Even as pitmasters focus on one kind of meat – pork – visitors and residents of North Carolina have more barbecue options now than they may know what to do with.
First you have to pick your preference: the tangy vinegar base of the East, or the smoother tomato-based sauce of the West. Even then, you have hundreds of joints to pick from.
There are the trendy, innovative restaurants – like 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville – found mostly in the state’s more urban areas.
There are hole-in-the-wall joints like Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Spring, that cook in a pit over open coals or wood chips – the historically correct way, according to the N.C. Barbecue Society.
And then there are the places in between, like Parker’s in Wilson, that aren’t fancy or recognized by historical groups but are just downright good and have the wait lines to prove it.
Jim Early, an attorney from Winston-Salem, founded the Barbecue Society because the food has such historical significance to North Carolina. The society offers a guide to all barbecue-related events, but promotes and praises the joints that are still cooking barbecue “the right way.”
Early visited more than 225 when writing his book, “The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy.” He thinks the restaurants on the society’s “Historic Barbecue Trail” are worth visiting not just because of their historical significance, but because they are indeed the tastiest.
Most are at least an hour’s drive from the Triangle.
Stephenson’s barbecue “is without a doubt the smokiest, woodsiest, richest tasting ’cue you will ever eat,” Early wrote in his book. “You will pound the table and your toes will crimp.”
Early says he’s had to strip some restaurants of their historic status upon discovering that they use gas or electricity at some point in the cooking process. He’s seen violators cook all night with electric gas, then put it over coals for customers to see during the day, he said.
“They call it ‘finishing,’ ” Early said. “People see the wood, people smell the smell, but they’re eating roast pork.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth visiting.
Some of the newer places are worth visiting, too, says Christopher Prieto, an award-winning pitmaster who lives in Wendell. The barbecue scene “isn’t growing, it’s exploding,” Prieto said. “It’s a golden age.”
But there are drawbacks to the rise of pit novices. Many of the newer places are more concerned about food presentation and ambiance than their predecessors – at the expense of quality, he said.
“You want to dress barbecue up, yes,” Prieto said. “But some aren’t presenting a clean, authentic product.”
Buxton Hall is “cooking and curing almost everything you can think of off a pig ... and no one’s really heard about them.”
Picnic, meanwhile, has great artisanal sides and desserts, he said.
“The best complimentary garnish for barbecue is onions and pickles,” Prieto said. “They’ve created a side dish out of it: pickled cukes.”
Then there’s the chess pie. But sweets are a story for another day.
Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Spring
Andy Stephenson’s daddy, Paul, started raising hogs off N.C. 50 in Willow Spring in the late 1950s after discovering that land his family acquired was too sandy to grow much of anything. And when Paul decided to open a barbecue joint in 1958, the neighbors gave him a hard time. “Nobody had money. Nobody went out to eat,” Andy Stephenson said. But as soon as the Stephensons started cooking their pigs low and slow, neighbors found money and out-of-towners with money found Stephenson’s. Along with Allen and Son in Chapel Hill, Stephenson’s is the only joint within an hour of Raleigh on the N.C. Barbecue Society’s historic trail. Stephenson’s serves pork from local farmers that’s cooked over coals for 14-to-16 hours. A friend, strapped for time, recently asked Andy Stephenson to cook a pig with gas. Stephenson, 53, politely declined. “That would be like,” he said, pausing to find the right word. “A sin.” Stephenson’s Barbecue is located at 11964 N.C. 50. It has a Willow Spring address but is just five miles north of McGee’s Crossroads in Johnston County. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is closed on Sundays. Stephenson’s doesn’t have a website, but can be found on Facebook or reached at 919-894-4530.
Grady’s B.B.Q., Dudley
Grady’s B.B.Q. in Dudley is another joint on the Historic Barbecue Trail. And it’s about as tasty as it is secluded. Grady’s is 10 miles from the nearest town, Goldsboro, on a remote road that’s about five miles out of the way from the nearest major highway, U.S. 117. The small, white building has few windows and seats only a couple dozen people. Yet, Grady’s method of cooking barbecue over wood for more than 12 hours has kept it thriving for 30 years, says Jim Early, president of the N.C. Barbecue Society. “It’s so good you don’t want to swallow,” Early said. Grady’s is also one of the very few barbecue restaurants in North Carolina that’s owned and operated by a black couple. Grady’s is located at 3096 Arrington Bridge Road in Dudley, about a 75-minute drive southeast from Raleigh. It’s open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday. For more information, check out the joint’s Facebook page or call 919-735-7243.
Cliff’s Meat Market, Carrboro
For those who want to cook the pig themselves, pitmaster Chris Prieto recommends Cliff’s Meat Market in Carrboro. Cliff Collins, 68, has been selling meat since 1973. For such a small operation, Cliff’s is known for being versatile. He supplies upscale restaurants with almost any meat imaginable, as well as locals who need basic food at an affordable cost. As a butcher shop, Cliff’s “provides a level of service and quality that’s, quite frankly, getting harder and harder to find,” Prieto said. “I drive an hour and 20 minutes, passing dozens of others just to get their meat.” For his part, Collins just wants to be known as honest. So he seeks out all-natural, organic local meats. “First of all you’ve got to find a good quality product and stick with that,” Collins said. Cliff’s is also more transparent than grocers, he said. “We do it where they can see it.” Cliff’s Meat Market is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 100 West Main St. For information, go to cliffsmeatmarket.com or call 919-942-2196.
The Barbecue Festival, Lexington
For those who want to try a lot of barbecue in one day, “The Barbecue Festival” in Lexington is the best place to do it. You see, Lexington thinks it invented barbecue, said Early of the N.C. Barbecue Society. And it’s evident in the name of the city’s annual event. It’s not the Lexington barbecue festival. It’s simply “The Barbecue Festival.” Visitors can sample barbecue, check out the 50-ton pig sand sculpture and watch pig races, among other activities. The 33rd edition will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, in uptown Lexington. Admission is free, but attendees may have to pay to participate in special features like the Wine Garden. Last year’s festival drew more than 160,000 people to Lexington, home to roughly 20,000. For more information, go to barbecuefestival.com or email event organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org. To talk to someone in Lexington about parking or travel accommodations, call the visitors center at 336-236-4218.
12 Bones Smokehouse, Asheville
It’s hard to keep any place the President visits a secret. And 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville is emerging as a go-to place – especially for those who may, for some reason, want a break from pulled or chopped pork barbecue. 12 Bones, twice patronized by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle, serves ribs with a blueberry chipotle sauce. “They’re perfect when it comes to the sweet and the heat,” says Christopher Prieto, an award-winning pitmaster who lives in Wendell. 12 Bones has two locations: 5 Riverside Drive in Asheville and 3578 Sweeten Creek Road in Arden. The Asheville joint is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be reached at 828-253-4499. The Arden joint is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Customers interested in take-out meals can swing by until 6 p.m. on those days. Management can be reached at 828-687-1395. More information can be found at www.12bones.com.
Coming next Monday:
TV and movies
Best-Kept N.C. Giveaway
Win a Barbecue Lovers Prize Pack! Enter our weekly Best-Kept Giveaway at newsobserver.com/contests.