Sam Jones BBQ: a family tradition
Note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction.
On paper, Sam Jones BBQ and The Redneck BBQ Lab are as different as two North Carolina barbecue joints could be.
One is rooted in generations of family tradition. The other is a newcomer by barbecue joint standards, but has earned an impressive reputation on the national barbecue competition circuit.
One cooks whole hogs the traditional way, over seasoned oak embers in an open pit. The other smokes Boston butts on the same cookers it uses in competitions.
One has gone beyond the Eastern North Carolina-style pork that has been the foundation of the family reputation for more than six decades to offer a variety of other smoked meats, but still sticks with the time-tested method.
The other bills its approach as “BBQ with a scientific twist,” with experiments yielding everything from house-made pastrami to hog jowl bacon cornbread.
One serves beer. The other doesn’t.
You get the idea. Still, Sam Jones BBQ and The Redneck BBQ Lab do share a couple of noteworthy features. Both are counter service restaurants, for starters. And both merit inclusion in any list of North Carolina’s barbecue elite.
Sam Jones BBQ
715 W. Fire Tower Road, Winterville
252-689-6449 or samjonesbbq.com
Some children are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Sam Jones was born with a cleaver in each hand. That’s what he was wielding the first time I ever saw him many years ago, working at the chopping block of the Skylight Inn, the restaurant his grandfather Pete Jones founded in 1947 in Ayden. The place was several decades old by then (Jones couldn’t have been much more than a teenager), and had already won national acclaim as one of the South’s premier barbecue joints.
Pete Jones died in 2006, and the Skylight Inn is now operated by Sam Jones along with his father, Bruce Jones, and uncle, Jeff Jones. They preserve the pit-cooked whole hog tradition that earned the restaurant the prestigious James Beard America’s Classics Award in 2003. But he itched to expand his barbecue horizons.
He scratched that itch in 2015, opening Sam Jones BBQ a few miles south of Greenville and earned his first nomination for a James Beard Award earlier this year for Best Chef: Southeast.
This week, he announced he will open a Sam Jones BBQ restaurant on West Lenoir Street in downtown Raleigh.
The new restaurant is palatial in comparison to Skylight Inn, though the rustic setting — rough hewn wood, life-size pig chandelier and country music — leaves no doubt that this is a barbecue joint.
The menu is dramatically wider-ranging than at Skylight Inn, offering a variety of smoked meats and even a few non-barbecue items. They also serve beer, including a half-dozen or so local drafts, a practice unheard of in old school barbecue joints.
In the same vein, Small Plates and Salads are categories you’ll search for in vain at a traditional joint. You’ll find both here, with a handful of choices in each. A house salad with cornbread croutons (all the dressings are made in-house) is a healthy preemptive strike against any guilt you may feel for indulging in the carnivorous feast to follow.
Fried catfish bites are unexceptional, but fried pork skins and homemade pimento cheese are a must — and the generous portion could be shared by as many as four. Smoked wings (served straight up or tossed in Buffalo sauce) are another winning option.
You could continue the poultry theme with a plate of slow-smoked chicken (quarter or half-bird), or a pulled chicken sandwich. Better still, try the gently smoked, exceptionally moist, sliced turkey breast.
Spare ribs are an uncommon cut for a barbecue joint, but excellent — so moist and flavorful, in fact, that I didn’t even add any sauce to mine.
For all the variety Sam Jones has introduced at his new restaurant, he hasn’t forgotten the Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue that is the foundation of his family’s reputation. Whole hog, pit-smoked over North Carolina oak and lightly dressed with the vinegar-based sauce that is a hallmark of the style, is indistinguishable from that served at Skylight Inn. Even the presentation is a tribute to the original: served in a paper tray, topped with a slab of unleavened cornbread made from a 70-plus-year-old family recipe, with another tray of slaw on the side.
Barbecue plates come with your choice of two sides, both traditional (mac and cheese, collard greens) and modern (homemade chips, fresh fruit). Baked beans, amped up with ground beef and barbecue rib sauce, are addictive.
For dessert, the chocolate eclair may be first-rate but I’ll never know. I can’t imagine driving all the way to Winterville and not treating myself to the banana pudding, scratch-made from Sam Jones’ mother’s recipe.
Service is fast, small-town friendly and eager to please. The Cheerwine level in your glass can’t drop more than 2 inches without someone offering to top it off. Just one more bit of evidence that, while Sam Jones BBQ may be an exemplary barbecue joint for a new generation, it hasn’t lost the spirit of its predecessor.
The Redneck BBQ Lab
12101-B NC Hwy. 210, Benson
919-938-8334 or redneckbbqlab.com
You might question the accuracy of your GPS the first time you pull up to The Redneck BBQ Lab as you’ll find yourself sitting in the parking lot of a BP station. Rest assured you’ve come to the right place. The restaurant is located at the left end of the building.
That’s not the only surprise the place has in store. Step inside, and (assuming the line isn’t stretching out the door, a distinct possibility during lunch and dinner prime time hours) your eye will immediately be drawn to the dozens of trophies on a shelf above large picture windows looking into the kitchen.
The trophies are the prizes that owner Jerry Stephenson has won with his Redneck Scientific team on the competition barbecue circuit, and they include more than 20 Grand Championships. Stephenson, who appeared on the Food Network’s Grill Masters episode of “Chopped” in August, parlayed his success into a brick-and-mortar restaurant last year.
The Johnston County native is naturally well-versed in North Carolina pork barbecue, though his “scientific” approach starts with Boston butts smoked over hickory charcoal and cherry wood, yielding a coarse-textured, subtly smoky hybrid between Eastern and Western styles.
Stephenson turns out some mighty fine St. Louis style ribs, too, not falling off the bone (a sign of overcooking, as any barbecue competition judge will tell you), but gratifyingly chewy-tender beneath a glaze of sweet-spicy sauce.
But he’s proudest of his brisket. After six years of tweaking his technique, he says, “I’m not quite there, but I’m pretty close” to the Texas ideal. He’s certainly nailed the hallmark smoke ring and dark outer layer called the “bark.”
If you go on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, be sure to try the brisket burnt ends, double-smoked and double-sauced cubes from the brisket point that are deserving of their nickname, “meat candy.”
Smoked turkey still needs some work, judging by the dry breast slices I got. Chopped smoked chicken thighs sound like a winning non-red meat alternative, though I haven’t tried them yet. I’ll get them next time, along with the smoked sausage that gets rave reviews, but was sold out by the time we made our way to the front of the line.
Barbecue is sold by weight (ribs by the bone) and served on butcher paper-lined metal trays, allowing you to mix and match your way to barbecue bliss. The order comes with cornbread, and you can round out your meal with optional sides, with winners including collard greens cooked with country ham hocks, potato salad with house pickles, and a distinctive Brunswick stew (they sneak a little brisket in there).
The chalkboard menu also lists several sandwiches, ranging from smoked chicken salad on toast to the aptly named Fat Redneck (sliced brisket, pulled pork and braised collards on a big soft roll).
If the “meat candy” primed your sweet tooth for more sugar, skip the ordinary banana pudding and go for the house-made 10-layer chocolate cake. It’s a nostalgic taste of family reunions and pot luck suppers, and — if you’re from around these parts — pig pickin’s.
Correction: The Skylight Inn is operated by Sam Jones, his father, Bruce Jones and uncle, Jeff Jones. A previous version incorrectly said Sam Jones inherited the restaurant when his grandfather died.