Two recent best-of barbecue lists threaten to tear North Carolina asunder, geographically, if not, existentially.
On a national list compiled by Travel+Leisure, also using Yelp reviews, Haywood is ranked the fifth best barbecue in the entire country.
So why hasn’t there been a statue erected to the smoked meat accomplishments of Haywood? Likely because it proudly serves Texas-style barbecue.
Cue the record scratch heard from the mountains to the sea.
North Carolina takes great pride in its differences of barbecue opinion, its concept of east and west demarcated with vinegar and tomatoes. It often stretches beyond opinion and into identity.
There’s even an historic trail hitting every corner of the state, prepared by the North Carolina Barbecue Society, naming 22 old-school joints doing it the way Carolina does it, meaning whole hog or shoulder cooked over wood coals. Skylight Inn is on it, Haywood could never be.
Can a Texas-style barbecue joint serve anyone’s idea of the best barbecue in North Carolina?
Haywood Smokehouse opened in Dillsboro in 2014, and more than 212 Yelp reviews, it has a perfect five-star rating on Yelp, the magazine’s methodology. Diners gushed about the brisket, using words like “amazing” and tagging it “the best they’ve ever had.”
On the celebrity of Franklin Barbecue and other high-profile Texas joints, brisket is high barbecue fashion these days, and for good reason, it’s delicious. Cooking it well is a feat taking more than half a day. At its best, smoked brisket transforms a cheap, tough cut of meat into something rich and juicy. At its worst, cooked too hot or too long, a leather shoe would be tastier.
Most of Haywood’s Yelp reviews come from out of state, diners likely taking in the remote beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, unburdened by any notion of what North Carolina barbecue is supposed to mean. To them, it’s simply barbecue this side of the state line. That they’ve managed to make that many fans of notoriously fickle brisket seems to be a worthy endorsement.
These lists are no threat to the statewide supremacy of traditional North Carolina barbecue, especially to Skylight Inn.
For 71 years, this Jones family restaurant in Ayden has been a national barbecue destination, with a James Beard American Classics medal hanging on its wall.
If ever someone claims not to get the fuss over Eastern North Carolina barbecue, Skylight is a good place to start, serving deeply flavorful whole hog barbecue, punctuated with bits of crispy pork skin more valuable than jewels. It’s simple, but not modest, with a capitol dome built atop the restaurant, accepting the many declarations that its barbecue is the best one could ever find.
A throne would work just as well, but who has time to take a seat in the barbecue business?