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?

Porkey’s Bar-B-Que – Mount Airy, NC

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Name
: Porkey’s Bar-B-Que
Date: 12/5/14
Address: 805 W Lebanon St, Mt Airy, NC 27030
Order: Pork barbecue tray
Price: ~$7

Have I ever told you, dear readers, how great Mrs. Monk is? Bear with me a minute, but of all of the restaurants I visit for this blog I drag her to close to 75% of them. And while I think she likes barbecue well enough, I do think she’d prefer to mix in a Mexican or southern restaurant a little more often. But of course, I always try to find a new barbecue restaurant when we travel and she usually obliges my obsession, whether she’s in the mood for barbecue or not.

I mention this because for a short weekend trip to visit Yadkin Valley wineries to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I brought up the possibility of stopping by a wood smoked barbecue joint I had spotted on my NC BBQ Map. And while I don’t think she was exactly thrilled about it, she once again humored her barbecue-obsessed husband.

As we pulled into Porkey’s BBQ on a Friday evening, we first wondered if it was open since there didn’t seem to be much activity in the restaurant or parking lot. This, after passing several other joints that were packed, didn’t leave Mrs. Monk exactly thrilled with our dinner restaurant choice. But with a little convincing we went inside and ordered.

Inside, a bright and colorful diner interior looked as if it hadn’t changed in maybe 40 years (or however long this building had been standing) – my guess is that it probably hadn’t. The menu boards were the old black ones with the white letters and I’m sure there is a bucket of extras somewhere in the back. We’ve been to some posh or yuppie-fied barbecue restaurants in our travels, but this definitely wasn’t one of those.

The main attraction in choosing Porkey’s was the fact they smoke over wood, and that came through in the barbecue. It had the right consistency and was moist and smoky. Being a Lexington-style joint, there was also a nice amount of bark in the pork. The two table sauces were of the thicker variety, and after trying both I’d suggest not using them. Use the table side Texas Pete’s instead.

Porkey’s had some of the smallest hush puppies I’ve seen, but the size didn’t mean they lacked flavor – quite the opposite in fact. They had both a red and white slaw available, and the tangy, crunchy red slaw on my sandwich was a perfect compliment. The fries were fresh out of the fryer and were fine, but unfortunately the mac and cheese was pretty disappointing. Mrs. Monk guessed it was probably velveeta poured on top of the noodles, and she likely wasn’t far off.

Porkey’s BBQ is the only wood smoked joint in the Mount Airy area, and based on this meal I can recommend it if you are visiting wineries in the area (which we enjoyed greatly the following day despite some less than ideal weather). A big thanks to Mrs. Monk for putting up with me and my silly barbecue obsession, and here’s to many more anniversaries and barbecue joints with her…though with maybe with a couple Mexican restaurants thrown in there too.

Monk

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Sides – 3.5 hogs
Overall – 4 Hogs
Porkey's Bar B-Que on Urbanspoon

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