and making some brunswick stew from it (yes, i pass on making it with squirrel most times :) )

            3. The BBQ at Allen and Son, while usually good in it's own right, is just barely Eastern Style and I understand it is not "whole-hog" nor has it ever been. Eastern Style needs to come from the Greenville/Goldsboro area these days.

              12 Replies
              1. re: wb247

                "Allen and not whole hog..."

                I'm not sure thats true...I know when A&S does a catered pig pickin' it is whole hog, and its hard to believe they would do that differently. Regardless, its outstanding 'q.

                1. re: carolinadawg

                  Smoke oven isn't built for whole hog, but the cooker out behind will hold full pig. People like the whole hog look for parties. Meat comes in fresh and local but shoulders like piedmont.

                  I can only think of a place or two where they pull the outside brown and add that by request. A couple of food writers put that out there, and asking generally brands you as someone from outside the area.

                  I included a photo of the chopping. Keith still hand chops at Allen & Son vs. machine chop at some joints.

                  I'm not in the industry but do write on barbecue.

                  1. re: CyndiA

                    I'm having a considerable amount of trouble deciphering your post, especially your first paragraph. By "smoke cooker" do you mean the bbq pit at Allen and Son's restaurant? By "cooker out behind" do you mean the trailer he uses for off-site pig pickins? Are you saying the restaurant's bbq pit is smaller than a trailer? That seems hard to fathom.

                    "Meat comes in fresh and local but shoulders like piedmont"? I have idea how to translate that.

                    1. re: carolinadawg


                      The pit inside is set up with a center area for the wood which is like a chimney and shelves to slide the shoulders in to the side and not the whole pig set up which would be shallow and longer. In other words, there are racks, and they are not set high enough for whole hog. Coals go under either set up which you probably know.

                      Yes. The cooker (more than one) are out back and pull behind to take on site for a party etc. Those are large with the head space for a whole pig.

                      Several barbecue pitmasters from closer out this way say that they do shoulders generally but will do full pigs when catering as clients request the whole pig for the eye appeal.

                      I saw the shoulders in the freezor room. They were delivered by truck and had not been frozen. Fresh. But, they were shoulders. By piedmont, I'm talking about the style of using shoulders vs. whole hog. So - they cook shoulders at Allen & Son as is the piedmont style vs. eastern.

                      I was just out there a few weeks ago to get info for a travel book. I'd eaten there before, but I had not been in the back until this time.

                      Also - I would note that the owner does not consider his barbecue eastern or western. He said that specifically.

                      Sorry my post didn't make much sense. I was trying to keep it short (-:

                      1. re: CyndiA

                        I agree with the owner, Allen & Sons is not true eastern style barbecue, but it is very good and closer to Eastern than Western. Although posted before, for the best eastern barbecue experiences and in order of preference, head to Pete's in Ayden, B's in Greenville, Wilbur's in Goldsboro.

                        1. re: veganhater

                          I definately will. I'm in the Lexington area, but I love both styles. Heck, I like Kansas City BBQ too, but I guess I shouldn't tell that.

                          1. re: veganhater

                            yikes! any mention of eastern carolina barbecue really should include both parker's and bill's, in wilson. don't mess with the buffet at bill's, avoid the brunswick stew at parker's, and chase down your 'cue with some fried chicken at either place. ahhhh, carolina.

                            1. re: surrys

                              Parker's and Bill's are long past their prime. Parker's is decent utility 'cue if you live in Wilson, but neither are worth visiting with Pete Jones, B's, and Wilber's so close by. They're not destination restaurants.

                              1. re: Naco

                                Strongly agree with you Naco, Bill's & Parker"s are living (if that) on their past reputation.

                              2. re: surrys

                                If you recommend Parker's and Bill's, you might as well mention Smithfields and Gardners. None of these restaurants are worth a trip unless you're desperate for a mediocre rendition of barbecue.

                              3. re: veganhater

                                You got it exactly right, five years later, I'd still say the same as veganhater - pete's, b's, wilbur's. If by Pete's, I think you mean Skylight Inn. Bum's in Ayden also belongs in the top three or four, maybe edges out Wilbur's, but both are amazing. Ayden, NC is the happiest place on earth

                                1. re: veganhater

                                  You got it exactly right, five years later, I'd still the same. By Pete's, I think you mean Skylight Inn. Bum's in Ayden also belongs in the top three or four, maybe edges out Wilbur's, but both are amazing. Ayden, NC is the happiest place on earth

                      2. I stopped in at Blackbeard's BBQ and C-Food today on Alt 64 between Bethel and Tarboro. Probably a touch closer to Tarboro- I don't think it was more than a few minutes outside of Princeville. Anyway...they cook with wood! And are open on Sunday!

                        I had a bbq sandwich and my wife had bbq chicken, which was also wood cooked. The bbq was top quality stuff- great smoke flavor and very clean. Imagine if a sandwich from Pete Jones and a sandwich from B's or Jack Cobb's had a baby. I would have liked less slaw on the sandwich- next time, I'll ask them to go light on the slaw.

                        I ate a few bites of the chicken, and it was well prepared and had good smoke flavor as well. I would have liked a bit more char on the outside, but that's purely a personal thing and not a knock on the quality. This was a very good bbq chicken. My wife raved about her sides, especially the hush puppies, but I didn't try any of those.

                        Seafood items were pretty standard for the area, but not of much interest to me, given that I'd just found a wood burner that I hadn't known about previously. There were also some relatively hard to find Southern/North Carolina items on the menu; they had a neckbone plate as a special today, and IIRC they had oxtails on the menu also.

                        In terms of ambience, it's a neat little place. I liked the various bits of pirate bric-a-brac and the giant shark out front.

                        Their hours were: 11am-9pm Thurs-Sat, 11-3pm Sun.

                        1. Although I've eaten catered Grady's BBQ in the past I had never eaten at Grady's until Saturday. Firstly, Grady's is near Dudley, NC and, to me, the restaurant looks like a BBQ joint should look, inside and out. Nothing fancy, but small, serviceable, and functional with the detached, covered pit out back. I don't know how long Grady's has been operating but I would be disappointed if I didn't know it was there since I was born less than ten miles from it and lived the first sixteen years of my life so close to it.

                          The BBQ itself is notable and deserves its good reputation among eastern NC style fanatics. I think it ranks favorably with B's and Skylight Inn (still my two favorites). The coleslaw and potato salad are two of my favorite sides, both with some chopped Mt. Olive dill pickles, maybe in combination with chopped sweet pickles too. Let's just say there was a pleasant, mild, sweetness in the background that I liked a lot. The hush puppy's were good and savory (made with plain cornmeal) and pretty typical for ENC BBQ joints. My son was with me and also had the banana pudding which he said was "sick" good. He told Mrs Grady that they had the banana pudding thing figured out. I need to also add that he is partial to banana pudding and rarely gets fooled by imitations. They also serve fried and BBQ chicken that I didn't try.

                          Grady's is about three miles east of Dudley which situated about half-way between Mt. Olive and Goldsboro, NC off of Highway 117. I'm sure the location has limited visits by some of the less hardcore BBQ fans but it is worth a visit I will go back but I probably won't go there unless I'm close by as I'm usually in B's and Skylight Inn territory more often.

                          Skylight Inn
                          4618 S Lee St, Ayden, NC