Legitimate Eastern North Carolina Barbecue in Portland? Maine?

Name: Wilson County Barbecue
Date: 6/3/23
Address: 82 Hanover St Suite 8, Portland, ME 04101
Order: Two barbecue plates, one full rack of ribs plate, order of wings, pork belly burnt ends with collards, beans, mac and cheese, slaw, hush puppies, order of biscuits, fries (link)
Pricing: $$

Rudy: It’s been a while since all three Barbecue Bros had been together and been able to do a review together. But more importantly, it had been so long since I have had decent barbecue. Since moving to western Michigan, the opportunities are limited to say the least. So of course the place that we needed to go to try true authentic North Carolina barbecue was…Maine?

Monk: Despite its Maine locale, Wilson County Barbecue does have some barbecue bonafides. It’s been loved by both John Shelton Reed and friend of the blog John Tanner and has been certified as a True Cue joint meaning it smokes over wood with no gas or electric assistance, as evidenced by the sticker in the front door. Owner/operator Spencer Brantley’s family originally hails from Wilson County, NC (hence the name) and they’ve even got a “Grady’s passed-down sauce” dressing their whole hog barbecue (from the legendary Grady’s Barbecue joint in Dudley). 

And did I mention that they smoke whole hogs over direct heat in a pig cooker from BQ Grills from Elm City, NC? Throw in the “Hot Biscuits Now” fluorescent sign apparently created by the same guy who does the Krispy Kreme “Hot N Now” signs for good measure, and these North Carolina boys definitely had to check this place out during our most recent annual trip for sure.

Speedy: At Wilson County Barbecue, you order at the counter and are given a number which is called when the food is ready. Our large group was fairly unorganized, so approached the counter without knowing our order – apparently a big no-no. We were asked to go sit at a table and figure out our order and come back despite being the only customers who had yet to order. The staff was polite, but it felt a little like a Seinfeld episode (no whole hog for you!). Anyway, after organizing ourselves, we put in an order to include whole hog, ribs, pork belly burnt ends, and sides, along with some wings. We walked to the counter to grab our food and were ready to dig in. 

Rudy: The whole hog was the best option of all the foods we had, in my opinion. Again, because it had been some time since I had enjoyed good pulled pork, I had to confirm with others that I wasn’t hyping it up more than it deserved. The thing that I loved about it was that it was true eastern North Carolina whole hog. It had the vinegar sauce mixed in, which gave it a great tangy flavor that didn’t overwhelm the meat, and allowed the smoke flavor to come through. After everyone took a sampling, I made sure I finished off the leftovers.

Monk: As Rudy and Speedy are well aware, the camera eats first and while I was taking snaps of the food I thought to myself just how unphotogenic pork can be. Luckily, looks don’t really matter all that much when the whole hog is as authentically eastern NC as it is here.

Speedy: Agree with everything said above. The whole hog was the star of the show. The ribs had good flavor but were a bit over cooked, as the meat slid totally off the bone and was a little mushy for me. Several in our party (aka those WITHOUT barbecue blogs) love the “fall off the bone ribs” so everyone’s mileage may vary. Still, seasoning and sauce was on point, so props to Wilson County on the flavor.

Rudy: I liked the flavor of the ribs and agreed with the overcooked part, but my other complaint was the amount of sauce on them. I think it is a personal preference, so I wouldn’t dock them too many points, but sometimes I feel like the sauce is overcompensating a bit for the cook. The part of the meal that I liked the most (other than the pork) was the pork belly burnt ends. Great flavor and very tender, the fat was rendered perfectly. There weren’t many to go around to our big group, so the one that I got, I really enjoyed.

Speedy: The pork belly burnt ends were very good. Saucy, tender, and with just the right amount of bark. Besides the whole hog, this was probably my favorite part of the meal.

Monk: Carbs-wise, the hush puppies and biscuits were a highlight, both fresh and on point from a texture perspective. I found the beans, mac and cheese, and slaw to be standard and the collards in need of a little more vinegar. Nothing egregious, but the bread options were my favorite part of the meal. 

Rudy: I know that several people in our group didn’t care for the sides and thought they were bland, but the bite of greens that I had were good. Maybe they weren’t consistent for people that had more than the one bite that I had, but I didn’t mind it. If a barbecue restaurant is going to be lacking in anything, I am ok with them lacking on sides as opposed to meat.

Before we left, Monk introduced himself to the manager. It was more of a “nice to meet you” instead of a “do you know who I am?” but either way, he offered to let our group try a couple of the desserts for free.  Even though we were given them for free, I will not let that impact my review. I cannot be bribed with free food (although I welcome any restaurant to try)! We had both the key lime pie and the banana pudding. The key lime pie was really good and had a great graham cracker crust. I was looking forward to the banana pudding most and was slightly disappointed. The flavor was great but the pudding had not fully set and was soupy.  I think it could have been as good as the key lime pie, if not better, but the pudding was too runny for me.

Monk: Shout out to Dickie for the desserts and to reiterate, while they were good and we appreciated the gesture they did not affect our review or ratings. 

It’s always a big occasion when all three Barbecue Bros founding members are in the same place for a barbecue review. Thankfully, in Portland, Maine of all places, Wilson County Barbecue’s whole hog lived up to the hype. That barbecue would comfortably sit in the upper tiers of any eastern NC whole hog rankings and I’m glad we were able to visit shortly after the 11th anniversary of this blog.

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3.5 hogs
Pork (whole hog) – 4.5 hogs
Ribs – 3 hogs
Pork Belly Burnt Ends – 4 hogs
Wings – 3 hogs
Sides – 3.5 hogs
Overall – 4 hogs

Noble Smoke – Charlotte, NC (Rudy’s take)

Name: Noble Smoke
Date: 2/12/22
Address: 2216 Freedom Dr, Charlotte, NC 28208
Order: Little bit of everything (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

Rudy: It’s not every day that some of the Barbecue Bros are able to get together and eat barbecue.  Nowadays there has to be a big event to cause it and a couple weeks ago we had a big event! Monk was turning 40 and becoming a man, which gave us a great excuse to get together and celebrate that momentous occasion with some great food.  I had heard lots of great reviews of Noble Smoke and was looking forward to trying it out. So upon landing in Charlotte, I headed straight for the restaurant to meet up with Monk and others. In full disclosure, I worked at Jimmy Noble’s restaurant in High Point back in high school, but they didn’t give me an employee discount this day. 

Reading the website before I came, it said to make sure you arrive early because they can have long lines, so I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as space. We sat outside, which was a fantastic set up after flying in from snowy Michigan. I am not sure if they have expanded since putting that on their site, but it looked like there was plenty of seating inside and outside and plenty of parking.  I was really impressed with their setup.

Monk: I was honored that Rudy made the trip, though it made a lot more sense when he said it hadn’t been above freezing in Michigan in about a month. Regardless, we were treated to clear sunny skies and a high of 69 the day of my 40th birthday party, so it was a nice and perfect day to eat on Noble Smoke’s huge patio. 

Rudy: We had a large group so we ordered a little bit of everything from the menu. My main dish was a chopped pork sandwich with western slaw. I added their Lexington style sauce to get a traditional sandwich feel. I really liked the fresh bun and slaw but thought the best part was the barbecue (as it should be). Very traditional barbecue with great flavor and plenty of moisture.  It was exactly what I was expecting and hoping for.  

Monk: Unfortunately, we ran out of time for me to show Rudy the Lexington-style brick pits in the smokehouse where they smoke the pork shoulders in but I’m glad the sammie hit the spot. 

Rudy: The brisket was next and it was a good effort for brisket outside of Texas but wasn’t what I was used to after living in Austin for so many years. I like having more flavor on the bark and would have preferred for it to be trimmed a bit more than it was to remove some of the excess fat that did not render all the way down. Similar review for the sausage, good effort but didn’t get all the way there for me. Again, I would have preferred a bit more flavor, but I was also glad that I tried it and it was better than average.

For me, the best part by far was the sides. Normally when you say that about a barbecue place, it is usually a slight to the meat but that is not the case here; the sides are just that good! We had hushpuppies, mac and cheese, collards, pickled veggies, and brussel sprouts. Any one of them would have been a great side that would have stood on their own, but by far the brussel sprouts were the best. Not only were they cooked perfectly, they also came with a great dipping sauce, and there were a ton of them in an order. Great value and great food.

Monk: We may have gone a little overboard on the sides but I agree that Noble Smoke executes all of them at an extremely high level. Next time I’d recommend Rudy try the creamed corn but honestly I’m just happy that I got to share a barbecue meal with Rudy for the first time in a couple of years. And also that it was significantly better than the last two times we had barbecue in Ohio in 2020 at Ray Ray’s Hog Pit and Rudy’s Smokehouse.

Rudy: Overall I was very pleased with my experience at Noble Smoke. I don’t have the depth of experiences with Charlotte barbecue that Monk does, so I don’t know how it compares or ranks with other places around the city. But I thought the atmosphere was great, the food was great, and most importantly, the friends were great!

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 5 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Brisket – 3.5 hogs
Sausage – 3 hogs
Sides – 5 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs

Rudy’s Smokehouse – Springfield, OH

Name: Rudy’s Smokehouse
Date: 10/3/20
Address: 2222 S Limestone St, Springfield, OH 45505
Order: Monk: 3-meat combo with pork, ribs, and brisket; hush puppies, mac and cheese, and fries; Speedy: 3-meat combo with pork, ribs, and brisket; hush puppies, collards, and fries; Rudy: 2-meat combo with brisket and pork (link to menu)
Pricing: $

Speedy: After our terrible experience at Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, all it took was a billboard advertising “award-winning BBQ” for us to give Ohio one more chance. So in the town of Springfield, we found Rudy’s Smokehouse (unrelated to the Texas Rudy’s). Rudy’s looks very much like a small town restaurant – think a Shoney’s or Cracker Barrel (minus the country store), which did not leave me with high hopes. Still, we marched up to the counter to place our order.

Monk: What Speedy has yet to mention is the reason we were in the Springfield area: I dragged the other bros (plus friend of the blog Boomsauce) an hour west of Columbus in the middle of western Ohio to hike and check out the town of Yellow Springs. I was actually very much against going to Rudy’s and wanted to check out Yellow Springs although I didn’t voice my opinion in time so before I knew it we were headed to Rudy’s. 

Nevertheless, getting out of the car I did smell some smoke from the parking lot at least, which was a promising sign. The interior reeked of kitschy barbecue restaurant decor but the prices weren’t bad and we went into barbecue review mode, each ordering multiple meat combo platters. 

Turns out, the pork was much better here than at Ray Ray’s while not being amazing. “Not being amazing” is probably as good as you’re going to find in Ohio based on this trip.

Rudy: The pulled pork was pretty plain and needed a decent amount of sweet sauce to make it something to eat. But it was not dry, so just because it wasn’t the pulled pork that we are used to in North Carolina, doesn’t mean it was bad, it was just ok.

Speedy: After our rib experience yesterday, I was nervous. Rudy’s ribs certainly exceeded the low bar previously set. While they were way overdone, they had a nice flavor and smoke taste, and were sauced nicely. Were they the world’s best ribs? No – far from it, but they were passable. The sides were fine as well, rounding out a perfectly average meal. 

Rudy: I agree, I thought the ribs were pretty good, but that may have been because of the jerky that I had experienced the day before.  We were given an order of the turkey due to them adding it in the order by mistake.  I tend to stay clear of turkey at barbecue restaurants because at best they can be ok, at worst they can be dry.  Rudy’s was very good, probably as good as you can do with turkey, moist and flavorful, but still just turkey.  

Speedy: The brisket was another meat that exceeded the extremely low bar from the previous day, but wasn’t really that good. So while I have repealed my “never order brisket outside of Texas” rule, on this weekend, a new rule was born: “Never order brisket in Ohio!”

Monk: I always love new rules from Speedy. We didn’t expect a ton out of our Ohio barbecue experiences, but Rudy’s Smokehouse partially made up for our poor experience the day before at Ray Ray’s Hog Pit. Though I would still like to know what award it won…perhaps this is a Pabst Blue Ribbon-type situation. 

Oh, and here’s proof we actually did that aforementioned hike.

(L-R) Monk, Speedy, Rudy, Boomsauce

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 2.5 hogs
Pork – 2.5 hogs
Ribs – 2.5 hogs
Brisket – 1.5 hogs
Turkey – 3 hogs 
Sides – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 2.5 hogs

Rudy's Smokehouse BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ray Ray’s Hog Pit – Columbus, OH

Name: Ray Ray’s Hog Pit (food truck)
Date: 10/2/20
Address: 424 W Town St, Columbus, OH 43215 (at Land Grant Brewing)
Order: Meatsweats (Smoked brisket, pulled pork, jerk chicken, dry rubbed ribs, Ray Ray’s hot link, with pickles and sauce) (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

Monk: So for the first time in almost exactly 5 years, all three Barbecue Bros were going to be in the same city with a chance to eat barbecue together. Now, due to COVID reasons and the need to have a drivable and centrally located city we ended up having our annual guy’s trip in the lovely climes of…Columbus, OH. Not ideal for barbecue, but a little research yielded a potentially promising prospect in Ray Ray’s Hog Pit BBQ. It kept popping up on “best of” lists, the website was well done, and the Franklinton location at Land Grant Brewing was extremely convenient to where we were staying for the weekend. 

Rudy: The euphoria of having the band back together, combined with the positive previews of Ray Ray’s would basically guarantee that we would have a great barbecue experience, right? Land Grant had a great set up with lots of outdoor seating, a stage for music (although not on the night we were there), and had Ray Ray’s attached. After looking at the menu online with all of the great pictures, we decided to get their Meatsweats box (sampler of most of the menu) and since we couldn’t decide which meats to get extra, we figured we would order more after trying them all.  This restraint proved to be a good idea.  To start with, the brisket was bland, had almost no taste of seasoning or smoke.

Speedy: The pulled pork was … not great. There was very little smoke on it, and it was dry. That said, the pork was far superior to the ribs. The ribs were dry, barely seasoned, and basically were pork jerky. 

Monk: I’m not sure if the overall quality of the barbecue had to do with the later hour we were at Land Grant Brewing eating Ray Ray’s, but yea, dry dry dry.

On the other hand, the jerk chicken was miraculously moist and flavorful. Not sure how this was so fresh while the other meats were dried out but it was passable.

Rudy: The two areas that I thought were decent were the sausage, which had cheese in it (even though that was not advertised) and some texture to it, so it did not seem completely generic. We also ordered the collard greens, which were very good and probably the best part of the meal. While the greens (and the pickled onions on the side) were very good, when that is your highlight, it is not a good thing.

Speedy: All three Barbecue Bros get together about as often as we can see Haley’s Comet, so when we do, (begin sarcasm italics) we only eat the best.

Monk: Hey there was that one time at Lexington Barbecue!

Speedy: In all seriousness, despite the 5 hog company (and decent beer!), the barbecue at Ray Ray’s Hog Pit was as bad as I’ve had in a long time. Ohio – am I right???

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Pork – 1 hog
Ribs – 1 hog
Brisket – 1 hog
Chicken – 2 hog
Hot Link – 2.5 hog
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 1 hog

Ray Ray's Hog Pit Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato