Looking for Smoke and Finding Barbecue
How to amaze your friends with a true N.C. experience
By RAY LINVILLE » Photos by Brandon Williams
When family members and guests visit from out-of-state and want to taste authentic N.C. barbecue, where do you take them? The choices are more numerous than you may realize. Do you want to impress, go to a casual Sandhills spot, take a short road trip to a legacy location, search for one of the ubiquitous barbecue food trucks, or visit a competitive cookoff?
Nothing is more impressive than watching small planes land and take off on an active runway next to where you are enjoying hickory-smoked barbecue slowly cooked over hot coals. Head to Carthage where Pik-n-Pig, located at Gilliam-McConnell Airport, has created a dedicated following for its pulled pork that is smoked for up to 10 hours. Although the meat is served naturally moist, you can enhance the flavor with a homemade hot-spicy (vinegar-based) sauce or a sweet honey sauce (that is tomato-based). The sides are excellent, but make sure to save room for banana pudding.
Because some out-of-towners want to combine barbecue with a craft beer (or two), Pinehurst Brewing Company in the century-old steam plant building is a favorite destination to impress. Smoked over hickory and oak coals, its pulled pork shoulder pairs well with its signature barbecue sauces, which include a creative blueberry habanero, as well as its distinctive beers.
OTHER LOCAL SPOTS
Several other local places serve superior barbecue without it being an iconic menu item. Maxie’s Grill & Tap Room in Pinehurst offers both an excellent barbecue sandwich and plate among its taproom classics.
Near Whispering Pines, the pulled pork sandwich at the recently opened Roast comes with French lentils, an unusual twist. The sauce choices include an amazing sweet Morello black cherry.
Of course, if your guests want to sample barbecue from a chain such as Dickey’s and Smithfield Chicken ‘n Bar-B-Q, each has a story to tell. Smithfield’s pulled pork is eastern-style, contrasted with Dickey’s that brings in a Texas-based tradition with several sauces. Hickory Tavern, another chain, has pulled pork but only on nachos or a burger. Too small to be a chain is Stubbs & Sons BBQ, which has three locations, the closest in Carthage. Its chopped eastern-style barbecue is excellent.
After enjoying local barbecue, my cousins from Michigan were also interested in a short road trip to learn more about the barbecue traditions of our state, so off we went to Lexington, which modestly proclaims itself the “Barbecue Capital of
About 70 miles away, this city boasts more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other and has been known since the early 1900s for cooking only pork shoulders (not whole hog) that is then chopped or sliced (but never pulled) and served with a sweet sauce made of ketchup, vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper. A surprise for some visitors is being served a red coleslaw that is tangy (vinegar) and sweet (ketchup). With a dozen barbecue restaurants to choose from, picking just one is a challenge, but Lexington Barbecue southwest of the downtown area is
The N.C. Historic Barbecue Trail (easily found online) lists 20 other legacy locations that still cook traditionally over hot coals in a pit. The farther east you head, the more the vinegar-based sauce predominates with whole hog cooking. Spots north and west, such as Lexington, typically cook only pork shoulders, and the sauce is less vinegary because it’s sweetened with ketchup.BARBECUE TRUCKS
With social distancing and eating outside still a priority for many as the pandemic is brought under control, food trucks have become more commonplace. Of course, my favorites are barbecue trucks. Their Facebook pages keep fans informed of future schedules and locations.
Up in Smoke, a food truck that’s actually a barbecue bus, comes from Raeford and parks at local breweries, such as Hatchet Brewing Company on SW Broad Street. It’s eastern-style pulled pork sandwich is more than generous.
With a similar name, Up in Smoke BBQ of Vass has a barbecue bowl with pulled pork and can often be found at Railroad Deli in that town. Its creative offerings also include a smoked pork belly sandwich.
The appropriately named Pinky Pig, a regular at festivals and fairs with its pulled pork sandwiches, sets up occasionally at James Creek Cider House in Cameron, Southern Pines Brewing Co., as well as the NC 211-73 intersection in West End. Baldwin’s BBQ and Grill Truck with chopped barbecue is also a regular at the West End intersection as well as at PineCroft Shopping Center in Taylortown.
Avoiding what he calls the “rodeo” of moving from place to place is Joe Kelso, who dishes up a generous plate of very moist pulled pork that is accompanied by the best baked beans made by a pitmaster. As he says, “They’ll stick to your ribs.” Although mobile, his red Smok’n Joe’s BBQ truck (cobranded as The Rocking Pig) is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays on the west side of US-1 between Aberdeen and Pinebluff. The smoke coming from the truck is a true sign that the cooking is serious.
Depending on the weekend, you may find a competitive cookoff of top barbecue cooking teams in a city not too far away (although the pandemic has caused many organizers to postpone their events). Usually a cookoff is part of a local festival, such as the Peak City Pig Fest in Apex that will be in July, and is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. I’ve been a judge at more than 50 of these contests, and they are great entertainment for family and friends.
If you want to see another amazing scene, head to Raleigh on the last weekend in September for the state’s Whole Hog Barbecue Championship. Up to 15 regional winners compete for state’s top pitmaster prize, and yes you can order from the best of the best who set up in front of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.
Because I’m also a judge certified by the N.C. Pork Council for its whole hog cooking competitions, I definitely have my own idea of what is superior. Pulling smoked pork that has just finished cooking slowly on a pig cooker and dipping it into an eastern N.C. sauce is pure pleasure.
What about ribs and brisket? They’re obviously good eating, too, but I’d swear a judge’s oath that nothing compares to the smell and taste of pulled or chopped pork. Nothing.