Eastern NC Whole Hog Tour: Skylight Inn – Ayden, NC

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). Each of the three of us were raised in High Point, NC, just under 20 miles up I-85 from the Barbecue Capital of NC.

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, the oldest Monkette’s gymnastics competition travels recently took the whole Monk family to Greenville, NC for USAG State Championships. We even stayed in an AirBnB in Ayden. Finally, I had a reason to be in Pitt County for a couple days. I hoped to make the most of being in the heart of whole hog country!

Last week in part I of my eastern NC whole hog tour I checked out out B’s Barbecue. This week, it’s a big one: Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden.

Skylight Inn – Ayden

Address: 4618 Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513
Order: Barbecue tray with cornbread and slaw (link to menu)
Pricing: $

Monk: After breakfast at B’s Barbecue, I went with the Monk family and in-laws to meet old family friends at Skylight Inn in Ayden. Truth be told, despite my excitement over finally trying B’s the main event of the weekend 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 every day, and here are hundreds of videos on YouTube documenting some of those journeys. When Daniel Vaughn was named Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly in 2013, one of the first work trips he made was to NC and to Skylight Inn specifically. I even briefly entertained the thought of making the journey east to Skylight Inn for my official 40th birthday celebration earlier this year. Its that revered.

Despite having had similar style pork at Sam Jones BBQ last year in Raleigh as well as whole hog smoked by Sam Jones at Midwood Smokehouse in 2013 and Free Range Brewing Pig Picking in 2017, something about the whole hog at Skylight Inn just tasted better. 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. 

I can appreciate what the Jones family does with their cornbread, but it will never be my favorite. I actually don’t mind the denser texture, but I always wish it was a tad bit sweeter. However, I will still get it anytime I’m in one of their restaurants. As per usual, the mayo-based slaw was standard and inoffensive.

Was Skylight Inn everything I expected coming in? The answer is a resounding yes. Would I go back again? Again, a resounding yes. My only regret here is that we lingered at Skylight Inn a little too long which prevented me getting to the other Ayden classic barbecue joint Bum’s Restaurant (owned by a cousin) before they closed at 2pm on Saturday. Otherwise, the meal and experience at Skylight Inn was pretty much flawless. I can’t wait to make it back.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 5 hogs
Pork – 5 hogs
Sides – 4 hogs
Overall – 5 hogs

Eastern NC Whole Hog Tour: B’s Barbecue – Greenville, NC

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). Each of the three of us were raised in High Point, NC, just under 20 miles up I-85 from the Barbecue Capital of NC.

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, the oldest Monkette’s gymnastics competition travels recently took the whole Monk family to Greenville, NC for USAG State Championships. We even stayed in an AirBnB in Ayden. Finally, I had a reason to be in Pitt County for a couple days. I hoped to make the most of being in the heart of whole hog country!

B’s Barbecue – Greenville

Address: 751 State Rd 1204, Greenville, NC 27858
Order: Barbecue diner with potatoes and slaw, dozen corn sticks
Pricing: $

Monk: My first stop of the weekend would be B’s Barbecue in western Greenville off State Road 43. If you are fortunate (or depending on your viewpoint, unfortunate enough) to have East Carolina University (ECU) fans in your life, you will have undoubtedly heard about the fabled B’s when it comes to comparing barbecue bonafides.

B’s is now owned by three sisters, the daughters of Bill “B” McLawhorn. They are Judy, Donna, and Tammy and their mother Peggy also worked with them before her retirement a few years back. Bill passed away in 2016 but had stepped away from the business in the early 2000s. Another thing they inherited from their father was B’s unique way of smoking their hogs; they smoke over only charcoal briquettes (bags of Kingsford, if I’m not mistaken). That’s right, no hardwood oak or hickory coals. That decision was apparently made after a few smokehouse fires a few years back. Based on my experience, I have a feeling the locals could care less. Neither could I.

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. Particularly if ECU has a home football game on a Saturday. But this is no central Texas-style line; it moves fairly quickly and efficiently. Arriving right at 9am on a Saturday, 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.

Being a chilly and overcast morning, instead of eating on the picnic tables outside I opted to sneak some bites in the car before making my way back to our AirBnb. The chopped whole hog pork was flavorful if not overly smoky. 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 was my favorite cornmeal of the weekend. I bought an extra dozen and took them home to the family. The slaw was about what I’d expect but I did enjoy the potatoes, a simple side that’s not really found in the Piedmont.

At the time of this excellent Our State article from 2016 by Jeremy Markovich, the three sisters were all in their 50s and only saw it continuing for maybe another 10 years. If that math holds, then we may only be talking about a few more years of B’s Barbecue. I fully intend to make it back at least once or twice more in case it comes to that.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 5 hogs
Pork – 5 hogs
Sides – 4.5 hogs
Overall – 5 hogs

Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall – Atlanta, GA

Name: Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall
Date: 4/14/22
Address: 684 John Wesley Dobbs Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312
Order: Pulled pork tray with ribs and chicken wings, BBQ chips, chilled street corn, “BBQ fries”, and fried okra (link to menu)
Pricing: $$$

Speedy: Our most loyal readers will recall that I spent a year living in Atlanta. While there, I graced Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall with my presence 5 or 6 times, but I never knew they had barbecue. In fact, I never ate anything there at all. So imagine my surprise when on a return trip, there was ‘cue on the menu. And I had the entire Monk clan in tow to boot!

Monk: I’m assuming there was a change in the menu since you left Atlanta to become our Senior Tennessee Correspondent because on the day we visited (in town for the wedding of friend of the blog and Yelper HOFer TDB) the smell of smoke was evident as soon as we got out of our car and also wafted throughout the gravel patio set up with biergarten-style tables and firepits. 

Food and drinks are ordered cafeteria-style in the mode of a Texas joint, and the line moves pretty quickly. Unfortunately, at dinner on a Thursday night they were out of brisket so we made do with the available meats that Speedy could tolerate.

Speedy: Easily the star of the show was the St. Louis style ribs. Meaty, tender, and well-seasoned, they had good flavor and texture, but lacked any extra “oomph” that I’m generally looking for that could come from an extra kick; the perfect application of smoke or a sweet glaze. So while perfectly enjoyable, and something I’d order again, I don’t think they will be winning any Memphis in May awards any time soon.

Monk: We always order pork when its available, but as soon as I brought the tray to the table I knew this pork wasn’t going to cut it for us North Carolinians. It came pre-sauced and if there was any smoke to be found, it was certainly masked by the thick, overly-sweet sauce.

Speedy: The wings, like the ribs, were solid if unspectacular. Smoked then fried, these wings were tender and had good flavor, but I didn’t feel compelled to write home about them. Called “Nashville Wings” on the menu, I didn’t taste traditional hot chicken seasoning (I have become an expert), so I’m not sure what that’s about. Still, worth ordering a round for sharing.

Monk: With our group we opted mostly for the “shareable” sides and on the whole they about as successful as the meats. Which is to say, a mixed bag. The pre-sauced pork made much more sense on the “BBQ fries,” the okra was fried nicely, the chilled street corn had good flavor, and the BBQ chips were inoffensive.

Speedy: The best part about Ladybird is definitely the huge outdoor space right on the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, which is perfect for people watching. In fact, Ladybird will show up on many “best of Atlanta” lists when discussing where to have a drink on a nice day. Unfortunately, it probably won’t repeat its spot on any best of barbecue lists. While the barbecue at Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall is good enough to get by, true ‘cue lovers are best served looking elsewhere.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4.5 hogs
Pork – 2 hogs
Ribs – 3 hogs
Chicken Wings – 3 hogs
Sides – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 2.5 hogs

Fresh Air Bar-B-Que – Athens, GA

Name: Fresh Air Bar-B-Que
Date: 3/5/22
Address: 1110 Hull Road, Athens, GA 30601
Order: Sandwich plate with Brunswick Stew and slaw, single rib (link to menu)
Pricing: $

Monk: Of all the regions of barbecue in the southeast, Georgia barbecue is probably the one I’m least familiar with. When I have visited the Peach State and tried barbecue restaurants (primarily in Atlanta), they are either heavily Texas-influenced (Fox Bros, DAS BBQ), a fusion-type place (Heirloom Market), or in the case of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque, Carolinas whole hog. But, as friend of the blog Grant has passionately defended multiple times on his excellent food blog Marie, Let’s Eat!, there is certainly a Georgia style of barbecue with many sub-regions of its own. On a recent Monk family trip to Athens for a gymnastics competition, I purposefully sought out a more traditional Georgia barbecue joint in Fresh Air Bar-B-Que.

The original Fresh Air Bar-B-Que is in Jackson, about an hour’s drive south of Atlanta, and first opened in 1929. It is (according to their website) “the oldest pit-cooked barbecue restaurant in Georgia still in its original location,” and since that original location was opened by Dr. Joel Watkins they have expanded to Macon as well as a couple of locations in the Athens area.

Fresh Air has a simple menu of chopped pork, ribs, and chicken that comes in sandwich, basket, or plate form. I went with a sandwich plate with stew and slaw.

Fresh Air’s chopped pork was on the leaner and drier side (as can be the case in this part of Georgia according to the article from Grant above), so I added some vinegar sauce, slaw, and hot sauce. The sandwich was good, if a bit average.

I bought a single rib bone to try it out and it was well cooked with a slightly sweet sauce. I would have gladly had a couple more.

What really set the meal apart was the Brunswick stew, which was in the upper echelon of stews I’ve tasted. I’m by no means a connoisseur of Brunswick stew, but Fresh Air’s was a thicker stew as opposed to a runnier soup. The greenish slaw was made of finely diced cabbage but I’d take a Lexington-style red slaw over it any day of the week.

Unfortunately, a lot of the classic barbecue joints in the Athens area have closed in the past few years: Bill’s Bar-B-Q in nearby Hull, Paul’s Bar-B-Q, and Hot Thomas Barbecue. Of the ones still open, I would have loved to have also checked out Butt Hutt or Zeb’s or Bar-B-Que Shack and tried this chicken mull dish I’ve yet to have. Even after a visit to Fresh Air Bar-B-Que, it’s pretty obvious to me that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Georgia barbecue. Next time.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Pork – 3.5 hogs
Sides – 4 hogs
Overall – 3.5 hogs