Ten Underrated Barbecue Joints in North Carolina

(A version of this article was published last year on Tabelog here)

Everybody knows that North Carolina is one of the greatest states in the country to travel around eating barbecue, and there are some amazing, legendary restaurants around which have been open for decades and garnered a whole lot of press and attention, but they’re not the only ones. There are more than four hundred barbecue restaurants in the Tarheel State. Many of them are outstanding even if they fly under the media’s radar. Here are ten that should not be overlooked.

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Backyard BBQ Pit – Durham (link to review)
The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, or Triangle, is the DMZ between the two styles of Carolina barbecue. In that zone, you don’t find an easy boundary between eastern and western (or Lexington-style). Such is the case with Backyard BBQ Pit, whose approach is similar to the great Allen & Son in Chapel Hill in that they smoke pork shoulders (the Lexington-style cut) served with an eastern style sauce with red pepper flakes to give it a little kick. Having been previously featured on Travel Channel’s “Man vs Food” you would think that Backyard BBQ would be mentioned more in the conversation of best barbecue in the Triangle. For some reason its not, but it definitely should be.

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The Barbecue Center – Lexington (link to review)
The Barbecue Center is just two miles from Lexington #1 and doesn’t get nearly as much publicity despite the fact that its recently passed owner Sonny Conrad was the major force behind The Barbecue Festival, which draws crowds of 100,000 to the city on one Saturday each October. As for the food itself, it is a classic Lexington-style joint though its dip (table sauce) can be a little sweeter than I prefer. Having grown up on Lexington #1 I certainly have my bias, but many out-of-towners without such bias (as well as plenty of locals) have stated that The Barbecue Center is the best in town. Depending on the day, they might just have a rightful claim.

Pork, brisket, ribs, wings, brunswick stewBoone’s Bar-B-Q Kitchen – Charlotte (link to review)
Dan “Boone” Gibson has his own family traditions when it comes to barbecue that don’t strictly follow the eastern/Lexington taxonomy, but you’d be silly to dismiss his barbecue right off based on that. Having had a hand in starting two Charlotte-area barbecue chains, Boone tired of that life and struck out on his own in a food truck to serve his smoked wares (pork, brisket, sausage, and ribs) directly to the people. Look for him at various food truck festivals around the Charlotte area, and you won’t be disappointed.

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Fuller’s Old Fashion BBQ – Lumberton (link to review)
Heading towards the NC coast can be hit or miss when it comes to barbecue restaurants, but this buffet-style barbecue joint off I-95 is a nice find. While the buffet has salad and seafood as well as fried chicken, the wood smoked barbecue is the main feature and rightly so. Just don’t be surprised if you get there right as it opens and find a line of folks chomping at the bit to get in.

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Johnson Family BBQ – Durham (link to review)
When you are greeted by a sign that states “It’s All About the Wood” and a simple smoker covered by an aluminum shed at a barbecue joint, you know that’s a good start. And oh, did I mention the joint is connected to a gas station off a country highway between Raleigh and Durham? Thankfully, the barbecue follows through with well-smoked eastern style barbecue with a higher ratio of light meat to dark served in a modest dining room covered with red gingham table cloths.

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Midwood Smokehouse – Charlotte (link to review)
Charlotte has been oft overlooked as a barbecue town (and usually for good reason), but Midwood Smokehouse is helping to change that perception with its focus on wood smoked meats from a variety of barbecue cuisines. While it does have an eastern carolina style pork as well as the Lexington style red slaw, Midwood draws from Central Texas in its brisket and sausages, from St. Louis in its ribs, as well as from Kansas City in its burnt ends. Throw in a full bar and you might be tempted to refer to it as “yuppie-que” but whatever you call it just know that the are serving some of the finest smoked meats in the region (the brisket is arguably the best in NC).

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Porkey’s Bar-B-Que – Mount Airy (link to review)
Similar to the coastal plans of NC, once you head west of the Piedmont of NC towards the mountains the barbecue becomes very hit or miss. Which is why stumbling across a Lexington-style joint like Porkey’s in Mount Airy was a nice surprise. It may not quite measure up to the best in Lexington, but if you are exploring the nearby wineries in the Yadkin Valley you can do a lot worse than the chopped pork at this wood smoking joint.

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Richard’s BBQ – Salisbury (link to review)
When it comes to barbecue, Salisbury is very much the little brother to Lexington. According to some, “Lexington style” barbecue – that is, chopped pork shoulders with a vinegar and ketchup-based sauce – may have even originated there. Richard’s is a wood smoking joint that serves coarsely chopped pork with plenty of bark mixed in. Add some nearly perfect hush puppies with the right mix of savory and sweet as well as a classic red slaw, and you’ve got a joint that competes with many of the better ones in Lexington.

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The Smoke Pit – Concord (link to review)
A relative newcomer, The Smoke Pit models its barbecue and presentation after Central Texas. Order a combo platter and you get a tray of meat and sides arranged like what you’d expect in just about any joint in Austin. But with the choice to drink it with a SunDrop (which along with Cheerwine is nearly the perfect drink for barbecue), it still retains some of that North Carolina charm. Much like Charlotte, Concord isn’t known for its barbecue but I’d recommend The Smoke Pit to just about anyone in the area.

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Troutman’s Bar-B-Que – Denton (link to review)
Troutman’s is the archetypal NC barbecue joint: a small, standalone wood shack off a country highway in a rural part of the state. There’s a wood pile out back, two modest dining rooms, and waitresses that take your order as soon as you find your seat. The pork is consistently moist and smokey and paired with the red slaw, hushpuppies, and a Cheerwine, it’s at a price that’s hard to beat.

What other underrated NC joints did we miss?

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Linkdown: 6/29/16

– Lewis Barbecue finally opened in Charleston yesterday, and here’s a look at the four custom-built smokers that were built in Texas and shipped to SC

– Destination BBQ attended the friends and family event and posted on the experience, which is “unlike what those of us born and raised in SC are accustomed to in a BBQ restaurant”

– Charlotte Five discovers the greatness of The Smoke Pit that we’ve known about for a few months, calling it “worth the wait”

Showing up to The Smoke Pit on Saturday means many guests will be standing in a line that starts at the register and trails out the door where people wait patiently to move forward. Some guests say that on one Saturday, they stood in a line that wrapped around the building. With so many daily visitors, certain items may run out and are then placed on a sign below the menu, which some visitors peer at from the line.

– This Sunday, the Plaza Midwood Pig Pickn’ will be held at the Moo & Brew parking lot

– After Grant’s wholehearted defense of Georgia BBQ last week, Robert Moss weighs in as well

– Speaking of which, Grant makes the rounds to Paradise Country Bar-B-Que in Milledgeville and Andy’s BBQ in Eatonton, which he finds to be “every bit as good” as Allen & Son Barbeque in Chapel Hill (they happen to use a similar vinegar and pepper sauce)

– Destination BBQ continues their SC BBQ roadtrip series with I-20, which passes through three of the four barbecue regions in the state; side note – these entries are incredibly thorough and well worth a read if you haven’t checked them out yet

– From last week, Daniel Vaughn draws parallels between Hawaii’s kalua pig and Texas barbacoa

-Jim Shahin of the Washington Post breaks down the latest barbecue books, including the reprinting of Robb Walsh’s Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook

– The Barbecue Center in Lexington has a new sign to replace the previous one of 55 years

Queen City Q – Concord, NC

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Name
: Queen City Q (Concord)
Date: 3/31/16
Address: 8524 Pit Stop Ct NW, Concord, NC 28027
Order: Big Q platter (pork, brisket, sausage) with eastern NC bbq slaw and hush puppies (link)
Price: $23.75

Monk: Ever since our last official review of Queen City Q nearly 4 years ago (and two weeks into starting this blog), they’ve been in full on expansion mode. There is now an additional 3 locations – Concord, Matthews, Ballantyne – and they have become the official barbecue of several local sports teams – Hornets, the Knights minor league baseball team, and the Checkers minor league hockey team – which means that they have an expanded presence in each of the respective stadiums or arenas. They’ve also since severed their relationship with Dan “Boone” Gibson, who has gone on to have (in our mind) the best barbecue in the Charlotte area from his own food truck. With all of these changes, is the barbecue still any good at the expansions? I checked out the Concord location (across the street from the Concord Mills mall) to see for myself. I will saw that even though the last official review was 4 years ago, I’ve certainly been to the original 6th Street location several times since – particularly since dads eat free on Father’s Day.

I ordered the Big Q platter and chose pork, brisket, and sausage as my meats. When it came out, the platter was more or less a not-great looking heap of brown meats. The best one of the 3 (and pretty good in its own right) was the sausage. The sausage (not sure if its housemade or not) is split in the middle and finished on the grill. It paired well with the SC mustard I requested on the side. The eastern NC pork was an unflattering shade of brown and just generally lacked flavor. Even adding “Lexington dip” table sauce didn’t help it much. The brisket was plain bad. Now, Queen City Q has always had a slightly unorthodox way of preparing the brisket in that they smoke it, finish it on the grill, and then douse with one of their sauces. In this case, it presumably comes drenched in sauce to hide the fact that it was not smoked very well and had a rubbery consistency.

Speedy: Like Monk, I’ve been a pretty consistent customer for the 6th Street location, especially before Hornets games. I’m really surprised by this review, as my experiences at the mothership have always been solid. I agree that the sausage is the best meat, but I’ve been known to order about anything on the menu. I will say that my second favorite meat at QCQ has been the ribs, which Monk did not order. But still – sounds like a disappointing visit.

Monk: …Seems like a textbook case of an “official re-review is in order” if you ask me.

As for the sides, the eastern NC slaw was nothing you would expect it to be – it contained no mayonnaise and even had a reddish tint to it. In fact, I think they have simply mislabeled it since it’s a Lexington-style red slaw – that or they do not know the difference. The hush puppies were slightly burnt so even though the insides were fluffy the outside left a bitter taste in my mouth. They also threw in a piece of Texas toast which was, you know, toast.

If this is a sign of where this local restaurant chain is headed (as opposed to a one-off bad experience), I may have to move Queen City Q way down in the rankings in light of this visit. Very disappointing.

Ratings:
Atmosphere – 3 hogs
Pork – 2 hogs
Brisket – 1 hog
Sausage – 3.5 hogs
Sides – 2 hogs
Overall – 2 hogs

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Photo Gallery: Behind the Scenes at The Smoke Pit

A few weeks back, Joey from The Smoke Pit in Concord was kind enough to take us on an impromptu behind the scenes tour of it as well as its neighboring butcher shop, The Stock Market. Here’s a few photos.

Check out our review from earlier this week here.

Monk

The Smoke Pit – Concord, NC (RE-REVIEW)

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Name
: The Smoke Pit
Date: 1/30/16
Address: 796 Concord Pkwy N, Concord, NC 28027
Order: Pork, brisket, ribs, and sausage combo with bbq slaw, fries, cornbread, and drinks (link)
Price: $23.95

Monk: After a very promising initial impression of The Smoke Pit, I knew I had to revisit with Speedy to get his take and confirm just how good it was – or at least how good I thought it was. Also, with him there it would allow us to order a 4 meat combo and try more meats without me having leftovers for the next week. Luckily, Speedy was getting his car serviced in Concord so we had the perfect opportunity. Spoiler alert – it was better than the last time.

Speedy: I’m a skeptic at heart, so even though Monk and I have pretty much the similar taste in a lot of things (barbecue, music, women – what up Mrs. Monk?), I had to try the Smoke Pit for myself to see what the fuss was about. First things first, the Smoke Pit is attached to a butcher shop – a great sign if I’ve ever seen one. Secondly, it’s just a classic ‘cue joint where you wait your turn, order, sit down, and wait for someone to bring the food to you. The menu is solid, but with so many meats, can they all be good? Time to find out.

Monk: The large portion of chopped pork was just as smokey and moist as I had recalled from my first visit in November. It was nice to see that consistency didn’t seem to be an issue here. The sausage, a meat I had not tried yet, was a house made sausage that had good flavor but which I found to be a little dry. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to sausage, but perhaps it needed some more fat as part of the grind? Still, while it was the least successful of the meats on that day, it was still above average.

Speedy: The ribs were ordered dry, but came out glazed, but not overly sauced by any means. The big, meaty spare ribs were cooked well and had a nice bit and good flavor. I thought they could’ve stood to be seasoned a bit more and I always prefer St. Louis cut when I’m eating spare ribs, but overall, these were pretty good. I can’t say the same for the brisket, though, because it was incredible. My disdain for NC brisket is well documented, so my expectations were pretty low, but one bite of the moist, flavorful meat changed everything. The brisket had the perfect amount of bark, was not too fatty, but not too lean either. And there was just enough smoke on the meat to let you know it was there without overpowering the flavor. I won’t go so far as to say this is the best brisket I’ve ever had, but I’d stack it up with most any Texas joint I’ve been to and it far outshines anything I’ve had east of the Mississippi. While the other meats were in the solid to good range, I can guarantee that I’ll never visit the Smoke Pit without getting an order of that brisket. My mouth is literally watering as I type this.

Monk: After my first visit and subsequent photos on Facebook, the manager/owner Joey said to let him know next time we were in, so we asked for him at the register and towards the end of our meal he came out to chat and give us a tour of the facilities. He first walked us back to the two Southern Pride smokers (a third is on the way to handle additional capacity) and let us know that they smoke 24 hours a day to handle demand. On one smoker they would sell out around 2pm while now with two they are able to make it until about 6pm. The Southern Prides are rotisserie smokers that allows them to smoke using a variant of hickory wood (I forget exactly which). He then let us peek our heads next door into the butcher shop (which he also owns) and the walk-in freezer filled with the thousands of pounds of meat that they will finish smoking that day (they will be expanding the walk-in soon to handle capacity)

Speedy: I will say that Monk was wrong about one thing – we still left with a week’s worth of leftovers. In the case of The Smoke Pit, that turned out to be a good thing.

Speedy post script: I needed to add here that I had also had a co-worker sing the praises of the Smoke Pit. Since I threw him under the bus a bit in a review a few years ago, I needed to say D – you totally redeemed yourself! Looks like you’ve been in the South long enough that your ‘cue recommendations need to be taken seriously.

Ratings:
Atmosphere – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Ribs – 3.5 hogs
Sausage – 3 hogs
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 4 hogs
The Smoke Pit Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
The Smoke Pit

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The Smoke Pit – Concord, NC

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Name
: The Smoke Pit
Date: 11/12/15
Address: 796 Concord Pkwy N, Concord, NC 28027
Order: Pork and brisket bbq combo with bbq slaw, mac and cheese, cornbread, and Sun Drop (link)
Price: $15.95

By far, one of the most suggested spots in the Charlotte-area was The Smoke Pit in Concord. Naturally, I added it to the list and gave the website a cursory look, figuring that it was a local favorite that might have a loyal following but pumped out average barbecue. Well, after finally making it there I can legitimately say that its a top 5 Charlotte-area joint that I’d really like to revisit with Speedy so he can check out as well. It’s legitimately that good.

First off, the barbecue restaurant is attached to a butcher shop (The Stock Market – also owned by the same folks), so obviously that’s a great sign. It was also packed at lunchtime, with people (like myself) having to spill out onto the patio on a brisk but sunny day. Finally, the dining room itself smelled of smoke. All very encouraging signs but ultimately it comes down to the meat…which I can happily report was extremely solid.

Tempted to go with a 3 meat combo, I instead opted for just pork and brisket after seeing the large portions of the trays of seated customers. As for the trays themselves, The Smoke Pit goes for a Texas-style presentation of the meats and sides on top of brown butcher paper. The pork was piled in a healthy portion and was smokey, had a nice bark, and was fairly moist even without the dashes of a thin, vinegar barbecue on top (which I believe was a Lexington-style sauce, or at least Lexington-ish). The large, maybe ¾ inch slices of brisket had some of the same qualities of the pork – good smoke, nice peppery bark, and mostly moist – cut from the point. I was quite impressed and one would hope that the other meats would be just as good.

I was pleased to see that they offered a barbecue slaw in addition to a mayo-based slaw, though I prefer mine chopped instead of shredded – a minor nitpick. The mac and cheese was a little dried out and could have used some reheating before being served. Each platter comes with a choice of either Texas toast or cornbread, and the cornbread was decent and of the sweeter variety that I like. While they don’t have Cheerwine they do have Sun Drop at the fountain.

I didn’t get a chance to investigate what kind of smoker they use but whatever the case the end result is very good. Like I mentioned above, I want to go back with Speedy and try more meats – they also have wings, ribs, sausage, and chicken on the menu. At The Smoke Pit the restaurant is nice and clean, the meat is smoky, and the portions are huge (I got another full lunch out of my order). Finally, I’ve found some very good barbecue in Concord that matches up favorably to the best in Charlotte. Will revisit again very soon.

Monk

Ratings:
Atmosphere – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 3.5
Brisket – 3.5 hogs
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 3.5 hogs
The Smoke Pit Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Linkdown: 10/7/15

-Buxton Hall is now open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner

– Wilmington’s got a new eastern, whole hog barbecue food cart that hopes to turn into a brick and mortar place

– Queen City Q remains busy – in addition to their Matthews location opening up in the summer and announcing a partnership for the Hornets, they are eyeing a third location in Concord

– An article on food trucks in Gaston County features Ranucci’s Big Butt BBQ

– John Mueller’s barbecue pit was stolen

– In what I hope becomes a new trend, Melvin’s Barbecue in Charleston returns to all wood smoking

– The Simpsons did it: a barbecue episode (they apparently did their homework too)

Troutman’s Bar-B-Que – Concord, NC

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Name
: Troutman’s Bar-B-Que
Date: 3/7/15
Address362 Church Street North, Concord, NC 28025
Order: Chopped barbecue plate with slaw, fries, hush puppies, and Cherry Lemon Sun Drop (!!) (link to menu)
Price: $9

Barbecue smoked over wood or wood coals is usually a pretty reliable indicator of good barbecue, but it isn’t 100%. Troutman’s Bar-B-Que has been open since the early 70s at its downtown Concord location off Church Street. And they are still cooking over wood coals in the smokehouse located at the back of the parking lot. However, Troutman’s is a case where cooking barbecue the old way unfortunately doesn’t produce a great product.

When it comes to barbecue plates, you get a choice of chopped or sliced and naturally I went with chopped (some day I will try sliced barbecue, but that day was not that day). For a place that smokes over wood, you sure couldn’t taste any of it in the barbecue. There was not a lot of bark either, which almost seemed as if it was taken away by design. And to top it all off, it was also extremely dry. Very disappointing.

The chopped plate comes with fries, slaw (your choice of red or white), and hush puppies. Only the hush puppies are really worth talking about and they were actually damn good. The Monkette would definitely agree, as her lunch that day mostly consisted of them. Thankfully, my father-in-law ordered an additional basket so we each were still able to get our fill.

The other saving grace of the meal besides the hush puppies was the Cherry Lemon Sun Drop. You see Cheerwine and you see regular Sun Drop at barbecue joints in the Piedmont but you don’t see a lot of Cherry Lemon Sun Drop. Man, that stuff is just about perfect to have with barbecue.

The search for good barbecue in Concord continues…

Monk

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Pork – 2 hogs
Sides – 3.5 hogs
Overall – 2 hogs
Troutman's Hickory Smoked BBQ on Urbanspoon

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Linkdown: 5/13/14

– North Carolina is #2 on TripAdvisor’s “Top 10 States for BBQ.” Sure, I guess I can buy that. #1 on the list? Georgia…wait, what?

– Speaking of Georgia, here’s an interview with native son Myron Mixon from Conde Nast Traveler

– Statesville has a place that serves both eastern and western NC barbecue

– Another list of barbecue around the world, entitled “From the Philippines to Australia, a Gorgeous Look at BBQ Around the World”

– Eater’s guide to eating brisket in NYC, including Barbecue Bros fave Mighty Quinn’s

– Unfortunately, you need a subscription to read the whole article on barbecue styles in the Houston area, but there are these two fantastic sentences just before the paywall:

There are a lot of different styles in the United States, but the two barbecue heavyweights are North Carolina and Texas. Barbecue folks in Kansas City and Memphis are going to take umbrage at that statement, but that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

A recap of last week’s Getting Jiggy with the Piggy last weekend in Concord

– The Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, as well as the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship that takes place alongside it, will remain in Raleigh until at least 2018 

– Alton Brown’s favorite barbecue is…North Carolina barbecue (specifically eastern; question and answer is at 2:13 of the linked video). 

Tacos faced barbecue in this final round of Food Network’s “Regional Foods Face-Off” bracket. Spoiler alert: barbecue won.

Congratulations, barbecue! You are the pride of the South. If you think about it, what’s more American than barbecue? It was born and bred in the United States. And even though there are different types of barbecuing methods, preparations and sauces, which are very often hotly contested between states, at the end of the day it’s easy to bring together a crowd of family and friends when there’s a barbecue nearby. And with summer just around the corner, it’s time to pull out those grills and dust off those barbecue pits because grilling season is ahead!

– Not sure how long it’s been up, but the website for Ed Mitchell’s ‘Que is live and you can take a look at the menu here; full plates include both chopped and pulled eastern Carolina whole hog as well as chopped bbq turkey, brisket, ribs, fried chicken, and bbq half-chickens. The original opening was in April, but hopefully we’ll hear more details soon

R&R Bar-B-Que – Concord, NC

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Name: R&R Bar-B-Que
Date: 1/31/14
Address: 755 Pitts School Rd NW, Concord, NC 28027
Order: Engineer’s BBQ Plate with red slaw, onion rings, hush puppies, Cheerwine and a Peppermint Patty (link to menu)
Price: $11

Yet again, we have another barbecue restaurant cooking eastern-style barbecue in Lexington country (in addition to Bill Spoon’s and Bubba’s). This time it’s R&R Bar-B-Que, a railroad themed barbecue restaurant in Concord.

And boy, do they keep with the railroad theme. The wood paneled interior is filled with railroad memorabilia, photos, paintings, and even a couple of tracks with electric trains hooked to the ceiling (a la the old Ham’s in High Point). A little kitschy, but endearing enough.

On this particular Friday, I arrived smack in the middle of the lunch rush and the restaurant was packed to the gills. It took a little bit for the waitress to finally come and take my order (though she was very nice and apologized for the wait) and to me, it looked like they could have stood to have another waitress or two working during lunch.

It also took a little while to get the food once I placed my order, again likely due to the lunch rush. The plate finally arrived and though the pork was tender enough it lacked smoke and bark on the pork, likely due to the use of a gas or electric smoker. The hush puppies came in a coffee filter and were more savory than sweet, but were well cooked. Curiously, both white and red slaw are available on the menu, so of course I opted for the red slaw, which was finely chopped and surprisingly good for a so-called eastern-style restaurant. The onion rings were pretty standard.

R&R Bar-B-Que has a sign off I-85 which I must have passed hundreds of times and noticed but paid little attention to it. I can’t recommend visiting during lunch unless you don’t have to get to anything pressing, as the meal took about an hour total from seating to paying the check. The staff was friendly, the food was decent, but if you are passing by the Poplar Tent Rd exit on I-85 looking for true barbecue feel free to keep on driving.

-Monk

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 2.5 hogs
Sides – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 2.5 Hogs 

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R & R Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

RandR Bar-B-Que on Foodio54