North Carolina BBQ
Welcome to the second post in our ongoing series, Culinary Anthropology! I’m talking about North Carolina BBQ today.
If you missed the first in our series, check out this blog post to learn more about the Culinary Anthropology series and read all about the delicious tacos I ate touring around LA.
On my recent trip to Charlotte, a city deep in the heart of American regional BBQ, and one that is strategically located right between the sub regions of East and West North Carolina (more on that in a minute), I mapped out six BBQ – “barbecue” as it’s more commonly known as in some parts of the country – joints I wanted to visit.
I went on this trip to explore what makes up North Carolina BBQ: the land, the wood, the meat and, of course, the people. What are the basic components that they all have in common, how do they differ and what do they need in order to be considered BBQ to a North Carolinian?
I’ll run through my trips at individual restaurants below, but first let’s talk about some of the delicious characteristics that make up North Carolina BBQ. First the Carolina’s are known for their pork and in particular, their pork sandwiches.
Establishments may have a clever name such as the The Big Pig, or The Hefty while others offer something as simple as “pulled pork sandwich,” but they had some basic characteristics in common, as if all the pitmasters went to some private meeting where they agreed upon certain requirements prior to landing on a menu. Now back to the sub regions of North Carolina: ask any Tar heel and you get a long dissertation on the major difference, and how much better one is over the other. That being said, it boils down to just a few differences that most people may not even notice them (but don’t say that too loud in BBQ country).
- Meat: Whole hog, chopped very fine, it can at times look close to shredded.
- Sauce: They favor the peppered vinegar sauce, no ketchup! Below, you see this called a “mop.”
- Meat: Whole hog is very common, but equally as common is the use of pork shoulders (butts). The meat is commonly a larger pull where you can see bigger pieces.
- Sauce: A slightly sweeter (by their standards) spicy vinegar sauce with some ketchup in to thicken the sauce and help it coat the meat. Below, this is called “sweet sauce.”
The common elements of North Carolina BBQ
- Meat: The settlers in this region had small amounts of property, so pork was a natural choice. Pigs didn’t need much land, tending to, feed or time to be ready for harvest. In North Carolina, they use either whole hog or picnic (shoulder) and it is cooked low and slow for 12+ hours; it shouldn’t be rushed over low heat. I talked to the pitmaster at Bill’s Spoons, and he informed me with a proud smile that he comes back every night after dinner to start the hogs and shoulder for the next day’s service. BBQ around here isn’t just a cuisine; it’s a lifestyle.
- Smoke: There’s nothing like the unmistakable aroma of slow burning pecan and hickory. As with most BBQ, North Carolinians use the indigenous hardwoods from the region, so you will find a lot of hickory and some pecan. To me, pecan has a much more mild and fragrant aroma and flavor profile, making it my smoke of choice. It imparts a gentle yet defining flavor over the pork. It’s a matter of preference for the pitmaster.
- The bun: It MUST have a soft enriched bun, don’t get fancy; no crusty artisanal bun accepted,. Just get a basic soft white bun. If you want to get high-end, maybe a simple egg wash for shine prior to baking.
- Sauce: This region of American BBQ is known for a vinegar and pepper sauce called a “mop.” It is as thin as water and not meant to cling to the top of the meat but rather coat it and act as a balance to the fatty pork. If served in a traditional method, the meat would be soaked in the mop sauce, but many restaurants also serve the meat bare and let you sauce it yourself. Whether they drench it or not, each joint has about three basic bottles of different sauces on each table. A few had even more selections available, but they almost always had these three:
- Vinegar and pepper (East region): The “mop” I reference above. It’s often served on the side of the meat, or the meat is soaked in it.
- Mustard: A modification of the South Carolina gold sauce: mustard, cider vinegar, brown sugar and pepper.
- Sweet (West region): Their version of sweet in the Tar Heel state. This is a thinner tomato based vinegar BBQ sauce, with light amounts of sugar and pepper. “Sweet” is a relative term. Being from the Midwest, I wouldn’t have used the term sweet to describe this style, but everyone here did.
- Coleslaw: It was always the same: a finely chopped cabbage base with a moderate cider vinegar and very lightly dressed in mayonnaise . No long strands of cabbage, this was meant to be placed on the sandwich if it didn’t already come that way.
- Red slaw: Can be either “The Mop” (East region) or the sweet sauce (West region).
- Yellow slaw: Prepared mustard sauce as the base.
- White slaw: Mayo base
- The sandwich: Not stingy in the slightest, piled high with hand pulled pork and top it all with finely chopped house made coleslaw.
- The sides: An essential part of the BBQ eating lifestyle and experience, no respectable North Carolina BBQ would be complete without them and they take them seriously! Every meal comes with two sides. French fries were an option on every menu, however, I didn’t see the Midwestern staple on the plates of any other customers. At every location I visited, the side options varied slightly, and sometimes greatly on the quality, but there is a long list of sides that you would see at almost every location.
- Mac and cheese: Almost always the standard elbow, and baked.
- Collard greens: A Southern tradition, chopped and stewed.
- Hush Puppies
- Fried okra
- Coleslaw: Many versions but red, white and yellow coleslaw were the most prevalent.
- Corn of some sort: Creamed or fried
- Green bean casserole
- Fried green tomatoes
- Black eyed peas
- Pinto beans
- Potato salad
- Sweet potato fries
- Creamed corn
- Brunswick stew
Now onto my BBQ restaurant visits:
1. McKoy’s Smokehouse & Saloon
4630 Pineville Rd.
McKoy’s was one of the best of the trip. After a lot of research, I settled on trying the most iconic dish for this region: the classic pulled pork sandwich. On the outside, it’s a simple honest sandwich but on the inside, this baby has a lot of attitude and character. The pulled pork was succulent, the sides were solid, and you can tell they put a lot of attention into their craft. Basically, you couldn’t go wrong with anything on the menu. The fried squash was delicious and the mac and cheese was one of the cheesiest of the day. One of the funniest sights on this trip was a slogan on the side of their delivery van, “We get paid to rub butts,” and they do a fine job at that!
2. Mac’s Speed Shop
2511 South Blvd.
Don’t come here if you don’t like the smell of hickory and the rumble of Harleys! This place has plenty of both. Yes, they have six locations, so they are the closest thing on the list to an actual chain restaurant, but they didn’t loose sight of what they do. Their BBQ was moist and delicious with probably the best sauce of the day, “Carolina BBQ sauce.” The waitress described it as an offspring between red BBQ sauce and mustard. The atmosphere was heavy in old signage but still felt a little new or manufactured. They have a ton of beers to choose from, and I would be happy to visit Mac’s again.
3. Midwood Smokehouse
1401 Central Ave.
In my opinion, Midwood was the best of the day for many reasons, but most of all for the food. The pork was moist, soaked in mop sauce and had great pecan flavor. The sides were delicious and the bacon wrapped jalapenos were the best side of the trip. I like hot and I like bacon—enough said. Their collard greens were finished with a pepper vinegar for a little kick. And like Mac’s, Midwood has multiple locations, but you sure don’t feel like it when you are there. They use old red and white country patterned plates that make you feel like you may be at your long lost southern grandmother’s house. This is definitely worth the trip, but try to go to their Central Avenue location!
4. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue
5524 South Blvd.
When I first heard the name Bill Spoon’s Barbecue, I didn’t realize this was a man’s name and not in reference to an old spoon owned by Bill. Bill’s is probably what you conjure in your mind when you think of good old-fashioned North Carolina BBQ. This is a no frills, yellow checkered tablecloth, down-home hole in the wall that is run by the owner (no longer Bill). The staff was friendly, and the food was good. These were very best hushpuppies we had on the trip. In fact, we tried them at many locations and didn’t even bother to list them because we couldn’t see why people liked them. But these were an odd shape (piped from a pastry bag into the fryer a little like funnel cake) that allowed them to be fried quickly and stay moist. I was so glad to end the culinary exploration at Bill’s because, while it may not have been the top sandwich, the ambiance and the sides were really good and this just felt like what I think most Carolinians grew up with.
North Carolina BBQ is a very unique experience and when one understands what makes it special, it becomes one that can easily help elevate many retail or restaurant items.
As you travel, you can find these food treasures everywhere you go. Culinary anthropology can lead you to foods that are special in flavor and unique to a city or region. Various places have something they become known for over the years. Taking the time to understand what these are for each area makes for some great meals and memories.
If you have any questions about my culinary adventures in North Carolina, or how Asenzya can help bring these seasonings to your kitchen, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.