Linkdown: 10/30/19

The Old Hampton Store & Barbeque is part barbecue joint, part general store, and part music venue.

John Tanner’s BBQ Blog really batted for the proverbial Barbecue Bros cycle of NC barbecue in the Charlotte area with Lexington Barbecue, Noble Smoke, Sweet Lew’s BBQ, and Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge

Houston’s Blood Brothers BBQ makes the Smithsonian Magazine

Last weekend’s 36th Annual Barbecue Festival sounds like it was a success

The 90th Mallard Creek Barbecue was heavy on barbecue (as per usual) but light on politicians

Keaton’s BBQ in Cleveland does serve pork barbecue but its really known for its friend chicken that is dipped in Lexington-style barbecue sauce

How three Harvard students enhanced the Kamado Joe cooker with computer modeling

Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke research hits the Richmond area this weekend

The Bryan Furman “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s Brought Together Some of Charlotte’s Best Pitmasters

Monk: Bryan Furman, pitmaster of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque and a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef, was back in Charlotte last weekend though it was not to continue scouting Charlotte for locations for expansion as far as I’m aware (unfortunately). It was, however, for a “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s BBQ – think a tap takeover at a bar, but for barbecue. That Sunday, DJ Smitty was providing tunes on the patio, Birdsong Brewing was serving beer outside, smoked oysters were a special on the menu, and the line may have been slightly longer than normal but other than that it was more or less business as usual, just with Furman’s very good barbecue instead of Sweet Lew’s also very good barbecue.

The real boon for Charlotte’s burgeoning barbecue community didn’t take place that day but instead the night before, and I was sad to be out of town and unable to experience first hand. There, in the parking lot of Sweet Lew’s, some of Charlotte’s best pitmasters hung out, sampled each other’s barbecue, and assisted Furman in the smoking of several whole hogs. Garren Kirkman from Jon G’s Barbecue brought his brisket and Cheerwine hot links, Michael Wagner and Matthew Berry from Midwood Smokehouse brought their mobile BQ smoker to help smoke hogs, and of course Lewis Donald was there as the gracious host.

I have spoken separately with Midwood Smokehouse’s Wagner and Berry and Garren from Jon G’s about the lack of a cohesive Charlotte barbecue community, and this is certainly a step in the right direction to say the least. FS Food Group (the parent company of Midwood Smokehouse) Brand Director Rémy Thurston has recently mentioned to me that they want to be on the forefront of making Charlotte a true barbecue city, and some things may be in the works to bring these pitmasters (and perhaps more) back together sooner rather than later. All of this makes me hopeful that Charlotte barbecue is on the upswing and I truly believe that the best things are yet to come. World, you are on notice.

Linkdown: 9/25/19

Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque at Sweet Lew’s this Sunday!

Corky’s Bar-B-Q was the final sandwich of John Tanner’s Great Memphis Region Barbecue Sandwich Tour

Robert Moss on Boston butts

The Barbecue Festival adds two new sporting events to the weekend’s festivities: the BBQ Hardwood Classic and the Pig Pickin’ Throwdown

How the Northeast did at American Royal

The Athletic takes on Alabama barbecue

Jon G’s Midweek Charlotte Pop-up: THIS IS NOT A DRILL

The Five Best Barbecue Joints in Charlotte – September 2019

Monk: It’s been over two-and-a-half years since we’ve updated the Charlotte Big Board and as you might expect, there’s been a lot of changes in that time. Longtime readers may recall that finding the best barbecue restaurant in Charlotte was the mission statement when we first started this blog, so we certainly take this seriously. Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen (our previous #2) has rebranded as Gibson’s Family BBQ and is a shadow of its former self and fell way out of the top 5. Midwood Smokeshack (previously our #4) closed back in December of 2017 after unfortunately failing to find its footing in Matthews though thankfully pitmaster Michael Wagner is still lending his Texas expertise to the broader Midwood Smokehouse franchise. One thing that has not changed is that Jon G’s BBQ continues to hold down the top spot and always knocks it out of the park every time I am able to try them.

Starting last December, I believe we have entered a new phase in Charlotte barbecue that signals an upswing. That’s when Sweet Lew’s BBQ opened and hit the ground running out of their converted service station in the Belmont neighborhood just outside of uptown. And then of course, Noble Smoke finally opened a little over two months ago off of Freedom Drive and raised the bar even higher with their destination barbecue joint that is the cornerstone of the “Noble Smoke Campus” that will include Bossy Beulah’s Chicken Shack (also from Chef Noble) and the Suffolk Punch Blendery, their second location that will focus on Belgian lambics.

If Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque continues to pursue a Charlotte location (fingers crossed), that would certainly elevate the scene to a whole new level with his traditional whole hog barbecue (something currently missing from Charlotte), brisket, and hash. And who knows, perhaps a restaurant from a currently unknown contender is in the works and can come out of nowhere to challenge for the (queen’s) crown.

There’s no reason why Charlotte can’t mirror the barbecue scenes of Charleston or even Houston, each for different reasons. Charleston got an infusion of outside talent in the past few years in Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Lewis Barbecue, and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in addition to the expansion of homegrown local chains in Swig & Swine and Home Team BBQ. As Charleston-based food writer/historian Robert Moss has recently noted, the Charleston barbecue scene in the past five years has gone from “minor outpost to acclaimed destination.” Seems like Charlotte is always playing second (or even third fiddle) when it comes to the Charleston food scene and in this case, its no different for barbecue. While that may be too much for fine dining, there’s no reason why Charlotte can’t match or better Charleston in barbecue.

From afar, the Houston barbecue scene is a little more homegrown but has proven that a barbecue scene can sizzle even in an urban setting (the Houston metro area is nearly 3 times larger than Charlotte). But even in that spread-out urban setting, the barbecue community seems tight knight and the competition appears to be mostly friendly (again, this is from afar as I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Houston yet). When I spoke with Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner from Midwood Smokehouse earlier this year, they cited the lack of community in Charlotte’s barbecue scene as an area for opportunity. Perhaps until that improves, Charlotte can’t become a true destination for barbecue.

For #6-43, check out the Charlotte Big Board here.

And now, on to the only Charlotte barbecue list that matters…

Honorable Mentions: The Smoke Pit, Buddy’s Bar-B-Que

5. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue (review)

The one truly old school NC barbecue joint on this list, Bill Spoon’s has been around since 1963 on what was then a country road south of Charlotte. Charlotte has a bad habit of losing what few institutions it has, whether due to neglect or development, but let’s hope that Bill Spoon’s doesn’t fall victim to that trend because they are still making some fine eastern NC barbecue.

4. Midwood Smokehouse (review)

While somehow our last official review was in 2015 (I plan to remedy this in the coming months), Midwood Smokehouse is still a regular stop for the Monk family and seemingly most of Charlotte, as it has expanded to 4 locations in the greater Charlotte area (as well as one down in Columbia, SC). Not to mention that it’s the go-to spot for any celebrities or figures of note that come into town; President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, Justin Timberlake have all been patrons of Midwood in recent years. Regardless, I will continue to give credit to Frank Scibelli for bringing wood-smoked barbecue back to Charlotte in 2012, saving us from the gassers and faux ‘cue that had plagued the city for decades.

3. Sweet Lew’s BBQ (review)

Sweet Lew’s BBQ was recently named to Thrillist’s 33 Top Barbecue Restaurants in the US and Garden & Gun’s Best New Southern Barbecue Joints, and it couldn’t be more deserved for Lewis Donald (the “Lew” in “Sweet Lew’s”) and partner Laura Grice. The menu has been described as “unfussy” and that’s precisely the right adjective for this barbecue shack located in an old service station in the working-class neighborhood of Belmont.

But in addition to the worthy smoked meats and homemade sides (including the only hash and rice I’m aware of in the Piedmont of NC), I’d like to give props to their work in the neighborhood where Donald donates his time and food for block parties and even recently partnered with a local barber shop to give kids free back-to-school haircuts. Now that’s the type of barbecue joint that should be in every neighborhood.

2. Noble Smoke (review)

You may be a bit sick of reading about Noble Smoke on this blog lately, but it has truly given Charlotte a destination barbecue restaurant and raised the bar for the city’s barbecue. Let’s hope others follow suit. Read more from our review here.

1. Jon G’s Barbecue (review)

Jon G’s Barbecue has topped our Charlotte Big Board for 2+ years now, and doesn’t appear to be to be losing the crown anytime soon now that Garren Kirkman (the firekeeper behind Jon G’s) is no longer working full time and is fully in the barbecue game. For that, the greater Charlotte area should be thankful even though it’d be hard to imagine his Central Texas-style brisket getting too much better (in addition to his other meats and scratch made sides). I predict more big things to come from him and his wife Kelly. For any serious Charlotte barbecue fan: SEEK OUT JON G’S BARBECUE.

Linkdown: 9/11/19

Noble Smoke is now open for lunch every day; ICYMI our review from earlier this week here

The First Recorded Use Of The Word Barbecue Was In 1697 By British Buccaneer William Dampier

Charlotte Magazine includes barbecue joints on a few recent list: Midwood Smokehouse is one of the best restaurants in Plaza Midwood and Sweet Lew’s BBQ is one of the best southern restaurants in Charlotte

Valentina’s Tex Mex gets profiled in Garden & Gun

The NC State Barbecue Champions were crowned at the Blue Ridge BBQ & Brew Festival over Labor Day

JC Reid: “Without cotton, there would be no Central Texas-style barbecue”

John Tanner’s BBQ Blog checks out Payne’s Bar-B-Que and falls in love with that sandwich

Jones Bar-B-Que in Marianna, Arkansas is believed to be the oldest African American-owned restaurant in the US and received a James Beard Award in 2012 despite being a humble 10 seat diner

Wait, what?!

Friday Find: Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ on the Scallionpancake Podcast

Link to Podcast

Monk: Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ joins the Charlotte food podcast Scallionpancake to discuss a lot of similar ground from his appearance on order/fire in terms of how he got to Charlotte and his culinary background before Sweet Lew’s.

The lively discussion continues from there and here is some new information in a typical week for Lewis as well as information on his new-ish Saturday sausage special, which is made of half Neese’s hot sausage, half Creekstone ground beef, spices, and then marinated in Birdsong Jalapeno Pale Ale. Outside of the restaurant, we also get a sense of Lewis’s favorite places to eat in Charlotte.

Linkdown: 8/21/19

Sweet Lew’s Barbeque, Buxton Hall Barbecue, Lexington Barbecue, Grady’s BBQ, and Skylight Inn BBQ all represent NC on this Thrillist list

Is the North Carolina Department of Transportation Anti-Barbecue? John Tanner things maybe perhaps so.

NC DOT, careless of the thousands of victims of The Great Wilber’s Debacle, now turns its guns on Lexington.  NC Dot has determined that the Smiley’s-Speedy’s section of Winston Road apparently gets a fair amount of traffic.  Of course it does.  It contains two barbecue places.   

Robert Moss reflects on Charleston’s dining scene so far, including the barbecue scene which went from “minor outpost to [an] acclaimed destination”

USA Today advocates for Clyde Cooper’s BBQ in Raleigh, saying its “a key stop on any tour of America’s pantheon of BBQ joints”

Bryan Furman will be at this November’s Savannah Food & Wine Festival

Can any city rival Austin’s BBQ? Austin-based food writer Rob Balon says no.

The 36th Barbecue Festival will take place October 26th in Lexington

Linkdown: 6/19/19

Do you have what it takes to be Reynolds Wrap’s Chief Grilling Officer and taste ribs across america?

Another Carolina-style barbecue joint is closing, but this one’s in San Francisco

Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro is officially for sale after unexpectedly closing earlier this year due to back taxes owed

Do you order lean or fatty brisket? A primer from Robert Moss for those who aren’t familiar with Texas barbecue

The Raleigh News & Observer gets around to reviewing the two NC barbecue books released last month from Sam Jones and Matthew Register of Southern Smoke

You can still use this barbecue sauce and beer pairing guide even though Father’s Day has passed

Over 30 Bloomberg journalists tasted a variety of barbecue sauces and gave their impressions

Interesting story on the latest move towards openness in barbecue

Sweet Old Bill’s ups the ante on High Point barbecue scene

Sweet Lew’s BBQ gets a mention in the Washington Post’s locals guide to Charlotte

Friday Find: Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ on Order/Fire S4E7

As mentioned in my write up of the 4th Annual Free Range and order/fire Pig Pickin’ a few weeks back, the story of both Lewis Donald as well as Sweet Lew’s BBQ is a great one. I’ll quote myself below but please check out the nearly 25-minut episode above:

In speaking with Lewis over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good sense of his vision for Sweet Lew’s BBQ – to be a community restaurant that is fully integrated with the Belmont neighborhood – but this episode really fleshed it out so much more through the conversation between Lewis and Marc. It’s hard to believe its only been about 5 months now, but Lewis clearly loves being in the Belmont neighborhood and was putting in work to build ties with neighbors starting with the construction of the restaurant last fall. And he’s got more great ideas for the coming months, from his continued practice of hiring teens from the neighborhood to a back-to-school carnival with free haircuts for kids next August. My social work wife was just eating up the backstory and vision, and for good reason because it’s something you don’t always see from a restaurant.

The 4th Annual Free Range and order/fire Pig Pickin’ featuring Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

Each year for the past four, order/fire, a Charlotte-based culinary web series, and Free Range Brewing have collaborated on an annual pig pickin’ and viewing of the latest episode of the web series. You may recall two years ago they featured Sam Jones from Skylight Inn/Sam Jones BBQ. While I missed last year’s edition, this year they featured Lewis Donald from Sweet Lew’s BBQ, with all proceeds going towards a great cause, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, a non-profit that provides workforce training and job placement assistance in the food service industry for adults who face barriers to successful employment. Definitely a great cause, and one in-line with some of the values of Sweet Lew’s (more on that in a bit).

The location is the same, but the surroundings are completely different, with apartments now surrounding the Free Range Brewing building whereas it was an empty lot just two years ago. Because of the potential for inclement weather Saturday night, Lewis and order/fire host Marc Jacksina opted to utilize the covered Sweet Lew’s smokehouse for the majority of smoking before relocating to the brewery Sunday morning.

As I arrived shortly after doors opened, Lewis and his two sons were beginning to pull from the pig and before long the sound of chopping filled the back patio. Speaking of the pig, Beeler’s Pure Pork (who supplies pork shoulders for Sweet Lew’s BBQ) had graciously donated a 95 lb pig for the event, which allowed more of the funds to go to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte. Duke’s Bread donated the rolls, again allowing more of the funds to go to CCSC.

Lunch was served before the first showing, and with a suggested donation of $10 per plate everyone got a full plate of chopped pork and a roll, with sides of slaw, mac and cheese, and baked beans and a cookie. In a nice bit of synergy, the sides were actually prepared by the CCSC. Lewis was also walking around handing out slices of brisket as long as it lasted. With bellies full, it was time for the first screening of the episode.

Free Range Brewing co-owner Jeff Alexander, order/fire host Chef Marc Jacksina, director Peter Taylor, and Lewis Donald took the stage for some quick words before the episode airing. In speaking with Lewis over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good sense of his vision for Sweet Lew’s BBQ – to be a community restaurant that is fully integrated with the Belmont neighborhood – but this episode really fleshed it out so much more through the conversation between Lewis and Marc. It’s hard to believe its only been about 5 months now, but Lewis clearly loves being in the Belmont neighborhood and was putting in work to build ties with neighbors starting with the construction of the restaurant last fall. And he’s got more great ideas for the coming months, from his continued practice of hiring teens from the neighborhood to a back-to-school carnival with free haircuts for kids next August. My social work wife was just eating up the backstory and vision, and for good reason because it’s something you don’t always see from a restaurant.

But the conversation also revealed more of Lewis as a person, from his background growing up in Cleveland, OH to his path in the food industry over the past 20 years, with stops in California, Hawaii, West Virginia, and ultimately Charlotte. Lewis has just about seen it all in the types of roles he’s had, from fast food, country clubs, fine dining, and corporate positions. Lewis is a guy who self-admittedly doesn’t talk a lot, but I was glad Marc was able to get quite a bit out of him in their discussion. Great stuff, and I’ll be sure to post the episode once its available online because it’s one you don’t want to miss.

Finally, a note on Free Range Brewing. I love what they have continued to do since they began operation. They actively promote a family-friendly atmosphere in which they want the NoDa community to gather. In addition to the annual pig pickin’, they host the other viewings of order/fire episodes as well as partner with local farmers and artists. If you live in Charlotte and haven’t been yet, I urge you to check them out well before next year’s pig pickin’.