Jim Noble will officially enter the barbecue restaurant world with the opening of Noble Smoke in the coming few weeks, but he is certainly no newcomer when it comes to barbecue, having grown up in High Point and spent his life going to Lexington Barbecue. Noble Smoke will be the culmination of a decades-long idea that’s been rumbling around in Jim’s head ever since he got started in the restaurant business. Jim may have started off in french cuisine and fine dining, but from spending some time with him getting a behind the scenes tour of the upcoming restaurant, it’s pretty evident that barbecue (and in particular, North Carolina barbecue) is a passion of his.
We’re still a few weeks ago from the opening, but its pretty clear to me that once opened, this will be a destination barbecue joint. The touches that you would expect from a Jim Noble restaurant are there – there will be a full service bar, the design is impeccable, and the dining experience will be well thought-out – but where it will really stand out is what’s housed in the custom built smokehouse out back.
That is where there are 6 custom-built reverse-flow offset smokers (each one named for Jim’s great aunts and uncles) as well as a brick pit that pays homage to Lexington Barbecue via a slightly tweaked design of their pits. This was probably the coolest part of the tour for Speedy and me, as longtime readers will know that Lexington Barbecue is our #1 all-time favorite restaurant (Rudy too). Jim is also a huge fan and has learned from the Monks, the family behind Lexington Barbecue, for years. With Noble Smoke, he will be very much looking to continue the Lexington-style barbecue tradition that began with Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood and their stalls across the street from the Lexington courthouse in 1919.
Besides the smoked meat, the other part of the experience that will help make Noble Smoke a destination barbecue spot will be Suffolk Punch Brewing, which shares the other side of the old bus depot that will house the restaurant. A beer garden and killer patio will make the strong case for customers to stick around well after their meals are done, and Suffolk Punch will be doing some lambic style brewing of sours onsite at this second location, which will surely help differentiate it in the Charlotte market.
Let’s not forget Bossy Beaulah’s, the chicken shack that will sit on the property down a small hill closer to Freedom Drive. Jim has named that after his Aunt Beaulah, whom he named a mobile smoker trailer after and whose fried chicken he grew up on. That will have a smaller menu but patrons in the beer garden will be able to order from it with the servers running up a small hill to bring them brined and buttermilk breaded fried chicken sandwiches.
Jim Noble is a North Carolina guy who is passionate about North Carolina barbecue and I am confident that he will raise the bar when it comes to barbecue in Charlotte. Midwood Smokehouse brought back wood smoked barbecue to Charlotte in 2012 and Sweet Lew’s BBQ has contributed greatly to the scene to it with its opening last December, but Charlotte has so much more room to grow when it comes to its barbecue scene. If Houston’s barbecue scene is blowing up, there’s no reason why Charlotte can’t do the same. I think it just takes more passionate folks like Jim. Noble Smoke will continue the upward trend of barbecue in Charlotte with its opening this summer and I predict will stake a worthy claim to be Charlotte’s flagship barbecue restaurant.
Beaufort vs Beaufort: in the battle of the two coastal Carolina towns, barbecue probably isn’t the main reason to go, but each has their own longstanding joints in Roland’s Barbecue and Duke’s Bar-B-Que
Monk: Buddy’s Bar-B-Que is an unheralded Monday-to-Friday, breakfast-and-lunch-only barbecue joint off Highway 74 in Belmont. I only stumbled upon it within the past year because my parents moved to Belmont, a small town 12 miles west of Charlotte across the Catawba River, about a year and a half ago. But based on its shack-like, no frills exterior, I had hopes that it could be a hidden gem.
Chances are, if you are going to Buddy’s you are going for takeout. They do have one small table inside but otherwise, the building is pretty much all order counter and kitchen. A small smokehouse sits out back, and promisingly has piles of wood littering the area around the building. Husband and wife co-owners Buddy and Debbie Cunningham also run a catering business when the restaurant isn’t open, and based on the army of mobile smokers in the parking lot, a seemingly successful one at that.
In terms of barbecue, Buddy’s only serves a couple items with the rest being burgers, dogs, breakfast as well as some regional specialties like chuckwagon or country ham. The large chopped pork sandwich comes with a choice of red or white slaw, which I always like to see, plus hush puppies. Buddy’s thankfully carries Cheerwine (as well as Sun Drop) so my decision was a pretty easy one to make. After a few minutes wait, I took my bag out to the parking lot and plopped it on my back trunk.
The sandwich was large and perhaps a bit too big as it fell apart under the weight of the red slaw and pork after a few bites. I ended up having to pick up the fallen chunks from the wrapper with my hands, but I shouldn’t complain too much about too much food. Still, what was left of the the intact sandwich was a pretty darn good one, with the wood smoke shining through in the pork. Next time, I’ll opt for the hopefully more manageable small sandwich and just get a second if I’m extra hungry.
I imagine the wait for my food was largely due to the freshly fried hush puppies, and that’s a wait I’ll gladly do again. They were still warm as I took them out of the bag, and there’s not too much better than a freshly fried, perfectly balanced hush puppy.
So after a little more than a year of trying to make it to Buddy’s Bar-B-Que, I ended up pretty satisfied with the meal I had. If you happen to find yourself in the small mill town of Belmont during the week for lunch, give them a try.
Monk: Every April, the streets in front of The Pit in Raleigh shut down for a block party featuring the always undefeated combination of barbecue, beer, and bluegrass music. This year, the festival took place on April 20th and offered smoking of the pig kind on a near picture-perfect day in downtown Raleigh.
I had previously attended one other Cuegrass back in 2014 on a similarly sunny and picturesque day (although my memory is that it was a little warmer that year). This year, friend of the blog Susong and I stopped by Lexington Barbecue for lunch on the way so weren’t particularly hungry for $6 barbecue sammies from The Pit. I did take note that they had gone up in price from $5 some time in the past 5 years and that they are still served in the same foil paper packaging that Chic-Fil-A uses.
While I was too full for barbecue I did, however, partake in some beer as well as the bluegrass music, catching Alan Barnosky solo on the Beer & Banjos Stage on the side street Commerce Place once I got settled before checking out local 4-piece bluegrass group Old Habits on the Main Stage. Old Habits were a fun band of 40-something year old (presumably) dads who did play some originals but also mixed in some crowd-pleasing covers such as “The Weight” by The Band.
Plenty of other folks made it out to watch Old Habits as well.
After catching the full set from Old Habits, Susong and I wrapped it up with a few minutes of Billie Feather back on the Beer & Banjos stage before catching a few minutes of the decidedly non-bluegrass Will Hoge before heading out.
Cuegrass is an extremely family friendly event, from the face painting and games on the side street to the low key environment of watching the bands on blankets and tailgate chairs at both stages. Several kids were dancing and enjoying the sounds of Old Habits, who noted that it was the first (and perhaps only) time that anyone had ever flossed to one of their songs (sadly, I did not capture this ). I can’t recommend the event enough and hope to be back much sooner than the 5 years it took me between my first and second visit.
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.”
Monk: I was recently fortunate enough to interview Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner of Midwood Smokehouse in person at their Park Road location. Part 1 posted last week, so here is the second and final part of the conversation. And stay tuned to the Barbecue Bros Instagram page for an upcoming giveaway next month for National Barbecue Month. (This interview was condensed and edited for clarity)
So I’ll switch gears a little bit…a few years ago, Sam Jones came out here for a dinner at Central Avenue and I was actually at that dinner, because I just wanted to try that whole hog. Were you able to spend some time and learn from him?
MB: We took some things from that that we tried to implement here. We tried to do the whole hog – half hogs – for a while but logistically with the pits we have and the situation we have and all of the different other proteins we offer it just wasn’t something we could consistently do at the same level that it deserved and so we scrapped it not quite a year ago.
What’s the status of that – is it a trailer now? Is it more for catering? The whole hog trailer right – the BQ Grill?
MB: Even before we had the BQ Grill we were trying to do it over at Central Avenue but you’re taking a half hog and you’re sacrificing 8 briskets to fit that half hog
And you’re fitting it in the Oyler?
MB: Yea and that was a little nerve-wracking logistically which wasn’t great and Central Avenue is a busy store and you’re losing 8 briskets for that whole hog which isn’t a fair trade off.
MW: And the thing with the BQ Grill, we had it at this restaurant and you know, having what really was intended to be outside inside with the smoke and then how do you get the fire and how do you maintain the fire and where do you do that and you’re supposed to use a burn barrel but we don’t have that so we’re taking coals from the pit and taking from the fire…We couldn’t make it work.
MB: All the smoke was going up the one hood to the yoga studio next door so we had that issue to deal with too. They were like “it smells like barbecue in here” and we did it for a while but we learned a lot from Sam Jones where we add hot sauce to the pork which is something he did. Before the Sam Jones dinner we actually pulled the pork and then we started chopping.
With the cleavers
MB: It’s a coarse chop. Eastern NC its almost like minced but it’s more of like a coarse chop [for us]. But it’s fun just hanging out with somebody – like his family’s been doing barbecue for almost a hundred years and that kind of lineage. But he’s just a normal guy like you and me.
I think Midwood deserves a lot of accolades for bringing wood smoking barbecue back to Charlotte. If it was here before it had gone the way of gas-assisted smokers. Maybe you can clear something up for me – Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ has a Myron Mixon smoker and he’s saying he’s got the only “all wood smoker” in Charlotte. Now I know you guys use Oylers…
MW: I know Lew and I go to his restaurant almost every week and what he said was he had the only all wood, no electric assist. And I can’t argue that. I don’t want to start talking about what he does over there because that’s not what it’s about. If the electricity goes out, what can I do? We are very serious about the all wood, no gas. To cook at the volume we do in the locations our restaurants are, it’s not feasible to have a pit different than we have.
I did a little research and it seems like it really reduces wood
usage. I don’t know if its more than that.
MB: It probably does because its controlling it more. Let’s say you’re manually controlling the fire and if the fire gets too hot you’re pulling wood out and you’re wasting it. Whereas here, it’ll cut the oxygen off so in that regard it probably does.
Regardless, you guys are both doing your thing and putting out
some really good barbecue.
MW: I honestly remember the moment that post came and I had this whole thing and I was like…he’s not wrong.
MB: Our electric assist is the thermostat and let’s be honest, it’s gone down before. And we’ve had to go back. I’ve spent the night at Central Ave.
In that case you are manually
doing it yourself, maintaining the fire and keeping he temps.
MW: And also, it’s not a no-brainer like even during the day you have to maintain it and maintain it the right way. If you’ve put the wrong amount of wood in it at the wrong time, you’re going to black out all your meat or the fire can go out. It’s not like a gas assist pit where you can let the fire go out…
It’s not a set-and-forget
MB: Definitely not.
MW: It’s definitely not
I do want to talk about the new Midwood Smokehouse rub which came out a couple of weeks ago.
MB: It came out some time in March.
kind of led to this, why are you coming out with a rub now?
MB: Well we’ve had the rub…we made the rub ourselves for the longest time and with the volume we’re doing we got RL Schreiber to make us big cubes of the rub. Save some labor, more consistent product. And I think it’s just brand recognition. Frank [Scibelli] and the team at the corporate office know what they’re doing, I haven’t seen them mess anything up yet. Just trying to get stuff out there…if you go to the grocery you see Mac’s [Speed Shop] has a rub and you see some other places that are probably inferior products in all honesty. I think we’re just trying to share…we had a lot of popular demand too at Christmastime but we’d just put it into a deli container. I think this is just something a little nicer, a novelty item.
So is it
truly just the rub you were using, it was being made by a manufacturer and you
saw the demand was there and it was an opportunity for brand recognition?
MB: Hell it’s worked out great for me. I bought a case of it and it’s got my face on it. I’ve got it to give to relatives for a Christmas present next year.
MW: And the cool thing is, it actually is the rub we use.
MB: It’s not like we altered the recipe or anything like that.
Is it an
all-purpose rub? It can go on anything? What do you use it most on at home?
MB: At home? I use it on burgers the most. I cook a lot of burgers at home.
Do you use
it a lot, Mike? What are you using it on?
MW: I would use it on beef and pork. I would use it on chicken with maybe a little more black pepper, just cause that’s the way I like it. I mean anybody that knows anything about dry rubs, if they make one its going to have all of this in it.
no proprietary secrets or anything?
MW: Anybody has all of these spices on their shelf.
any thoughts or plans to develop additional rubs?
MB: We do have a couple of the rubs back in the kitchen. We have a separate rub for ribs and then a poultry rub and then like a little chemistry we’ll mix and match some of the rubs together. You take some of the brisket rub and the rib rub and then that’s what goes on the burger.
to make them available? Will you just see if there’s demand for them?
MB: We’ll see if there’s any demand for them. Far and away, we use this rub the most in the restaurant. That’s what goes on the brisket and the pork. The volume we use on that is significantly higher than everything else. I know we are looking at sauces to get bottled up. That’s in the prelim[inary] phase right now.
I just had a couple of rapid fire questions to wrap it up. You guys have been
great with your time. So, favorite barbecue joint ever, anywhere?
MW: So here’s the thing we talk about “all time.” Your favorite barbecue joints are the ones that you remember. My favorite barbecue joint was whatever backyard it was happening in. For the first 2 decades of my life I can’t honestly say that I ever went to a barbecue “restaurant.” And if I did, it wasn’t memorable and until the Lockhart phase of my life I don’t recall eating barbecue at a restaurant that was as good as what we were doing at home.
MB: Growing up, Bill Spoon’s. That’s where I used to go with my dad when I was younger. The best barbecue I’ve had recently was this place called Green Street Meats in Chicago.
Chicago, I ate there a few years ago. It was good.
MB: I walk in, the first thing I saw was an Oyler – the same
sucker we have – and well that’s a good start. My wife and I ate there about a
always heard – and I repeat it – is that your favorite barbecue is what you
grew up on. It may not be the best ever, but it’s what you grew up on and you
have a fondness for it.
MB: I still go to Bill Spoon’s once in a while when I’m on South Boulevard. Now it’s definitely not as good as I remember but it’s still there and the nostalgia makes it taste better.
your favorite meat to smoke? In your backyard, what do you smoke?
MW: I do a lot of burgers like Matt, a lot of chicken.
do you do a lot of smoking outside of the job? If you have a day off, are you
going to smoke?
MW: I’ve got a Big Green Egg in the backyard. I have an offset
that I’m trying to get here from Texas. I do a lot of cooking on my Big Green
Egg. I do a lot of steaks, I’ve smoked some roasts. I haven’t done a brisket just
cause the amount it makes…
MB: …The amount of people to feed. I do a lot of beer can
chickens. I’ve got a sidecar smoker and a Big Green Egg. I do a lot of smoking
when I have yardwork to do. You can kind of check in on it and when you’re done
you have something delicious to eat.
question is eastern or Lexington style barbecue but having grown up here eating
Bill Spoon’s, which is eastern.
MB: I consider Midwood Smokehouse a mix of the two because you’re chopping it. We tried the whole hog thing for a little bit. Also, our vinegar sauce does have a little tomato in it.
had a chance to try both, Mike, since you’ve been in North Carolina?
MW: Not yet
What is the
best thing about Charlotte barbecue? The state of Charlotte barbecue?
MW: The fact that its still developing. Like, the two places we’ve talked about (offline) – Jon G’s and Sweet Lew’s – and others that are coming, can only make barbecue in general better and us the same.
MB: I don’t think there’s any constraints on barbecue in Charlotte whereas the eastern part of the state or like these places where the barbecue is very established and older and generational. Like this is what they do: “we’re going to have cornbread, pork, and slaw.” I think here you can do burnt ends, you can do pork belly, you can do other stuff.
I think if
you tried that out east depending on the location, you wouldn’t get any traction
if you tried to introduce burnt ends.
MB: Well if you want to have burnt ends, you have to have brisket.
To have brisket – some people in that area might not come to you because you
would be a weakness of Charlotte barbecue? Or an opportunity, if you want to
think of it that way.
MW: One big difference that I see with what is going on here
versus what is going on in Texas, which I think is also an opportunity for what
is going on here, is in Texas all of the guys that own competing restaurants
all are friends with each other. They have a barbecue brotherhood. They go to
each others’ restaurants, they get up with each other at events and stuff
around and they…its just different. Since its so new here, its like we work for
people who are driven to be the best period, full stop. It’s a bit more of a
competitive nature here. I feel like it doesn’t necessarily need to be that cutthroat.
At the end of the day, all that we want to do is cook great meat and I’m
excited to see more people come around and do the thing. To me, it reminds me a
lot of what was happening in Austin when John Lewis started at La Barbecue and Franklin
started with his trailer and then all of a sudden everyone was like “oh my God,
barbecue” and I feel like that’s what’s happening here.
Would you agree? What’s an opportunity or weakness of Charlotte barbecue?
MB: I wouldn’t call I a weakness but Charlotte is still trying to find an identity for barbecue and part of that leads to, I don’t think there’s as much cooperation or cohesion to the people that are doing barbecue. Like, I had to ask you who you had talked to before. I know Lew (Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ), but outside of that I don’t know many people. I always grew up and barbecue had a community feel and in Charlotte it’s a little more isolated if that’s the right word. I think there’s an opportunity for Charlotte to really forge an identity.
question – where do you want to see Charlotte barbecue in two years? We’ve
maybe touched on it with the last two questions but what would you like to see?
MB: I would like to see when people think of North Carolina barbecue,
Charlotte comes to mind. I would like for Charlotte to be the spot. Charlotte’s
more of a melting pot now and we have people from all different regions of the
country and I think we should be more regionally known and North Carolina’s got
good barbecue and Charlotte’s [could be] the center of all that.
MW: In Texas, everybody has known forever that Texas has good
barbecue joints and back in the day Lockhart was the place because it was home
to several. So you could go there and eat at three or four places but there
were hundreds of them. But you get a concentration and you’re like “Lockhart’s
the barbecue capital of Texas” and it has its own day. I think that’s kind of
what is happening here. Barbecue has always been in North Carolina but…
MB: …It’s been a very rural phenomenon. But it can be done in a very urban setting.
Again, thanks to Matthew and Mike for their time. And stay tuned to the Barbecue Bros Instagram page for an upcoming giveaway next month for National Barbecue Month.
Ice Cube said, “Today was a good day.” You upped the ante and said, “Every day is a good day.” Can you please expound on that philosophy? This is my personal belief to start off every day with a positive attitude. You made it through the day before, and now you have another chance to do great things. This applies to both my craft as a pitmaster and for my life as well. It helps me ignore any negativity and overcome the times when things get tough. I think to myself: “This isn’t a bad day. This is just a challenging part of a good day.” It also gives me the confidence to not take my time for granted and embrace learning new things.
Congrats to Midwood Smokehouse on their Charlotte Magazine BOB win