Eastern NC Whole Hog Tour, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Dichotomy of NC Barbecue

A version of this article was recently featured in The Smoke Sheet.

Monk: As the old saying goes, more often than not a person’s favorite barbecue is what he or she was raised on. Here at Barbecue Bros, it should be no secret that we are Lexington-style barbecue fans (sometimes known as Piedmont- or Western-style barbecue) through and through. Which shouldn’t be surprising since each of the three of us were raised in High Point, NC, just under 20 miles up I-85 from the (often disputed) Barbecue Capital of NC in Lexington.

However, despite the two warring styles of barbecue in the state, I have never harbored any ill-will to my whole hog compatriots to the east. While I’ve spent many a tank of gas exploring all the Lexington-style joints in the western Piedmont of NC, I’ve bemoaned for years the fact that I just simply haven’t had a ton of reasons to spend much time in the eastern part of the state where whole hog and a vinegar pepper sauce reign supreme. 

Thankfully, earlier this year I did finally have a reason to be in Pitt County – home to Greenville, Winterville, and Ayden – in eastern North Carolina for a couple days. While my free time was somewhat limited due to the eldest Monkettes gymnastics exploits, I hoped to make the most of being in the heart of whole hog country!

B’s Barbecue – Greenville

Open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 until sold out (or 2:30, whichever comes first) and without any indoor dining, you will almost certainly wait in a line at B’s Barbecue. Particularly if East Carolina University (ECU) has a home football game. But this is no central Texas-style line; it moves fairly quickly and efficiently. Arriving right at 9am, I was 11th or so in line and got my food within 40 minutes. Part of that is because B’s has a pretty limited menu: barbecue, chicken, bread (corn sticks) and sides of slaw, potatoes, or green beans. So really, you should know your order by the time you get up there.

The chopped whole hog pork was really flavorful if not overly smoky due to primarily being cooked over charcoal briquettes. It was also leaner than the other whole hog I’d have later that weekend. Regardless, this barbecue fully lived up to my lofty expectations.

The cornsticks at B’s (called “bread” on the menu board) were the first corn sticks I’ve personally had and were my favorite cornmeal of my trip. They were so good that I bought an extra dozen and took them home to the family. The eastern-style slaw was about what I’d expect but I did enjoy the potatoes, a simple side that’s not really found in the Piedmont.

The three sisters at B’s have made it clear that they won’t be running it forever, so be sure to get there sooner rather than later for some otherworldly whole hog.

Sam Jones BBQ – Winterville

In Pitt County, there seem to only be a couple of barbecue options on Sundays. B’s Barbecue, Skylight Inn, and Bum’s Restaurant are all closed to give those family-run operations a day of rest (though of course the prep for the next week surely begins). Parker’s Barbecue has a few Greenville-area locations and is open 10-8:30 seven days a week, but is a gas-cooked barbecue that may actually be better known for its fried chicken. For true ‘cue, wood-smoked barbecue, your main option on Sundays is Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, between Ayden and Greenville. 

Compared with the barbecue at Skylight Inn, although Sam Jones BBQ’s whole hog was very good it somewhat paled in comparison. The chop was coarser than I prefer, the cracklins mixed into the barbecue weren’t quite as crisp, and the barbecue portion was a little lacking. Still, it was very good barbecue and better than 90% of other barbecue joints in the state..

I also finally tried the pit chicken that seems to be the second barbecue item at each restaurant in Pitt County, and while it didn’t blow me away the leaner poultry was a nice change of pace.

While there are clearly a couple of better options for barbecue nearby (which in this case means truly  transcendent barbecue), I would happily eat at a Sam Jones BBQ were it in my hometown. Speaking of which: any plans to open a store in Charlotte, Sam?

Skylight Inn – Ayden

Finally, the real barbecue reason to make the trip to Pitt County. Truth be told, despite my excitement over finally trying B’s Barbecue the main event of the trip was finally making it to Skylight Inn. This Jones family restaurant has been open since 1947 and is truly one of the cathedrals of NC barbecue, regardless of style.

Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Skylight Inn every day, and something about the whole hog eaten within the walls of Skylight Inn just tasted better than the Sam Jones barbecue I’ve been fortunate to have tasted at events in Charlotte or at his two restaurants. Perhaps it was the thrill of finally being in this hallowed building with the sounds of hog being chopped on a wood block right behind the registers, but the cracklins seemed crispier and the pork seemed fresher. It was truly life-changing whole hog. Not too much more that I can say.

Conclusion

Did I come away from my whole hog experience in Eastern NC forsaking my beloved Lexington-style barbecue in favor of the original style of barbecue in the United States? No, of course not. But while I did already have an awareness and respect for the other style of the Old North State’s barbecue, I came away from this trip with a whole new appreciation and a newfound mission to get back as soon as reasonable to try the other legendary whole hog places I have yet to make it to.

What other places should I visit next time I’m in eastern North Carolina? Leave a comment below.

Big Dan’s BBQ – Elizabethton, TN

Name: Big Dan’s BBQ
Date: 8/20/22
Address: 633 E Elk Ave, Elizabethton, TN 37643
Order: Barbecue sandwich with collard greens (link to menu)
Pricing: $

Monk: In the past year, one of my brothers as well as my parents have moved to the Tri-Cities area of northeast Tennessee. For decent barbecue in the Volunteer State, I’ve always assumed I had to go at least as far west as Knoxville but probably more towards Nashville. For a quick visit to see my family, would Big Dan’s BBQ in the quaint downtown of Elizabethton hit the spot? It did win the Reader’s Choice for Best Barbecue in Carter County in recent years, after all.

Short answer: only kind of. Big Dan’s at least tries, using a Southern Pride behind the building under a shed with a woodpile stacked against it (reminiscent of Archers in Knoxville).

In terms of the barbecue, that Southern Pride put out cue with decent smoke but was a bit on the greasy side. The bun did not survive more than a few pickups before I started picking at it with a fork.

The collards were well balanced and more successful than the pork sandwich for sure.

Big Dan’s BBQ is located next to Riverside Taphouse, the only beer bar in downtown Elizabethton and is not far from the Doe River and the historic Elizabethton Covered Bridge. Transcendent barbecue this is not, but for a snack while having a beer while sitting on a patio in a pretty part of the country, you could do worse.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 2 hogs
Pork – 2.5 hogs
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 2.5 Hogs

Friday Find: The News & Observer’s Favorite NC Barbecue Joints

Monk: The News & Observer presents a video slide show of some great photos of their favorite barbecue joints across the state, from classic whole hog joints to new school places that feature brisket and a Texas influence. Restaurants included:

  • B’s Barbecue in Greenville
  • Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley
  • Jon G’s Barbecue in Peachland
  • Lawrence Barbecue in Durham
  • Longleaf Swine in Raleigh
  • Picnic in Durham
  • Prime Barbecue in Knightdale
  • Redneck BBQ Lab in Benson

Description: Barbecue is the hottest trend in food right now. And in tradition-rich North Carolina, a new generation of pitmasters is making new traditions of their own. Here are a few of our favorites. Video by Kevin Keister / The News & Observer.

Archers BBQ – Knoxville, TN

Name: Archers BBQ
Date: 6/12/22
Address: 5200 Rutledge Pike, Knoxville, TN 37924
Order: 2 meat sampler with pork and ribs, hush puppies, and slaw (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

Monk: On the long drive back from Crossville, TN (about an hour west of Knoxville and home to one of the latest Buc-ees) earlier this summer, I made a pit stop at Archers BBQ in east Knoxville. Archers BBQ is the vision of Archer Bagley, a Memphis native who was an early investor in Fox Bros BBQ in Atlanta. According to the website, he struck out on his own and headed north to Knoxville where he has since opened 5 locations of the restaurant.

Archers (or at least this location) smokes their cue in a Southern Pride assisted by wood as evidenced by the nice-sized woodpile next to their cooking shed. On this summer Sunday, there was light traffic into and out of the store in a former gas station.

I went with a 2 meat sampler of 5 oz of pork and 3 bones and found both to be slightly above average. Light smoke but perhaps not the freshest barbecue on this day. Even with its Memphis heritage, Archers favors an international house of barbecue approach with all the meats and then all the sauces on the side. Average also summed up my sides of hush puppies and slaw.

So, not a full throated recommendation of Archers BBQ but I’d be curious if I’d have different results on a Friday or Saturday. Maybe I’ll try again next summer.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Pork – 3 hogs
Ribs – 3 hogs
Sides – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 3 Hogs