If you had to sum up Southern Smoke BBQ in one word, it probably would be “family.”
That word comes up when owners Matthew and Jessica Register talk about their culinary inspirations. He calls his late grandmother “the epitome of a Southern cook,” while her great-grandfather was known for his barbecue business in Sanford.
It’s there in the crew working the lunch shift – Matthew’s mother and father can often be found running the cash register and serving up plates, alongside college students who have worked with the Registers so long that they call Matthew “Dad.”
And it’s especially there in the reception that customers get when the front door opens for business promptly at 11:30 a.m. Whether you’ve just come down the street to pick up a to-go barbecue sandwich or you’ve driven for two hours for a special lunchtime feast of ribs, chicken and copious sides, the Registers want to make sure you’re treated just like a favorite relative coming to Sunday dinner.
“I want you to feel like you’re family and you’re welcome,” Matthew Register said. “I have to honor every customer.”
And just like a big family dinner at Grandma’s house, you’ll want to come early to make sure you don’t get left out.
Southern Smoke BBQ is only open two days a week – Thursday and Friday – and only then for lunch. Customers often start gathering out front by 10:30 a.m. By 11:15 or so, a line has formed. There’s a big – but friendly and orderly – rush to order once the door is unlocked.
“We wanted to be the first in line, because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said William Williams and his wife, Brandy, who drove from Roseboro to the small town of Garland one recent Friday and were waiting outside an hour before Southern Smoke’s opening.
It’s a small place – basically just a kitchen in back and a front room with a counter for ordering and a large chalkboard that lists what’s on the menu for the day. Concert posters for acts such as the Avett Brothers, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Muddy Waters line the walls, and you’re apt to hear Johnny Cash, Bob Marley or Prince playing over the sound system.
“We want this to be like an old-style joint,” Matthew Register said.
There’s no seating inside, but, if the weather is nice, a courtyard out back offers some picnic tables and some bar stools around a hollowed-out classic car that serves as a bar.
Often, the hand-drawn “Sold Out” sign is already placed on the front door by 12:30 p.m.
Though the hours of the restaurant are a bit limited, it’s not as if chef Matthew Register is a slacker. Southern Smoke stays booked with catering jobs, there’s a food truck in the works, and there are occasional themed dinners such as “Night in the Lowcountry” or “Juke Joint Saturday Night.” In the busy season, Register usually works six long days a week. Jessica Register helps out with the business while also working a full-time job as a high school teacher.
Most of the college-age students who help with the catering and the restaurant are former students of Jessica’s. Like Matthew, they share a love of good, fresh food.
Rodolfo Sandoval, who has worked at Southern Smoke as a cook for about four years, is studying business and restaurant management at nearby UNC-Pembroke. He dreams of having his own eatery one day that will fuse the Southern flavors he’s learned under Register with the native dishes of Mexico, where he spent the first years of his life before moving to Garland. Barbecue with handmade tortillas would surely be a hit.
The menu at Southern Smoke BBQ is unlikely to be the same each time you visit. There’s always going to be barbecue, of course, cooked overnight in the specially built smoker, known as Jezebel, and then chopped just before serving. “We don’t chop it too fine – it’s more like a pig pickin’,” Register said.
There are two homemade sauces – Sweet Grace, a Memphis-style sauce named for the Registers’ 11-year-old daughter, Taylor Grace, and Two Brothers, a vinegar-based sauce that honors their two sons, 6-year-old Nash and 5-year-old Harrison.
William Williams, who says he’s eaten barbecue from all over, declares Southern Smoke “the best I’ve ever had.”
Other meats on any given Thursday or Friday may include ribs seasoned in a secret rub and topped with Sweet Grace sauce, fried chicken cooked a golden brown, brisket or catfish. Occasionally, there are even hand-pulled tamales.
“I haven’t had anything here that’s not a favorite,” said Michael Castleberry, who travels from White Lake to Southern Smoke about once a month. The restaurant’s cornbread, he said, is so sweet it’s the dessert to cap off his meal.
And then there are the sides. The macaroni and cheese is legendary around Sampson County. (It’s a secret recipe that Register guards carefully.) You’ll often find coleslaw, baked beans and potato salad on the menu. Other sides may depend on what’s in season, such as creamed corn, when it’s the peak summer corn harvest.
Matthew Register said taking the freshest ingredients and making something delicious out of them is a trait he got from his beloved grandmother, Dorothy Hart, who died earlier this year.
“She cooked like people used to cook. When peas came in, she went and got peas and shelled peas and cooked peas,” Register said.
He honors his grandmother, known as Meemaw, with a tattoo on his forearm of a fork from her fine silver collection. He chokes up a bit when talking about how nearly everything he cooks is a variation of one of her classic recipes.
So was there something related to cooking that he and she ever disagreed on? He turned sheepish. “Well, collards,” he said, noting that he cooks the Southern greens leafier while Meemaw used to chop them up finely.
Slight collard variations aside, he said her Sunday after-church table was legendary.
“If you were hungry, you went to her house and she fed you,” Register said. “And you didn’t have one plate, you had two.”
Just like family.
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
If you go
Southern Smoke BBQ, 28 Warren St., Garland. (About an hour and a half from Raleigh.) 910-549-7484. Hours: 11:30 a.m. until food runs out Thursday and Friday. southernsmokebbqnc.com
On the menu
▪ Barbecue sandwich: $4
▪ Barbecue tray with 1 side, cornbread and drink: $6
▪ Three smoked pork rib combo with 2 sides, cornbread and drink: $7.50
▪ Half rack of ribs: $9
▪ Sides vary by season, but may include baked beans, macaroni and cheese, slaw, creamed corn, potato salad: $1
▪ Fried chicken tray with 1 side, cornbread and drink: $6