For Holy Smoke co-author and retired UNC professor John Shelton Reed, barbecue can only mean one thing: pork cooked low and slow over burning coals, finished with a vinegar-based pepper sauce. “That was universal 300 years ago, everywhere in the country,” says Reed, who cites a series of historical events to explain this culinary phenomenon, including the introduction of lemon juice and pepper from West Indies slaves in the early 1800s. The Carolinas, then, aren’t merely the centers of barbecue: they’re the birthplaces that boast the longest surviving tradition.
That line of thinking, of course, is a sure-fire way to ruffle the feathers of others regional meat aficionados. Just ask Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn, who engaged in a highly entertaining debate with Reed about the virtues of meat in the Lone Star state.
But to say North Carolina’s legacy is one singular, unchanging tradition would be misleading. There are two dominant styles to be aware of: Eastern (east of Raleigh), which espouses whole-hog cooking with a simple vinegar and pepper sauce; and Lexington (west of Raleigh in the Piedmont region), which substitutes pork shoulder and adds a bit of ketchup to the sauce.
Reed is a purist at heart, which is why he’s even started a crusade called The Campaign For Real Barbecue, a certification program that recognizes barbecue establishments for using real wood (as opposed to hybrid gas or electronic cookers). “Don’t confuse the sacred and the propane,” he writes in his book.
Keeping this principle in mind, Reed tips us off to some of the lesser-known spots that stick to old-school cooking methods. From spicy, vinegary slaw to chopped pork with crispy skin shrapnel, here are some mandatory pit stops for any curious ‘cue fan.
I. Eastern Tradition
Remember: East of Raleigh, it’s all about whole hogs.
Whole Hog from Grady’s
Address and phone: 3096 Arrington Bridge Rd (919-735-7243)
Reed says: “This place is hard to find; it’s definitely out of GPS range. Here they serve pork the way it’s always been done on the coastal plain of North and South Carolina and Virginia. Whole-hog barbecue, unlike shoulders or hams, has got a mixture of various textures and flavors. Often it has skin chopped into it with crunchy bits, and it’s pulled or more often chopped—sometimes very fine. Grady’s is a small place with no waiters that has been operating since 1986. The deputy sheriff eats there, which is always a good sign. (Photo: redblank.com)
Slaw from Skylight Inn
Address and phone: 4618 S. Lee St (252-746-4113)
Reed says: “Skylight is not an overlooked place per se, but it’s mostly celebrated for its barbecue, not its sides. Here the slaw is finely chopped and slighlty sweet. This is common of Eastern tradition. Sometimes it’s just a hint of mustard, other times it has more of a noticeable golden color.” (Photo: Yelp)
Boiled Potatoes from Stephenson’s
Address and phone: 11964 NC 50 Hwy N (919-894-4530)
Reed says: “They cook the potatoes in a broth that has a lot of spice, including cayenne pepper.” (Photo: ncbbqsociety.com)
Corn pone from Bum’s
Address and phone: 566 3rd St (252-746-6880)
Reed says: “The guy who runs this is a cousin of Pete Jones, the founder of Skylight Inn. It’s closer in style to a meat-and-three place. They offer a very simple cornbread made of cornmeal, water, and salt that is either fried or baked in a skillet.” (Photo: Yelp)
II. Lexington Tradition
Head west for pork shoulder and a red, tomatoey sauce.
Pork shoulder from Tarheel Q
Address and phone: 6835 W Old US Hwy 64 (336-787-4550)
Reed says: “I’ve had one of the best sandwiches of my life here. It almost brought tears to my eyes. The shoulder was fatty and it developed this crust called ‘outside brown’—it’s where the smoke flavor is highly concentrated. It’s served with a reddish sauce that’s not tomato-based, but has some in it. This style comes from a German tradition and was influenced by immigrants who moved here in the 1700s. In Germany, they make a similar sweet and sour vinegar sauce that they pair with pork shoulder called schaufele. (Photo: Facebook)
Slaw from Stamey’s
Address and phone: 2206 High Pt Rd (336-299-9888)
Reed says: “It’s a spicy, red, vinegary peppery slaw that’s very similar to the ingredients in the actual barbecue sauce. Unlike most places, where the coleslaw is sort of a relief and contrast to the barbecue, this is more of the same [laughs]. But they like it that way. The woman who originally developed it is named Dell Yarborough.” (Photo: Facebook)
Hushpuppies from Fuzzy’s
Address and phone: 407 Highway St (336-427-4130)
Reed says: “Hushpuppies in a barbecue context is a relatively modern tradition. It was brought to the fore in the 1950s by Warner Stamey. The ones they offer at Fuzzy’s are really interesting in that they’re almost like like funnel cake.” (Photo: myhogblog.net)
Pork dominates, but there are other dishes in North Carolina that are regionally agnostic and worth an investigation.
Chicken from Keaton’s
Address and phone: 17365 Cool Springs Rd (704-278-1619)
Reed says: “Barbecue means pork in North Carolina, but there are places that also barbecue chickens. I usually think of it as a waste of smoke, but I order it anyway—that’s a testimony to how good it is. Keaton’s has a deeply strange technique: They fry the chicken and then dunk it in a pot of boiling barbecue sauce so that it caramelizes. Michael Stern [of Roadfood.com] says it’s the best on earth.” (Photo: Yelp)
Ribs from 12 Bones
Address and phone: 5 Riverside Dr (828-253-4499)
Reed says: “This is Barack Obama’s favorite place. They offer a blueberry chipotle sauce…it’s so deeply wrong, but it tastes really good. 12 Bones is indicative of another emerging style called Mountain region. It’s still taking shape, but I think it’s going to be a Kansas City-style mix and match.” (Photo: Yelp)
Peach cobbler from Allen & Son
Address and phone: 6203 Millhouse Rd (919-942-7576)
Reed says: “They make their own pies, cobblers, and ice cream. It’s worth a considerable detour.” (Photo: Yelp)