Monk: For the first time in 3 years, Contributing barbecue editor Robert F. Moss presents his list of the South’s Top 50 Barbecue Joints. And of course, a lot has changed. There’s the little matter of the global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the restaurant business for the past 2.5 years and has probably accelerated some restaurant closings that might have been able to hang on a little longer. But notably, the only closure from the 2019 version of the list is Bryan Furman’s B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque in Atlanta and Savannah. Fear not, as Bryan Furman BBQ is in the works.
As expected, there’s also a decidedly Texas bent to the list which reflects the national trend. Even in proud barbecue states like North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia is represented by Texas-style joints.
Note that this differs from the annual “South’s Best” Reader’s list published in the spring.
By the Numbers:
South Carolina: 9
North Carolina: 8
Not surprisingly, Texas tops the list with 15 entries. Texas barbecue is rapidly becoming the national barbecue style and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. This lost provides a good roadmap of places I still need to try, such as Valentina’s, Burnt Bean, Blood Bros, Tejas among many others.
South Carolina takes second with 9 joints and while Moss is a SC-based writer, I’m a little surprised its so well represented on the list. However, I am especially happy to see Palmira BBQ in Charleston make the list.
North Carolina takes home the bronze with 8 joints including newer-school joints like Prime Barbecue and Sam Jones Barbecue alongside classics like Skylight Inn, Stamey’s, Lexington #1, and Grady’s.
Locally, no Charlotte-area joints make the list and in particular I’m surprised that Jon G’s Barbecue is not on the list. Not only because I’m such a fan but also because Moss wrote so glowingly about it after his visit. The same could be said for Lawrence Barbecue, for that matter. If I had to guess, it probably came down to Jon G’s, Lawrence, Palmira, and Prime Barbecue in Knightdale, NC for two spots on the list.
Barbecue lists are inherently controversial but with Robert Moss you know he’s at least doing the leg work and traveling to each of these joints in his list. Some slight SC-bias aside, it’s a very solid list.
What are your thoughts? What joints did Moss not included? How many of the list have you been to? I’ve been to a respectable-but-still-lacking 18 of the 50.
Monk: As the old saying goes, more often than not a person’s favorite barbecue is what he or she was raised on. Here at Barbecue Bros, it should be no secret that we are Lexington-style barbecue fans (sometimes known as Piedmont- or Western-style barbecue) through and through. Which shouldn’t be surprising since each of the three of us were raised in High Point, NC, just under 20 miles up I-85 from the (often disputed) Barbecue Capital of NC in Lexington.
However, despite the two warring styles of barbecue in the state, I have never harbored any ill-will to my whole hog compatriots to the east. While I’ve spent many a tank of gas exploring all the Lexington-style joints in the western Piedmont of NC, I’ve bemoaned for years the fact that I just simply haven’t had a ton of reasons to spend much time in the eastern part of the state where whole hog and a vinegar pepper sauce reign supreme.
Thankfully, earlier this year I did finally have a reason to be in Pitt County – home to Greenville, Winterville, and Ayden – in eastern North Carolina for a couple days. While my free time was somewhat limited due to the eldest Monkettes gymnastics exploits, I hoped to make the most of being in the heart of whole hog country!
B’s Barbecue – Greenville
Open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 until sold out (or 2:30, whichever comes first) and without any indoor dining, you will almost certainly wait in a line at B’s Barbecue. Particularly if East Carolina University (ECU) has a home football game. But this is no central Texas-style line; it moves fairly quickly and efficiently. Arriving right at 9am, I was 11th or so in line and got my food within 40 minutes. Part of that is because B’s has a pretty limited menu: barbecue, chicken, bread (corn sticks) and sides of slaw, potatoes, or green beans. So really, you should know your order by the time you get up there.
The chopped whole hog pork was really flavorful if not overly smoky due to primarily being cooked over charcoal briquettes. It was also leaner than the other whole hog I’d have later that weekend. Regardless, this barbecue fully lived up to my lofty expectations.
The cornsticks at B’s (called “bread” on the menu board) were the first corn sticks I’ve personally had and were my favorite cornmeal of my trip. They were so good that I bought an extra dozen and took them home to the family. The eastern-style slaw was about what I’d expect but I did enjoy the potatoes, a simple side that’s not really found in the Piedmont.
The three sisters at B’s have made it clear that they won’t be running it forever, so be sure to get there sooner rather than later for some otherworldly whole hog.
Sam Jones BBQ – Winterville
In Pitt County, there seem to only be a couple of barbecue options on Sundays. B’s Barbecue, Skylight Inn, and Bum’s Restaurant are all closed to give those family-run operations a day of rest (though of course the prep for the next week surely begins). Parker’s Barbecue has a few Greenville-area locations and is open 10-8:30 seven days a week, but is a gas-cooked barbecue that may actually be better known for its fried chicken. For true ‘cue, wood-smoked barbecue, your main option on Sundays is Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, between Ayden and Greenville.
Compared with the barbecue at Skylight Inn, although Sam Jones BBQ’s whole hog was very good it somewhat paled in comparison. The chop was coarser than I prefer, the cracklins mixed into the barbecue weren’t quite as crisp, and the barbecue portion was a little lacking. Still, it was very good barbecue and better than 90% of other barbecue joints in the state..
I also finally tried the pit chicken that seems to be the second barbecue item at each restaurant in Pitt County, and while it didn’t blow me away the leaner poultry was a nice change of pace.
While there are clearly a couple of better options for barbecue nearby (which in this case means truly transcendent barbecue), I would happily eat at a Sam Jones BBQ were it in my hometown. Speaking of which: any plans to open a store in Charlotte, Sam?
Skylight Inn – Ayden
Finally, the real barbecue reason to make the trip to Pitt County. Truth be told, despite my excitement over finally trying B’s Barbecue the main event of the trip was finally making it to Skylight Inn. This Jones family restaurant has been open since 1947 and is truly one of the cathedrals of NC barbecue, regardless of style.
Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Skylight Inn every day, and something about the whole hog eaten within the walls of Skylight Inn just tasted better than the Sam Jones barbecue I’ve been fortunate to have tasted at events in Charlotte or at his two restaurants. Perhaps it was the thrill of finally being in this hallowed building with the sounds of hog being chopped on a wood block right behind the registers, but the cracklins seemed crispier and the pork seemed fresher. It was truly life-changing whole hog. Not too much more that I can say.
Did I come away from my whole hog experience in Eastern NC forsaking my beloved Lexington-style barbecue in favor of the original style of barbecue in the United States? No, of course not. But while I did already have an awareness and respect for the other style of the Old North State’s barbecue, I came away from this trip with a whole new appreciation and a newfound mission to get back as soon as reasonable to try the other legendary whole hog places I have yet to make it to.
What other places should I visit next time I’m in eastern North Carolina? Leave a comment below.
Monk: Dr. Howard Conyers, a NASA scientist originally from Paxville, South Carolina who attended both NC A&T and Duke University for engineering degrees, is fighting the good fight when it comes to creating awareness of the black contribution to the roots of barbecue. This is a conversation between Howard and his father Harrison, a pivotal figure in his barbecue journey.
Monk: If I’m ever in Houston anytime soon, Blood Bros is going to be at the top of my list. Pitmaster Quy Hoang shows Eater’s Smoke Point the ropes of their operation.
Description: At Houston-area barbecue joint Blood Bros, pitmaster Quy Hoang combines his love for Texas barbecue with Asian influences to make gochujang ribs, smoked char siu pork belly fried bao buns, brisket burnt end steam buns, Thai red curry and chili sausage, and more.
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