Carolina Pitmasters Share Their Favorite Places to Eat Barbecue
We can practically smell the smoker.
Plenty of barbecue experts will gladly tell you about North Carolina barbecue. Those experts generally aren’t from North Carolina. As every North Carolina barbecue devotee knows, it’s a misnomer to assign a single name to the pork smoked across the state. There’s Lexington-style in the Piedmont distinguished by pork shoulder and a sweetish sauce, and Eastern-style barbecue, or whole hog sauced with vinegar, closer to the coast. A fan of one method would no sooner abide the other than a University of North Carolina fan would root for Duke.
“People hold firm to those traditions,” says Ryan Mitchell, a third-generation pit master who with his father, the legendary Ed Mitchell, is developing a new restaurant in Raleigh. The Mitchells are now revising planned elements, such as a communal pig-picking bar, in light of social distancing recommendations. “It’s a thing you grow up on.”
Regional loyalty is one of the defining aspects of North Carolina barbecue, as is reverence for the centuries-old practice of cooking pig over wood smoke. “That’s a legacy that has a lot more historical conversation about it,” Mitchell says before sprinting through references to the preservative properties of vinegar -- trade routes connecting North Carolina with the Caribbean and his ancestors, enslaved laborers forced to mind the pit.
Across the border in South Carolina, barbecue preferences are no longer so geographically rigid. As modern restaurant culture has pervaded the state’s barbecue scene, even longstanding joints have started experimenting with different cuts and sauces. Right up until the coronavirus curtailed the nation’s beef supply, it was possible to order brisket at Melvin’s BBQ. The Charleston County restaurant is owned by David Bessinger, whose grandfather famously originated mustard-based barbecue sauce in 1939.
“Now I know some people don’t like sauce mixed with meat, but that’s the way my granddaddy did it and we never looked back,” says Bessinger, one of many South Carolina barbecue practitioners with ties to the Orangeburg family.
Mustard and the Bessingers are what most people associate with South Carolina barbecue, but the genre has two other hallmarks. Only in South Carolina is barbecue commonly presented on a buffet, usually in the company of fried chicken, fried fish, and an array of vegetables. Among those items is hash, the slow-simmered pig part gravy that’s always paired with rice. Even Bessinger, whose name is synonymous with mustard sauce, allows that hash is what makes South Carolina barbecue so special.
With the help of these Carolina barbecue experts, we’ve curated a list of the best places to get smoked meat across both states. While some of these spots might be off the beaten path, these restaurants were chosen to represent the history and diversity of each state’s barbecue traditions, and for their reputations as producers of the region's highest-quality barbecue.
North CarolinaLexington Barbecue
Wayne Monk, who in 1962 opened the joint known locally as “The Monk,” doesn’t shy away from ketchup: It goes in the sauce, it goes in the slaw, and you’ll probably want a portion with your fries. But it’s the shoulder cooked over oak coals that made Monk famous.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
Shelby’s two great contributions to 20th-century American culture were Earl Scruggs, born in 1924, and Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, born in 1946. Masters of Piedmont-style pork shoulder, Red Bridges is renowned for its “outside brown,” or lean meat ruddied by smoke.
Backyard BBQ Pit
One-time American Idol star Clay Aiken was reportedly the first Backyard BBQ Pit customer to sign the wall at Backyard BBQ Pit, which also keeps a steam table stocked with Southern classics. He thought the owners would appreciate his autograph -- those who’ve followed his lead just want to show they appreciate great barbecue.
Home to superlative hush puppies and peach cobbler that rates among the state’s best, Stamey’s has been serving chopped and sliced pork shoulder since 1938. Now supervised by founder Warner Stamey’s grandson, Stamey’s is still smoking its meat over bunt-down hickory wood.
Sam Jones BBQ Restaurant
A prime example of contemporary Carolina barbecue presentation, Sam Jones BBQ Restaurant serves alcohol; accepts credit cards and lists both small plates and salads on its menu. But Jones smokes whole hogs just the way his grandfather, Pete Jones, did at the famed (and still operating) Skylight Inn in nearby Ayden.
South CarolinaSweatman’s BBQ
Like many of the nation’s greatest barbecue institutions, Sweatman’s keeps very short hours: The restaurant is open exclusively on Fridays and Saturdays. But customers can go through the buffet line as many times as they’d like, so they don’t have to skimp on the magnificent pulled pork to make room for hash or banana pudding.
Rodney Scott is easily the biggest barbecue star to emerge from South Carolina in years: The pitmaster’s name now graces restaurants from Atlanta to Birmingham. But he got his start at this convenience store owned by his parents, where the whole hog is still cooked over wood and rubbed with a satisfyingly immodest amount of pepper.
The incomparable Moree’s was so missed by customers when it closed briefly during the coronavirus outbreak that the restaurant set a record the weekend it reopened, selling 500 plates of Donald Moree’s barbecue. Moree also makes a pristine hash, following the recipe his parents worked out when they opened the white cinderblock restaurant in 1964.
Although Schoolhouse is a relative newcomer, dating back only to 1994, it’s hailed by residents of the Pee Dee region as one of the finest purveyors of pulled pork and liver hash. Schoolhouse is also an ideal place to get an education in other Palmetto State icons, including cane syrup, chicken bog and, on Friday nights, deviled crabs.
If a visitor to South Carolina could only have one barbecue meal, it would be a mistake to not take it at McCabe’s, where the wood-cooked barbecue is an exceptional alchemy of smoke, pepper, vinegar, and fat. McCabe’s also makes terrific fried chicken, greens and hash, and if you need something more elaborate to serve at a family reunion, you can bring in a ham or turkey for the restaurant to prepare.
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