Monk: For this Pitmaster Profile, we are branching out of Charlotte and spotlighting a pitmaster in Western North Carolina. Spencer Purcell is the pitmaster/fire tender/”BBQ guy” at Hubba Hubba Smokehouse in Flat Rock, who we recently reviewed. Thanks to Spencer for his time in answering my questions and I hope you enjoy hearing from a new and different voice in North Carolina barbecue.
If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!
How long have you lived in the Flat Rock area and how did you get there?
The Hendersonville/Flat Rock area became my new home in 2017, after living in Chicago for roughly 13 years. For four summers prior to moving here, I worked at a summer camp down the street from Hubba that specialized in giving kids with Autism and/or ADHD an option to enjoy the beautiful western Carolina area. I fell in love with the mountains and vibrant culture of Asheville pretty quickly and made it a mission to make it here.
How did you become a pitmaster?
We are using a live and at-times large fire at Hubba. At least for our sake, if you think you’ve mastered fire or the ten foot brick mason pit (Starla), you are probably about to burn something important. I tend the fire and am known as the “BBQ guy” at our window. I had worked in BBQ in Chicago for a few years while in school but really didn’t fall in love with BBQ until moving here. The owner of Hubba, Starr Teel, convinced me that this is something that I would be good at and now I just try to learn more everyday.
What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer?
I’m originally from, and have most of my family in, the very cow-centric state of Wisconsin. Briskets, burgers – anything beef typically – will come first for me on an order. Brisket took a frustrating amount of time to understand, but now is something I enjoy cooking greatly. Red and white oak as a base and hickory to flavor have worked well for us at Hubba.
What are your barbecue influences?
Elliot Moss [of Buxton Hall Barbecue] is one of the most laid-back, creative, unique, can-cook-some-serious-BBQ dudes that I am inspired by. Billy Durney’s style [at Hometown Barbecue] of ethnic fusion into classic BBQ dishes is pretty awesome as well.
The biggest influence on me would have to be the five or six bad ass moms that we have working at Hubba. BBQ is a war of attrition that they put in place day in and day out.
What is your favorite barbecue joint or style?
One of the first meals I had when I moved to the area was a fried chicken sandwich and about 5 bourbon slushies from Buxton Hall. Since then I’ve gone back countless times and really value their kind of whole picture approach. Their burgers are unreal.
What is your earliest memory of barbecue?
While I was growing up in Chicago there wasn’t a ton of great BBQ (much different now) so I rarely had a memorable moment. Maybe 2009 on spring break, my mom took me and a friend to Southern Soul BBQ on St. Simon’s in Georgia and I had a damn near spiritual bite of brisket.
What is the best thing about barbecue in western North Carolina?
BBQ and the food scene are both transforming pretty much in parallel with the new influx of people coming to the area. This Asheville-Hendo-Greenville (SC) corridor is blossoming with new diverse families that are bringing their unique traditions and dishes. These are then meshing with the tradition that Carolina style BBQ is steeped in.
What is a weakness or opportunity of barbecue in western North Carolina?
WNC is at a sort of crossroads that has begun a fusion between the traditional style of Carolina BBQ and other regional specialties. You can go to Noble Smoke and get Texas Style brisket. Elliot Moss does oysters and other oddities that you wouldn’t see on a BBQ menu typically. At Hubba Hubba, one of our most popular items are the burnt ends, which aren’t common to the area at all. Its a very exciting area to cook in right now.
Anything else you’d like everyone to know?
Since Hubba is an outdoor patio/garden of a restaurant, when the temps drop we close up for the season. We will be reopening mid-March 2020. In the mean time we are focusing on opening a new pub and grill down the street from Hubba called Campfire. It will not be a BBQ joint but will have many smoked items on the menu that you can enjoy with a tall draft, inside from the cold. Opening Mid December.
Monk: Southern Smoke BBQ has been on my list for a few years now, and someday I just need to bite the bullet and head out to Garland (3+ hrs from Charlotte) as part of an eastern NC barbecue road trip. I will have to be sure to get there on time since Southern Smoke is only open on Thursdays for lunch and Fridays for lunch and dinner (dinner being a recent change) and they sell out every day they open (sometimes in as little as 45 minutes).
In this interview, Matthew comes off as an easygoing and affable southern guy, which makes sense since he’s spent most of his life in eastern NC outside of a 9-month stint in Nashville. I’ve gotten through some of his book released earlier this year but plan to finish it soon after listening to this conversation. Another good interview from Kevin’s BBQ Joints.
Description: In this episode I chat with Matthew Register from Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, North Carolina about his unique journey to opening his equally unique barbecue restaurant which is only open two days a week and on most days has an exceptional line(which they get through very expeditiously. They do a large amount of catering business, have a food truck, and in the spring of 2019 he launched a book entitled Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today which is broken down specifically into three sections: Low Country, Memphis/Delta, & North Carolina. There is also a unique section on how through a southern dinner party. It’s an exceptionally interesting and insightful interview that I know you’ll enjoy.
Some of the founders and mainstays of my favorite barbecue restaurants and comfort food eateries died recently. So I have to insert “the late” beside their names when I describe their lifetimes’ great accomplishments, the eateries they made into an icons.
Say it ain’t so, Subway (it is so)
Fox Bros BBQ is finally opening a second location in Atlanta
James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller is in Cleveland for his forthcoming book “Black Smoke” if you can help with his research:
More on Miller and his forthcoming book
Add this to your DVR…err, Hulu Watch List
Charlotte’s Midwood Smokehouse got inspired by Valentina’s Tex Mex on a recent research and development trip to Texas; here’s hoping this becomes a more regular thing
Name: Farmhouse BBQ Order: Combo plate with brisket and pork with 4 cheese mac, sweet potato crisp, vegan collard greens, and cheddar brioche rolls (link to menu) Pricing: $$
Monk: Farmhouse BBQ owners and pitmasters Lindsay Williamson and Vance Lin first met in the Hamptons of New York working for Argentine celebrity chef and restaurateur Francis Mallman. From working under Mallman, they caught the live fire cooking bug and a few years after moving to NC they started Farmhouse BBQ in 2014. Williamson and Lin are big believers in grass-fed brisket, pasture-raised pork, and not using any GMO’s, MSG, or high fructose corn syrup in their food. This belief in quality food that is is even expressed in their website URL: goodforyoubbq.com. Explains Williamson: “Animals nourished on grass yield beneficial nutrients that come only from photosynthesis: Vitamin D and high in Omega-3s, both of which are difficult to come by. You truly are what you eat, and if you start from a good place, if you begin with something healthy and top-notch, you don’t have to do much to let it speak and shine for itself. That’s something that Francis Mallman taught me with the food that he created.”
Farmhouse has been making stops at breweries in Charlotte the past few years, and I was finally able to catch them on a Sunday at Birdsong Brewing for their “End of Summer BBQ,” where they set up their 500 gallon offset smoker and serving tent in front of the patio on a still-steamy last day of summer.
Farmhouse touts their use of grass-fed briskets, which are more expensive than normal briskets but are also less fatty and require less trimming. Truthfully, I am not versed enough in the meat science of brisket to understand the nuances between the brisket I had that day and say, USDA Prime briskets from other barbecue restaurants. But I did quite like what I had – a moist, smokey brisket with a nice bark even if it was sliced a little thinner than I prefer.
Similar to their grass-fed briskets, Farmhouse uses pasture-raised, heritage-breed pork for their barbecue. They don’t appear to be trying to do either Lexington-style or eastern NC style but what they do serve had nice flavor and smoke, if not being a tad bit on the greasy side on this day.
The scratch-made sides also shine at Farmhouse: the mac and cheese is creamy, the collards are nice and vinegar-laden, the sweet potato crisp reminds me of one of my favorite sides from Thanksgiving, and I could have eaten at least a half dozen of those cheddar brioche rolls. A solid meal all around.
Farmhouse BBQ is a less well-known barbecue option in the Charlotte area but perhaps they shouldn’t be. Their approach to barbecue helps them stand out among other barbecue food truck and catering options and is to be applauded.
Everyone knows that Brunswick stew originated in Brunswick County, Virginia. Or was it the city of Brunswick, Georgia? According to this article on the “complicated” history of the stew by barbecue historian Robert Moss, a claim in 1946 even claimed that the stew was a favorite of Queen Victoria and hailed from Brunswick, Germany. There’s also a Brunswick County in North Carolina but no one really tries to assert that the stew was first made there.
I’m not looking to wade into that war between Virginia and Georgia (for what it’s worth, Moss seemed to come down on the side of Virginia but says that Georgia perfected it). Instead, I’d like to focus on a local version of Brunswick stew served at the venerable Mallard Creek Barbecue. Every year as that 4th Thursday approaches and I link to an article about the preparation for the barbecue in my Wednesday linkdowns, a commenter either on this site or our Instagram or on our Facebook page inevitably comments on the Brunswick stew. Or rather, how the version served at the Mallard Creek Barbecue isn’t really Brunswick stew.
But first, for the uninitiated, the Mallard Creek Barbecue is a one day church barbecue held the 4th Thursday of October every year for the past 90 in North Charlotte. Think about that – in a city where very few things are old, this is a tradition that has been going on for 90 years. Granted, back then the land containing an old school house was vacant farmland not actually a part of Charlotte and has been incorporated in the years since. But my point remains: in a city that doesn’t have many – possibly any – institutions that are 90 years old much less much of a barbecue heritage, Charlotte somehow has a 90 year old annual barbecue. The barbecue is great and any serious barbecue fan in the area should try to attend just once. But back to the Brunswick stew…
Traditional Brunswick stew is a tomato-based thin soup or thick stew that originally was made with squirrel meat along with other a few other meats depending on the location in which it was served (shredded chicken in Virginia, pulled pork and shredded beef in Georgia, shredded chicken and beef and pulled pork in North Carolina). Then, it would have some mixture of potatoes, lima or butter beans, corn, okra, tomatoes, plus potentially a variety of other vegetables. So, to summarize: its either a thick or thin stew but maybe a soup, its made with any number of meats, and its got some veggies but who knows which ones. As you may have gathered, there really is no official recipe.
The recipe for Mallard Creek’s version uses ground chicken, beef, and pork instead of shredded versions of those meats. Lima beans are nowhere in sight and instead only corn and tomatoes are found in the stew. And perhaps most controversially, instead of potatoes, they use rice. Critics argue that the use of rice is filler to make the recipe go longer, but as Charlotte food writer Kathleen Purvis wrote in 2014, their recipe has been used since the 40’s and was more than likely made up by Rebecca “Beck” McLaughlin according to her son Dale since, as he notes “[s]he didn’t go by recipes on hardly anything.” Purvis’ article notes that the breaks from traditional Brunswick stew may have simply been a matter of preference since potatoes got too mushy and lima beans tasted too strong, according to Beck.
The official Mallard Creek Barbecue FAQ even has a question dedicated to the stew, noting “[o]n the practical side, some stews have potatoes – but don’t store/freeze/reheat well, [so] your Mallard Creek Stew will not break down as much, since the rice holds better.” It also notes that rice can’t possibly be used to stretch the recipe since there is “6 times as much meat vs rice (by weight) in each serving of stew.”
While I am really only versed in North Carolina versions of Brunswick stew, I quite like Mallard Creek’s version particularly on days when the sun is shining but the temperature is cooler. Were I to travel extensively in Virginia or Georgia, I have a feeling I’d like those respective versions as well (perhaps Georgia more so than Virginia based on what I’ve read). Regardless, my curiosity is officially piqued and as such, I will be ordering Brunswick stew any chance I get in my barbecue travels now.
I just wish I had gotten a gallon or two from this year’s Mallard Creek Barbecue.
Monk: In the years since the original location of Midwood Smokehouse opened in 2011, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ordered non-traditional barbecue (i.e. something other than chopped pork, brisket, ribs, burnt ends, pork burnt ends, etc). But recently I had the opportunity to sit down with head chef and pitmaster Matthew Barry as well as FS Food Group Brand Director Rémy Thurston and Callie Langhorne from M Squared PR, and taste several of their best barbecue-inspired sandwiches and apps.
On this day of delicious sandwiches, this was my favorite of the bunch. The Midwood take on a Philly cheese steak uses thinly-sliced smoked brisket and Boar’s Head white american cheese, but what I really loved was the Philly roll that is shipped in from JJ Cassone Bakery of Port Chester, NY, which has been in business since 1910. It had nice, crispy crust and a chewy interior. I learned to love Philly cheese steaks from my high school days working at a Jersey Mike’s, and as good as those are this one simply blows them out of the water.
Months before the great fried chicken sandwich debate of late summer, Midwood Smokehouse rolled out their two versions of fried chicken sandwiches in the springtime. The Pollo Texano is the better-selling of the two, and for good reason. The Springer Mountain Farms chicken thigh is brined, smoked, buttermilk marinated then fried before being dipped in a honey chipotle sauce. It is then topped with “angry pickles” and apple- jalapeño slaw, which add crunch and cuts into the sweetness of the sauce. I’m not sure if its intentional, but it pays homage to Carolina dipped fried chicken that is prevalent in the Piedmont of NC, albeit with a different sauce than the vinegar dip used by places such as Keaton’s in Cleveland, NC.
Appalachian Yard Bird
While it’s not the top seller, the other fried chicken sandwich on the menu is nothing to be trifled with. The combination of the same fried chicken thigh as the Pollo Texano topped with pimento cheese and their “angry pickles” is downright comfort food. You would be forgiven if you just wanted to eat this glorious mess of a sandwich with a knife and fork. Thankfully, the sturdy brioche bun from local Charlotte bakery Golden Grains is more than up to the task if you want to take a chance and eat with your hands.
The Fatt Matt is a more straightforward version of a barbecue sandwich, with Midwood’s sliced USDA prime brisket topped with the same apple-jalapeño slaw as the Pollo Texano. This tasty sandwich definitely would’t look too out of place in Texas.
Our appetizer before the course of sandwiches were the Smoked Meatballs, a trio of meatballs made with the smoked trimmings from their briskets. A mixture of smoked jalapeño BBQ sauce and melted cheese tops the meatballs, along with some green onions as garnish. These guys are listed as an appetizer on the menu, but I would’t blame you if you ordered these solo as an entree, maybe adding a side of fries.
Despite the incendiary words against Lexington-style barbecue (as well as a few mis-truths about beef and mustard), “More Than a Flavor” is well-produced 25-minute documentary that details the history of eastern NC barbecue (from the Wayne County Government nonetheless!). It even has a nice breakdown of the barbecue family tree for eastern style starting with Arnold Sasser, something which I hadn’t personally seen detailed out before – unlike the Lexington-style tree starting from Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood I’m so familiar with.
The documentary also details the pork industry that is so big in Wayne County, and which nicely lends to the barbecue history in the area.
Description: Learn about the history of BBQ in Wayne County and across Eastern North Carolina in this documentary, More Than A Flavor!