Monk: Bryan Furman, pitmaster of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque and a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef, was back in Charlotte last weekend though it was not to continue scouting Charlotte for locations for expansion as far as I’m aware (unfortunately). It was, however, for a “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s BBQ – think a tap takeover at a bar, but for barbecue. That Sunday, DJ Smitty was providing tunes on the patio, Birdsong Brewing was serving beer outside, smoked oysters were a special on the menu, and the line may have been slightly longer than normal but other than that it was more or less business as usual, just with Furman’s very good barbecue instead of Sweet Lew’s also very good barbecue.
The real boon for Charlotte’s burgeoning barbecue community didn’t take place that day but instead the night before, and I was sad to be out of town and unable to experience first hand. There, in the parking lot of Sweet Lew’s, some of Charlotte’s best pitmasters hung out, sampled each other’s barbecue, and assisted Furman in the smoking of several whole hogs. Garren Kirkman from Jon G’s Barbecue brought his brisket and Cheerwine hot links, Michael Wagner and Matthew Berry from Midwood Smokehouse brought their mobile BQ smoker to help smoke hogs, and of course Lewis Donald was there as the gracious host.
I have spoken separately with Midwood Smokehouse’s Wagner and Berry and Garren from Jon G’s about the lack of a cohesive Charlotte barbecue community, and this is certainly a step in the right direction to say the least. FS Food Group (the parent company of Midwood Smokehouse) Brand Director Rémy Thurston has recently mentioned to me that they want to be on the forefront of making Charlotte a true barbecue city, and some things may be in the works to bring these pitmasters (and perhaps more) back together sooner rather than later. All of this makes me hopeful that Charlotte barbecue is on the upswing and I truly believe that the best things are yet to come. World, you are on notice.
Monk: It’s been over two-and-a-half years since we’ve updated the Charlotte Big Board and as you might expect, there’s been a lot of changes in that time. Longtime readers may recall that finding the best barbecue restaurant in Charlotte was the mission statement when we first started this blog, so we certainly take this seriously. Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen (our previous #2) has rebranded as Gibson’s Family BBQ and is a shadow of its former self and fell way out of the top 5. Midwood Smokeshack (previously our #4) closed back in December of 2017 after unfortunately failing to find its footing in Matthews though thankfully pitmaster Michael Wagner is still lending his Texas expertise to the broader Midwood Smokehouse franchise. One thing that has not changed is that Jon G’s BBQ continues to hold down the top spot and always knocks it out of the park every time I am able to try them.
Starting last December, I believe we have entered a new phase in Charlotte barbecue that signals an upswing. That’s when Sweet Lew’s BBQ opened and hit the ground running out of their converted service station in the Belmont neighborhood just outside of uptown. And then of course, Noble Smoke finally opened a little over two months ago off of Freedom Drive and raised the bar even higher with their destination barbecue joint that is the cornerstone of the “Noble Smoke Campus” that will include Bossy Beulah’s Chicken Shack (also from Chef Noble) and the Suffolk Punch Blendery, their second location that will focus on Belgian lambics.
If Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque continues to pursue a Charlotte location (fingers crossed), that would certainly elevate the scene to a whole new level with his traditional whole hog barbecue (something currently missing from Charlotte), brisket, and hash. And who knows, perhaps a restaurant from a currently unknown contender is in the works and can come out of nowhere to challenge for the (queen’s) crown.
There’s no reason why Charlotte can’t mirror the barbecue scenes of Charleston or even Houston, each for different reasons. Charleston got an infusion of outside talent in the past few years in Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Lewis Barbecue, and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in addition to the expansion of homegrown local chains in Swig & Swine and Home Team BBQ. As Charleston-based food writer/historian Robert Moss has recently noted, the Charleston barbecue scene in the past five years has gone from “minor outpost to acclaimed destination.” Seems like Charlotte is always playing second (or even third fiddle) when it comes to the Charleston food scene and in this case, its no different for barbecue. While that may be too much for fine dining, there’s no reason why Charlotte can’t match or better Charleston in barbecue.
From afar, the Houston barbecue scene is a little more homegrown but has proven that a barbecue scene can sizzle even in an urban setting (the Houston metro area is nearly 3 times larger than Charlotte). But even in that spread-out urban setting, the barbecue community seems tight knight and the competition appears to be mostly friendly (again, this is from afar as I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Houston yet). When I spoke with Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner from Midwood Smokehouse earlier this year, they cited the lack of community in Charlotte’s barbecue scene as an area for opportunity. Perhaps until that improves, Charlotte can’t become a true destination for barbecue.
For #6-43, check out the Charlotte Big Board here.
And now, on to the only Charlotte barbecue list that matters…
The one truly old school NC barbecue joint on this list, Bill Spoon’s has been around since 1963 on what was then a country road south of Charlotte. Charlotte has a bad habit of losing what few institutions it has, whether due to neglect or development, but let’s hope that Bill Spoon’s doesn’t fall victim to that trend because they are still making some fine eastern NC barbecue.
While somehow our last official review was in 2015 (I plan to remedy this in the coming months), Midwood Smokehouse is still a regular stop for the Monk family and seemingly most of Charlotte, as it has expanded to 4 locations in the greater Charlotte area (as well as one down in Columbia, SC). Not to mention that it’s the go-to spot for any celebrities or figures of note that come into town; President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, Justin Timberlake have all been patrons of Midwood in recent years. Regardless, I will continue to give credit to Frank Scibelli for bringing wood-smoked barbecue back to Charlotte in 2012, saving us from the gassers and faux ‘cue that had plagued the city for decades.
But in addition to the worthy smoked meats and homemade sides (including the only hash and rice I’m aware of in the Piedmont of NC), I’d like to give props to their work in the neighborhood where Donald donates his time and food for block parties and even recently partnered with a local barber shop to give kids free back-to-school haircuts. Now that’s the type of barbecue joint that should be in every neighborhood.
You may be a bit sick of reading about Noble Smoke on this blog lately, but it has truly given Charlotte a destination barbecue restaurant and raised the bar for the city’s barbecue. Let’s hope others follow suit. Read more from our review here.
Jon G’s Barbecue has topped our Charlotte Big Board for 2+ years now, and doesn’t appear to be to be losing the crown anytime soon now that Garren Kirkman (the firekeeper behind Jon G’s) is no longer working full time and is fully in the barbecue game. For that, the greater Charlotte area should be thankful even though it’d be hard to imagine his Central Texas-style brisket getting too much better (in addition to his other meats and scratch made sides). I predict more big things to come from him and his wife Kelly. For any serious Charlotte barbecue fan: SEEK OUT JON G’S BARBECUE.
Name: Noble Smoke Date: 8/24/19 Address: 2216 Freedom Dr, Charlotte, NC 28208 Order: The Miss Mary Platter (1 lb brisket, 1 lb pork, 1 rack ribs, 1 lb turkey, red slaw, coleslaw, pickled veggies), 12 wings, hush puppies (link to menu) Pricing: $$$
Monk: In 1919, the first Lexington-style barbecue stand was set up across the street from the courthouse in Lexington, NC by Sid Weaver. Shortly after, Jess Swicegood set up his own stand and both businesses thrived to the point of building permanent restaurants. Eventually, they would go on to train Warner Stamey in the ways of Lexington-style barbecue, and he continued to spread that gospel all over the Piedmont of North Carolina to owners who would go on to open such famed joints as Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Alston Bridges Barbecue, Lexington Barbecue, and Stamey’s own namesake restaurant, Stamey’s Barbecue.
Exactly 100 years later and 60 miles to the south in Charlotte, Chef Jim Noble has finally opened up his passion project restaurant in the form of Noble Smoke, continuing the Lexington-style barbecue tradition (though he does offer a variety of smoke meats). Everyone knows Noble as the chef and restaurateur behind higher-end restaurants like Noble Grill, Rooster’s, and King’s Kitchen, but a Lexington-style barbecue restaurant has been 25 years in the making.
Speedy: Monk and I got to spend a couple hours with Noble before the restaurant opened and, though we didn’t get a chance to sample anything, I left that meeting confident that the man knew his ‘cue and had a true passion for it, so I was more than excited to sample the goods. The space Noble built is fantastic – rustic but refined, with ample seating, a large bar, a nice outdoor space, and a brewery joining next door.
Monk: For our group of 5, the Miss Mary Platter was the perfect order as it gave us a chance to try just about all of the meats and in the right quantity. At the time of our visit, Noble Smoke still hadn’t fired up the brick masonry pits that were styled after Lexington Barbecue, so our pork was smoked in one of the six large offset smokers occupying the smoke room. As he is doing across the board, Noble is using high-quality ingredients (which you pay for, as the platter was $88) and in this case its Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork. On this day, the pork wasn’t quite the crowd favorite while still being very good. I can’t wait to try them now that they’ve fired up those brick pits.
Speedy: Noble clearly studied up on the Texas brisket he was trying to emulate. And I’ll say, he did a nice job. The prime brisket was moist, peppery, and flavorful. I had previously sworn off ordering brisket in the Carolinas, but Noble Smoke is joining Lewis Barbecue on the exception list. I rank it just a tad behind Lewis, but still a top ten brisket I’ve had in my life. I think any Texan would be impressed.
Monk: I couldn’t agree more, and also think that any Texan would also be impressed with the ribs that Noble Smoke is slinging. Rubbed generously with salt and pepper, I was relieved that Noble avoided the temptation to offer a saucy, sweet rib and instead something far more nuanced. North Carolina isn’t known for ribs and they can often be an afterthought, but these were more Texas Trinity than KC Masterpiece. By far, these were the favorite meats on the table in our group that day.
Speedy: I’m on record saying I don’t know why anyone would order smoked turkey at a barbecue restaurant given the choice of other delectable meats from our hooved friends. Well, I’m man enough to admit it – I was wrong. The turkey at Noble Smoke was probably the best I’ve had. Like the brisket, it was seasoned with just salt and (plenty of) pepper, but that was enough to tease out an incredible amount of flavor, all while retaining moisture. This is a hard thing to do with turkey, so hats off to Jim Noble for this. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite thing I had that day (that goes to the ribs), but it was the biggest surprise for me.
Monk: Like everything else, the wings from were delicious and well smoked, even if they were a bit on the small side. Noble gets his heritage chicken from Winston-Salem-based Joyce Farms, which is nice to see them source from a North Carolina operation.
We ordered a side of the hush puppies made with Anson Mills heirloom grain corn (again, note the high quality ingredients) and the table gobbled them up pretty quickly. The Miss Mary’s Platter came with small sides of both eastern and western (red) slaw as well as pickled veggies in the form of onions, pickles, and beets. The beets were definitely different.
Speedy: Sometimes new restaurants take a few months to get up to speed and everything rolling, but Chef Jim Noble is clearly a pro and the meal we had at Noble Smoke was one of my top barbecue meals all year. Noble Smoke was designed to be a destination barbecue joint, and I think it will be just that. I’m certainly adding it to the list for every time I visit Charlotte.
Monk: Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ joins the Charlotte food podcast Scallionpancake to discuss a lot of similar ground from his appearance on order/fire in terms of how he got to Charlotte and his culinary background before Sweet Lew’s.
The lively discussion continues from there and here is some new information in a typical week for Lewis as well as information on his new-ish Saturday sausage special, which is made of half Neese’s hot sausage, half Creekstone ground beef, spices, and then marinated in Birdsong Jalapeno Pale Ale. Outside of the restaurant, we also get a sense of Lewis’s favorite places to eat in Charlotte.
It’s official: Matt Horn is opening a brick and mortar in the bay area
A “Black Tie BBQ” event is a more budget-friendly barbecue event worth checking out at next year’s Charleston Wine and Food Festival with Rodney Scott, John Lewis, Aaron Siegel, Taylor Garrigan, and Anthony DiBernardo, as well as out-of-towners Amy Mills and Matthew Register
Frank Scibelli is the restaurateur behind Midwood Smokehouse, which I would argue brought back “True Cue” barbecue to Charlotte when it opened in 2012. That is, barbecue smoked over wood with no gas or electric assistance. Midwood has grown from it’s Central Avenue location to a small regional chain with 3 locations in Charlotte, another in Huntersville, and one in Columbia, SC.
In this episode of the Charlotte-based web series Order/Fire, host Marc Jacksina sits down with Frank to discuss his restaurant history in Charlotte. It’s not exclusively about barbecue and Midwood, but it’s a worthy view nonetheless. The barbecue-specific section starts at 13:38 and lasts until 16:45.
NC DOT, careless of the thousands of victims of The Great Wilber’s Debacle, now turns its guns on Lexington. NC Dot has determined that the Smiley’s-Speedy’s section of Winston Road apparently gets a fair amount of traffic. Of course it does. It contains two barbecue places.
Robert Moss reflects on Charleston’s dining scene so far, including the barbecue scene which went from “minor outpost to [an] acclaimed destination”