Written by Jason Frye
Photos by Keith Isaacs, Mark Petko and Michael Robson
Barbecue. Barbeque. Bar-b-que. BBQ.
No matter how you spell it, we can agree on one thing: with a plate of barbecue in hand, all is right with the world.
We treat barbecue a little differently here in North Carolina. Equal parts art, tradition, religion and celebration, barbecue is something to be taken seriously, made lovingly, laughed over and shared. We eat it in restaurants, at college football tailgates, in backyards and at church picnics, washed down with sweet tea, next to family and friends and strangers. We’ll argue about our favorite styles and the merits of this sauce or that, but in the end it’s barbecue—an essential part of North Carolina’s DNA.
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[Note: jump below to scroll through 10 of our favorite local spots for delicious 'cue, or continue reading to whet your appetite!]
Pictured, left to right: Big Al's BBQ; Brew N Que; The Pit
But what is North Carolina barbecue?
Here in North Carolina, barbecue comes in two forms: Eastern and Lexington styles.
In Eastern style, we cook the whole hog over wood coals, then pull the meat, maybe give it a little chop, and dress it with sauce made from pepper flakes and vinegar. Typically, Eastern style is served as a sandwich or a plated dish.
Lexington style uses only the shoulders and adds a little sweetness to that vinegar sauce by mixing in tomato paste or brown sugar. It’s chopped and served on a plate. Oak is the wood of choice with Eastern-style barbecue, where Lexington mixes oak and hickory for a more complex smoky flavor.
Clyde Cooper's BBQ
Both styles are cooked low and slow and are seasoned simply: salt and pepper, then smoke and time does the rest. Sides are similar, too, with all the things you expect to find with barbecue: slaw, beans, collards or turnip greens, hush puppies, potatoes or potato salad, macaroni and cheese and, of course, banana pudding.
And what about Raleigh?
Even with all the similarities, barbecue fans find themselves in one camp or the other, loving the refinement of Lexington style or the rustic approach of the Eastern whole hog ‘cue. Though each style has a strong regional foothold, Raleigh and Wake County sit in the perfect spot to draw influences from both sides of the barbecue debate. Across the county you’ll find purists who sit by their pits all night, watching coals and flipping that whole hog at the perfect time to make great barbecue. You’ll also find Lexington-lovers sprinkling seasoning over shoulders before loading them into an oak- and hickory-packed smoker.
Smokey's BBQ Shack
Because Raleigh sits at a crossroads, is the state capital and sees visitors from every corner of the state and, because it’s a creative city, you see other styles, too. There are pitmasters playing with sides, adding a gourmet touch or sticking close to traditions and family recipes. There are folks adding beer to their sauce or making sauce that’s more Memphis-style than anything east of the Smoky Mountains. Some make brisket, ribs and sausages like they do in Memphis and Texas or reach deeper into the South for their take on Brunswick stew or Hoppin’ John.
But everyone, from pitmasters to food truck operators to backyard barbecue artists to diners, loves what they do, loves what they eat and pursues barbecue with a passion.
Come share that with us. Find a spot at the bar, grab a table for your friends or a couple of pounds to go, but whatever you do, join us for some barbecue.