Barbecue in the Carolinas used to be simple.
Most people had a favorite local place, and every place mostly made the same thing: Chopped pork, either from a whole hog or a shoulder, preferably cooked slowly over wood coals. It came with coleslaw and hush puppies, maybe some French fries, and it was made by families with revered names like Bridges, Jones, Stamey and Monk.
Then something else started to happen. Call it “new ’cue” or “modern barbecue.” It started around here with Mac’s Speed Shop a decade ago, and it’s picked up momentum ever since. It’s what Frank Scibelli does at the Midwood Smokehouse chain, and what Jim Noble plans to do at his upcoming Noble Smoke. It’s what young chefs like John Lewis and Rodney Scott each do in Charleston, or what Elliott Moss does at Buxton Hall in Asheville.
It’s made by chefs who honor the old ways of cooking over wood, but who want to do more, who want to whet their knives and ambitions on Texas-style brisket and Memphis-style ribs, and fill their menus with innovations like barbecue-stuffed egg rolls and fried pickles.
It’s all good (well, some of it is good – we’re still suspicious of the egg rolls), but it’s not the same as the barbecue that put the Carolinas on America’s meat map.
Modern ’cue is ambitious, worldly, and definitely more expensive. Traditional barbecue is down-home, unpretentious and affordable. Trying to compare the two is like comparing Taylor Swift to Dolly Parton. Both can carry a tune, but which one would you invite over for dinner?
We thought it was time to think about the differences. We came up with a set of rules to help you tell them apart, along with places where you can find both kinds in Charlotte.
The rules: Old ’cue
▪ It’s served in a “joint.” A barbecue joint should be small, family-owned and family-friendly. A real joint was built in the ’50s or ’60s and has at least one picture of a local softball or Little League team on the wall. Extra points for American Revolution art or pictures of World War II battleships. If there’s a website at all, it looks like the owner’s kid designed it as a school project.
▪ It’s chopped pork. And only chopped pork. No ribs, no brisket. Even sliced pork is suspicious and smacks of affectation. Fried chicken on the menu is acceptable: They’re frying hush puppies anyway and picky children have to eat something.
▪ There’s only one kind of sauce on the table: Vinegar and red pepper in Eastern North Carolina; vinegar, red pepper and ketchup in the Piedmont; mustard in South Carolina. You might get ketchup for your fries, too, but much more than that is just showing off.
▪ Plates contain only chopped pork, coleslaw (this can be mayo- or vinegar-based, or yellowy with mustard), French fries and hush puppies. Extra points if the barbecue and slaw are served side-by-side in a paper “boat.” Otherwise, the plate should be sturdy plastic or thick paper.
▪ The dessert selection is limited to banana pudding or packaged fried pies at the cash register.
▪ There’s nothing to drink stronger than sweet ice tea.
▪ The owner never calls himself a “pitmaster,” even if he is one.
▪ There should be at least one humanized pig on the sign or concrete pig on the grounds. The concrete pig should be in good shape, with no broken ears or tails. Extra points if there are shelves of glass pigs inside.
▪ It’s cheap: Sandwiches rarely cost more than $5. The largest plate (sometimes called a “tray”) usually costs less than $12.
▪ It should be cooked over wood, although this standard is in constant danger from tight budgets and staffing. Be forgiving if all other criteria are met. But if they claim to cook over wood, the woodpile shouldn’t be dusty or show any sign of cobwebs.
The rules: New ’cue
▪ It’s served in a large restaurant. There’s either enough curated memorabilia and signs to pass for an “Antiques Road Show” set or more reclaimed barnwood and rustic lights than an HGTV makeover.
▪ The menu includes a variety of meats, especially brisket, ribs and smoked chicken. Wings and sausage are almost always present. All of those are usually better than the chopped pork. (Why do so many modern places struggle with the chopped pork?)
▪ That menu also has a long list of appetizers (it usually includes fried pickles) and an indulgent dessert list. Expect innovations like barbecue egg rolls or nachos.
▪ The list of sides is long and often more interesting than the meat. Vegetable plates are not only possible, but sometimes recommended.
▪ There’s beer. Craft beer. On tap.
▪ The owner made his or her reputation in fine dining. The owner and partners may tell tales about their pilgrimage to Texas to visit the shrines (Franklin Barbecue, Kreuz Market and the Salt Lick).
▪ It’s cooked over wood in a large contraption, usually imported from Texas. The contraption is usually filled with brisket.
▪ The meat is locally sourced or from old-variety livestock. Farms on the menu are specified by name.
▪ It may start with one location, but will probably become a chain within two years.
▪ It’s pricey: Shiny contraptions, specially sourced wood/meat, craft beer taps and business partners don’t come cheap. Sandwiches are usually $8 and higher, trays with multiple meats are usually $18 and often higher.
5 nearby classics
▪ Kyle Fletcher’s, Gastonia. Barbecue sandwich: $3.49 or $4.49 (small or large).
It’s small, friendly and always packed, one of our favorite places for a barbecue sandwich. While the decor is sports instead of American Revolution, it meets all the requirement of a classic ’cue place. Make sure you bring cash. Check out the cookers in the back, with big barrels full of ashes.
▪ Red Bridge’s Barbecue Lodge, Shelby. Barbecue sandwich: $4.
Started in 1946 and moved to the current location in 1953, that neon and brick sign on U.S. 74 has been a landmark for three generations. It’s still true to the Lexington style. (If you want to explore, Alston Bridge’s – no relation – is a little farther off the highway in Shelby and also worthy of a stop, so you can take part in the local game of “Red’s or Alston’s?”). 2000 E. Dixon Blvd., Shelby.
▪ Lexington Barbecue No. 1, Lexington. Barbecue sandwich: $4.10.
Open since 1962, it’s still run by the family of Wayne “Honey” Monk (his high school nickname), and it’s a classic of the Lexington style. Make sure you stop by the smokehouse in back, where they still cook pork shoulders over wood. Closed Sundays and usually for a week around July 4 every summer. 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington.
▪ Bill Spoon’s, Charlotte. Barbecue sandwich: $5.
Charlotte isn’t known for great Carolinas-style barbecue, but Bill Spoon’s, now run by the founder’s grandson, will give you a good taste of Eastern-style, whole-hog barbecue without driving three hours. 5524 South Blvd.
▪ Bubba’s Barbecue, Charlotte. Barbecue sandwich: $6.49.
It meets all the definitions of an old-style barbecue restaurant in the Carolinas style, right down to the friendly family service and the joke signs all over the place, with Eastern-style chopped pork. 4400 Sunset Road.
5 Charlotte places for the modern take
▪ The Improper Pig. Barbecue sandwich: $7.49 (with chips only) or $9.49.
Yes, it has ribs, brisket, pulled pig and sausage, and almost a dozen kinds of sauce. It also has barbecue egg rolls, salmon, a cocktail menu and Taco Tuesdays. You figure it out. 110 S. Sharon Amity Road in Cotswold Mall.
▪ Mac’s Speed Shop. Barbecue sandwich: $8, $10 or $13, depending on size.
The website calls it a biker bar, but that sounds rougher than it is: The original location on South Boulevard used to be a motorcyle repair shop and they use that theme in the decor. It has a long list of sides, but they take their barbecue seriously, with several wins at the prestigious Memphis in May competition. 2511 South Blvd. (original), plus six locations as far away as Fayetteville and Greenville, S.C.
▪ Midwood Smokehouse. Barbecue sandwich: $8.25.
Charlotte restaurant titan Frank Scibelli never misses a detail, from the Texas-style cooker to the hush puppies. The ribs have drawn celebrities like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. 1401 Central Ave. (original), plus four more locations.
▪ Queen City Q. Barbecue sandwich: $9.
With a sports bar/Texas roadhouse feel, the menu is a mix, from barbecue to quesadillas and cocktails. The sides list sprawls with 18 items. 225 E. 6th St.
▪ City Smoke. Barbecue sandwich: $12.
With contemporary-meets-steampunk decor, Pierre Bader’s uptown City Smoke does things like half-and-half ribs (one end is wet with sauce, the other dry with rub), good brisket and unusual touches like charcuterie and Middle East dishes. Where else can you get a barbecue platter with grits and labneh as a side? In Founder’s Hall, 100 N. Tryon St., near Trade Street and College streets.