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.