Monk: Christopher Prieto and Prime BBQ will be joining a Raleigh barbecue scene very different from when they announced their intentions to open a restaurant 4 years ago. In 2020 alone, the scene will be joined by heavy hitters like Sam Jones of Sam Jones BBQ, Ed Mitchell of The Preserve, Wyatt Dickson of Wyatt’s Barbecue, and Jake Wood of Lawrence Barbecue (plus several more). The difference with Prime BBQ is that it won’t actually be in the city limits of Raleigh. Instead, it will be 13 miles to the east in the suddenly booming town of Knightdale.
Knightdale Station Park is a new planned community that has a 76 acre park, 2 miles of paved trails, a splash pad, a farmer’s market, soccer fields, an amphitheater, a veteran’s memorial, and probably even more amenities built just in the past week. And it just so happens to be on the doorstep of Prime BBQ, though that was not the case when Christopher Prieto and team broke ground nearly 2 years ago.
On a sunny but chilly Saturday in February, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a hardhat tour hosted by owner and firemaker Christopher Prieto as well as a lunch catered by the Prime BBQ team.
During the hour-plus long tour of the still unfinished restaurant, Prieto wove into the tour his story of how he was called to barbecue after visiting a meat market with a barbecue stand out back at a very young age while living in College Station, TX and getting that first taste of Texas barbecue. His path eventually led to competing (and winning) on the KCBS barbecue competition circuit as a teenager before getting into the restaurant industry in his 20’s (though in a different cuisine). As he tells it, his life was turned around when he began hosting cooking classes with the Wounded Warrior Project for veterans. This led him down the path of honoring veterans that will continue in a few different ways with Prime BBQ.
The tour started on the patio before being led to the main dining area where Christopher explained the flow of customers that he and his designer designed from years of barbecue research. The space itself is full of beautiful touches, and if you make it to Prime BBQ be sure to look up at the custom wood ceiling and chandeliers reminiscent of a church or cathedral.
Prime BBQ is large at over 8,000 square feet but it also has one of the largest kitchens and dry storage rooms you will ever see in a restaurant. From there, we got to the main attraction – for me, at least – in the smoke room that houses three J&R Manufacturing Oyler smokers (with room to add more if needed) and will have two BQ whole hog smokers. Prieto will be smoking using a “cocktail” of wood (as he puts it) that will include local oak (not imported post oak), pecan, cherry, sugar, or maple depending on the protein.
Also forthcoming in the pit room will be a “chef’s table” of sorts for private tastings exclusively for veterans. A very cool idea that continues his practice of honoring veterans.
After the tour wound down, it was lunch time. Fittingly, Prieto and team served us the Texas trinity as well as a beef chuck rib and three of their sides – Big Boss beans, smoked sweet potato salad, and a slaw made with vinegar and honey mustard.
The brisket served honored the central Texas version of the meat, and was made with Creekside Farms beef from Missouri. Prime BBQ will be smoking in Oylers from J&R Manufacturing out of Mesquite, Texas and Prieto is very familiar with them, having owned one of their first manufactured smokers with a serial number in the single digits. As you would expect from a joint owned by the Texas-raised Prieto, the brisket will be a big focus at Prime.
Prime BBQ will be making their sausage in-house with a specific blend of pork and beef and spices that Prieto has honed over the years. For me, the sausage was a little on the dry side that day but I have no doubts that they will get it right once the restaurant is up and running.
The star of the show for me was the pork spare rib, which was perfectly smoked with a simple rub and finished with a glaze of a sweet barbecue sauce.
They had a limited number of chuck beef ribs and having already been stuffed, I grabbed one on the smaller side and shared with my neighbor. I’ve not had a chuck rib before but it had the powerful, peppery bark of the larger plate ribs I’ve tried and tasted great.
The sides were variations on traditional barbecue sides. Prieto said he hates potato salad, so his version smokes sweet potatoes and adds tons of bacon and pimento cheese. Works for me. The slaw is made with vinegar and honey mustard instead of mayo, yellow mustard, or ketchup. It wasn’t overly sweet, but I found myself wishing it was more traditional. The big boss beans were not made with beer from Big Boss Brewing (as I suspected based on the name) but were an above average barbecue side.
Even though he is lactose intolerant, Christopher Prieto has a Blue Bell Ice Cream tattoo on his calf. He loves it that much. This being my first time trying any Blue Bell, I gotta say I see where he is coming from. The capper to the meal was a small tub of vanilla Blue Bell with some peach cobbler. It only served to remind me that I don’t eat deserts at barbecue restaurants enough.
The one thing that we didn’t get to try that day that intrigued me the most was the whole hog lechon that Prime BBQ will serve. Rather than directly competing with the eastern NC whole hog pitmasters that will be coming to Raleigh, Prieto will honor his Puerto Rican heritage with a different spin on whole hog. I can’t wait to eventually try it.
Also of note is that Prime BBQ will be a BYOB establishment (like famed Texas establishments such as Louie Mueller Barbecue) which runs contrary to the trend of full service barbecue restaurants.
Christopher Prieto and the rest of the Prime BBQ team are building something special in Knightdale. Their opening date is currently slated for April 18, and in the crowded Raleigh barbecue scene of 2020 I predict that they will do quite well.