The Five Best Barbecue Joints in Charlotte – September 2019

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…

Honorable Mentions: The Smoke Pit, Buddy’s Bar-B-Que

5. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue (review)

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.

4. Midwood Smokehouse (review)

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.

3. Sweet Lew’s BBQ (review)

Sweet Lew’s BBQ was recently named to Thrillist’s 33 Top Barbecue Restaurants in the US and Garden & Gun’s Best New Southern Barbecue Joints, and it couldn’t be more deserved for Lewis Donald (the “Lew” in “Sweet Lew’s”) and partner Laura Grice. The menu has been described as “unfussy” and that’s precisely the right adjective for this barbecue shack located in an old service station in the working-class neighborhood of Belmont.

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.

2. Noble Smoke (review)

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.

1. Jon G’s Barbecue (review)

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 did). 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.

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Jon G’s Barbecue pitmaster Garren Kirkman on what’s next

If you’ve been following our current favorite barbecue purveyor in Charlotte, Jon G’s Barbecue, on Facebook or Instagram then you would have seen that the pitmaster behind it has made a big decision and will be devoting more time to his craft as of March 15th. I reached out to Garren Kirkman to get some more information and see what his plans are now.

First off, congrats! How excited are you?
I am stoked to see what the future has in store, but it’s bittersweet for this chapter of my life to (somewhat) close. It was my first job out of college, I bought my first house, I met my wife, my son was born and so many other milestones in life happened while I was employed at CMC… Carolinas Healthcare…ehrrr I mean what is now called Atrium Health-Union.

Can you help our readers understand what exactly the plan is as of 3/15, your last day full-time at Atrium Health in your current role?
The plan for now is to get more sleep! Until now I have worked 40 hours a week to come home Friday and stay up all night stoking a fire and seeing the whole process through until the service is over the next day. Make rub, trim brisket, season meat and so on and so forth, you name it, start to finish (meat wise) that’s me. 

Until now, we have done zero marketing besides a few Facebook promotions. Our biggest goal is to get our story out there, promote our brand and grow, grow, grow! 

Who was the 98-year old man that you quoted? Did he influence your barbecue dream  at all?
I can honestly say I don’t know who he is. I don’t know his name or his face, but I will never forget those words for as long as I live. In a roundabout way he most certainly spurred my dreams, even if the discussion wasn’t directly about barbecue. 

So why now?
Around 2010, hospitals were becoming a productivity driven environment and my 40 hour work week was being cut to around 20 hours some weeks due to the number of patients we were seeing. Sometimes I would unexpectedly have half of a normal paycheck. Even though I had half of a paycheck, the bills stayed the same. That being said, all those years ago when I was given the advice to not work for “The Man” it set into motion a vision that I had for my life. I didn’t know where it would lead me, but it led me to barbecue.

Jon G’s has grown beyond what we ever imagined it could with the time we allowed for it. We are booked solid every weekend until June and when we started turning down jobs that seemed to be my cue to take the opportunity that’s presenting itself.

Where do you want to take Jon G’s Barbecue in the next six months? One year? Five years?
Six months will look very similar to what we have been doing, a few pop ups and our scheduled catering gigs.

One year we hope to still be growing exponentially. We want to market ourselves and hope to get into some corporate catering during the week. Although we do believe in quality over quantity, we have a ton of room to spread the brisket gospel far and wide!

In 5 years we hope to still be in business…maybe in a brick and mortar?! We shall see!

What are your upcoming pop-ups or services? Where will folks be able to get their hands on your tasty brisket and barbecue?
You can find our schedule on our Instagram page @jongsbbq. We have plenty of dates between Monroe and Statesville, NC for people to come out and get some great food. Not to mention the breweries we are at have fantastic beer to compliment like Southern Range Brewing and Fourth Creek Brewing

Anything else?
I do want to say that when you come to one of our events it isn’t just me or my wife, Kelly that make it happen. We have amazing friends and family that allow us to create the Jon G’s experience.  We could NOT do it alone and I pray my son has a family business to step into one day. 

Thankful doesn’t seem like a big enough word to describe how we feel when people come give us a chance. Thank you all for helping our dreams become a reality! 

Thanks to Garren for his time. In the meantime, check out this mouthwatering video of his brisket in action.

Linkdown: 2/27/19

The Los Angeles Beer and World Barbecue festival did not go off without a hitch this past weekend

Matt Horn’s Horn Barbecue pop-up is featured in this guide to black-owned restaurants in the Bay area

If I were in Atlanta this coming Saturday, this is what I’d be doing:

AVL Today explores the three predominant sauces in the Carolinas – eastern NC vinegar, Lexington-style (tomato plus vinegar), and SC mustard

Photographer Ted Rutherford shares his ATX BBQ Guide ahead of this year’s SXSW

Killen’s Barbecue brisket pizza is available from Houston-area Papa John’s until the end of March

Located in Bastrop just outside of Austin, The Gas Station serves barbecue and has cabins for rent

Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue recounts a Brunswick stew festival from over 100 years ago

The “Story of Barbecue in North Carolina” travelling exhibit will be on display in Asheville through March 23

Big congrats to our friend Garren at Jon G’s Barbecue who is taking a big step in making his barbecue dreams come true!

Monk’s Top 10 Favorite Barbecue Meals of 2018

Monk: Last year I provided a ranking of my 10 favorite barbecue meals eaten in 2017 so trying to make it an annual thing by doing the same for 2018. Happy New Year!

10. Brisket, sausage, pork ribs and a taste of the beef rib from Louie Mueller Barbecue (review)

I was a little let down by the brisket at Louie Mueller’s (as was Rudy) but I’ll chalk that up to a bad day. However, the beef rib and sausage more than made up for it. Plus, the number of of legendary Texas joints I’ve visited is quite low so I was glad to visit one of the OG’s.

9. Barbecue tray from Smokey Joe’s (review)

8. Barbecue tray from Speedy Lohr’s (review)

I hope to one day make a comprehensive list of Lexington barbecue joints, but in early 2018 I was able to knock two off the list in Smokey Joe’s and Speedy Lohr’s, with neither tray disappointing.

7. Whole hog from NC State BBQ Camp (link)

At the NC State BBQ Camp, I was honored to be a guest panelist for a barbecue roundtable led by none other than Bob Garner. After that chat, the campers and panelists all partook in a whole hog pig pickin’ with some dang fine whole hog. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch who did the smoking but whoever you are, well done.

6. Chopped pork plate and brunswick stew from Stamey’s Barbecue (last review from 2013)

My takeout meal the day after Thanksgiving of pulled pork and brunswick stew only proves that I need to make it a point to get to Stamey’s more often.

5. Chopped pork and brisket from Sweet Lew’s BBQ (review)

There are certainly big things coming for Sweet Lew’s BBQ which only opened in early December. I look forward to many more meals here over the coming months and years.

4. Big Poppa Sampler (Full Rack Ribs, 12oz Pork, 12oz Brisket, ½ Chicken) and 6 Memphis dry rub wings from Martin’s BBQ Joint (review)

I couldn’t have been more impressed with everything on our visit to the downtown Nashville location of Martin’s in late summer – from the space itself to the open air beer garden to each and every delicious meat. Speedy is quite lucky to have Martin’s as his local joint.

3. Whole hog platter with barbecue hash from Buxton Hall Barbecue (review from 2016)

A visit to Buxton Hall once every two years simply isn’t gonna cut it for me. With the consistently amazing whole hog, the fantastic barbecue hash, and at least a couple other items I haven’t even tried such as fried catfish and smoked fried chicken, it should be at least a twice per year affair for me.

2. Brisket, sausage, and chopped pork from Lewis Barbecue (review from 2017)

As confirmed by the #hogtripping crew of the Tales from the Pits podcast as well as The Smoking Ho during their travels in late August, Lewis truly is legit Texas barbecue in the lowcountry. The Carolinas and in particular the lowcountry should count itself very lucky.

1. Brisket, chopped pork, Porky Brewster sandwich, and taco from Jon G’s Barbecue (review)

My only complaint with Jon G’s Barbecue is that lately they’ve focused more on catering gigs instead of public servings. In any case, Garren and Kelly continue to kill it.

Honorable Mentions: Q – Houston, TX (review), LeRoy & Lewis – Austin, TX (review)

Pitmasters of Charlotte: Garren Kirkman of Jon G’s Barbecue

While there is certainly good barbecue to be found in Charlotte, I wouldn’t quite say that it’s a barbecue city…yet. However, there are pitmasters out there doing great work, and I hope to spotlight that a little more in this series of posts called “Pitmasters of Charlotte.”

First up is Garren Kirkman, who along with his wife Kelly own and run Jon G’s Barbecue out of Marshville/Monroe. You may recognize Jon G’s as the current #1 on our Charlotte Big Board, so Garren was a natural first choice to feature.

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How long have you lived in Charlotte (or the surrounding area) and how did you get here?
I was born and raised in Statesville, NC and moved to Union County in 2007 for work. I’m a nuclear medicine supervisor by trade.

How did you become a pitmaster?
First off, I call myself a firekeeper. If you are reading this and think I’m a pitmaster, thanks!

I went to Walmart, found a choice whole packer brisket on clearance, went home and smoked it on an offset Char-Griller bellowing gray smoke for 16 hours and produced a meteorite. Needless to say…I had some work to do (although everyone ate it happily that day). Brisket was surprisingly the first thing I ever smoked and not a Boston butt.

What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer?
Brisket and beef ribs are definitely top two, brisket being more of a challenge. My favorite thing to smoke would be beef ribs (dinosaur rib), but we typically save those for catering events due to regional unpopularity.

Mixture of well seasoned white oak and pecan are my choices for wood, but occasionally some red oak will slip in as well. We won’t turn red oak down as long as it’s seasoned. It is all about a consistent, clean burning fire.

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What are your barbecue influences?
If you’ve ever had our food it’s obviously influenced by Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin,TX. But aside from Texas influences, I admire Skylight Inn and Sam Jones in Ayden, NC. While I’m not smoking exactly like them, the history and their dedication to quality and product speaks for itself. I am not a trained “chef” so there is definitely some “Grandmas Sunday lunch” influence on our side dishes. On a side note, we do have a couple events planned this fall featuring a whole hog.

What is your favorite barbecue joint or style?
I’m not into chain restaurant barbecue. I like to go places where I can see the hard work that’s being poured into the food. I like to think we accomplish this even though we are a food truck (for now).

IMG_2509 (2)What is your earliest memory of barbecue?
Growing up in a small town in NC, fire department BBQ was a go-to and is honestly my first memory of BBQ. I’ll just say, it was for a good cause!

What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue?
If I’m being completely honest, barbecue is not our first choice of a meal when we are home. We save it up for places like Buxton Hall in Asheville, Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, or when traveling to Texas, more up and coming places like Truth Barbecue. Of course we have made the rounds at Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, etc.

What is a weakness or opportunity of Charlotte barbecue?
I’d love to see more pitmaster-based barbecue joints. A face behind the food, if you will. And less gas.

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Thanks to Garren for being our first guinea pig for this series. For more about Jon G’s BBQ, check out their Instagram or Facebook page. If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!

Jon G’s Barbecue (RE-REVIEW)

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Name
: Jon G’s Barbecue (food truck)
Date: 4/27/18
Order: Two meat combo (brisket and pork) with corn pudding, mac and cheese, and Sun Drop
Price: $19

Monk: It was a little over a year ago when I first checked out Jon G’s Barbecue and they shook up our Charlotte Big Board by taking over the #1 spot. A little over 14 months later, I checked them out again wondering if consistency would be maintained.

Since my first time in early 2017, Garren and his wife Kelly have since acquired a food truck and after a brief (but worthy) hiatus to have their first child they have been making the rounds outside of their monthly(ish) pop up at Southern Range Brewing at food truck roundups such as the bi-weekly Food Truck Friday in Matthews.

I’m happy to report that Jon G’s brisket continues to be on point. The mix of lean and fatty again produced some of the best bites of brisket I’ve had in NC, approaching John Lewis’s in Charleston for best that I’ve tasted in the Carolinas as a whole (I do need to get to Columbia to check out City Limits Barbeque for sure though).

Not to be outshone too much, the coarsely pulled pork with a dash or two of vinegar sauce was quite tasty. From what I can tell, I’m seeing few growing pains in the switch to the food truck in terms of quality of food.

Jon G’s has tried a few things with sides since my last visit and the delicious corn pudding was a new menu item inspired by a similar side at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston. I didn’t try the mac and cheese last time but it was also quite good. Finally, having Sun Drop as a drink option was a nice touch, but perhaps I could humbly suggest adding Cheerwine in the future.

So not only was consistency maintained between my two visits but Jon G’s Barbecue may have possibly even gotten better. Garren and Kelly continue to knock it out of the park, and for my money there is no doubt that they remain the best barbecue in Charlotte

Ratings:
Atmosphere – N/A
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Sides – 4 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs