If peak barbecue exists, North Carolina is already there.
With one of the country's richest barbecue traditions, diners are never far from expertly smoked meats. Some destinations are a day's drive down narrow roads and others seemingly immovable from their city blocks.
But pitmaster Chris Prieto isn't concerned about barbecue saturation, believing North Carolina will always have room in its pig-loving heart.
"Barbecue is kind of like a kiss," Prieto said. "All are great, some are better than others."
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Prieto, 34, is opening Prime Barbecue in Knightdale this year, hoping it will be the next great North Carolina barbecue joint. But it won't just serve the pork that made the state famous. Prime Barbecue will do whole hog and beef brisket, plus ribs three ways: spare, baby back and beef.
Prime will be near the Knightdale Station Park, with its live pits humming in the middle of the dining room, putting the art of smoking meats front and center. Prieto said Prime will be focused on its meats but will have a handful of sides, usually baked beans with whole hog meat, a smoked Gouda mac and cheese, a vinegary mustard-based coleslaw and a sweet potato salad.
It'll be served market style, selling meat by the pound on trays lined with parchment paper.
"No plates, no hushpuppies, not corn sticks," Prieto said. "We're not a region. We're the craft of barbecue. We're a new grade of barbecue. I didn't invent it, I'm just out to perfect it."
Prieto won't wade into the regional barbecue mud slinging, declining to badmouth brisket-loving Texas or cow-tail-to-whole-hog North Carolina, having spent half his life in each state.
He first found his love for barbecue growing up in Bryan, Texas, near College Station and eating brisket with his father. His family came to North Carolina when he was 15, settling in Wake Forest. By his early 20s, he was entering barbecue competitions.
"It's something in my DNA; I've been infatuated with barbecue since I was a kid," Prieto said. "I was called to barbecue; it's more of a calling than something you fall into."
Prieto teaches barbecue classes, wrote a cookbook for Southern Living, travels the country as a barbecue judge and competitor and appeared in the sixth season of reality series "BBQ Pitmasters" on Destination America.
Prime originally was planned for Wendell, where Prieto lives. He also considered Apex.
In his search for a location, he said that he thought about downtown Raleigh but preferred the ease of parking and out-in-the-country vibe of building beyond the city. Former Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen attended one of Prieto's barbecue schools and lobbied for him to build his restaurant in Knightdale.
"He showed me farmland that was being cleared," Prieto said. "It was going to be soccer fields and parks and running trails. It was all very Norman Rockwell kind of atmosphere."
Prime held its groundbreaking Monday in Knightdale, and Prieto hopes to be open by this fall, an ambitious, if not optimistic, pace. He said he's spent the past two years designing and preparing to open his first brick and mortar, and while patience is a pitmaster's virtue, he said he's ready to go.
"Everything is 100 percent ready to go," he said. "I know how many paper towels we'll need on day one."
Prime will be at 403 Knightdale Station Run, Knighdale. Go to prime-bbq.com.