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

Enroll in BrisketU If You Need Help with Your Backyard Smokes

Speedy: It was Super Bowl Sunday, 2023. I had been up a good portion of the night smoking a brisket on the Big Green Egg, and my MEATER thermometer (highly recommended!) told me it was time to pull my brisket, so I did. I let it rest in a cooler for a couple of hours, and when it was time to slice – disaster. My flat was overcooked and dry, the fat in my point was not rendered down enough, and I just didn’t have a good brisket. I decided it was time to do something about it. So I did.

Backyard Pitmasters is a Texas company that started BrisketU – a three hour class offered at various cities around the United States teaching backyard cooks how to smoke a central Texas style brisket. In Nashville, these classes are offered a few times a month at various breweries at a price of $119 – a price I was happy to pay if it would keep me from wasting another brisket. I signed up for a March class at Mill Creek Brewing in Nolensville, TN.

When the day came, I arrived around 15 minutes ahead of the noon class start time, and saw a large trailer offset smoker running – a good sign, and a great smell. I walked into the brewery, grabbed a beer, signed in at the registration table, and sat down at an empty seat. I was one of about 20 enthusiastic backyard cooks that day, and the class started just a few minutes after noon.

Our teacher was Pitmaster John, a Houston native who had transplanted to Nashville. It was pretty clear from the get-go that John knew his stuff. The class started talking about different pit types, fuel types, and wood. Questions were welcomed as we navigated these topics (and throughout the day), and talked a little bit about the different pits the individuals in the class used. John mentioned that the techniques taught in the class are pit agnostic, which I think is mostly true, but he used (and mostly talked about) offset smokers.

I found the three hour class to be incredibly interactive and informative. Several times throughout the three hours, the whole class got up and went outside to the pit to talk about various topics and to look at the brisket that was on the pit for us to enjoy later. Over the course of the class, we talked about equipment (pits and accessories), fuel/wood, different cuts of meat, how to select a brisket, trimming techniques, rubs, timing of the cook, wrapping, resting, and slicing the brisket.

This was A LOT to take in over three hours, but BrisketU provided a small book outlining most of what was talked about. John also did a nice job talking about where he personally deviated from the prepared materials when he cooked his own briskets. We were also fed twice throughout the class – brisket tacos halfway through, which were really good, and of course, the brisket at the end. We were given slices of both fatty brisket, lean brisket, and burnt ends. 

So, what was the verdict? Overall, I had a great experience. This class is fast-paced, so it’s definitely not for someone who has zero experience around a barbecue pit, but you don’t need a ton of experience to keep up. I also don’t think it’s for competition barbecuers, though competition teams may learn some new tricks. Pitmaster John was clear that this was a backyard barbecue class, so we didn’t talk about what competition judges look for (in appearance or taste) or touch on building a competition box. But if you’re someone who has some level of familiarity with a smoker and wants to improve your briskets, this class is perfect for you. (Hint: the class also makes for a great gift for the aspiring pitmaster in your life.) I was quickly able to identify about a dozen things I’m going to do differently next time I cook a brisket – especially in the trimming and wrapping processes. I also left the class with a list of about $200 accessories I’m going to buy – everything from butcher paper to different slicing knives, but for barbecuers, this is the way.

Oh! You want to know how the brisket was! In short, it was great. The brisket was cooked perfectly, with great flavor and moistness – even on the flat (we learned a trick for this!). Backyard Pitmasters make (and sell in the class) their own rubs, which I think needed more pepper, as the bark was the only deduction I would have when scoring the brisket. But still, if I can cook a brisket even 90% as good as the one in this class, I will have gotten my money’s worth.

Atmosphere – 4 hogs
Knowledge of Pitmaster John – 5 hogs
Materials – 4 hogs
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Overall class score – 4.5 hogs (highly recommended!)

Truth Barbeque in Houston is Indeed the Truth

Name: Truth Barbeque
Date: 1/7/22
Address: 110 S Heights Blvd, Houston, TX 77007
Order: Brisket, turkey, Carolina whole hog, pork ribs, house sausage link, brussel sprouts, green beans  (link)
Pricing: $$$

Speedy: I have a tradition whenever I travel. The first thing I do is text Monk, tell him where I’m going and ask, “Where should I grab some ‘cue?” On this day, while I was waiting to board in the Nashville airport, Monk responded almost before I even hit send, “Truth Barbeque.” So it was on.

Monk: While I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Truth yet, it received high praise when I recommended it to a friend of the blog a few years back. Not to mention it was #3 on Texas Monthly’s most recent Top 50 list from 2021. So I knew it was definitely going to be the place for Speedy and co. 

Speedy: Our party arrived at exactly 11:00 on a Saturday morning, which is exactly when they open. There was a sizable, but not daunting line out the door. We waited about 30 minutes until it was our turn to order at the cafeteria style counter.

Our group went with a pair of 2 meat plates and added a sausage link so we could try all the meats (save for the beef rib special) and ordered a variety of sides. After getting through the line and taking our pick of tables in the sizable dining room (we chose indoor seating, but outdoor is available), we were ready to eat.

Since this is a Texas joint, we have to start with the brisket. It’s good. Like really good. Peppery, tender, but *maybe* could be slightly more moist. We got the lean cut (we weren’t asked, but others did specify fatty and got that). Was this brisket as good as any I’ve had outside of Texas? Probably. But we’re in Texas, and the standard is different. So I can’t put it in my holy quadrumvirate (Franklin’s, La Barbecue, Pecan Lodge, Killen’s) but it was damn close. 

Monk: Damn, the fact that Speedy has been to enough Texas places to even have a quadrumvirate of Texas places of such high esteem is making me question my life choices. 

Speedy: The turkey, on the other hand, was the best I’ve had. Peppery, tender, moist, melt in your mouth deliciousness. I’ve gone on record lately expressing that turkey is the lost meat of barbecue, but at a place as highly lauded as Truth BBQ, I didn’t expect it to be my favorite part of the meal. But it was, and that’s not to take anything away from the other meats. It’s a must order, period.

Monk: I too am on the turkey train now and this sounds amazing. 

Speedy: The house sausage was also very solid. House-made, this sausage had good snap and nice garlic-y flavor. It had a little bit of grease, but was a solid effort. The pork ribs were also good, although ultimately my least favorite of the meats. The ribs were cooked and seasoned well, and had good flavor, but ultimately didn’t have anything outstanding or unique. 

The surprise of the meal was the Carolina whole hog (a Saturday special). Being in Texas, I didn’t expect much here, but when I bit into that hog and closed my eyes, I was transformed back to eastern NC, tasting delicious chopped pork with just the right coating of vinegar-y sauce. This was the best pork I’ve had outside of North Carolina. What a treat!

Monk: I know that Texas places will use whole hog as a differentiator to stand out from the pack, but glad to hear this was a successful version of it at Truth.

Speedy: Of the sides, I enjoyed the brussels most, but they were roasted and mushy instead of crispy (which I prefer). The mixed in brisket helped with the flavor, and I would order them again, but I don’t think I’d go out of my way for the sides. My party ordered the tater tot casserole and gave it high marks, so if you tolerate dairy, that’s probably the order.

One other thing worth talking about is the “Texas gut bomb,” or the tummy ache and sleepiness after any big Texas bbq meal. I did not feel this after Truth BBQ. I’m not sure if this was because of minimal grease, the high volume of turkey I ate, or some other reason, but my stomach was a happy camper all weekend. 

Monk: Aww, great to hear about your happy tum tum, Speedy! 

Speedy: Overall, as usual, Monk was correct…

Monk: …oh I like the sound of that!

Speedy: Truth BBQ is a truly great barbecue joint and definitely worth a visit. And do yourself a favor and order extra turkey!

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4 hogs
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Turkey – 5 hogs
Sausage – 4 hogs
Pork (Carolina whole hog) – 5 hogs
Pork ribs – 4 hogs
Sides – 3.5 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs

Despite Pitmaster Changes at Buxton Hall Barbecue, the Food Remains Consistent and That’s a Good Thing

Name: Buxton Hall Barbecue
Date: 12/22/22
Address: 32 Banks Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
Order: Combo platter with whole hog barbecue, sliced brisket, and ribs with chicken bog and collards (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

Monk: Since the last time either Speedy or I visited Buxton Hall Barbecue, there’s been quite a bit of change. This past summer Elliot Moss, the face and pitmaster behind the launch of Buxton Hall, announced that he had parted ways with the Chai Pani Restaurant group which owns both Buxton Hall Barbecue as well as the Buxton Chicken Palace that Moss also helped start. Moss is staying in Asheville and opening a concept of his own (a “comfort classics restaurant” called Regina’s Westside) but it should not be overstated how much he helped put whole hog on the map in western NC as the brains behind Buxton Hall. 

On a day trip to Asheville, Speedy and I wanted to check out the restaurant to see if anything had drastically changed in the past 5+ months to our beloved Buxton Hall. While we’ve each visited the restaurant plenty on our own, this was our first time visiting as a duo. Plus, it was Speedy’s birthday and we had Papa Speedy and Cousins Daniel and Matt in tow!

Speedy: And what better to do on your birthday than have barbecue! One thing I noticed first off is that brisket (which I believe was a 2019 or 2020 menu addition add) was off the regular menu but available as a special (though only sliced was offered, instead of sliced and chopped). Obviously, you can’t go to Buxton and not get chopped pork, so when we were offered a special plate with pork, brisket, and ribs, Monk and I jumped on it. And add two sides to boot!

Monk: Apologies in advance for the subpar food photography – we visited for dinner and the lighting was quite low. Great ambiance, poor lighting conditions. Back to the food – the whole hog portion was a bit on the small side but tasted just as good as I remembered.

Speedy: And that is a good thing. I agree – top notch pork. The ribs, which I had not had at Buxton previously, were also really, really good. They were cooked perfectly – tender but not falling off the bone, and well seasoned without being either too sweet or too salty. The pork at Buxton is always the star (and was again today), but the ribs made sure they were heard. 

Monk: The ribs were definitely a revelation for me, as I also had not tried them previously. Unfortunately its hard to say if any effects were felt here, but at least what we had was really freaking good. The brisket slices were all lean (we weren’t asked our preference) and while they were fine, by no means were they the standout of the meal. 

Speedy: I had previously really enjoyed chopped brisket at Buxton, so I’m curious as to whether this is where the change in the pitmaster was truly felt, since it’s not a meat cooked every day and mastered. As for the sides, I didn’t notice any difference in the collard greens, which are some of my favorite anywhere and a must-order. 

Monk: While the collards had a nice kick and plenty of vinegary tang, I felt the chicken bog was perhaps a little on the dry side and at least on this night was not quite up to par with previous offerings. We should mention the smoked wings we got as an appetizer, which were very solid as well.

Going in, I wanted to order the hash and rice but it wasn’t a side option (and I didn’t think to ask to sub it in). I’d be really curious to see how that in particular holds up since that is a Pee Dee Region staple that was near and dear to Moss’s heart. Oh well – next time.

Speedy: The last time I was at Buxton, I texted Monk to ask whether it’s the best barbecue joint in NC. We decided that while we weren’t sure we were ready to go that far, it has to be in the conversation. At least so far, the loss of Elliott Moss doesn’t change that.

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 4.5 hogs
Ribs – 4.5 hogs
Brisket – 3.5 hogs
Sides – 4 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs