While there is certainly good barbecue to be found in Charlotte, I wouldn’t quite say that it’s a barbecue city…yet. However, there are pitmasters out there doing great work, and I hope to spotlight that a little more in this series of posts called “Pitmasters of Charlotte.”
Monk: I was recently fortunate enough to interview Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner of Midwood Smokehouse in person at their Park Road location. Part 1 posted last week, so here is the second and final part of the conversation. And stay tuned to the Barbecue Bros Instagram page for an upcoming giveaway next month for National Barbecue Month. (This interview was condensed and edited for clarity)
So I’ll switch gears a little bit…a few years ago, Sam Jones came out here for a dinner at Central Avenue and I was actually at that dinner, because I just wanted to try that whole hog. Were you able to spend some time and learn from him?
MB: We took some things from that that we tried to implement here. We tried to do the whole hog – half hogs – for a while but logistically with the pits we have and the situation we have and all of the different other proteins we offer it just wasn’t something we could consistently do at the same level that it deserved and so we scrapped it not quite a year ago.
What’s the status of that – is it a trailer now? Is it more for catering? The whole hog trailer right – the BQ Grill?
MB: Even before we had the BQ Grill we were trying to do it over at Central Avenue but you’re taking a half hog and you’re sacrificing 8 briskets to fit that half hog
And you’re fitting it in the Oyler?
MB: Yea and that was a little nerve-wracking logistically which wasn’t great and Central Avenue is a busy store and you’re losing 8 briskets for that whole hog which isn’t a fair trade off.
MW: And the thing with the BQ Grill, we had it at this restaurant and you know, having what really was intended to be outside inside with the smoke and then how do you get the fire and how do you maintain the fire and where do you do that and you’re supposed to use a burn barrel but we don’t have that so we’re taking coals from the pit and taking from the fire…We couldn’t make it work.
MB: All the smoke was going up the one hood to the yoga studio next door so we had that issue to deal with too. They were like “it smells like barbecue in here” and we did it for a while but we learned a lot from Sam Jones where we add hot sauce to the pork which is something he did. Before the Sam Jones dinner we actually pulled the pork and then we started chopping.
With the cleavers
MB: It’s a coarse chop. Eastern NC its almost like minced but it’s more of like a coarse chop [for us]. But it’s fun just hanging out with somebody – like his family’s been doing barbecue for almost a hundred years and that kind of lineage. But he’s just a normal guy like you and me.
I think Midwood deserves a lot of accolades for bringing wood smoking barbecue back to Charlotte. If it was here before it had gone the way of gas-assisted smokers. Maybe you can clear something up for me – Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ has a Myron Mixon smoker and he’s saying he’s got the only “all wood smoker” in Charlotte. Now I know you guys use Oylers…
MW: I know Lew and I go to his restaurant almost every week and what he said was he had the only all wood, no electric assist. And I can’t argue that. I don’t want to start talking about what he does over there because that’s not what it’s about. If the electricity goes out, what can I do? We are very serious about the all wood, no gas. To cook at the volume we do in the locations our restaurants are, it’s not feasible to have a pit different than we have.
I did a little research and it seems like it really reduces wood usage. I don’t know if its more than that.
MB: It probably does because its controlling it more. Let’s say you’re manually controlling the fire and if the fire gets too hot you’re pulling wood out and you’re wasting it. Whereas here, it’ll cut the oxygen off so in that regard it probably does.
Regardless, you guys are both doing your thing and putting out some really good barbecue.
MW: I honestly remember the moment that post came and I had this whole thing and I was like…he’s not wrong.
MB: Our electric assist is the thermostat and let’s be honest, it’s gone down before. And we’ve had to go back. I’ve spent the night at Central Ave.
In that case you are manually doing it yourself, maintaining the fire and keeping he temps.
MW: And also, it’s not a no-brainer like even during the day you have to maintain it and maintain it the right way. If you’ve put the wrong amount of wood in it at the wrong time, you’re going to black out all your meat or the fire can go out. It’s not like a gas assist pit where you can let the fire go out…
It’s not a set-and-forget
MB: Definitely not.
MW: It’s definitely not
I do want to talk about the new Midwood Smokehouse rub which came out a couple of weeks ago.
MB: It came out some time in March.
So what kind of led to this, why are you coming out with a rub now?
MB: Well we’ve had the rub…we made the rub ourselves for the longest time and with the volume we’re doing we got RL Schreiber to make us big cubes of the rub. Save some labor, more consistent product. And I think it’s just brand recognition. Frank [Scibelli] and the team at the corporate office know what they’re doing, I haven’t seen them mess anything up yet. Just trying to get stuff out there…if you go to the grocery you see Mac’s [Speed Shop] has a rub and you see some other places that are probably inferior products in all honesty. I think we’re just trying to share…we had a lot of popular demand too at Christmastime but we’d just put it into a deli container. I think this is just something a little nicer, a novelty item.
So is it truly just the rub you were using, it was being made by a manufacturer and you saw the demand was there and it was an opportunity for brand recognition?
MB: Hell it’s worked out great for me. I bought a case of it and it’s got my face on it. I’ve got it to give to relatives for a Christmas present next year.
MW: And the cool thing is, it actually is the rub we use.
MB: It’s not like we altered the recipe or anything like that.
Is it an all-purpose rub? It can go on anything? What do you use it most on at home?
MB: At home? I use it on burgers the most. I cook a lot of burgers at home.
Do you use it a lot, Mike? What are you using it on?
MW: I would use it on beef and pork. I would use it on chicken with maybe a little more black pepper, just cause that’s the way I like it. I mean anybody that knows anything about dry rubs, if they make one its going to have all of this in it.
So there’s no proprietary secrets or anything?
MW: Anybody has all of these spices on their shelf.
Are there any thoughts or plans to develop additional rubs?
MB: We do have a couple of the rubs back in the kitchen. We have a separate rub for ribs and then a poultry rub and then like a little chemistry we’ll mix and match some of the rubs together. You take some of the brisket rub and the rib rub and then that’s what goes on the burger.
Any plans to make them available? Will you just see if there’s demand for them?
MB: We’ll see if there’s any demand for them. Far and away, we use this rub the most in the restaurant. That’s what goes on the brisket and the pork. The volume we use on that is significantly higher than everything else. I know we are looking at sauces to get bottled up. That’s in the prelim[inary] phase right now.
Alright, well I just had a couple of rapid fire questions to wrap it up. You guys have been great with your time. So, favorite barbecue joint ever, anywhere?
MW: So here’s the thing we talk about “all time.” Your favorite barbecue joints are the ones that you remember. My favorite barbecue joint was whatever backyard it was happening in. For the first 2 decades of my life I can’t honestly say that I ever went to a barbecue “restaurant.” And if I did, it wasn’t memorable and until the Lockhart phase of my life I don’t recall eating barbecue at a restaurant that was as good as what we were doing at home.
MB: Growing up, Bill Spoon’s. That’s where I used to go with my dad when I was younger. The best barbecue I’ve had recently was this place called Green Street Meats in Chicago.
Yea in Chicago, I ate there a few years ago. It was good.
MB: I walk in, the first thing I saw was an Oyler – the same sucker we have – and well that’s a good start. My wife and I ate there about a year ago.
I’ve always heard – and I repeat it – is that your favorite barbecue is what you grew up on. It may not be the best ever, but it’s what you grew up on and you have a fondness for it.
MB: I still go to Bill Spoon’s once in a while when I’m on South Boulevard. Now it’s definitely not as good as I remember but it’s still there and the nostalgia makes it taste better.
What’s your favorite meat to smoke? In your backyard, what do you smoke?
MW: I do a lot of burgers like Matt, a lot of chicken.
Actually, do you do a lot of smoking outside of the job? If you have a day off, are you going to smoke?
MW: I’ve got a Big Green Egg in the backyard. I have an offset that I’m trying to get here from Texas. I do a lot of cooking on my Big Green Egg. I do a lot of steaks, I’ve smoked some roasts. I haven’t done a brisket just cause the amount it makes…
MB: …The amount of people to feed. I do a lot of beer can chickens. I’ve got a sidecar smoker and a Big Green Egg. I do a lot of smoking when I have yardwork to do. You can kind of check in on it and when you’re done you have something delicious to eat.
So…the question is eastern or Lexington style barbecue but having grown up here eating Bill Spoon’s, which is eastern.
MB: I consider Midwood Smokehouse a mix of the two because you’re chopping it. We tried the whole hog thing for a little bit. Also, our vinegar sauce does have a little tomato in it.
Have you had a chance to try both, Mike, since you’ve been in North Carolina?
MW: Not yet
What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue? The state of Charlotte barbecue?
MW: The fact that its still developing. Like, the two places we’ve talked about (offline) – Jon G’s and Sweet Lew’s – and others that are coming, can only make barbecue in general better and us the same.
MB: I don’t think there’s any constraints on barbecue in Charlotte whereas the eastern part of the state or like these places where the barbecue is very established and older and generational. Like this is what they do: “we’re going to have cornbread, pork, and slaw.” I think here you can do burnt ends, you can do pork belly, you can do other stuff.
I think if you tried that out east depending on the location, you wouldn’t get any traction if you tried to introduce burnt ends.
MB: Well if you want to have burnt ends, you have to have brisket. To have brisket – some people in that area might not come to you because you had brisket.
So what would be a weakness of Charlotte barbecue? Or an opportunity, if you want to think of it that way.
MW: One big difference that I see with what is going on here versus what is going on in Texas, which I think is also an opportunity for what is going on here, is in Texas all of the guys that own competing restaurants all are friends with each other. They have a barbecue brotherhood. They go to each others’ restaurants, they get up with each other at events and stuff around and they…its just different. Since its so new here, its like we work for people who are driven to be the best period, full stop. It’s a bit more of a competitive nature here. I feel like it doesn’t necessarily need to be that cutthroat. At the end of the day, all that we want to do is cook great meat and I’m excited to see more people come around and do the thing. To me, it reminds me a lot of what was happening in Austin when John Lewis started at La Barbecue and Franklin started with his trailer and then all of a sudden everyone was like “oh my God, barbecue” and I feel like that’s what’s happening here.
Would you agree? What’s an opportunity or weakness of Charlotte barbecue?
MB: I wouldn’t call I a weakness but Charlotte is still trying to find an identity for barbecue and part of that leads to, I don’t think there’s as much cooperation or cohesion to the people that are doing barbecue. Like, I had to ask you who you had talked to before. I know Lew (Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ), but outside of that I don’t know many people. I always grew up and barbecue had a community feel and in Charlotte it’s a little more isolated if that’s the right word. I think there’s an opportunity for Charlotte to really forge an identity.
Last question – where do you want to see Charlotte barbecue in two years? We’ve maybe touched on it with the last two questions but what would you like to see?
MB: I would like to see when people think of North Carolina barbecue, Charlotte comes to mind. I would like for Charlotte to be the spot. Charlotte’s more of a melting pot now and we have people from all different regions of the country and I think we should be more regionally known and North Carolina’s got good barbecue and Charlotte’s [could be] the center of all that.
MW: In Texas, everybody has known forever that Texas has good barbecue joints and back in the day Lockhart was the place because it was home to several. So you could go there and eat at three or four places but there were hundreds of them. But you get a concentration and you’re like “Lockhart’s the barbecue capital of Texas” and it has its own day. I think that’s kind of what is happening here. Barbecue has always been in North Carolina but…
MB: …It’s been a very rural phenomenon. But it can be done in a very urban setting.
Again, thanks to Matthew and Mike for their time. And stay tuned to the Barbecue Bros Instagram page for an upcoming giveaway next month for National Barbecue Month.