How Do You Barbecue? My Experience With The North Carolina BBQ Scene
Where I’m from “come over for a barbecue” brings images of hamburgers, hot dogs, salads and potato chips. Nowhere in the thought process is a daylong event featuring a whole hog cooking over a fire pit. But that’s exactly what you’ll get from that same invitation in North Carolina. On a recent trip I decided to explore the barbecue scene to find out for myself what real North Carolina barbecue is all about.
Ask 10 North Carolinians to describe their barbecue preference and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. What’s never in question is that barbecue means pork, slow roasted on a “pit” at a very low temperature, using hardwood as way of adding a smoky flavor. After spending four days visiting restaurants and butcheries I’ve come to appreciate that barbecue is as much art as it is craft, at least for those who prepare and serve it. Like all art, the artists’ interpretation is what really matters. In this case, it’s about the hardwood, the cooking temperature, the post cooking prep process, the sauce – when it’s applied and what it consists of, and finally – the sides. Each of the places I visited applied their own “art” to distinguish themselves.
One of my priorities on this trip was to visit at least one restaurant recognized as an official member of the Historic Barbecue Trail of North Carolina. The Trail runs from Ayden in eastern North Carolina to Murphy, along the Tennessee border, on the western side of the state and features 23 historic “pits”’ along the way. I chose Hursey’s in Burlington, if for no other reason than to be able to say I traveled from Burlington, VT to Burlington, NC to try real barbecue.
Hursey’s has four locations in and around Burlington and is a traditional barbecue joint, featuring cartoon images of various farm animals, a 1960’s style dining room and a drive-through that showed no signs of slowing down as the night settled in. I had the pleasure of being seated and served by Tripp, the grandson of founder Charles Hursey. Tripp steered me to the chopped barbecue, which is served in an eastern Carolina vinegar and pepper sauce. Sides included a finely chopped coleslaw, fries and, of course, hushpuppies. The 100 mile round trip made for a long day, but the food and hospitality made it well worth the time.
Day two was a bit of an adventure, testing how much I could pack in after my day job ended. Having recently watched Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” series on Netflix, I was determined to make the trip back to central North Carolina to visit Left Bank Butchery, in Saxapahaw. Saxapahaw is what I love about researching and experiencing these activities. Getting there and being there opened my eyes to a new place, an American sub-culture, if you will. The town spans 5.5 square miles and is home to ~1,700 residents. Originally a mill town on the banks of the Haw River, it has experienced a renaissance and now features a variety of restaurants, music venues and shops. The image below is on the brick façade on the building that houses the butchery and several other small shops… an appropriate quotation.
Left Bank Butchery is all about local, sustainable agriculture. They proudly display the story of the local farms that raise their meat and they support the local ecosystem by promoting and selling other local products. Spend some time at their website and you’ll get a real appreciation for their commitment.
Hoping to catch a glimpse of the hog farm that provides meat to Left Bank Butchery, I wound my way through hills and farmlands along the route toward Chapel Hill and Allen & Son Bar-B-Que.
My luck ran out when I failed to locate the farm and I found Allen & Son closed when I arrived. I was careful to check restaurant hours before setting my itinerary, but next time a call-ahead will be in order. Thankfully, I had anticipated needing a plan B and had added a backup stop to my itinerary. Leaving Allen & Son somewhat dejected I headed east to Cary and Big Mike’s Brew-N-Que.
I can’t predict how my experience at Allen & Son might have been, but it would have been tough to match Big Mike’s. The name alone is a great selling point… the beer selection, atmosphere and sense of local community made for a fun evening. I waited 10 minutes for a seat and used that time to explore the vast number of bottled beers available for sale (250+ by my count).
When a seat opened at the bar, I sat next to a millennial who had stopped in for a quick beer while waiting for his take-out. I shared with him my experiences thus far and he was quick to provide his own insights on the local barbecue scene. Bribing him with chicken wings (one of his recommendations), I convinced him to stay and share more of his story. 45 minutes and another beer later, he grabbed his takeout and headed home, leaving me to put his advice to work in ordering my dinner.
Trying to order similar meals throughout my trip, I chose the chopped pork with coleslaw and beans. Brew-N-Que does not sauce its barbeque and instead provides a couple of different varieties at the table; one an eastern Carolina vinegar and pepper style and the other tomato based, in western Carolina style, commonly known as Lexington style. I’m more of a tomato base guy ( shhhh, I’ve also been known to dabble in the South Carolina mustard base style), but every time I reached for a little more sauce I found myself grabbing the vinegar sauce and sampling a bit more. It was fantastic. The coleslaw was rough chopped and a bit more “mayonnaise-y” (is that a word?) than Hursey’s and the beans were a perfect consistency, with a bit of meat mixed in. My order and a couple Bond Brothers Cary Gold blonde ales made the disappointment of missing Allen & Son a distant memory.
Stop number four, the following day, was a purposeful contrast to the stereotypical “barbecue joint.” The Pit, in Durham, is an urban, modern restaurant, located in a revitalized section of town that features food trucks, restaurants and Fullsteam Brewery. The Brewery happened to be hosting their weekly Bull City Running Club event which featured a 5K pre-brew run.
Arriving at The Pit bit before the dinner crowd, I grabbed a seat at the bar and struck up a conversation with the bartender. Dave is a North Carolina transplant, but took an immediate interest in my travels and offered his own insights on the barbecue scene and more specifically, the Pit’s vast menu choices. Leaving me to ponder the menu and enjoy a few sips of a UFO Big Squeeze he disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned he advised that he had lined up a tour of the kitchen and “pit” for me. Ten minutes later, Chef Dillon was standing by my side. After a brief introduction we headed to the kitchen and out the back door to the “pit.” The Pit may look like a classic urban restaurant from the dining room, but the “pit” is where the action is. Lining the two walls were six smokers, I assume primarily for larger cuts, like this one with a half hog and a few shoulders…
In a smaller “pit” 10 chickens were nearly ready for the dinner rush…
After a brief stop in the cooler, where half hogs lined the racks, and a quick kitchen tour Dillon took me back through the dining room to the bar where Dave had set out a sampling of meats: three kinds of pork barbecue, smoked turkey, meatloaf, made with smoked beef and, finally, beef brisket. As if that weren’t enough, Dave made sure I had a basket of hushpuppies with sweetened butter and a biscuit for good measure. I can’t begin to choose a favorite among the meats, but the meatloaf was not my mother’s meatloaf (sorry, Mom : ))
Having finished the platter of meats and my UFO Dave was pretty sure I was ready to eat some real food, and I was convinced I was ready to head to my hotel. Dave won when he pushed me to a half rack of ribs with coleslaw and sweet potato fries. The sun was setting low and streaming through the double garage door that operates as the entrance and prevented a worthy picture of this course, but I can say these were fall-off-the-bone tender ribs with a generous sauce that accompanied a second UFO nicely.
As the sun finally dropped behind the warehouse across the street and I prepared to depart, Dave had one more treat in store: the spoils of an over prepared mint julep… someone had to finish it and it wasn’t going to be Dave.
When I think back over the course of the week I realize that what I experienced was exactly what I was hoping for when I started Food Experienced. I ate some great food, sure, but it was more about the places, the culture and the people. North Carolina barbecue is a fundamental part of the history and culture of the state. I’m glad I took the time to learn about and experience it firsthand.
Next up, I’ll apply my new knowledge of North Carolina barbecue and smoke a pork shoulder, low and slow, with a little hickory, just like they do along the North Carolina Barbecue Trail.