Pass the wet wipes because it’s BBQ time! The locals call it gettin’ their ‘Q – and for North Carolinian’s, barbeque is a staple that’s been enjoyed for generations. Not surprisingly, many of the best barbeque joints have also been family-owned for years. From chopped pork and ribs, Brunswick stew, baked beans, cole slaw, boiled potatoes, collard greens, black eyed peas, okra, chitlins, and hushpuppies to pecan pie, peach cobbler, and banana pudding – the menu variety is purely southern and 100% delicious. Wash that down with a refreshing glass of sweet tea (with lemon or without), and you’ve got the makings of some finger lickin’ favorites.
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TOWARD THE COAST
Grandpa’s Kitchen (Halifax County)
Near Lake Gaston, this quaint place makes you feel at home and offers some rare but delicious turkey barbeque. Family-run, they are only open for business Thursday-Sunday, 11am-8pm. Locals will warn you, though, that it’s a standard post-church hot spot – so Sunday lunch usually involves a line out the front door.
King’s Restaurant (Lenoir County)
King’s is on the way to Atlantic Beach, Beaufort, and Emerald Isle. Launched in 1936, they have one foot in the past but have always tried to move forward with the times. Serving classic eastern barbeque, their menu items have changed over time – but not their recipes. Additionally, the Carolina Oink Express was established in the mid-90s to ship a full line of “southern goodness” anywhere in the continental US.
IN THE PIEDMONT
Allen & Son Barbeque (Orange County)
Call first and come hungry. Serving pit cooked barbeque and ribs, they’re a little off the beaten path in Chapel Hill. But in an age where gas cookers and machine shredders are the norm, they continue to bronze shoulders over live hickory coals and chop by hand. Their sauce and unique hickory-smoked flavor is what keeps regulars coming back – and their desserts often get as many raves as the main course.
Blue Mist Barbeque (Randolph County)
Serving a crossover between eastern and western barbeque, Blue Mist opened just outside of Asheboro in 1948. Amid mid-60s décor, the first shift crew is said to be particularly attentive. Other hallmarks include: their meat’s exotic hickory flavor, the tangy slaw with large flecks of carrot, crispy but not greasy hushpuppies, and decent sized portions at good prices. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily.
Bullock’s Bar-B-Que (Durham County)
A family owned and operated fixture since 1952, Bullock’s has served celebrities, sports teams and television crews, in addition to the hometown community. There is usually a line out the door for their exhaustive array of comfort foods. They have been compared to eating at your grandparents’ house – succulent pulled pork, deep fried everything with honey butter spread on the side, and good folk.
Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque (Wake County)
Nothing fancy, just good ol’ barbeque served on red and white checkered tablecloths since 1938. Chopped, sliced, or coarse – their Carolina-style fare is made fresh daily with cholesterol-free oil. The pork is lighter because it’s cooked in vinegar rather than sauce, and the slaw is finely chopped and does away with the mayo. Cooper’s environment is noisy and animated, but always extends good hospitality. Delish!
Keaton’s Barbeque Inc. (Rowan County)
Just west of Statesville, Keaton’s has been around since 1953 and their sauce is designed to “wake up” the flavor in all meats. Although the menu calls their chicken barbecued, it’s also fried. The hot sauce penetrates and caramelizes around its outside edges – resulting in hot, sweet, and savory all at once. Lunch hours are 11am-2pm, and dinner is 5pm until the chicken runs out.
Parker’s Barbeque (Wilson County)
Some barbeque spots go the buffet route, but Parker’s meals are sold by the plate or family-style, all-you-can-eat. Their homespun décor takes you back to the 50s (and no credit cards are accepted). Waiters don aprons and white paper hats, serving classic eastern barbeque and corn sticks in multiple dining rooms. There is scarcely any sauce, just a hint of vinegar and peppers to accentuate the wood-smoked flavor.
White Swan Bar-B-Q (Johnston County)
The Swan is a JoCo landmark just outside of Smithfield. It was quite the hot spot on US301 long before I95 existed. Many eastern barbeque locales had a long history of selling meals out the front door and moonshine out the back – White Swan was no different. There were loud speakers hung in the trees and dancing in the sand parking lot. But the chopped pork is what has kept folks coming back all these years.
Wilber’s Barbeque (Wayne County)
Since 1962, Wilber’s moist and smoky barbeque has been called “good enough to slap your first born over.” Although we don’t recommend that, we did note that the southern charm of an indoor picnic atmosphere has been enjoyed by both Presidential parties, and extends to ambiance, taste, and customer service. Even ketchup-based lovers are said to enjoy Wilber’s vinegar-based sauce, and you don’t have to specify “sweet” tea, as it is understood.
TOWARD THE MOUNTAINS
Hursey’s Bar-B-Q (Burke County)
Owned by a former Hursey’s-Burlington employee and situated just a few minutes from the Morganton interstate, this locale uses a wood coal pit and has undergone a remodel. Traditional smoked barbeque is the specialty – chopped fine – along with amazing thick-sliced onion rings and piping hot Brunswick stew. Come hungry and arrive early as the chicken wings go fast.
Red Bridges Barbeque Lodge (Cleveland County)
Originally known as Dedmond’s Barbeque, Bridges changed their named and moved to Shelby in 1949. The diner is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-8pm, and slow cooking pork over hickory all night long is the way they do things. There is no menu, just the slip of paper used by the waitress to take orders (although she will elaborate if you are not an experienced barbeque connoisseur). Your food is delivered to the table wrapped in foil, but that only adds to the old fashioned ambiance.
YA’LL COME BACK
One reviewer said, “When I first moved [to the south], people would ask ‘Do you want some barbecue?’ I would reply ‘Barbecued what?’ and they would shake their heads. In this neck-o-the-woods, it only means one thing.” As the very definition of comfort food, North Carolina barbeque is a time-intensive recipe served with fixins like your momma used to make. It is, quite literally, hog heaven and people travel for miles just to taste it.
The big difference between eastern barbecue and western (or Lexington-style, as it’s sometimes called) is that ketchup is commonly added to western sauces. The other distinction is that the eastern serves the whole hog – both white and dark meat – while western cooks only the pork shoulder, which is dark and thus more fatty, rich and moist.
Neighboring states seem perfectly content with a single dominant barbecue identity: South Carolina is happy with the mustard-based sauce of choice, and Tennessee appears satisfied being identified with the sweet, tomatoey Memphis-style flavor. But North Carolina remains split by both passion and culture (or ketchup and vinegar, if you prefer). Regardless of your preference, there’s some good eatin’ out there. So what are you waiting for? Give some of these recommended favorites a try – your mouth will thank you.