Entering Charlie's, you're greeted by a pair of pig "angels" fashioned from pink fabric on wire frames, suspended from the ceiling of the compact dining room. Singing colorful backup to this alleluia chorus of promised porcine bliss is an eclectic display of homespun bric-a-brac, liberally seasoned with pork: ceramic hog in a chef's hat on a shelf, larger-than-life portrait of a jaunty pig behind the cash register - you get the idea.
Then you notice, interspersed among the decorations, the clues that Charlie's is not your ordinary North Carolina pork barbecue joint. Framed photos of Highway Patrol graduating classes, for instance, and law enforcement officer shoulder patches. On one wall, an oversize North Carolina state seal that was once a floor mat in the office of owner Charlie Carden, back when he was a major in the N.C. Highway Patrol.
Carden retired in 2007 after more than 30 years in law enforcement. He opened Charlie's BBQ & Grille with his wife, Kim, in June 2008, realizing a dream he had held since working at the legendary Allen & Son in Chapel Hill as a young man.
But Charlie's is not an attempt to reproduce the Allen & Son style - or any other single style of barbecue, for that matter. The menu is a culinary scrapbook of Carden's travels, you might say, bound by hickory smoke and his distinctive sauce.
That sauce incorporates elements of all three North Carolina styles - vinegar and pepper of the East, tomato of the Piedmont (often confusingly referred to as Western style), and a touch of the molasses sweetness favored in the mountains (the true Western North Carolina style). Carden uses the sauce to season a wide variety of smoky meats, from pork to beef to chicken.
Pulled, not chopped
Purists might turn up their noses at such an ecumenical approach to barbecue - not to mention that Carden uses an electric cooker to coax the smoke from chunks of seasoned hickory. That's their loss, as locals who have discovered Charlie's will attest.
Nor do customers appear to be offended by the heresy of a Johnston County barbecue joint serving pulled pork rather than the chopped that is customary in these parts. If the popularity of this deviation from the norm is surprising at first, it won't be once you've tasted those succulent shreds of flesh, punctuated with the occasional crusty bit of "outside brown."
Carden strays from the traditional path when it comes to his ribs, too, opting for country-style short ribs instead of the usual St. Louis style or baby backs. A little fattier than those cuts, the rustic short ribs are nonetheless satisfying.
So is barbecued chicken, and house-smoked sausage, which Carden likes to serve with grilled onions and mustard. There's a respectable fried catfish, too, with a peppery cornmeal crust.
But for my money, the surprise star of the show at Charlie's is the brisket. Moist, fork-tender, and permeated with smoke under a classic exterior "bark," it's the best barbecued brisket I've come across since the closing of the lamented Holy Smokes a couple of years ago.
Regardless of which barbecue you favor, you'll find Charlie's is true to the universal tradition of plentiful portions at reasonable prices. Most plates go for $8-$10, with "Hungry Man" combos of two meats fetching a couple bucks more. That includes hush puppies and your choice of two scratch-cooked sides. Even if you opt for a sandwich (brisket, pulled pork, burger or homemade chicken salad), you'll want to get a side of Charlie Carden's distinctive Brunswick stew, which he makes with leftover bits of smoked meat.
And something sweet
You'll have a hard time resisting Kim Carden's homemade desserts, too. She's usually got a couple of cakes sitting on the counter to tempt you (recently, coconut lemon and an old-fashioned vanilla with chocolate frosting), as well as pecan pie and the barbecue house staple, banana pudding.
Charlie Carden's all-embracing approach to barbecue and his unusual sauce have quickly won a loyal following, as evidenced by the frequently full dining room.
Regulars will tell you, though, that the restaurant owes as much of its success to its owner's warm personality as it does to its smoky fare. The affable Carden is always there to greet you, and if the place isn't too busy he may even pull up a chair at your table for a couple of minutes. By the time he gets up, it won't matter which barbecue country you hail from. Charlie's will feel like home.