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NC Barbecue

North Carolina Barbecue North Carolina Barbecue

As you probably already know, barbecue in North Carolina means only one thing: pork; generally chopped pork, though there are some who like it pulled. (Sliced?Eh ; not so much.) As you may also be aware, there's a distinction between eastern North Carolina barbecue and western North Carolina barbecue.

A Short History of North Carolina Barbecue

North Carolina BarbecueFor some background on the history of barbecue in North Carolina - like, if you're writing your master's thesis on it or something (actually, it is kind of interesting) - go to for "North Carolina Barbecue: A Primer," by Terry Mancour.

For a bit more history, and an explanation of the above-mentioned distinction in eastern and western NC barbecue, I'd like to quote Bob Garner, from his Guide To North Carolina Barbecue, because, my sources tell me, he's the man from whom to quote on any and all things 'cue:

"From the very beginning," Garner writes, "barbecue in North Carolina meant pork. During the 1500s, the Spanish introduced pigs to the southeastern part of America. Whereas cattle tended to fare poorly in the region, swine flourished, nowhere more so than in North Carolina."

Garner goes on to explain that the pork would most commonly be cooked over an open fire and would be seasoned with "an ordinary table condiment of the time, which consisted of vinegar, salt, red and black pepper, and oyster juice… Salty vinegar liberally laced with pepper (but minus the oyster juice) is still basically the same sauce used on eastern North Carolina barbecue today …"

The big difference between eastern barbecue and western - or Lexington-style, as it's sometimes called - barbecue is that ketchup is commonly added to the sauce of western barbecue. The other difference is that in the east they use the whole hog, both white and dark meat, while in the west they cook only the pork shoulder, which is dark meat and thus more fatty, moister and richer.

All that said, though, the truth, says me, is that - contrary to the mythical status of this east-west "rivalry" - most casual barbecue eaters probably wouldn't even notice the difference between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue if you put one of each before them (and, despite what you may have heard about how we "shorely do take our barbecue serious 'round these-here parts," few among us are actually
serious barbecue eaters).

There. I've said it. There really isn't a substantial difference between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue. Now I've said it again, and I'm not taking it back. What there is a substantial difference between is good barbecue and bad barbecue, and (myth-bash-two alert) despite what you may've heard, the big difference in quality is not in whether it was cooked in a pit over hickory coals or with gas. Lots of very fine barbecue establishments are now cooking their 'cue with gas, and some (though not many) crappy joints are still using pits. The real difference between really good barbecue and not-so-good barbecue is how it tastes when you put it in your mouth (though, for many of us, texture plays a part as well). And you know who gets to decide that?

You do. Well, not entirely - because I'm about to tell you about several very good places to get barbecue, and a few not quite so, from all the regions that really matter in the world of North Carolina barbecue, from the mountains to the coast. Then you go try them. Then you come tell me .

Where to Eat Good North Carolina Barbecue

North Carolina BarbecueThe judging of these establishments was restricted to, first and far foremost, the meat - specifically, barbecue sandwiches, with some consideration being given to the quality of the supporting role played by bun and coleslaw (who cares about the coleslaw anyways except in the context of the role it plays in accentuating or detracting from the meat - although, if I may, I'd like to say that I make a killer coleslaw, for which I'm rousingly celebrated on several continents, but comparing my sublime blending of a host of secret ingredients and a bunch of jalapenos to the coleslaw you get at a barbecue joint - which, by the way, is not a pejorative term: "joint" - really, well, it just sort of ticks me off, if you must know). Second, and strictly secondarily, we judged the hush puppies.

By the way, you may be wondering why you sometimes see barbecue spelled "barbeque," "BBQ" and some other cutesy ways. Stop it. It's a waste of time. Wonder about something else.

Little Pigs v. Barbecue Inn: The Asheville Cook-Off

First off, you should know that barbecue doesn't play nearly so important a role in the culinary landscape of the mountains as it does in the Piedmont and in eastern Carolina. Second thing; both of these places I'm fixin to tell you about hold some significance from my own formative years - Barbecue Inn is about a block from the home in which I spent the first seven years of my life and Little Pigs is across the street from the high school at which I made cameo appearances, and from which I somehow managed to graduate - so that's why they're in this piece, that and because to the extent that people in [Asheville] do debate barbecue, it's which is better: "Pigs" or "The Inn" (sobriquets I just now made up, so as to heighten the drama).

In the head-to-head showdown of these two Asheville institutions, conducted by a small but impartial panel of experts (i.e., they were hungry), Little Pigs won the meat test unanimously, both for its good flavor and its rugged, uneven, chunkyish chop. No real discernible preference in the coleslaw. Barbecue Inn is given the edge in sauce, and kudos for putting it on the side rather than on the sandwich, which Little Pigs does. The Barbecue Inn sandwich is bigger than that of the Pigs, but Little Pigs does offer a jumbo for just a quarter or so more. The regular sandwich with half a dozen pups comes in at $3.96, while the Barbecue Inn sandwich and an equal number of pups is $5.25.

Barbecue Inn wins in the hushpuppy category. They have a savory cornmeal taste and texture, crispy on the outside and moist on the in, while the Little Pigs pups are just bland, with a taste of pepper, and floury, nothing to 'em.

Bottom line, though, it's about the pork, and Little Pigs gets it done better - which I've been saying for years now, though I must admit that so many of my visits to Little Pigs were occasioned by and immediately subsequent to stoner sessions in the woods behind my high school (
Go, Cougars), occasions of famish, you might say, upon which sautéed styrofoam could easily have passed for my grandmother's pot roast, and may have, in fact, now that I think about it.

So there.

Lexington Barbecue

Lexington Barbecue, North CarolinaBeckoning motorists into its gravel parking lot right off Hwy. 29-70 (you can't miss it) since 1962, Lexington Barbecue has earned its reputation as the best-known of a slew of barbecue joints here in barbecue heaven.

"We use pork shoulders only," the Lexington Barbecue menu reminds us. "They are cooked about nine hours over hickory and oak coals. We salt the meat before cooking but we do not baste. This is the true Lexington Style Barbecue."

Friends, a piece of sage advice: ask for the brown. The brown, baby ; that's the stuff. As you'll recall from your brief tutorial above, the shoulder is fattier and moister than a mixture of white and dark (remember?). Well, here's a little special somethin' else you should know, and I'm going to again quote, at some length, because it's important, Mr. Garner on this. Listen:

"Lexington-style barbecue is also distinguished in that an especially prized portion of the meat known as 'outside brown' can usually be requested. A pork shoulder trimmed and ready for barbecuing is partially covered by skin and fat, but a significant portion of the surface is exposed red meat. Once a shoulder has been pit-cooked over wood coals … this exposed surface meat turns a deep reddish brown hue, becomes chewy in texture, and is heavily infused with the flavor of wood smoke." In short, it tastes like it smells when it's cooking. And that's a very fine thing.

The regular sandwich is good, plenty good - but,
jeez , order the brown, and do it with a wink; on account of you're now among the cognoscente. The texture is good; the slaw is just sort of there, not too sweet. The hush puppies are only average. A sandwich goes for $2.90; pups for $1.60. You find me a better bargain.

Across from the Greensboro Civic Center is one of the more storied barbecue joints in the state, Stamey's Old Fashioned Barbecue. It ain't bad. The meat is a little too finely chopped, but it does have a nice smoky, slightly tangy flavor. The coleslaw is vinegary, nothing special, but does work well with the sandwich, and, as noted, that's how it should be judged.

Stamey's hush puppies have a nice texture, kind of salty, certainly above average. And you get a good "healthy" portion of pups, more than you should eat in a single sitting but not necessarily more than you will - and why the heck not give a large portion of hush puppies. I mean, they're just fried cornmeal, cheap to make, for gosh sakes. …

The sandwich at Stamey's runs only $2.25, pups 89 cents, and that's cheap eatin'.

Allen & Son Bar-B-Q
North Carolina BarbecueI've been mentioning prices here, and while price is not such a big factor in the barbecue world (it's all pretty cheap), I will say that Allen & Son does come in on the relatively expensive side. Two barbecue sandwiches and hushpuppies comes to $10.22, which is due, one might suppose, to the fact that it's in Chapel Hill.

But forget about that. I'd put this sandwich up against just about any other in the state. And besides, it's a big sandwich, bigger than most. It has a good hickory flavor; is chunky, moist, just plain good.

The Eastern Chowdown: An Upset Winner

Okay, this eastern panel showdown was a bit more scientific than the one conducted in Asheville, in that while these folks also were hungry, they weren't quite so (it was an early lunch treat), and thus not quite so eager to pounce on the food wagon like a bunch of starving wolverines. Plus, it was a larger panel (not to say individually, but as a group) and reflected some nicely diverse demographics.

The establishments judged here were several among the most vaunted barbecue joints in eastern North Carolina, including perhaps the two most famous,
Wilber's Barbecue of Goldsboro and Parker's of Wilson; along with Mitchell's Barbecue, Ribs & Chicken, also of Wilson; and, yes, gasp , a chain: Smithfield Chicken 'n' Bar-B-Q.

I should point out that the entries were served anonymously, as they were in Asheville, so as to prevent members of the panel from factoring in their own personal past preferences and prejudices, which they would, right?

The surprise winner, as you'll now already know, assuming you read the subhead above, was Smithfield. Second place went to Wilber's, followed by Mitchell's and Parker's. Phrases used to describe Smithfield included, "best hickory flavor" (though it's not pit cooked), "consistent texture," "well seasoned" and "off the hook!"

I should say that I slipped Smithfield into the contest because I've been regularly stopping in at several of its locations while traveling in the eastern part of the state, and have found it generally quite good. I, myself, though, picked it second, behind Wilber's.

Price wise, the three independents were all about the same; Smithfield's was a bit more.

In closing, I might also add, and will, that there are a number of interesting barbecue-themed events in North Carolina, mostly in the spring and summer, including the
Lexington Barbecue Festival (held one of the last two Saturdays in October), the Greater Hickory Smoke Barbeque Festival and, my personal favorite, the Hillsborough Hog Day.

- Taylor Sisk

See Also: Hog Day, Chapel Hill Restaurants, Wine, Asheville, Hillsborough

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