The battle between Eastern Carolina whole hog vs. Western Piedmont shoulders is an age old feud. Advocates of whole hog claim that the varying textures and fats coming from the both dark and light meats found throughout a pig, chopped and mixed together, will create a more complex array of flavors. Those from the Piedmont say that the higher fat content and dark meat of the shoulder will yield a richer and more satisfying result. One thing is usually undisputed, though: no matter what style your preference, any great barbeque must be cooked with wood, under low temperatures and over a long period of time to impart a mandatory smoke element as well as to slowly and naturally tenderize and break down the meat.
I’ve had a strong desire for awhile now to do a BBQ road trip in North Carolina, one where I could compare mostly wood-burning BBQ establishments of the Piedmont (Lexington and its environs) to those operating in Eastern Carolina (basically east of Raleigh-Durham). I’ve had my fair share of Eastern Carolina Barbecue
over the years and yet not once had I ever made a pork pilgrimage to the western stretches of the state. My reason for not going there are obvious to anyone who’s ever spent anytime there. My good friend of almost thirty years who grew up in Smithfield (eastern North Carolina) could never see a legitimate reason for us going to the Piedmont, asking me whenever the subject arose “Who in the hell would want ketchup in their barbecue?”. Longstanding divisions between the Eastern and western BBQ worlds are real. My efforts to convince him to check out the world of Piedmont barbecue were always futile.
I finally demanded that we check out what’s happening in enemy territory. We plotted a barbeque road trip that would encapsulate highly praised and notable places from both Eastern Carolina and Western Carolina (the Piedmont) to sample in succession their differences as well as similarities. The Pit (Raleigh, NC)
Raleigh hit it big when they convinced Ed Mitchell, the former great pit master and owner of Mitchell’s BBQ in Wilson, NC to head to the big city. Mitchell uses all natural pigs raised on a farm somewhere near the Greensboro area. They aren’t all shot up with the usual hormones, antibiotics, or other bullshit that most other pigs are usually subjected to. And unlike most other former wood-burning places in town (and in nearby Durham), The Pit still insists on cooking its whole hogs in the traditional Eastern Carolina fashion - meaning low and slow over wood coals, even though they’re within the city limits . The end result is exquisite tasting barbeque. This is absolutely delicious high-grade pork— moist on its own, but also properly anointed with the classic Eastern-style vinegar/pepper sauce. Its high moisture quotient definitely contains a respectable level of fat but is largely derived from the pig’s natural juices. This is some of the tastiest pork I’ve had anywhere. Unfortunately, the portion sizes were ridiculously small, a Depression-era ration at best. The hush puppies, however, were amongst the best (if not the best) anywhere and the other sides (green bean casserole, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac n cheese, and potato salad) were all good to excellent. Mitchell’s spare ribs are the totally fall-off-the-bone variety with a semi-leathery outer texture and pleasant pull. They’re tasty but the overall mouth feel was not to my liking.
The Pit is a must-stop. You might not groove on the more well-groomed appearance of the place but the higher-than-normal quality of his product is evident. This is a welcome addition to the shortlist of first-rate barbecue places found in North Carolina.
Note the coal vault doors found on the lower portion of the pit. This allows fresh coals to be fed into the pit without causing spent ash to be agitated and fly upwards onto the BBQ. Most pitmen of Eastern Carolina don’t work with a pit with this feature and are forced to pour the hot coals from above, a less desirable method.
***Piedmont Region BBQ RestaurantsStamey's (Greensboro, NC)
Warner Stamey bought his BBQ business back in the 1930s from his boss, Jess Swicegood, often considered one of the founders of Lexington-style barbeque. Storied history or not, this place was a massive disappointment serving low-quality chopped pork and being almost totally void of flavor. Their overly sweet, ketchup ladened coleslaw was inedible and the overall service here was clearly unenthused. The boys out back in their smokehouse appeared equally unmotivated. Stamey’s is unquestionably riding on their laurels.Lexington BBQ #1 (a.k.a. Monk's in Lexington , NC)
Now this is what a true BBQ place is all about. From start to finish, every employee could not have been friendlier and more accommodating (contrary to Stamey's where frowns and limpness prevailed). I got a tray of chopped pork with “outside brown”, the dark meat found on the outer portion of the shoulder. These outside brown pieces were chopped in beautiful small chunks that were mixed in with the interior pig. This pork was so good, in fact, that we ordered another tray. The actual quality of the pork wasn't in The Pit’s league, but Monk's execution with what appeared to be a standard hog was far better than what is usually found with a comparable starting product. The hush puppies were to my liking even though the other boys thought they were pretty standard fare. The ketchup-based red coleslaw served here (and almost everywhere else throughout the Piedmont) is way too over-the-top sweet for my palate.
Rick Monk proudly showed us his smoke pits and gave us a nice tour around. Afterwards, we all walked out of there buzzing. This is one of the very best run BBQ places I’ve experienced anywhere with excellent barbeque that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the NC Piedmont.
John T Edge describes Monk’s smokehouse as “an oversize dairy barn with a six-chimney nuclear reactor tacked onto the backside.”
Chopped BBQ with “outside brown”. Though it doesn’t look like much from this picture, there was a good reason why we ordered another half-pound tray; damn good stuff.
Rick Monk, son of the legendary BBQ man and founder of Lexington BBQ #1, Wayne Monk, proudly shows off his finished pork shoulders. Cooking shoulders like this is standard in the Piedmont region. The use of cardboard as a cover serves a dual purpose; it helps keep ash from circulating upwards and clinging to the barbeque as well as being a better insulator of heat than metal. Surprisingly, it rarely catches on fire.Tar Heel Q (Lexington, NC)
Driving up and smelling the barbecue in the air from the parking lot, our hopes were high...until we actually ate the stuff. We had the coarse chopped outside brown pork, daily rib special, and a chopped pork sandwich. The large chunks of coarse chopped pork were stringy and dried out and tasted like it was day old and cooked at much too high a temperature. I hate to say it but it reminded me of many aquarium-smoked BBQ places found in Chicago that cook their pork far too rapidly, causing a similar type outcome. Don’t lynch me, please.
The sandwich had far too much sweet coleslaw on it and the pork was flavorless cotton candy. The ribs were also dried-out and drowned in a thick slather of BBQ sauce. The meat was served with standard-issue hush puppies and sweet, red slaw. Tar Heel Q was filled with many locals and undoubtedly has its admirers. Why, I’ll never know. My meal was a total mess. Cook's BBQ (Lexington, NC)
This is an out-in-the-country cabin with many local municipal employees (fire, police, ambulance drivers) dining here for lunch. Excellent chopped pork sandwich. Nice pork flavor and respectable slaw. Sliced pork sandwich was also enjoyable but served a hair on the cool side. Good flavor, though. The BBQ chicken (dark) was exceptionally moist and beautifully smoked. Ross said that this was some of the best chicken he'd ever had. Good hush puppies, too. They're doing a lot right here. Cook’s is very good and definitely worth taking a nice country ride for. Backcountry BBQ (Lexington, NC)
Good thing we hit this place on $2 pork sandwich day (Wednesday's). The sandwiches were so good we just kept ordering them. The young waitress was convinced that the fat Yankee doing the ordering (me) was getting them all for himself (not true). We had about 7-8 coarse chopped outside brown sandwiches. Although slightly dried out and light in texture, being coupled with their not-overly-sweet coleslaw brought out its subtle porky smokiness well. A bit salty, though. The skin sandwich was crispy and very enjoyable. I also enjoyed their grilled hamburger (topped with chili and slaw). As usual, the sides lacked in offerings (just the standard baked beans, coleslaw, hush puppies, fries, etc.). I enjoyed this place a lot and the beautiful Piedmont countryside was a pleasant bonus.
Backcountry BBQ is owned by Doug Cook Sr. (Doug Cook Jr.'s father from Cook's BBQ nearby). Senior has apparently moved away from cooking solely with wood to using a hybrid electric/wood contraption he designed himself. Overall, Backcountry BBQ is not as solid as Cook's BBQ, but isn’t too far off.
BBQ pork skin sandwich with red coleslaw.
The absence of greens with seemingly little emphasis on decent sides turned out to be my biggest complaint about the Piedmont BBQ culture.
***Eastern Carolina BBQ RestaurantsAllen & Son (Chapel Hill, NC)
Going into this road trip, I knew that my long-standing love affair with Allen & Son’s BBQ would be put to the test after hitting a number of the other truly great barbeque places throughout the country. However, I’m glad to report that Keith Allen’s slow wood-cooked pork is better than I even remembered. Looking back on this roadtrip, Allen & Son was the only place where I savored each and every bite, hoping to extend a beautifully crafted meal for as long as possible.
Mr. Allen told us that although he will cook whole hog by special request, he believes that his best barbeque results come from using strictly pork shoulders. He also told us that he is dead set against the idea of adding pork skins to the finished chopped product, being extremely unhealthy. The pork is visibly darker than any I’ve seen elsewhere, containing a disproportionately large amount of outside brown compared to anywhere else I’ve tried. It is lusciously moist without being excessively fatty.
Besides The Pit in Raleigh, Allen & Son has the best hush puppies I know of in North Carolina. Their Brunswick stew (made with pork, lima beans, potatoes, corn, and slight tomato) is almost as good as the pork—it’s thick and tasty but not being overly sweet. Their excellent coleslaw is sweet, but not too, a rarity in this state. Allen & Son is well known for their marvelous homemade desserts, made in-house from old family recipes—
blueberry and chess pie, fruit cobblers, cream cheese pound cake, and ice cream to name a few. A wooded location, friendly wait staff and exemplary food make Allen & Son one of my favorite barbecue restaurants in North Carolina.
Keith Allen, owner & pit master extraordinaire
My travel companions, Ross & my namesake, Rob Lampe. To avoid confusion during the road trip, young Rob became known as “Skinny Rob” and me “Fat Rob”.
Don’t be thrown off by the pleated pants. Ross’ manliness will be assured as he has plans to slay a wild boar either with an aboriginal tribe in Australia’s Outback or more locally somewhere in the wilds of Eastern North Carolina.
According to Ross, one of the criteria for an honest beast slaying is the making your own spear.
Stellar hush puppies—its only serious challenger is “The Pit”.
Check out this wonderful interview with owner Keith Allen
by the Southern Foodways Alliance (Amy Evans)B’s Barbecue (Greenville, NC)
Having heard big praise about B’s over the years from different sources and being under the impression that they use wood, they have been on my short list of BBQ places to check out in NC. However, I feared the dark clouds ahead when I spotted the bag of Kingsford charcoal sitting just outside the smokehouse. Although many legitimate wood-burning places will often times start up fires with charcoal, I knew this wasn’t the case here when I spotted numerous bags stacked high inside the pit room. B’s does cook whole hog. Their BBQ chicken, apparently a local favorite usually runs out early. Hence, the big line that formed at their takeout window immediately after 11:00.
I got the BBQ pork/chicken combo. It looked like hell and didn’t taste any better. The chicken was spent and smokeless and the pork was indistinguishable in flavor from the chicken! I swear if you blindfolded somebody, they wouldn’t have a clue whether they were eating one or the other. Like other BBQ places in the area (Parker’s), cornsticks (not to be confused with the sniffin’ stick
) are served instead of the more typical hush puppies. Although novel, these things were a greazy mess.
The fact that we had to get there at 11:00 or face a massive line out the door is truly befuddling. B’s is a classic rural BBQ shack and an absolute local favorite, but I have to say that it isn’t worth going out of your way for.
Note the bag of Kingsford near the front door of their smokehouse. I believe at one time B’s used wood.
The cornsticks were disgustingly greasy. Pete Jones Skylight Inn (Ayden, NC)
BBQ mavens far and wide have long been singing praise for Pete Jones Skylight Inn BBQ located in the Eastern North Carolina town of Ayden. Besides Bum’s BBQ (also in Ayden), I am not aware of any other place in this country that still cooks true whole hog (head
, tail, and all) over burned down hardwood coals (anyone?).
Pete Jones came up with the name “Skylight Inn” since the restaurant was used as a guiding landmark for an airport that once existed out back. As Jones the younger (Sam) told me, his family initially got started in the 1830s when Skilton Dennis (7 generations earlier), supplied his barbeque for the annual bible convention held in Ayden (known back then as Ottertown). Accolades for his barbecue were so great that he eventually bought a nearby building and started a year round business. The modern incarnation came by way of Pete Jones (Skilton’s great-great grandson) who in 1947 originally opened up a hot dog and hamburger joint that also served barbeque. After a few years, the demand for the ‘cue was so great that he decided to stick exclusively to pork.
If you’ve read virtually anything about Eastern Carolina BBQ or have visited there, you probably know that the Skylight Inn is the self-subscribed "BBQ capital of the world", feeling at liberty to do so after a glowing 1979 BBQ article about them in National Geographic. Winning a James Beard award in 2003 didn’t hurt their egos either. Even so, on my first visit there I had had a sub-marginal experience there, chalking it up to being the last customers for the day and getting nothing more than the leftover scraps saved for the unknowing Yankee. But being a wood-burner and having continuously heard high praise about it from most sources, I thought it was only fair to retry this pillar/crowd-favorite this time around as well.
I remember on my last visit being turned off by the chopped skin added to the pork. If blindfolded, I’d swear you’d think you were eating small bits of room-temperature plastic. I could certainly see how their subtly smoked pork could be to one’s liking on its own but taking into consideration these plastic bits, a nondescript coleslaw and the spongiest of the spongy white buns, you get nothing more than a sub-par chopped pork sandwich. And having gone in town to Bum's BBQ immediately afterwards, it strongly confirmed my suspicions that the locals were in full agreement with this assessment. The Skylight Inn is for the tourist but Bum's is still their self-appointed community eatery and meeting place. Besides one table of maybe 3 or 4 locals, the only other people in the Skylight Inn appeared to be outsiders.
Skylight has some personality, I'll give it that. If you enjoy checking out pit operations, they provide one of the better and more entertaining smokehouses. But everything happening upfront was average at best, at least in terms of those still willing to attempt real wood-cooked whole hog BBQ which in this day in age is few and far between. Maybe that's worth something in and of itself. Did I forget to mention that my culinarily-intrepid collegiate travel companion, “Skinny Rob,” literally had to spit out his only bite of their famous sliced cornbread?
Notice how the coals are added from above. Barbeque men such as Rick Monk’s (Lexington BBQ #1) or Ed Mitchell (The Pit) discourage this practice fearing ash hitting their barbeque.
It is virtually inevitable that a BBQ smokehouse have a highly destructive grease fire. This was the Skylight’s last one. This smokehouse was abandoned and a new one was built nearby. Bum’s BBQ (Ayden, NC)
Right down the country rode and just in town is Bum’s BBQ, a place I’ve eagerly wanted to try since learning of its amazing family history some years back. As mentioned above, its owner, Latham Dennis, is also a direct descendent (7 or 8 generations) of Skilton Dennis. Although I couldn’t get the exact Dennis family history pre-1900, according to Shirley Dennis (Latham’s wife), Bruce Jones, and Sam Jones ( Pete Jones’ grandson), there is an unbroken succession of whole hog making traditions in this family since Skilton Dennis in the 1830’s.
Latham Dennis is Pete Jones’ cousin. Unfortunately, Jones died in 2006.
When we arrived, the place was buzzing at high noon with what appeared to be nothing but locals waiting in the buffet line with most tables occupied. Ayden is the self-designated “Collard Capital of the World”, holding the annual Ayden Collard Festival
every September after Labor Day (don’t miss the pictures of the Collard Queens found in the “Photo Galleries”). Ayden produces a unique and wonderful local variety called cabbage collards, which are lighter in style than mustard, turnip, or the more commonly found collard greens found elsewhere. Trying these cabbage collards are reason enough to go to Bum’s despite the fact that their whole hog pork sandwich was pretty dried out and the other sides (green beans, black-eyed peas, and coleslaw) were equally unimpressive.
Head-on whole hog.
The cabbage greens shown here are a real treat.Wilber’s Barbeque (Goldsboro, NC)
I’ve been to Wilber’s virtually every time I’ve gone down to North Carolina. Conveniently located off I-70, many barbeque lovers in the state try to make a stop here on their way to and from the Outer Banks. I like stopping there just to check out the beautiful smoke pits out back. Wilber’s is a classic whole hog, oak-burning BBQ lodge. Wood-paneled in 50s Michigan red pine, Wilber’s is an inviting place that is well-worn and homey.
When I go to Wilber’s, my usual order is the chicken/pork combo. If I’m feeling like a heifer or just giddy from the excitement of being there, I’ll throw in some fried livers for good measure. The chicken is all right, though it usually tastes like it was batch-made every morning and held to serve throughout the day. The skin was greasy and the meat a tad dry, I still enjoy it as a chaser to their stellar, smoky, peppery pulled pork. It is juicy with a very likeable pork profile. The sides here are nothing to brag about and their Brunswick stew is a dead ringer for Campbell’s vegetable soup. A visit to Wilber’s is entirely about the high-quality pork.
For a chain, gas-cooked barbeque operation, I find myself always pleasantly satisfied with the BBQ pork sandwich with coleslaw on offer at Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q
found throughout Eastern North Carolina. It’s not as good as most wood-smoked pork but if you’re on the run, it’s a satisfying simple pleasure.
After trying eleven places in both the Piedmont and Eastern Carolina, the shining stars overall were The Pit (Raleigh) and Allen & Son (Chapel Hill) with honorable mentions going to Lexington Barbecue #1 (Monk’s in Lexington). All three of these places had distinctly different attributes but undoubtedly stellar pork. As for resolving the debate, between East vs. West, great barbecue can be had in both areas.BBQ Roadtrip Route - Google MapsThe Pit
328 W. Davie St.
(919) 890-4500Stamey’s BBQ
2812 Battleground Avenue
(336) 288-9275Lexington BBQ #1 ( Monk’s )
10 Hwy 29-70 South
(336) 249-9814Tar Heel Q
6835 W US Highway 64
(336) 787-4550Cook’s BBQ
366 Valiant Dr
(336) 798-1928Backcountry BBQ
4014 Lindwood Southmont Rd
(336) 956-1696Allen & Son
6203 Millhouse Rd
Chapel Hill, NC
(919) 942-7576B’s Barbecue
No PhoneSkylight Inn
1501 Lee St
(252) 746-4113Bum’s Barbecue
115 E. Third Street
(252) 746-6880Wilber’s Barbeque
4172 US Highway 70 E