You could make a bad joke that North Carolina goes whole hog for barbecue. But, then, you’d not only incur a chorus of groans, you’d also encourage scads of correctives from knowledgeable Carolinians. Only the eastern part of the state serves whole hog. The western side serves pork shoulder.
The Democratic National Convention starts today in Charlotte, which is near the South Carolina border, and for all intents and purposes doesn’t figure into any of this conversation. I’ve reported on the gaffe heard ’round the ‘cueosphere when First Lady Michelle Obama said, in an apparent attempt to pander, that the city had “great” barbecue. (In short: Charlotte doesn’t.)
Not far from Charlotte, though, are some of the temples of western-style barbecue, also known as Lexington and Piedmont styles. I contacted two of the state’s top barbecue writers about their recommendations: John Shelton Reed, author of the definitive book, “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), and Dan Levine, who writes a funny, smart blog called BBQ Jew. As you can tell by its name, Levine’s blog could be its own story. For now, we’ll just talk about his recommendations.
Both men advise that newcomers take time to seek the real thing. “We’re getting a lot of outsiders who are building what I call the International House of Barbecue,” says Reed, referring to restaurants that serve all regional styles and cook in a wood-enhanced gas oven rather than an all-wood pit.
Both of them agree that to get good barbecue you must leave town. Before the recommendations, a primer:
* Order a “tray,” “plate,” or sandwich, depending on the sides you want. Hush puppies, baked beans and French fries are common sides.
* A sandwich, served on a hamburger bun, comes with coleslaw on top. You can say you don’t want the slaw, but you shouldn’t.
* If you like the crunchy exterior bits mixed into your meat, ask for “brown” or “outside.”
* Eastern-style is pulled or chopped whole hog seasoned with a thin vinegar-pepper sauce. The coleslaw is mayonnaise-based.
* Western-style is pulled or chopped pork shoulder. It adds a little ketchup to the sauce and calls it a “dip.” A version of the dip, or the dip itself, is the base of the coleslaw.
* The meat in North Carolina tends to be cooked on grates a few feet over glowing hickory embers and is infused with a clearly discernible, but usually light (rather than deep) smoke. “Here, we like to kiss the meat with smoke,” a pitmaster once told me, “not saturate it.”
Okay, now that you know what to order, here is where to order. All recommended restaurants smoke in the traditional manner — all-wood, no gas. The recommender is bracketed after the pick.
Eastern-style: These restaurants are about three to four hours from Charlotte.
Skylight Inn, in Ayden. Established in 1947 and on scads of Top 10 national barbecue lists, this bucket-list shrine slow cooks its splayed whole hog overnight above a bed of oak embers. [Both]
Wilber’s Barbecue, in Goldsboro. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton have both eaten at this top-notch, half-century-old restaurant, which, incidentally, is run by staunch Democrat Wilber Shirley. [Both]
Allen & Son Barbeque, in Chapel Hill. This lauded little houselike joint slow-smokes pork shoulder, a la western-style, but douses it with a thin, peppery-vinegar sauce, a la eastern. And the coleslaw is both mayonnaise-y and vinegary. [Both]
Western-style: These destinations are closer than the eastern ones; the towns of Shelby, Salisbury and Lexington are within an hour’s drive of Charlotte.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, in Shelby. Dates back to 1946. Operated today by the son and daughter of the original owner. Blue vinyl booths. [Reed]
Wink’s King of Barbecue, in Salisbury. An opportunity for a little bi-partisan ’cue, as Salisbury is the home of Elizabeth Dole. [Levine]
Lexington Barbecue, in Lexington. Pitmaster and owner Wayne Monk is called “one of the godfathers of barbecue in North Carolina” by the North Carolina Barbecue Society. [Both]
Cook’s Barbecue, in Lexington. Opened in 1969 and located south of town, Cook’s is run by a second-generation pitmaster; in addition to serving the usual pork, he smokes beef brisket. [Both]
Tarheel Q, in Lexington. Located on the outskirts of town. Reviewers have said its pork can be dry. Reed’s experience was different: “I got there once and ordered a sandwich, and it brought tears to my eyes. That was quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.” [Reed]