Monk: For my second Memphis in May with the Cotton Pickin’ Porkers, they finished a very respectable 12th out of 35 teams in whole hog (just missing a call) in addition to 18th out of 118 in tomato sauce, 23rd out of 95 in mustard sauce, and 71st out of 145 in wings. Not bad for a group of guys that gets together once a year to do this festival, even if they’ve been doing it for the past 29 straight years (one of only a handful of teams that can claim that). In any case, Memphis once again proved to be a fun weekend of barbecue and drinks. Can’t wait for next year!
Monk: Every April, the streets in front of The Pit in Raleigh shut down for a block party featuring the always undefeated combination of barbecue, beer, and bluegrass music. This year, the festival took place on April 20th and offered smoking of the pig kind on a near picture-perfect day in downtown Raleigh.
I had previously attended one other Cuegrass back in 2014 on a similarly sunny and picturesque day (although my memory is that it was a little warmer that year). This year, friend of the blog Susong and I stopped by Lexington Barbecue for lunch on the way so weren’t particularly hungry for $6 barbecue sammies from The Pit. I did take note that they had gone up in price from $5 some time in the past 5 years and that they are still served in the same foil paper packaging that Chic-Fil-A uses.
While I was too full for barbecue I did, however, partake in some beer as well as the bluegrass music, catching Alan Barnosky solo on the Beer & Banjos Stage on the side street Commerce Place once I got settled before checking out local 4-piece bluegrass group Old Habits on the Main Stage. Old Habits were a fun band of 40-something year old (presumably) dads who did play some originals but also mixed in some crowd-pleasing covers such as “The Weight” by The Band.
Plenty of other folks made it out to watch Old Habits as well.
After catching the full set from Old Habits, Susong and I wrapped it up with a few minutes of Billie Feather back on the Beer & Banjos stage before catching a few minutes of the decidedly non-bluegrass Will Hoge before heading out.
Cuegrass is an extremely family friendly event, from the face painting and games on the side street to the low key environment of watching the bands on blankets and tailgate chairs at both stages. Several kids were dancing and enjoying the sounds of Old Habits, who noted that it was the first (and perhaps only) time that anyone had ever flossed to one of their songs (sadly, I did not capture this ). I can’t recommend the event enough and hope to be back much sooner than the 5 years it took me between my first and second visit.
Each year for the past four, order/fire, a Charlotte-based culinary web series, and Free Range Brewing have collaborated on an annual pig pickin’ and viewing of the latest episode of the web series. You may recall two years ago they featured Sam Jones from Skylight Inn/Sam Jones BBQ. While I missed last year’s edition, this year they featured Lewis Donald from Sweet Lew’s BBQ, with all proceeds going towards a great cause, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, a non-profit that provides workforce training and job placement assistance in the food service industry for adults who face barriers to successful employment. Definitely a great cause, and one in-line with some of the values of Sweet Lew’s (more on that in a bit).
The location is the same, but the surroundings are completely different, with apartments now surrounding the Free Range Brewing building whereas it was an empty lot just two years ago. Because of the potential for inclement weather Saturday night, Lewis and order/fire host Marc Jacksina opted to utilize the covered Sweet Lew’s smokehouse for the majority of smoking before relocating to the brewery Sunday morning.
As I arrived shortly after doors opened, Lewis and his two sons were beginning to pull from the pig and before long the sound of chopping filled the back patio. Speaking of the pig, Beeler’s Pure Pork (who supplies pork shoulders for Sweet Lew’s BBQ) had graciously donated a 95 lb pig for the event, which allowed more of the funds to go to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte. Duke’s Bread donated the rolls, again allowing more of the funds to go to CCSC.
Lunch was served before the first showing, and with a suggested donation of $10 per plate everyone got a full plate of chopped pork and a roll, with sides of slaw, mac and cheese, and baked beans and a cookie. In a nice bit of synergy, the sides were actually prepared by the CCSC. Lewis was also walking around handing out slices of brisket as long as it lasted. With bellies full, it was time for the first screening of the episode.
Free Range Brewing co-owner Jeff Alexander, order/fire host Chef Marc Jacksina, director Peter Taylor, and Lewis Donald took the stage for some quick words before the episode airing. In speaking with Lewis over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good sense of his vision for Sweet Lew’s BBQ – to be a community restaurant that is fully integrated with the Belmont neighborhood – but this episode really fleshed it out so much more through the conversation between Lewis and Marc. It’s hard to believe its only been about 5 months now, but Lewis clearly loves being in the Belmont neighborhood and was putting in work to build ties with neighbors starting with the construction of the restaurant last fall. And he’s got more great ideas for the coming months, from his continued practice of hiring teens from the neighborhood to a back-to-school carnival with free haircuts for kids next August. My social work wife was just eating up the backstory and vision, and for good reason because it’s something you don’t always see from a restaurant.
But the conversation also revealed more of Lewis as a person, from his background growing up in Cleveland, OH to his path in the food industry over the past 20 years, with stops in California, Hawaii, West Virginia, and ultimately Charlotte. Lewis has just about seen it all in the types of roles he’s had, from fast food, country clubs, fine dining, and corporate positions. Lewis is a guy who self-admittedly doesn’t talk a lot, but I was glad Marc was able to get quite a bit out of him in their discussion. Great stuff, and I’ll be sure to post the episode once its available online because it’s one you don’t want to miss.
Finally, a note on Free Range Brewing. I love what they have continued to do since they began operation. They actively promote a family-friendly atmosphere in which they want the NoDa community to gather. In addition to the annual pig pickin’, they host the other viewings of order/fire episodes as well as partner with local farmers and artists. If you live in Charlotte and haven’t been yet, I urge you to check them out well before next year’s pig pickin’.
However, in the years since we haven’t heard much from Johnny; his site Barbecue Rankings hasn’t consistently been updated since 2016 and his Twitter since 2017. I recently wondered the reasons behind the hiatus of sorts, so I reached out to him for an interview to see what he’s been up to lately. Big thanks to Johnny for his time and thoughtful answers as well as the use of some of his photos from the big trip.
So last time we caught up during your yearlong barbecue odyssey I believe you were based in St. Louis. Where are you now and what have you been up to for the past few years? Missouri is home, but I haven’t been there much the last few years. I’m in the Navy Reserves and that brought me to the Middle East in early 2016 for what was supposed to be a year. Three years later I’m still here. I agreed to extend and support so it wasn’t as if I was forced into anything. I’m not here for too much longer, however, as I’ll return to the States this summer. Obviously friends and family are the main thing one misses when away, but it’ll also be great to get back to the regular, American patterns of life. Among other things, I miss watching sports and sharing that experience with a community, the ease of American life and, as you can imagine, foods. Barbecue is at the top of that list, but Mexican food and Chick-Fil-A are up there too. I also just miss the ritual and shared experiences of big meals with loved ones – the prep work in the kitchen, passing plates around the table and the simple laughs over a meal.
You mentioned you had been focusing on freelancing more recently. What type of work have you been doing? I started freelancing when I kicked off the book project in 2013. Once the book came out I wrote and edited full-time for a couple years and really enjoyed it, even though it isn’t the easiest way to make a living. I loved meeting a variety of people, the flexibility of the work and being my own boss. Unfortunately I have had little opportunity to keep that up over the last three years as you can tell by my outdated Barbecue Rankings site. Nevertheless, I still write and edit just a little bit for some St. Louis-based outlets. It’s actually quite therapeutic for me as it helps take me home mentally for a few hours and offers an escape. I’ve written a little bit about some of my international travels while on leave and covered a few things where a local presence is not required.
Are you still eating barbecue much and if so, how often? And are you still as skinny as ever? I don’t think I’ll ever match the pace or amount of barbecue I ate on my tour for the book. With that said, my barbecue consumption is definitely at a low point now, not by choice but simply by my surroundings. First, on occasions when the galley serves something akin to barbecue (often baked or steamed), let’s just say I go with another entree. Locally, pork isn’t easy to find in the Middle East and I don’t have a smoker or even charcoal grill with which to work. Options are not great. I am still pretty lanky. An active lifestyle is a big part of that now.
What’s the best barbecue you’ve had recently? It’s been a while. I was able to spend four days in Missouri last May – just enough time to see family for a couple days, watch the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium and get some City Butcher in Springfield, Missouri. Some restaurants drop off over time for a variety of reasons – over-expansion, cost cutting, pitmaster departures, for example – but I think City Butcher is only getting better and it was already one of my favorite places years ago when I did my book tour and they had just opened. I look forward to a barbecue binge this summer when I get home.
Any plans to get back into barbecue game in some aspect? No chance there’s going to be a second book, right? I certainly hope to reintegrate into the barbecue community upon my return home. Maybe I’ll do some freelance work covering barbecue restaurants, maybe join a competition team sometime down the road, maybe do a little more restaurant consulting, who knows? I don’t know exactly how that will look, but I miss it. I miss the food, but also the community. You can meet some incredibly kind, interesting, gracious, hard-working people in the barbecue world. I certainly hope to write more books, but I don’t know that I’ll ever get to embark upon a year-long road trip around America again.
Anything else? I’m glad you guys are so dedicated to Barbecue Bros. We started around the same time with, I believe, some shared values and goals – provide a local voice in barbecue to share news, give honest opinions, build community and explore something we love.
If you’ve been following our current favorite barbecue purveyor in Charlotte, Jon G’s Barbecue, on Facebook or Instagram then you would have seen that the pitmaster behind it has made a big decision and will be devoting more time to his craft as of March 15th. I reached out to Garren Kirkman to get some more information and see what his plans are now.
First off, congrats! How excited are you? I am stoked to see what the future has in store, but it’s bittersweet for this chapter of my life to (somewhat) close. It was my first job out of college, I bought my first house, I met my wife, my son was born and so many other milestones in life happened while I was employed at CMC… Carolinas Healthcare…ehrrr I mean what is now called Atrium Health-Union.
Can you help our readers understand what exactly the plan is as of 3/15, your last day full-time at Atrium Health in your current role? The plan for now is to get more sleep! Until now I have worked 40 hours a week to come home Friday and stay up all night stoking a fire and seeing the whole process through until the service is over the next day. Make rub, trim brisket, season meat and so on and so forth, you name it, start to finish (meat wise) that’s me.
Until now, we have done zero marketing besides a few Facebook promotions. Our biggest goal is to get our story out there, promote our brand and grow, grow, grow!
Who was the 98-year old man that you quoted? Did he influence your barbecue dream at all? I can honestly say I don’t know who he is. I don’t know his name or his face, but I will never forget those words for as long as I live. In a roundabout way he most certainly spurred my dreams, even if the discussion wasn’t directly about barbecue.
So why now? Around 2010, hospitals were becoming a productivity driven environment and my 40 hour work week was being cut to around 20 hours some weeks due to the number of patients we were seeing. Sometimes I would unexpectedly have half of a normal paycheck. Even though I had half of a paycheck, the bills stayed the same. That being said, all those years ago when I was given the advice to not work for “The Man” it set into motion a vision that I had for my life. I didn’t know where it would lead me, but it led me to barbecue.
Jon G’s has grown beyond what we ever imagined it could with the time we allowed for it. We are booked solid every weekend until June and when we started turning down jobs that seemed to be my cue to take the opportunity that’s presenting itself.
Where do you want to take Jon G’s Barbecue in the next six months? One year? Five years? Six months will look very similar to what we have been doing, a few pop ups and our scheduled catering gigs.
One year we hope to still be growing exponentially. We want to market ourselves and hope to get into some corporate catering during the week. Although we do believe in quality over quantity, we have a ton of room to spread the brisket gospel far and wide!
In 5 years we hope to still be in business…maybe in a brick and mortar?! We shall see!
What are your upcoming pop-ups or services? Where will folks be able to get their hands on your tasty brisket and barbecue? You can find our schedule on our Instagram page @jongsbbq. We have plenty of dates between Monroe and Statesville, NC for people to come out and get some great food. Not to mention the breweries we are at have fantastic beer to compliment like Southern Range Brewing and Fourth Creek Brewing.
Anything else? I do want to say that when you come to one of our events it isn’t just me or my wife, Kelly that make it happen. We have amazing friends and family that allow us to create the Jon G’s experience. We could NOT do it alone and I pray my son has a family business to step into one day.
Thankful doesn’t seem like a big enough word to describe how we feel when people come give us a chance. Thank you all for helping our dreams become a reality!
Thanks to Garren for his time. In the meantime, check out this mouthwatering video of his brisket in action.
Monk: The last (and only) time I had visited Richard’s Bar-B-Q in Salisbury was nearly 5 years ago and I mostly enjoyed my meal there, preferring it to the other Salisbury joint on the NC Barbecue Trail, Wink’s King of Barbeque.
Richard’s was the choice for a Monk family lunch meet up over the holidays, providing an in-between spot between Charlotte and Pittsboro. Pulling in, the one thing that struck me was the spelling of “Bar-B-Q” on all of Richard’s signage. By my recollection, you tend to see “barbecue,” “bbq,” “barbeque,” “bar-b-que,” or “bar-b-cue” spellings more often, but even thought its clearly a valid spelling, I don’t recall really noticing “bar-b-q” in too many places in my travels. A minor thing for sure, but perhaps worth noting in the future.
As for the ‘cue itself, I found the barbecue to have the necessary smoke but lacking the tang and spice I noted on my previous visit. Ditto for the red slaw. Thankfully, the large hush puppies were just as good as I remembered and I ate them until I was well beyond stuffed. In any case, my family and I enjoyed our meal as we lamented the recent closing of Allen & Son in Chapel Hill – most of us, anyways. My aunt said she found that one subpar and preferred the Pittsboro location much more. Now, even though Chapel Hill is gone, I will have to investigate Pittsboro. In any case, back to Richard’s – I still chuckle at the use of large coffee filters as part of the serving apparatus for the trays. Hopefully they won’t fall victim to the recent trend of NC barbecue joint closings anytime soon.
In the spirit of the pioneers and innovators of our favorite style of barbecue, the Barbecue Bros are pleased to make available our first t-shirt featuring those men in the classic Helvetica list style. We hope that Lexington-style barbecue fans will purchase and wear this acknowledgement of history proudly. The shirts are $24.99 and ship for free if you have an Amazon Prime account.
Lightweight, Classic fit, Double-needle sleeve and bottom hem
Available in Men’s, Women, and Child sizes S-3XL
Solid colors: 100% Cotton; Heather Grey: 90% Cotton, 10% Polyester; All Other Heathers: 50% Cotton, 50% Polyester
In 1919, Sid Weaver set up a tent across the street from the Lexington courthouse and began selling what would later become “Lexington-style” barbecue. He was the first man to sell this style of barbecue.
Weaver later teamed up with Jess Swicegood and those two men perfected Lexington-style barbecue and helped spread the technique across the Piedmont of North Carolina. Lexington-style means pork shoulders are smoked as opposed to whole hogs because shoulders are fattier and more forgiving than the leaner hams and loins found in a whole hog and yield more barbecue. They took the vinegar-pepper sauce of the eastern part of the state and added ketchup to provide sweetness to balance it out while maintaining the tang of the vinegar.
In 1927, Warner Stamey began working under Weaver and Swicegood while in high school, and for me this is where things began to pick up. After a few years under the tutelage of Weaver and Swicegood, Stamey moved 100 miles southwest to Shelby, NC. There, he taught the Lexington-style technique to his brother-in-law Alston Bridges as well as Red Bridges (oddly enough, not related). They, of course, opened their own respective restaurants in 1956 and 1946 respectively, both of which still exist today.
Stamey moved back to Lexington in 1938 and bought Swicegood’s restaurant for $300. It was there that he taught the legendary barbecue man Wayne Monk, who went on to open Lexington Barbecue (aka “The Honeymonk”) in 1962, which just so happens to be the Barbecue Bros’ collective favorite barbecue restaurant ever. Stamey would of course go on to open Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, where his grandson Chip Stamey still owns and operates to this day. Warner Stamey is also widely credited with bringing hush puppies to barbecue restaurants.
10. Brisket, sausage, pork ribs and a taste of the beef rib from Louie Mueller Barbecue (review)
I was a little let down by the brisket at Louie Mueller’s (as was Rudy) but I’ll chalk that up to a bad day. However, the beef rib and sausage more than made up for it. Plus, the number of of legendary Texas joints I’ve visited is quite low so I was glad to visit one of the OG’s.
At the NC State BBQ Camp, I was honored to be a guest panelist for a barbecue roundtable led by none other than Bob Garner. After that chat, the campers and panelists all partook in a whole hog pig pickin’ with some dang fine whole hog. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch who did the smoking but whoever you are, well done.
My takeout meal the day after Thanksgiving of pulled pork and brunswick stew only proves that I need to make it a point to get to Stamey’s more often.
5. Chopped pork and brisket from Sweet Lew’s BBQ (review)
There are certainly big things coming for Sweet Lew’s BBQ which only opened in early December. I look forward to many more meals here over the coming months and years.
4. Big Poppa Sampler (Full Rack Ribs, 12oz Pork, 12oz Brisket, ½ Chicken) and 6 Memphis dry rub wings from Martin’s BBQ Joint (review)
I couldn’t have been more impressed with everything on our visit to the downtown Nashville location of Martin’s in late summer – from the space itself to the open air beer garden to each and every delicious meat. Speedy is quite lucky to have Martin’s as his local joint.
3. Whole hog platter with barbecue hash from Buxton Hall Barbecue (review from 2016)
A visit to Buxton Hall once every two years simply isn’t gonna cut it for me. With the consistently amazing whole hog, the fantastic barbecue hash, and at least a couple other items I haven’t even tried such as fried catfish and smoked fried chicken, it should be at least a twice per year affair for me.
As confirmed by the #hogtripping crew of the Tales from the Pits podcast as well as The Smoking Ho during their travels in late August, Lewis truly is legit Texas barbecue in the lowcountry. The Carolinas and in particular the lowcountry should count itself very lucky.
1. Brisket, chopped pork, Porky Brewster sandwich, and taco from Jon G’s Barbecue (review)
My only complaint with Jon G’s Barbecue is that lately they’ve focused more on catering gigs instead of public servings. In any case, Garren and Kelly continue to kill it.
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.”
Our second profile (thus making it an actual series, woo hoo!) is Lewis Donald, who along with Laura Furman Grice opened up Sweet Lew’s BBQ in early December. Monk previewed them back in September as well as reviewed the restaurant, and is a big big fan.
How long have you lived in Charlotte and how did you get here? I’ve been here 10 years. I came here to take a job at Charlotte Country Club, after I graduated the apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier in West Virginia.
How did you become a Pitmaster? I don’t really use that term, not for myself. Those that came before me, those that learned the art through family generations, those that defined what we know as bbq today…they’re the pitmasters.
What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer? I like the staples, skin-on-shoulder, ribs, chicken, and brisket. It takes being able to cook all of them to offer a good bbq experience to family, friends, and customers. I prefer [smoking over] hickory and pecan.
What are your barbecue influences? Simplicity, scratch cooking, consistency
What is your favorite barbecue joint or style? I like them all, true bbq spot and styles. But I’m not a big sauce guy.
What is your earliest memory of barbecue? Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, it was a gas grill with burgers and dogs. In 2003 is when I was introduced to bbq.
What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue? I think it’s great that it’s served in restaurants.
What is a weakness or opportunity of Charlotte barbecue? There’s not much of it, so there’s room to grow it!
Note: a version of this post was posted in December 2017. It has been updated as of December 2018.
Monk: For those last minute shoppers (whoops, should have posted this a few weeks earlier), here’s some gift ideas for the barbecue lover in your life. Or perhaps you if you want to treat yo’ self. The bolded items are the ones I can personally recommend.