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Barbecue Wars Round 1: Western NC BBQ

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Ketchup is the order of the day in the opening round of our attempt to identify North Carolina’s best barbecue.

North Carolina Barbecue Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Today is the official start of our knockout tournament to vote on North Carolina’s best barbecue. All this week, we’ll be featuring 32 restaurants in a bracket, with the winners advancing to the next round. Head this way to see our series intro from last Friday.

I’ll come right out and say it: I’m a Western barbecue devotee through and through. Despite living in North Carolina since the late 1980s, I was a late convert to barbecue, mostly because Raleigh has so little in the way of good ‘cue - at least, when you compare it to the back roads and small towns of the state.

Then I married a native of Hickory, a faithful disciple of Lexington BBQ (both the style and the restaurant), and my choice was made. At the same time, a question came up: what had taken me so long? Ever since, if it isn’t a Sunday and I’m driving down I-85 on my way to or from Charlotte, I always take a detour to Lexington. Doesn’t matter what time of day it is, when I last ate, or anything else; if I’m anywhere within 20 miles, I’m going there.

You probably know the main differences between eastern and western barbecue: pork shoulder instead of whole hog, and a sauce (dip, in Lexington parlance) that has a touch of ketchup in with the vinegar and pepper. Oh, and red slaw, which is just cabbage soaked in dip rather than mixed with mayonnaise. My wife swears by it, and I’ll just take her word for it.

Before we get started, someone in the comments on Friday mentioned Haywood Smokehouse, and as fate would have it, Andrew Schnittker visited it on the same day:

So that would probably have made the cut had he gone there even a week earlier. Such is life. But they get an honorable mention.

Now, onto the business at hand: let’s get voting!


1. Lexington Barbecue

There’s something to be said about the approach to Lexington Barbecue from the north. Driving down Business I-85 through Lexington, you go through a couple of interchanges and over a hill. There’s a bridge over a railroad track at the crest of the hill, and as soon as you go over that bridge, ahead of you the holy grail that is Lexington Barbecue reveals itself, perched on a hillside, a gigantic billboard-sized sign leaving you no doubt where you are. That the exit off the highway puts you on a road called Smokehouse Lane just finishes the scene.

Lexington is the gold standard for barbecue in North Carolina, as far as I’m concerned. Perfectly cooked every time, melt-in-your-mouth good, and with a few drops of their dip on top of the ‘cue it gets even better. Somehow, even something as basic as the “rolls” (which are just hamburger buns you can buy eight of for $1.49 at Food Lion) are fantastic. Every one of the sides is on the mark. If you’re there on a weekend, don’t miss the cherry cobbler, which is bar none the best I’ve ever had. Order it a la mode and you’ll get one of those brick-shaped pieces of Pet vanilla ice cream that you had forgotten existed at your elementary school years ago, then watch as it melts itself into the cobbler.

I could go on all day, but now I need to leave and go get a tray. Back in a few.

100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington; open Monday-Saturday 10a-9:30p, closed Sunday. Website: lexbbq.com

8. Hill’s Lexington Barbecue

Before Lexington barbecue needed the regional appellation to set it apart from other types, it was a local secret that never left Davidson County. Hill’s claims the mantle as the first place to bring Lexington barbecue elsewhere - specifically Winston-Salem, where it’s been a mainstay for going on 70 years. Still family-owned, now into the third generation, Hill’s meat is a little chunkier than the chop at Lexington, and the dip has just a touch less ketchup, making it a bit runnier and more vinegar-heavy.

The dip may not pop quite as much as some other places, but the meat is very evenly cooked, and the ambiance of the restaurant is what a barbecue place should be. Little fake-flower settings on each table, some fantastic 1970s wood paneling, and - of course - a tux- and top hat-clad pig on the sign out front. The banana pudding is also a winner. And, like many barbecue places, they serve breakfast; if you’ve never had breakfast at a barbecue place and are a fan of biscuits, sausage gravy and country ham, you’re missing out.

4005 Patterson Avenue, Winston-Salem; open Tuesday-Saturday, 7a-8p, Sunday 7a-4p, closed Monday.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 79%
    (1) Lexington Barbecue
    (63 votes)
  • 20%
    (8) Hill’s Lexington BBQ
    (16 votes)
79 votes total Vote Now

4. Fuzzy’s BBQ

I’ll be honest: I had no idea what to expect from Fuzzy’s, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a dip to rival Lexington and Stamey’s. Yet that’s exactly what I got; it was absolutely outstanding, and puts them higher on this list than I ever thought they would be. The downside? A chop of barbecue that was more chunky than chopped, and a bit more fatty (with attendant grease) than at other places where it’s leaner. The hush puppies are very skinny, almost shaped like French fries, and have a very deep fried taste. I very much enjoyed them, but could see where they are a love-them-or-hate-them proposition.

It’s probably safe to say that you’re not going through Madison, in western Rockingham County about 30 miles northwest of Greensboro, unless you’re going to Madison. But Fuzzy’s is good enough that it’s worth the trip. One other minor oddity: this is the rare Western barbecue joint that doesn’t serve Cheerwine. (But they do serve breakfast.)

407 N. Highway Street, Madison; open seven days a week, 5a-9p. Website: fuzzysbbqmadison.com.

5. Red Bridges’ Barbecue Lodge

Southern hospitality is alive and well at Bridges. It starts with - seriously - a white picket fence along the edge of the parking lot. It continues inside, where there are regulars seemingly at all hours, almost to the point that it seems like if you aren’t a regular then you’re doing something wrong. The parquet ceiling makes it feel like you’re in your grandmother’s house. The tables are covered with old newspaper-style ads for local businesses.

This is all a prelude to some seriously good barbecue. The dip is a little sweeter than Lexington and Fuzzy’s, but the chop of the meat is nearly right on the money. The sides, though, are what make the meal here more than at just about any other restaurant. For my money, the hush puppies are second only to another place we’ll feature later this week, and while I’m not a mayo person I’m told the potato salad is as good as it gets. Don’t forget the banana pudding to finish it off. This might also be the most easily accessible barbecue place in North Carolina, right on the main drag from Charlotte to Asheville.

2000 E. Dixon Blvd., Shelby; open Wednesday-Saturday 11a-8p, Sunday 11a-4p (or until the barbecue runs out), closed Monday and Tuesday. Website: bridgesbbq.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    (4) Fuzzy’s BBQ
    (7 votes)
  • 88%
    (5) Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
    (53 votes)
60 votes total Vote Now

2. Stamey’s Barbecue

In much the same way that you can’t tell the history of the Carolina Hurricanes without Rod Brind’Amour, you can’t tell the history of western North Carolina barbecue without Warner Stamey. A native of Shelby, Stamey was the Pied Piper of Lexington-style barbecue, eventually moving to Greensboro and opening a pair of restaurants there that have been open continuously since 1953 - coincidentally, also the founding year of the Atlantic Coast Conference, with which it is inextricably intertwined. The stories of players, coaches, journalists, fans and God knows who else running across High Point Road from the Greensboro Coliseum to grab a quick bite at Stamey’s between games are the stuff of legend.

As you’d expect from the godfather of western barbecue, Stamey’s is a real delight. The differences between Stamey’s and Lexington are negligible, and the misses are rare indeed. Which one you’re partial to is a matter of personal preference, and little else; to me, the sides at Lexington are just a hair above those at Stamey’s, but it’s like critiquing a diamond for not being 100% flawless. Plus, Stamey’s has a real oddity in North Carolina barbecue: a drive-thru window, a vestige of its heritage as a drive-in restaurant.

Two locations, both in Greensboro: 2206 W. Gate City Blvd. and 2812 Battleground Avenue; open Monday-Saturday 11a-9p, drive-thru opens at 10:30. Website: stameys.com.

7. Short Sugar’s Pit BBQ

Originally started by a group of three brothers, the name is a tribute to one of them, nicknamed “Short Sugar,” who died just before the restaurant opened. The name is apropos for the barbecue, though, as well. Their dip is about as sweet as you’ll find. It’s rare that sugar overpowers the vinegar and pepper in a western-style dip, but that’s the case here. The pork itself is a little more on the stringy side; it’s good, but you actually have to chew it.

What they do have going for them, though, is a throwback to years gone by: a full glass of Cheerwine for $1.25 with free refills. It’s also the stereotypical small-town hangout, with pictures of the local high school football team, little league baseball squads, and the like all over the walls. Similar to Fuzzy’s, the chances aren’t great you’re going through Reidsville unless you’re going there specifically, and Short Sugar’s is worth the visit if you’re in the neighborhood. (Another similarity to its counterpart across the county: a breakfast menu.)

1328 S. Scales Street, Reidsville; open Monday-Thursday 6a-8p, Friday and Saturday 6a-9p, closed Sunday. Website: shortsugars.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 81%
    (2) Stamey’s Barbecue
    (61 votes)
  • 18%
    (7) Short Sugar’s Pit BBQ
    (14 votes)
75 votes total Vote Now

3. Real Q

This one has a convoluted history. A group of three partners, one of whom was named Richard Berrier, opened a chain of barbecue restaurants in the early 1990s called Little Richard’s. After the three eventually parted ways, there were two different Little Richards in Forsyth County, each with multiple outlets, which shared nothing other than the name. As you’d might expect, this led to plenty of confusion, and after a while Berrier renamed his two restaurants Real Q. So, as we’d all expect, Richard does not own Little Richard’s anymore. There will be a quiz later.

Anyway, you’re here for the barbecue, and while Real Q has its roots in Lexington, it is far enough removed from it to almost qualify as its own style. Similar to Hill’s, the ketchup content in Real Q’s dip is cut just a bit; it almost behaves like an eastern sauce in a way, but it’s firmly a western-style pork shoulder. They also have both kinds of coleslaw, the traditional western red slaw and the creamy white slaw more often associated with eastern barbecue. Real Q is just a step below Lexington and Stamey’s in terms of quality, but it’s the best Winston-Salem has to offer.

Two locations, both in Winston-Salem: 4885 Country Club Road, open Monday-Saturday 10:30a-8:30p; 5353 Gumtree Road, open Monday-Saturday 11a-9p; both locations closed Sunday. Website: real-q.com.

6. Woodlands BBQ

If you’ve ever been to an Appalachian State football game, you’ve probably at least smelled Woodlands, even if you haven’t partaken. And if you haven’t, rectify that the next time you’re in Boone. I’ve never been able to figure out how the barbecue is actually better at the football games than it is at the restaurant itself, but Woodlands somehow pulls off the trick.

That’s not to downplay the quality of what’s offered at the mothership in Blowing Rock. Woodlands’ dip is a bit thicker than what you’d find in the Triad, which gives it less of a vinegary bite. They make up for it with spices, specifically red pepper flakes. They do have an eastern-style sauce as well, but given that you’re less than an hour from being in Tennessee, you know what you should do. Also, Woodlands has a section of the menu which I think is unique among North Carolina barbecue restaurants: they serve Mexican food. If you ever wanted a burrito to go with your barbecue, this is the place to be.

8304 Valley Blvd., Blowing Rock; open Sunday-Thursday 11a-9a, Friday-Saturday 11a-10p (closed Mondays November 1 to Memorial Day). Website: woodlandsbbq.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    (3) Real Q
    (20 votes)
  • 73%
    (6) Woodlands BBQ
    (56 votes)
76 votes total Vote Now