Monk: After nearly a year of various stages of lockdown and a big spike in COVID cases in January, the first quarter of 2021 had mostly positive news as restaurants managed through relaxed restrictions starting in March.
Here in Charlotte, restaurants are finding new and different ways to diversify their food offerings to attract customers and some are even in expansion mode. Let’s hope that trend continues into Q2.
3/12 Sweet Lew’s Barbeque announces a “Bootcamp and BBQ” event on April 17
3/19 Noble Smoke introduces “The Noble Smoke Pitmaster Experience” where you can learn from their pitmasters for the somewhat steep price of $500 a spot; the initial spots have since sold out
“We are offering an exclusive opportunity to learn the step-by-step process of smoking meat first-hand from our pitmasters, Stuart and Ed. You get to take home the meats of your labor which includes a whole brisket and pork butt (5 lbs each). But that’s not all! 3 sauces, a hat, a pitmaster t-shirt, lunch, and a post-smoke beer are also included.“
3/19 Charlotte-based Mac’s Hospitality Group, the parent company of Mac’s Speed Shop, eyes growth across the Southeast in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Florida under the leadership of recently-hired president Shang Skipper
3/19 Crave Hot Dogs & BBQ will open a location of its fast casual concept in Concord in the coming weeks
Monk: A lot (and I mean, a lot) has changed since the last time I did a “Best of Charlotte” series in 2016. Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen and Queen City Q, both winners in several categories, are both no longer in business. Neither are Sauceman’s or Bill Spoon’s, who in 2016 placed in ribs and pork respectively.
The Smoke Pit had the best brisket at the time and since then Jon G’s, Sweet Lew’s, and Noble Smoke have all opened their doors with wood-smoked brisket that each edges out the offerings from The Smoke Pit.
Midwood Smokehouse didn’t top any one category in 2016 but still had a strong showing by being in the top three in each of the five categories: pork, brisket, ribs, sausage, and other. Thankfully, they are still around and are well represented on this list.
Now, onto our picks for the “Ultimate Charlotte Barbecue Plate.”
Pork – Noble Smoke
Jim Noble and team are carrying on the 100+ years-old legacy of Lexington-style barbecue at Noble Smoke in west Charlotte. Simply rubbed with salt and pepper and smoked directly over wood coals in their custom brick masonry pit (named “John”) whose design was borrowed with permission from family friends the Monk family of Lexington Barbecue, upon tasting the pork transports you an hour or so north up I-85.
Honorable Mention: Sweet Lew’s BBQ
Brisket – Jon G’s Barbecue
The meat that put Jon G’s on the map. Of their many spectacular smoked meats, the brisket is the one must order every time you go. Do it and you won’t be disappointed. Trust me.
Honorable Mention: Noble Smoke
Ribs – The Smoke Pit
This one was a surprise from a recent trip that Speedy and I took to the Gastonia location of the local mini-chain of restaurants in late 2020. On that visit, Speedy noted that the dry rub ribs had the perfect bite with just the right amount of spice. I couldn’t agree more and it was the standout meat of that meal.
Honorable Mention: Jon G’s
Sausage – Cheerwine Hot Link from Jon G’s
A truly unique sausage made in-house at Jon G’s, with Salisbury, NC-based Cheerwine taking the place of the water used in the sausage-making process. The end result isn’t overly sweet or “Cheerwine-y” but it does impart a slight sweetness to counteract the heat of the jalapeno.
Honorable Mention: Sweet Lew’s BBQ
Beef Rib – Midwood Smokehouse
The beef rib is a weekend special at Midwood Smokehouse and upon my last visit is available every week for a cut-rate price of $32, well below what you would pay if it were charged by the pound.
Honorable Mention: Jon G’s BBQ (not available all weekends)
Side – Hash and rice from Sweet Lew’s BBQ
Hash and rice isn’t something you find in Charlotte, much less North Carolina, as its almost strictly a South Carolina barbecue dish. Sweet Lew’s differs from what you would find at True BBQ in West Columbia or Sweatman’s in Holly Hill in that instead of the off parts of the pig it uses pork as well as brisket, but I just love that they now offer it fulltime on their menu whereas it used to be a Wednesday special only.
Honorable Mentions: Pork skins from Sweet Lew’s BBQ, Smoked Meatballs from Midwood Smokehouse, Smoked wings from Noble Smoke
Monk: In a bit of a break from our regularly scheduled programming, we have a guest post from lead singer Christopher Harold Wells of the San Francisco “psychadelic shoegaze rock band” The Neverlutionaries. Christopher has recently gotten into barbecue but you can tell he definitely has a passion for it – in both eating it as well as smoking it himself. He’s been spending his quarantine time in Raleigh (where he grew up), and reached out to us wanting to share his thoughts.
As you may be aware, Raleigh is about to have a barbecue renaissance, so Christopher will have a lot more places to try out very soon, including the already opened Prime BBQ in Knightdale and Sam Jones BBQ downtown as well as soon-to-be opened joints like Lawrence Barbecue, Wyatt’s Barbecue, Ed Mitchell’s The Preserve, and Longleaf Swine. I’ll be curious what if his list changes later this year, particularly the two non-NC chain restaurants on his list. I definitely hope he checks them out and broadens his horizons when it comes to NC barbecue restaurants.
Christopher: I’ve always been a HUGE fan of BBQ. When I was able to travel/tour, one of my favorite things to do was to check out the different BBQ spots in the places I would visit. I loved the regional variations of it. St. Louis has its mustard vibe (Editor’s Note: Hmm….), Nashville has its twangy tomato vibe, and NC has the vinegar-based tomato thang going which is my favorite of them all.
After I finished freaking out and got my head together after Corona reared its ugly head, I started experimenting with smoking meats with different kinds of woods etc. as a way to relax. It reminds me of my music creation process.
You must begin with quality basic ingredients, then add seasonings to the point where they are just right and of course timing is of the essence in both. The most important ingredient is love. You can tell by the taste if someone loves what they are doing. We all have had an instance where you get your favorite meal somewhere and it tastes different depending on who is preparing it. If the person cooking loves what they do it will be awesome. On the other hand, if the preparer isn’t feeling it (his cooking mission) you can taste that as well. It’s about the passion of cooking and BBQ that makes us want to get better each time and to experience the reward we get when someone takes a bite of your ‘cue, they smile and possibly get goosebumps. Food and music both do that for me…
Now, to my top 5 barbecue spots in Raleigh:
5. Dickey’s Barbecue (Raleigh, NC)
I discovered Dickey’s by accident though I’d seen their catering truck at many events that I attended. Now I get it. Dickeys’ NC style pulled pork is in my top faves for sure. They smoke everything with hickory wood, have great Brunswick Stew and they also feature next level stuffed potatoes and when I say stuffed, I mean stuffed! Loaded with BBQ or literally any way you want them. I never had pulled pork on a potato before and now I am a fan and will continue doing so. They also have classic sides and desserts to round out your meal to perfection! 6552 Glenwood Ave, Raleigh, NC 27612
4. Ole Time Barbecue (Raleigh, NC)
This cool little spot on the edge of Downtown Raleigh is a NC staple and has been feeding nearby North Carolina State University students and locals for close to 25 years and they are still going strong. Simplicity is the first word that comes to mind, actually, I digress, delicious is a better word to describe this old school spot that has consistently tasty BBQ. OTB also features the classic Southern offering of a “meat and three” vegetable plate fairly priced and seriously filling. They have superb fried chicken as well and yummy slaw which we know can be a BBQ Pork’s sandwiched best friend. They also have sandwiches, chicken pastry and a rocking Brunswick Stew. And did I say affordable? You get your money’s worth here for sure! 6309 Hillsborough St #1148, Raleigh, NC 27606oletimebarbecue.com
(Editor’s Note: This was a favorite of mine and friend of the blog Boomsauce while at NC State in the early 2000’s)
3. City Barbecue and Catering (North Raleigh, NC)
North Raleigh has a BBQ spot that is worth the drive called “City Barbecue” that has the best brisket I have ever eaten. I have recently started trying to smoke brisket and pork shoulder and I’m getting better but still have a long way to go. What they do at the award-winning City Barbecue is damn near magical. Featuring on-site smokers and hickory wood, the brisket almost disintegrates upon contact. It’s just that tender! And the flavor is outstanding. As any brisket lover knows, the secret is in the bark and they dialed in their seasonings like a champ on this one! 9424 Falls of Neuse Rd #108, Raleigh, NC 27615
2. The Pit Authentic Barbecue (Raleigh and Durham, NC)
You may want to make a reservation for this super popular Downtown Raleigh and Durham eatery! Their celebrated cuisine has been featured on Good Morning America, The Morning Show on CBS and even heralded food publication, Bon Appetit. Hey, they even beat Bobby Flay in a rib challenge.. The Pit not only features Pit-smoked free-range whole hog pork to make their classic North Carolina BBQ but they also have authentic Texas-style brisket and other amazing offerings. They proudly feature North Carolina raised pork. Their entire menu is great! I’ve never had anything bad there, and I’m a bit finicky! 328 W Davie St, Raleigh, NC 27601thepit-raleigh.com
1. Clyde Cooper’s BBQ (Raleigh, NC)
Clyde Cooper’s in downtown Raleigh has been open ever since 1938 and believe me, there is definitely a reason that they have been open for 82 years! A no-frills casual eating spot with Pig memorabilia donning their walls, they have it nailed with their beef brisket, ribs, pulled, coarse and chopped North Carolina style BBQ pork. They proudly use their own signature vinegar based sauce, and cook with wood or a combination of wood and gas which helps give the exquisite smoke rings that make it super tender and a flavor that will have you smiling after your first bite! 327 S Wilmington St, Raleigh, NC 27601clydecoopersbbq.com/
Thanks to Christopher for his time and be sure to check out The Neverlutionaries’ new album.
Monk: Our last piece of business before we close the door on 2020, here are my favorite barbecue meals of 2020. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d get to a full list of 10 like I did for 2019, but even with everything going on I still had some great meals.
10. Beef rib from Midwood Smokehouse
Midwood Smokehouse has a weekend beef rib special available every weekend for the (relatively) low price of $32 per bone. Midwood charges a flat fee and compared with what you’d pay if you had to pay by the pound, that’s a saving of at least $10-15.
9. “Bird is the word” smoked then fried chicken sandwich and smoked gulf shrimp from Leah and Louise (Charlotte)
“Bird is the Word” is a smoked then fried chicken sandwich topped with pickles and comeback sauce from Leah and Louise from James Beard-nominated chef Greg Collier and his wife Sabrina. It was also one of the best sandwiches I ate all year, even if it was technically not at a barbecue joint. The other smoked item I enjoyed on that visit was the “On My Way Home” which was “big a$$ smoked gulf shrimp” in a lemon, butter, and worcestershire sauce with cornmeal brioche.
If you are anywhere near Charlotte, get yourself too Leah and Louise at Camp Northend.
8. Smoked beef tenderloin from my backyard
My big Christmas smoke this year was both a smoked turkey breast but most importantly, a smoked beef tenderloin. I dry rubbed the tenderloin with kosher salt earlier that day before rubbing it with Billy Twang’s Old No. 3 Rub (review here) as I got my Oklahoma Joe’s offset up to temp. Two hours later, I had a perfectly medium tenderloin that sliced into perfect medallions. Yet another winner to file away for future smokes.
Rick’s was the favorite of my new Lexington discoveries as part of last year’s Lexington barbecue quest, landing just below my co-favorites Lexington Barbecue and Bar-B-Q Center and the re-review of Smiley’s (see below). Nonetheless, Rick’s is a winner that carries on the Lexington tradition for a relatively new restaurant (opened in 2009).
6. Tres Amigos platter (brisket, pork, and ribs) with smoked turkey and jalapeno cheddar sausage from The Smoke Pit
Mine and Speedy’s full review is forthcoming, but we enjoyed our visit to the newest location of the expanding local restaurant chain, which started in Concord and has grown to 4 locations. Charlotte-area folks: don’t sleep on The Smoke Pit.
5. Texas Trinity and beef rib from Prime BBQ (story)
At last February’s media event for Prime BBQ (in before times), after an extensive tour of the then-in construction Prime BBQ, the group was treated to a lovely meal of brisket, ribs, and sausage (aka the Texas Trinity) and a small beef rib. Eventually I will make it back to Knightdale for an official review, but this was quite the meal.
4. Pork belly burnt ends and sliced pork belly from my backyard (story)
While I still haven’t quite lived up to my promise that I would smoke pork belly again very soon, it is very much on my to-do list for upcoming backyard smokes in 2021. I still dream about those pork belly burnt ends from time to time.
3. Chopped barbecue sandwich with hush puppies and a Cheerwine from Smiley’s Lexington Barbecue (review)
Eight years after my first and only visit to Smiley’s, I wanted to get another visit end in case it truly does end up closing due to road expansion. And what I found was a 5 hog joint in limbo, unsure of the timing when it will be forced to close. Nevertheless, the sandwich I got on that day was the perfect Lexington barbecue sandwich.
2. Beef rib, brisket, ribs, and cheddar bossa sausage from Jon G’s Barbecue (review)
You guys all know how I feel about Jon G’s by now, so not too much more needs to be written here except that you should make the trip out to Peachland, particularly if they have a beef rib on special (but be prepared to pay for it). One of my barbecue new year’s resolution is to make the trip more often and continue to spread the word of Jon G’s.
1. Pork, ribs, and chicken from Southern Smoke BBQ (review)
Southern Smoke was my favorite barbecue at the midpoint of last year and that carried on through to the end of 2020. Matthew Register and team are doing great things in Garland, and I urge folks to make the trip like I did.