Monk: Even before the effects of Covid-19 crippled the restaurant industry across the US, it was a pretty eventful first quarter in Charlotte barbecue with some good and some bad. Here’s a rundown of all the news and notable happenings from the first three months of the year.
1/3 Short-lived presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg stopped by Sweet Lew’s BBQ while campaigning in Charlotte
1/20 North State BBQ opened in a former Shane’s Rib Shack near Northlake Mall in north Charlotte
1/22 Jon G’s Barbecue officially announced they will be opening a brick and mortar location later this year
2/4 Peace N’ Hominy Q Shack in Belmont closes after 5+ years when the breast cancer of owner Christine Rienks returned after 12 years in remission
2/27 Jon G’s Barbecue officially announces the location of their forthcoming brick and mortar store in the old Barbee’s Barbecue in Peachland, 35 miles southeast of Charlotte
3/2 Dish, a Plaza-Midwood southern food diner purchased by Sweet Lew’s BBQ owner Lewis Donald in the fall of 2019, reopens with new sandwiches on the menu that includes turkey and pork belly smoked at the Belmont Beauty Myron Mixon smoker down the road at Sweet Lew’s
3/17 North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper declared that as of 5 p.m. March 17, restaurants must close the dining rooms, but will be able to offer takeout and delivery. All Charlotte restaurants (including barbecue) begin to either close or adjust to takeout or curbside pickup only, with no end in the foreseeable future…
Monk: I never got those “best of the year” lists that publish in early December, whether it’s barbecue, music, or film (yes, I understand deadlines but stay with me here). What, do they think they aren’t going to potentially eat a great barbecue meal (or discover a new album or film) sometime in the last three weeks of the year? Not me; I’m always going to give myself every opportunity to eat a meal which could possibly make the list. And then I’m going to post that list in January.
That being said, with no signs of the barbecue boom slowing down any time soon, some of the best meals I’ve had yet in the history of this blog happened in 2019. Here were the best of those, and here’s hoping 2020 is full of even more great barbecue.
Honorable Mentions: Brisket and pork from Farmhouse BBQ (review), Whole hog sandwich from Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint (review)
10 (tie). Chopped sandwich with hush puppies and Cheerwine from Mr. Barbecue (review)
Sadly, shortly after my visit in March Mr. Barbecue experienced a fire in their stick burning brick pits that has temporarily closed the restaurant but hopefully they will reopen soon and continue slinging their Lexington-style barbecue to the lucky citizens of Winston-Salem.
Hubba Hubba Smokehouse has been quietly churning out great barbecue from their massive brick pits in the mountains of NC since the early 2000s. They had been on my list for years and I finally got a chance to check them out this year and also spend a little time with pitmaster Spencer Purcell. They are closed for the winter but any serious barbecue fan should check them out once they reopen in the Spring.
9. Bryan Furman’s whole hog and brisket at Sweet Lew’s BBQ (post)
Revenge BBQ is one of two places on this list from an unexpected barbecue location, with Revenge being in the scenic Hudson Valley town of Irvington, about 45 minutes north of New York City. And as is the case with just about any restaurant in an unexpected location, they adhere to the Texas tradition pretty closely and with good results. The brisket shone that day and the Kreuz Market-imported sausages were properly smoked, proving that disciples of Texas barbecue are continuing to spread the message far and wide.
This meal from late December is exactly why I waited to publish my list until January. My previous stop at BBQ King was nearly 3 years before this visit but this simple tray of fresh barbecue on a Friday at 3pm on December 27 reminded me that I need to make it a point to stop by there more often. As should all barbecue fans in western NC.
6. Pork, ribs, and brisket from Apple City BBQ (review)
While Apple City BBQ had been on my radar for some time, my visit this year was completely unplanned and only happened as a result of several detours on the way from Charlotte to the Wilkesboro area for a weekend getaway with the oldest Monkette. As soon as I passed Apple City in Taylorsville right at dinner time on that Friday, I turned the car around and made the stop. Thankfully I did, as it was a fantastic meal of pork, ribs, and brisket. Plus, those deep fried corn nuggets were a unique and noteworthy side.
While the brisket, pulled pork, and ribs were on point each and every time I had Jon G’s Barbecue this year, the Cheerwine hot link represented a cool and exciting development for owners Garren and Kelly. From what I am hearing, 2020 is going to be a big year for them and I can’t wait for more folks in the Charlotte area to be able to try their barbecue. It is our #1 on the Charlotte Big Board, after all.
4. Brisket, pork belly, ribs, and pulled pork from Owlbear Barbecue (review)
I certainly didn’t expect one of the best barbecue meals I had in 2019 to be in Denver, CO. While in the past I would have considered Denver to be a bit of a barbecue wasteland (from a local circa 2013: “Head to Texas if you want good barbecue”), that appears to be changing as part of the nationwide barbecue boom. Owlbear Barbecue owner and pitmaster Karl Fallenius is originally from Texas and previously worked at Franklin Barbecue and has brought that approach to Denver. The brisket rivaled some of the best I’ve had in or out of Texas and the pork belly was the best meat on the platter that day and one of the best meats I tasted in 2019.
3. Whole hog barbecue sandwich and hash and rice from Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que (review)
The simplicity of the whole hog sandwich from Sweatman’s reminded me that, when done right, mustard-based barbecue isn’t some unholy union of sauce and pork. Plus, that hash and rice was life-changingly good.
2. The Miss Mary Platter (Lexington-style barbecue, brisket, turkey, ribs plus eastern and red slaw) and smoked wings from Noble Smoke (review)
In July, Noble Smoke gave Charlotte a true destination barbecue joint and based on several recent visits, locals and out-of-towners alike have shown up for it. I can only hope that with the recent additions of Noble Smoke and Sweet Lew’s BBQ, both in our top 3, Charlotte’s barbecue scene continues the momentum into 2020.
2019 certainly was the year of whole hog barbecue, and that looks to be continuing into 2020 (Particularly in Raleigh, who is getting no less than 4 whole hog joints – Sam Jones BBQ, Wyatt’s Barbecue, Ed Mitchell’s new place The Preserve, and Lawrence BBQ). 2019 was also the year that I finally achieved what I had been hoping to do for several years – smoke a whole hog on a cinder block pit in my backyard. Speedy made the trip into town and the two of us took shifts manning the pit overnight. I was extremely pleased with how (relatively) easy it was and how good the barbecue turned out. For my first whole hog, I couldn’t have been happier (or more tired).
So that’s it. What were some of your favorite barbecue meals this year?
Name: Jon G’s Barbecue (Speedy’s Take) Date: 9/26/19 Order: ½ lb brisket, ½ lb pork, 1 Cheerwine sausage link Pricing: $$
Speedy: For a couple years now, Monk has been raving about (and rubbing in) his times eating Jon G’s Barbecue. So when I was in Charlotte on an evening when Jon G was parked outside The Chamber by Wooden Robot in NoDa, I knew I had to go. Hat tip to Monk for the heads up.
Monk: While Jon G’s has been making inroads into Charlotte more and more, a mid-week pop-up was a rare occurrence. With Speedy in town for a wedding, luckily the timing worked out nicely.
Speedy: I arrived a little late to the party, and Monk had already left, but fortunately for me, he had let pitmaster Garren know I was coming. I learned very quickly the Garren is a smart man, as he offered me a bite of brisket before I ordered. Like I had done at La Barbecue and Franklin before that, I graciously accepted the bite and was immediately in heaven. It didn’t change my order, but it did let me know I was in for a treat. Knowing I had to try everything, I ordered a half pound of brisket, the same amount of pork, and 1 (the last!) Cheerwine hot link. Slap on a side of baked beans and we were ready to roll.
My name was called a few minutes later and it was go time. We have to start with the brisket. I later told Garren that I had previously refused to order brisket in the Carolinas, but John Lewis and Jim Noble changed that for me. And I think Jon G’s one upped both of them. The peppery moist goodness of the brisket (I ordered a mix of the fatty and lean) was top notch. This brisket was 99% as good as what I’d had at the top Texas joints, and on a good day could equal that. Garren had given me a sample of all of their sauces to try, but I didn’t dare use any on this brisket, because there was no improvement needed.
Monk: I haven’t been as fortunate as Speedy when it comes to trying brisket at the top places in Texas, so while I was high on Garren’s brisket I simply had no true baseline. I do know that Garren has traveled to Texas a lot for research, so its nice to get some agreement from Speedy here.
Speedy: The pork was next on the list, and, while it made me happy, it took a back seat to the brisket. I found it to have a nice smoky flavor, but I did need to add a bit of the vinegar sauce to get the full effect.
Monk: Pork can be a bit of an afterthought in Texas, but that’s certainly not the case here. I always get the pork and do agree that a bit of the vinegar sauce sets it off. Maybe we can get some big Texas Pete bottles in the future, Garren?!?
Speedy: Huge applause to Garren and team for making their own sausage – a Cheerwine hot link (which eventually ran out during service due to popularity). The link had great flavor and consistency and I definitely recommend it. It stayed together unlike some scratch made sausages I’ve had. My only complaint (with the whole meal) is that I’d like a little more snap when biting in, but it’s hard to find anything else that can be improved.
Monk: I was waiting to order until Speedy got there so when he was held up and then I had to leave before he got there, so sadly I still have not tasted the magical, mysterious Cheerwine hot link. Per Garren, it seems as if this sausage may lead to some partnering opportunities with Cheerwine in the future, so it sounds as if its here to stay. I can’t wait to eventually try it.
Speedy: With all that meat, I was only able to eat a couple bites of baked beans, which we good, but very sweet. I’m more a savory guy, so I found myself focusing my attention back to the brisket.
Monk has labelled Jon G’s Barbecue the best in Charlotte, and I’m here to confirm that he’s right. Everything about this platter was perfect, and I can’t wait to see Garren and team again.