These Pitmaster-Approved BBQ Joints in the Carolinas Are Worth the Road Trip
Everything but the squeal.
Barbecue is its own religion in the South, a region where smokestacks and rib joints sing their sauce-laden siren songs from the mountains to the coast and every pocket in between. And in the Carolinas, the cuisine in all its meaty multitudes invariably evokes passionate and heated debate, as its precise definition varies wildly depending on who you ask.
“Barbecue is based on geography and what piece of dirt you happen to be standing on,” says Sam Jones, third-generation pitmaster and owner of North Carolina’s dual-location Sam Jones BBQ. “It’s subject to change based on 50 to 100 miles from where you are.”
The Jones family has long been a fixture of the state’s barbecue landscape, a standing that dates back to 1947 when Sam’s grandfather Pete opened Ayden, NC’s legendary Skylight Inn. According to the seasoned ‘cue expert, the capital city Raleigh marks the approximate line of demarcation between shoulder- and whole hog-focused cooking in North Carolina, but those same lines have begun to blur over the last decade or so as barbecue continues its modern day renaissance.
If we’re sticking with tradition, North Carolina’s scene can be broken down into Lexington-style and Piedmont-style: “The main difference is the introduction of tomato in the sauce in the Piedmont region,” says Jones. “In Eastern North Carolina, where vinegar is the main component, we do use a sauce with tomato for our ribs, but not in our main dish. It’s a different style of barbecue—they still cook over a wood fire, but they cook shoulders when we cook whole hogs.” As for Brandon Shepard, of Shepard’s Barbecue in Emerald Isle, Grady’s BBQ in Dudley (about an hour and a half away from his restaurant) is the standard for barbecue. “It’s tradition, history, and culture wrapped into one,” he says. “Where do you find the actual pitmaster still cooking their own BBQ, not to mention at 87 years of age.”
Across the border in South Carolina, barbecue remains a serious subject, though the climate is markedly more lax when it comes to such strict divides. The key distinction arrives covered in sauce—vinegar-based or mustard-based, to be precise. “If you’re comparing my style and [celebrated pitmaster] Rodney Scott’s, the main difference is what we do after we take the hog off the grill,” Jones explains. “Rodney’s sauce is still vinegar-based, but his is spicier and more peppery, and he pulls his pork and doesn’t chop it like we do.”
Beyond the sauce, Scott and his fellow Palmetto Staters generally take a more forward-thinking approach, incorporating alternative cuts, inventive sides, and all sorts of flavors and spices. Case in point? You can’t talk about South Carolina barbecue without giving a shout-out to BBQ hash. The signature dish is typically made from diced pork and potatoes, cooked chili-style in cast-iron over a wood-fueled fire, and served over a bed of rice. It’s an instant crowd-charmer, so much so that pitmaster Rich Pettitt, a pitmaster and a man who’s driven across the country in pursuit of barbecue, makes a point to call the mustard-forward version peddled by Dowd’s BBQ Hash in Newberry, SC “highly addictive.”
As for the ever-iconic Rodney Scott, who's been working the pits since he was a child, it all comes down to the sense of terroir. “When it comes to BBQ I enjoy it all, they all have a unique taste to them,” says Scott, who runs James Beard award-winning Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston. The one big difference? “Location!” he says. Like all good things, the Carolinas’ barbecue scene continues to grow, evolve, and adapt. A wide range of barbecue restaurants are now scattered throughout the bigger cities, keeping the tradition alive while adding a modern-day perspective.
Judging from the success and prowess of relative newcomers across the Carolinas, like Asheville’s Buxton Hall, Jon G’s in Peachland, and Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, the future shines brighter than pork fat dripping on live coals. Jones commends Buxton Hall’s Elliot Moss for cranking out solid whole hog ‘cue while managing to put his own spin on it, while Lewis Barbecue pitmaster John Lewis echoes the sentiment. "Elliot was one of the first Carolina-based barbecue guys I connected with and he was really welcoming," he says. "He’s doing things his own way and I really respect how versatile the menu is."
North or South, East or West, Low Country, High Country, Piedmont, or Lexington: if it’s Carolina-born barbecue, odds are it slaps. This summer, roll up your sleeves, hop in a car (preferably with stellar AC as the meat sweats are real) and get ready for a multi-day barbecue marathon through the Carolinas.
The basics: A South Carolina native, chef and pitmaster Elliott Moss brings a taste of whole hog barbecue to Asheville. Succulent pulled pork, festooned with a tangy mop sauce, is why most people come. But don’t sleep on the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, smoked sausage platter, and fried catfish sandwich. The sides are just as stellar as the meat, too, with dishes like chicken bog and South Carolina-style hash topping the list complemented by well-prepared renditions of classic Southern desserts like banana pudding pie.
What the pitmasters say: "Elliot Moss is like the Andre 3000 of BBQ," says Brandon Shepard, of Emerald Isle’s Shepard Barbecue. "I go for the whole hog and then remember the hash—that stuff is too good for so many not to know about it—and then there’s the chicken sandwich that made me stop making chicken sandwiches. It’s like stepping into Moss’ mind."
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast.
The basics: A staple since the ‘80s, Grady’s is a straightforward, no-frills, good old-fashioned barbecue one-stop-shop. Not only is it one of just a handful of original whole hog smokehouses left standing, but it’s also the only Black-owned whole hog operation in the entire Tarheel state. The prized swine are cooked over wood in a pit behind the restaurant, making the BBQ pork dinner plate and BBQ sandwich the most popular items. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll finish with a slice of creamy sweet potato pie.
What the pitmasters say: “They cook whole hogs the old-school way, one of those benchmarks of North Carolina barbecue that unfortunately goes away,” says Jones of Sam Jones BBQ. “And, they’re just good people,” he adds. Shepard always orders the whole hog BBQ plate for the “beautifully cooked whole hog with crispy pieces mixed in.” But don’t overlook the fried chicken, he says, “Word is that’s the secret MVP over there.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or call 919-735-7243 for take-out.
The basics: Pitmaster Wayne Monk, who opened the Lexington hub everyone knows simply as “the Monk” back in 1962, doesn’t shy away from ketchup. The sweet-and-salty condiment goes in the sauce, it goes in the slaw, and you’ll probably need a pump or two for your fries. But it’s the hefty pork shoulder, smoked slow-and-low over oak coals, that truly put Monk on the map.
What the pitmasters say: “There aren’t many places that have remained the same since they started, and that family has held the same standard this whole time,” remarks Jones. “From what I know, they’re great people, down to earth, and they still cook barbecue the way their grandaddy did, over wood. I say kudos to them—they do a great job.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or call 336-249-9814 for take-out.
Sam Jones BBQ
The basics: A prime example of Carolina barbecue’s leap into the 21st century, Sam Jones BBQ serves alcohol, accepts credit cards, and lists both small plates and salads on the menu. But don’t let the newfangled additions fool you—Jones smokes his whole hogs the same exact way his grandfather Pete once did at the famed (and still operating) Skylight Inn in nearby Ayden.
What the pitmasters say: "I love the way that they not only put coleslaw on the sandwiches, but also have chopped up skin mixed in with the pork—delicious,” says Scott. "Sam and I have been on the barbecue circuit together for a while now and I’ve always been impressed with his attention to detail and commitment to the craft," adds Lewis. "His whole hog is some of the best I’ve ever tried and I appreciate how he’s combined his old-school roots with a modern menu."
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out online.
City Limits Barbeque
The basics: Helmed by pitmaster Robbie Robinson, this popular food truck is known statewide for its Texas and Carolina-style barbecue. The spread features wood-smoked meats accompanied by a roster of scratchmade sides that change frequently. And when they sell out, that’s all, folks, so be prepared to show up early or risk leaving empty handed.
What the pitmasters say: Pettit calls this ambitious venture “a contender for the best brisket in South Carolina,” and advises hungry hopefuls to “check Instagram or join the email list for the schedule—Robinson pops up on Saturdays—and snag a beef rib when you see them on the menu.”
How to book: Track down the truck on Twitter or Instagram for counter service.
Home Team BBQ
The basics: On the progressive end of the smoky spectrum sits Home Team Barbecue, a six-location empire hard-bent on marrying age-old traditions with the trends of today. Think: Slow-cooked meats galore, but also tacos, wraps, and comfort food-inspired snacks plus a fun beverage menu with an expansive Whiskey selection and frozen cocktails.
What the pitmasters say: Scott enthusiastically recommends “their wings, pork sandwich, and of course, Boudin balls.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast.
The basics: Texas native John Lewis, whose resume boasts stints at Austin gamechangers La Barbecue and Franklin Barbecue, continues to shake up South Carolina's ‘cue scene by cooking some of the region’s very best brisket inside his meticulous, custom-built smokers. Pulled pork and spare ribs are a vision, however, the beef short ribs (when available), Texas hot gut sausages, and juicy turkey will keep you coming back for more..
What the pitmasters say: “Lewis Barbecue is innovation—it’s Texas mixed with the Carolinas and a hint of New Mexico,” says Shepard. “The Brisket is king there but do yourself a favor and grab some of the green chile corn pudding.” Pettitt also puts his stamp of approval on the green chile corn pudding, a mess of cheesy cornbread peppered with verdant Hatch chiles.
How to book it: Stop by for first come, first served seating and order inside, order take-out via Toast, or get nationwide shipping online.
Swig & Swine
The basics: With three locations scattered throughout Charleston, pitmaster Anthony DiBernardo brings house-smoked meats and sides with a twist to South Carolina. The menu features all the meat you could ever dream up, including pulled pork, turkey, chicken, brisket, sausage, and more, but fans constantly gravitate toward DiBernardo’s smoked chicken wings, corn pudding, and peanut butter pie.
What the pitmasters say: "I'll either grab their turkey or pulled pork,” says Scott. “They also have mouthwatering chunks of belly that are incredible.”
How to book it: Stop by for first come, first served seating.
Jon G's Barbeque
The basics: Garren “Jon G” and Kelly Kirkman's story starts out with an unparalleled love for brisket. And, after years of working around the clock while also slinging their precious barbecue meat as a side hustle, Jon G's came to life in 2020. The beef is the belle of the ball, but the Porky B tacos and every single side on the menu should also make your list. Jon G’s opens its doors on Saturdays only—and by the time 11 am approaches, be prepared to find a lengthy line of locals and BBQ enthusiasts tailgating.
What the pitmasters say: "My guy, Garren Kirkman, is so next level right now," says Shepard. "His brisket is Texas Monthly-certified and his ribs are ridiculous—if you want a Texas experience in North Carolina, this is the spot."
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating.
The basics: Jake Wood doesn’t want to be called a pitmaster, but his BBQ roots run deep. He grew up cooking whole hogs at family functions. A chef by trade, Wood dreamed up Lawrence Barbecue, a nod to his passion for BBQ, cooking, and family recipes. The restaurant officially opened in 2021, after many successful pop-ups, at Boxyard RTP, a mixed-use shipping container space in the heart of Research Triangle Park—where locals line up consistently for Texas-style brisket, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and inventive sides. Wood is also obsessed with oysters, so you’ll see North Carolina oysters in both raw and grilled form, adding his version of surf n’ turf to the mix. Make sure to arrive on the earlier side of both lunch and dinner, since this place regularly sells out of food.
What the pitmasters say: “Lawrence has a cool experience,” says Pettitt. “Their specials are not to be missed and neither are the N'icees” (Wood’s version of ICEE slushies). Locals rave about the smoked meats but also the Mac ‘n Cheese Zapp’s Voodoo Potato Chip Crumble, the Party Wings, Deviled Egg Potato Salad, and Broccoli Caesar.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first serve seating or order take-out via Toast
The basics: Committed to the craft of barbecue, pitmaster Brandon Shepard focuses on the old school techniques of wood, fire, and lots of TLC—he even sources heritage breed animals from around the state. Check out the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier and then hit Shepard Barbecue for some road trip-worthy cue. The brisket and pork are heavy hitters, otherwise, the menu changes on the regular based on what’s readily available. It opens at 11 am Wednesday through Saturday until sold out, but given the demand, you’ll want to plan to grub on the earlier side.
What the experts say: “Brandon Shepard is one of the most talented individuals in the game,” says Jake Wood of Lawrence Barbecue. “He and his wife are amazing people and they’ve worked extremely hard to make noise in an area that is a few years behind, as far as the food scene goes.” People line up for the smoked meats but Shepard’s pimento mac ‘n cheese, pork sausage and Fried Chicken Fridays are also a treat.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served or call 910-546-8184 for take-out.
The basics: Sid’s, an Eastern North Carolina institution, is only open on Saturday mornings. That’s right, just one day a week. The cash-only joint unlatches its doors at 8 am until sold out, which, which usually happens by 10 a.m, if not earlier. It's wise to plan this stop ahead as it is a true ‘cue experience. The draw is the whole hog, cooked with Kingsford charcoal, in the OG pits as seen at spots like Grady’s and Skylight Inn.
What the pitmasters say: Pettitt stresses ordering the whole hog, obviously, but don’t forget to ask for bits of the skin. “Also check out the smokehouse,” says Pettitt. “You might even see Sid back there—he’s a little old [Eastern North Carolina] man and happy to talk BBQ with you.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first serve seating and definitely get there early.
The basics: Tay Nelson wasn’t born into a barbecue family but curiosity and drive led him to learn how to smoke meats through watching endless YouTube videos and learning from BBQ veterans. He practiced by making barbecue for his wife Sarah to satisfy her frequent pregnancy BBQ cravings. The duo now head up Bobby’s BBQ, named after Tay’s late father and brother, in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Bobby's All-Purpose Seasoning is said to be the secret ingredient in all of the meats and sides, which is now not-so-secret and available for purchase for all meat-loving people fans. While the hours are Thursday through Saturday, from 11 am to 8 pm, the good stuff usually sells out way before closing time.
What the experts say: “The brisket and pork are both delicious—but don’t sleep on the sausage or the turkey,” says chef Anthony Gray, of Stella’s Southern Brasserie in Greenville, South Carolina (previously of Bacon Bros.). The massive beef ribs, when available, are also a hit.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first serve seating or order take-out online.