Noble Smoke (Finally) Opens Its Doors

Monk: Personally, I have been following the Jim Noble barbecue restaurant quest for just short of four years. The first article I ever linked that mentioned Jim getting into the barbecue business was from an August 2015 linkdown and I’ve been tracking them on the Charlotte Big Board ever since. Though of course, as has been well established, Jim’s been looking to open a barbecue restaurant for over two decades but wasn’t going to open one without the right location, which Speedy and I got a behind the scenes look at last month. Well, after a visit during their soft opening, I’m happy to report that Noble Smoke is finally here and its spectacular.

While the official grand opening of Noble Smoke is July 25, they officially opened for business for a nearly 2-week period of soft openings (dubbed “The Little Smoke”) on Friday, July 12 meaning the restaurant opens at 4, food is served at 5, and they close once they sell out of meat. On the first Friday, the reduced menu comprised of pork and brisket (served either in sandwich form or by the ¼, ½, or 1 lb) as well as a several slides and a “hand pie” dessert.

And of course, with their on-site partnership with Suffolk Punch Brewing (who hasn’t opened this second location yet), they have plenty of beer on tap in addition to wine and cocktails. They even have a beer called “Noble Toast” which is a Vienna lager and was brewed in honor of their partnership with Noble Smoke. Once the brewery opens, it will surely cement its status as a destination barbecue restaurant.

I stopped in for a quick snack at the bar and am happy to report that they have hit the ground running at Noble Smoke. I ordered a ¼ each of pork and brisket as well as their Lexington-style red slaw. The pork is of course smoked in their custom brick pits fashioned with permission after the famous pits at Lexington Barbecue (Jim’s favorite barbecue joint along with Skylight Inn). I don’t believe they are serving it with the Lexington-style dip chopped in, instead allowing diners to add their choice of sauce. Adding a few dashes of the “Lex” sauce and mixing in the red slaw created the familiar taste of Lexington-style chopped barbecue. Next time I’ll try it on a sandwich. Also available is a sweeter “19” sauce and a mixture of the two, dubbed “Smoke.”

The brisket was what I was probably most interested in, having previously tried the pork at Suffolk Punch Brewing’s first location (then known as Hyde Brewing) for St. Patrick’s Day last year. As Speedy and I were shown a few weeks ago, Noble has 6 custom-built offset smokers that handle the brisket (and I’m guessing the rest of the forthcoming smoked meat items which I’m presuming will including chicken, sausage, pork ribs, and beef ribs). And what they put out is some seriously legit brisket. I was served both the flat and the point. The flat (or lean) had a great peppery bark and was not dry at all. The fatty cut from the point had well-rendered fat which melted in my mouth. Jim Noble’s focus has always been Lexington-style pork but (perhaps unsurprisingly) the man can make a mean brisket.

As I mentioned above, Noble Smoke has hit the ground running. The huge restaurant filled up quickly and had a line out the door by the time I left but I observed no major servicing hiccups. There was a little confusion at the bar as to when we were able to order but once ordered, the food came out promptly. Hospitality was great and all of the servers at the bar were friendly.

Once the soft opening period finishes later this month and the menu expands, I expect that Noble Smoke will be in serious contention for best barbecue restaurant in Charlotte. It’s that good.

Ten Lessons Learned from Smoking Our First Whole Hog

Monk: Back on Father’s Day weekend, Speedy and I set out to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years. And you know what? We rocked it. But even using both the Sam Jones Whole Hog book (review forthcoming) and the Buxton Hall Book of Smoke as references, there were still a few speed bumps that we can learn from the next time we smoke another hog (and yes, there will definitely be another time).

Lesson #1 – If your barrel doesn’t have a bottom, don’t set it up on cinder blocks

Monk: The barrel I got, while free, already had both the bottom and top cut off. The top wasn’t needed, but I would have preferred the bottom attached so as to keep the coals in. I did get a tip that an aluminum water heater pan would fit perfectly, and it did. However, after just a couple of hours that pan started to disintegrate so Speedy and I had to figure out a way to get the burn barrel off the cinder blocks mid-burn. We managed to get it done, losing just a few coals in the process. Once we got it on the ground, it was smooth sailing…for at least a little bit.

Speedy: Monk may be underselling this a bit. Taking a hot burn barrel with an active fire off of cinder blocks could’ve ended badly, but the pig was the most important thing. To add to this, I’d say that if placing the barrel on the ground, put a solid sheet of metal that won’t burn through underneath, as it can be difficult shoveling the coals off the ground.

Lesson #2 – Be sure to allow enough time to let a solid bed of coals build up before you start to shovel into the pit

Speedy: What we found was that the cinder block pit we made was losing about 1 degree of temperature a minute, so we ended up dropping coals in every half hour. This shot the temperature back up 30 degrees quickly, but we had trouble keeping enough coals to shovel in (refer to lesson #5).

Monk: We were probably a little bit anxious in adding coals to the pit and should have let the fire go for at least an hour before we started shoveling them in.

Lesson #3 – Get fire proof gloves

Speedy: We were very, very fortunate that Monk’s neighbor had some fireproof grilling gloves that he brought over. These came in VERY handy (refer to Lesson 1), and I wouldn’t try this again without some.

Monk: Yes, these were definitely lifesavers.

Lesson #4 – Get at least a half cord of wood

Monk: In Sam Jones’ book, he says you might be able to get away with a quarter cord of wood, but he recommended at least a half cord because having leftover is far more preferable than running out. In our experience with a half cord, we burned through every last bit of firewood. Next time, I won’t consider ordering anything other than a half cord.

Lesson #5 – And definitely have a few bags of charcoal handy in case its needed (it will be needed)

Speedy: This was something Monk and I didn’t have handy, and we were struggling keeping temperature and weren’t making coals fast enough. Luckily, there was a 24 hour Walmart 10 minutes away, so I went to pick up a couple bags of charcoal while Monk manned the fire. This definitely did the trick, but it would have been nice to have them on-hand.

Lesson #6 – Be sure to have the right thermometer measuring your pit temperature

Monk: I initially used the wrong type of thermometer to measure pit temp (one used for measuring oil used for frying turkeys), and it wasn’t until a couple hours in that we realized we were probably 50 degrees below what we thought we were. Once I plugged in my Maverick Redi-chek thermometer, we were able to adjust our coals accordingly and get the pit temp up to where we needed it to be.

Lesson #7 – Working in shifts is definitely a good idea so that you can get some rest

Monk: We started at midnight to ensure enough time to get the hog done ahead of a 6pm party, and Speedy and I each ended up getting about 4 hours of sleep each. While some late night drinking and BS-ing by the burn barrel is fun and all, make sure you get enough sleep so that you aren’t a zombie the next day at your whole hog party.

Lesson #8 – You will be surprised how quickly the hog gets done

Speedy: Monk had told me the hog would be done in about 12 hours, and I thought no way that could be true. At the end of the day, I think we were cooking around 14 hours, but it definitely could have been done in 12 if we didn’t have temperature issues at the beginning. Lesson learned – never doubt Monk.

Monk: I have nothing else to add here other than to emphasize Speedy’s last point about never doubting me.

Lesson #9 – More is more when it comes to rebar, or consider using a grate

Speedy: To chop the hog, we first split it down the middle and then in quarters at the ribs. Unfortunately, when doing so, one quarter of the hog dropped through the rebar onto the ground. Some of the meat was salvageable, but we probably lost a good 8-10 pounds of meat. The good news is there was still plenty of our 126 pound hog to go around.

Lesson #10 – If you can swing it, smoke your first hog with your best friend

Monk: If Speedy wouldn’t have been able to make it, I would have been doing this solo. Besides the pure labor aspect of smoking a hog, there’s a definite sense of satisfaction of smoking your first hog with a good buddy. And remember – its Barbecue Bros, not Barbecue Bro.

Noble Smoke will raise the bar for Charlotte barbecue when it opens this summer

Jim Noble will officially enter the barbecue restaurant world with the opening of Noble Smoke in the coming few weeks, but he is certainly no newcomer when it comes to barbecue, having grown up in High Point and spent his life going to Lexington Barbecue. Noble Smoke will be the culmination of a decades-long idea that’s been rumbling around in Jim’s head ever since he got started in the restaurant business. Jim may have started off in french cuisine and fine dining, but from spending some time with him getting a behind the scenes tour of the upcoming restaurant, it’s pretty evident that barbecue (and in particular, North Carolina barbecue) is a passion of his.

We’re still a few weeks ago from the opening, but its pretty clear to me that once opened, this will be a destination barbecue joint. The touches that you would expect from a Jim Noble restaurant are there – there will be a full service bar, the design is impeccable, and the dining experience will be well thought-out – but where it will really stand out is what’s housed in the custom built smokehouse out back.

That is where there are 6 custom-built reverse-flow offset smokers (each one named for Jim’s great aunts and uncles) as well as a brick pit that pays homage to Lexington Barbecue via a slightly tweaked design of their pits. This was probably the coolest part of the tour for Speedy and me, as longtime readers will know that Lexington Barbecue is our #1 all-time favorite restaurant (Rudy too). Jim is also a huge fan and has learned from the Monks, the family behind Lexington Barbecue, for years. With Noble Smoke, he will be very much looking to continue the Lexington-style barbecue tradition that began with Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood and their stalls across the street from the Lexington courthouse in 1919.

Besides the smoked meat, the other part of the experience that will help make Noble Smoke a destination barbecue spot will be Suffolk Punch Brewing, which shares the other side of the old bus depot that will house the restaurant. A beer garden and killer patio will make the strong case for customers to stick around well after their meals are done, and Suffolk Punch will be doing some lambic style brewing of sours onsite at this second location, which will surely help differentiate it in the Charlotte market.

Let’s not forget Bossy Beaulah’s, the chicken shack that will sit on the property down a small hill closer to Freedom Drive. Jim has named that after his Aunt Beaulah, whom he named a mobile smoker trailer after and whose fried chicken he grew up on. That will have a smaller menu but patrons in the beer garden will be able to order from it with the servers running up a small hill to bring them brined and buttermilk breaded fried chicken sandwiches.

Jim Noble is a North Carolina guy who is passionate about North Carolina barbecue and I am confident that he will raise the bar when it comes to barbecue in Charlotte. Midwood Smokehouse brought back wood smoked barbecue to Charlotte in 2012 and Sweet Lew’s BBQ has contributed greatly to the scene to it with its opening last December, but Charlotte has so much more room to grow when it comes to its barbecue scene. If Houston’s barbecue scene is blowing up, there’s no reason why Charlotte can’t do the same. I think it just takes more passionate folks like Jim. Noble Smoke will continue the upward trend of barbecue in Charlotte with its opening this summer and I predict will stake a worthy claim to be Charlotte’s flagship barbecue restaurant.

Memphis in May 2019

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!

Cotton Pickin’ Porkers

Some of the other tents

Speedy, Mrs. Monk and me

Miscellaneous shots from the festival weekend

The Cuegrass Festival is a Must for Raleigh Barbecue and Bluegrass Fans

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.

More photos after the jump:

The 4th Annual Free Range and order/fire Pig Pickin’ featuring Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

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’.

Checking Back In: Richard’s Bar-B-Q in Salisbury, NC

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.

Photos: The 89th Annual Mallard Creek Barbecue

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Monk: This year marked the 89th year that Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church in University City has had its annual barbecue held the fourth Thursday of October, which is part community barbecue and part political meet and greet.

While this year’s was a bit cold and grey and overcast, the sun peeked out enough so that the guests weren’t left feeling too cold eating their barbecue sandwiches ($4) or plates ($10). Plates come with pulled pork, a bowl of Brunswick stew, slaw, and apple sauce. Each table has a loaf of Merita white bread, so you can make a taco of sorts with the barbecue and slaw. Be warned that the hot vinegar sauce on the table is quite good but also quite spicy.

A reader comment on a Linkdown from a few weeks back complained about the use of rice in the Brunswick stew, which I didn’t realize was a bit controversial. Critics will say that it is used as a cheat to make more of the stew without meat. I’ll say that I have never felt very strongly about Brunswick stew, so it works for me. Perusing the event website, this question must come up a lot since there is a FAQ dedicated to answering it.

Mallard Creek’s Brunswick Stew Recipe?

We are proud of the heritage and quality of our stew, in fact we got loads of compliments every year.  It’s always an early sellout, we just can’t make enough – it’s a multiday process and involves over 100 folks to cook and package the stew.  Occasionally we get questions and comments about the inclusion of rice in the stew.  Our Brunswick Stew recipe has been passed down for many generations in our Church – and it is a stew – not a soup.  Like barbecue, stews are very personal and regional in taste and recipe. We are very proud of our stew, and let us assure you that the inclusion of rice is original to the recipe – and has not been added to stretch the recipe.  On the practical side, some stews have potatoes – but don’t store/freeze/reheat well, your Mallard Creek Stew will not break down as much, since the rice holds better.  While we don’t share specific recipes, we cook our own mix of chicken, beef and pork for the stew – and there is approximately 6 times as much meat vs rice (by weight) in each serving of stew.  The meat is finely ground after cooking, so sometimes folks don’t realize it.  By the way, we use a gluten free rice too! Remember that stews were intended to be a cost-effective source of nutrition, in their origin. We appreciate your own personal taste, feel free to come enjoy our stew, barbecue, slaw and fellowship.  We would love to have you!

I was glad to make it back this year after taking last year off due to having strep throat. If you ever do make it out, be sure to steer clear of going during normal lunch hours unless you are in a position to wait for an hour or more in your car. Going closer to 2pm still left me a 25 minute or so wait in the car. I’ve also had success going after 5pm but then you run the risk of popular items like Brunswick stew running out. No matter when you are able to make it out to the Mallard Creek Barbecue, you will enjoy some of the better barbecue in Charlotte, albeit cue that’s only available one day a year.

Photos: Smoked Mackerel on a Stick at Oktoberfest

Monk: No linkdown this week but enjoy a couple of photos of smoked fish on a stick outside of the Fischer-Vroni tent at Oktoberfest in Munich. You can see in the first photo how the smaller fish are lined on either side of a long pit of charcoal so they get a light smoke bath. The larger ones in the second photo get similar treatment though not necessarily in as efficient a use of space.

I was too shy to try these guys but if you want to read more, check out this piece from Munchies.

What I Ate at BBQ Alley at Memphis in May

Monk: The Memphis in May Barbecue Fest has a few barbecue vendors inside the grounds and while local health regulations prohibit teams from serving barbecue to the general public if you are lucky you might find some barbecue teams handing out samples – for instance the Traeger team was handing out brisket samples all weekend. Another option for barbecue that weekend was BBQ Alley, a “consumer experience” where you can purchase $15 tickets which give you 5 samples of barbecue dishes from Big Green Egg as well as 3 notable restaurants – this year those restaurants were Paradise Grill in Atoka, TN, Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg, and B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque in Savannah and Atlanta.

Speedy came in town for a few hours around lunchtime on the Saturday of Barbecue Fest so we decided to check BBQ Alley out. I only ended up having four of the five dishes served but here they are in the order that I tried them.

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Pork loin with rice from Big Green Egg/Leisure Boys

I’m not familiar with them but Leisure Boys appeared to be cooking on behalf of Big Green Egg. This well-seasoned pork loin was a fine start the the BBQ Alley experience.

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Snake River Farms ribeye and pork loin with garlic bread from Dr. BBQ

I didn’t snap a photo but the man himself, Dr. BBQ, was hard at work behind the table working the Green Egg to produce this ribeye from Snake River Farms in Idaho.

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Mike’s BBQ Smoked Wings from Paradise Grill

Paradise Grill is a barbecue restaurant in Atoka, about 40 minutes outside of Memphis, and they brought “Mike’s BBQ Smoked Wings” to BBQ Alley. I remember it being a very solid smoked wing.

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Brisket from B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque

The couple of brisket bites from B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque were the best of the bunch (as to be expected) but the best part was meeting pitmaster Bryan Furman and speaking with him for a couple of minutes. Bryan actually grew up in Charlotte and graduated from West Mecklenburg High School, so we talked about Charlotte a little bit in addition to his restaurant and experience at Memphis in May. Brian is a super nice guy, and was even kind enough for a quick photo. If you are in Savannah or Atlanta, go to B’s!

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Bryan Furman of the awesome B’s Cracklin’ Bar-B-Que in Savannah and Atlanta

All in all, BBQ Alley was maybe a little pricey for what you get but was a chance to try some legit barbecue while at Memphis in May Barbecue Fest.