In any discussion of barbecue, North Carolina likes to describe itself as the "Capital of 'Cue". And when you're talking barbecue in North Carolina, you are talking about one thing and one thing only: pork. Forget the brisket, the chicken, even ribs for that matter, it's all about the hog here in NC.
There are two different schools of thought within the state, and the topic of which is better probably depends on where you are from. In the east, purists focus on cooking the whole hog, whereas western North Carolina 'cue, often called "Lexington Style" is just the shoulder. Eastern barbecue joints also give you a liquidy pepper-vinegar sauce whereas in the west you are more likely to find what most would consider a more traditional barbecue sauce, but still heavy on the vinegar.
During my time in North Carolina, I stopped in many different barbecue joints across the state. Some were amazing and really made me understand why North Carolinians hold their barbecue in such high esteem. I learned that when it comes to whole-hog barbecue, I like a course chop with a nice mixture of different cuts. When it came to Lexington Style, I liked the "outside dark" variety, also chopped course, highlighting the smoky outer part of the shoulder. While I have to be honest, North Carolina-style barbecue is not my favorite, but I did find some great spots across the state worth stopping in to give it a try.
I've written several posts which included my high praise for Skylight Inn in tiny Ayden, North Carolina. For a small restaurant out in the boondocks, this place had a line out the door when I got there, and a line just as long when I left. The pork here was tender, flavorful and truly delicious. You could taste the wood smoke in it, but it wasn't overwhelming. Chopped in the window while you are ordering, you get a nice mix of cracklin, inner and outer meat which is so satisfying. No sauce is needed here, but the one they give you is also really good and accentuates the flavor. If you were to try one and only one place in North Carolina, this should be it. It's worth the drive and waiting in line a hundred times over.
Another of my favorites was Allen and Son Barbecue outside of Chapel Hill. Not much to look at from the outside (as, it seems, is true of most good barbecue places), Allen and Sons has a homey, worn but warm feel on the inside. The place is pretty smoky, from the pork not from cigarettes, and that added some charm to it in my opinion. The pork came out tender and delicious, the sauce was good and the slaw was better than any of the other places on this list. I wish I had saved some room for dessert as they had a huge selection of pies and such, but I was pretty filled up from the 'cue. If you're in the Triangle area, it's worth searching this place out.
B's Barbecue outside of Greenville is an institution in that part of the state. An old wooden building with crooked floors and a take-out window for those of us not willing to wait for an inside table make B's my kind of place. It opens early, and you better get there early because once they're out, they're out. Like most good barbecue places, the freshness of the meat is really important and they don't want to serve you yesterday's hog. Also of note was their potato salad - unique to all the restaurants I tried, it was nice to have something a little different.
Red Bridges in Shelby gave me a pretty hearty plate which I chose for the title shot for this post. By the time I got there, I knew I liked the smoky outer part and a nice course chop instead of the mushy inner meat. They gave me a huge pile of extra course and extra dark, a mountain of sides and a whole pitcher of sweet tea to wash it down with. This place was great and has been cranking out 'cue for over 70 years. Anywhere that's been around that long is probably pretty good. Red Bridges was better than good.
Lexington Barbecue, or "The Monk" as the locals call it, opened in 1962 and has been family-run ever since. They are the pioneers of the Lexington Style, cooking only the shoulder and having a different kind of sauce. The grandson of founder Wayne Monk was slinging 'cue when I passed through town and suggested I try a mix of the outer and inner shoulder. It was all good but it was here that I learned I preferred the dark part. The sauce, a bit thicker and with a little ketchup in it, was more to my liking than the eastern sauce. This place is pretty big, but was full the whole time I was there. Lexington Barbecue is another place worth waiting in line for.
The last place to make my list was Stamey's in Greensboro. Stamey's had more of a restaurant feel to it than many of the barbecue joints around the state, but not in a bad way. They cook in the Lexington Style and their barbecue was tender and tasty. If you happen to be in Greensboro, you should definitely give Stamey's a go.
Barbecue is a great meal because you find the best of it in out-of-the-way places and mostly by word of mouth. Everyone puts their own spin on it making each place unique and different. The common denominators in most of these places were real wood, slow cooking and focusing on one product: barbecue pork. Barbecue is usually on the less expensive side of things, and if you avoid the fries it's usually better for you than fast food would be. It is fast food, because it's all been cooked long before you walked in the door and so you get it almost instantly, but the cooking process is the same as it's always been, low and slow.