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Barbecue Wars: Pulled Pork Round 1 and Eastern Round 2

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We don’t need no stinkin’ sauce today. Well, we do, but when it comes to pulled pork, it’s up to each connoisseur to decide how they’ll have their meat.

Pulled pork sandwich at Allen & Son BBQ restaurant Photo by Ted Hardin/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Previously in the Barbecue Wars series: we’ve gone West, and then we went East. At the end of today’s matchups, vote on the second round of the Eastern NC bracket!

We spent the first two days of the series arguing the merits of the two regions of North Carolina barbecue. Today, we look a bit further afield, and instead of featuring a region we feature a specific type.

Pulled pork, oddly, is the most prevalent type of barbecue in the larger cities of North Carolina. Perhaps it’s because of the number of transplants; you’re much more likely to find a native of Texas or Memphis in Raleigh or Charlotte than you are in, say, Ayden. Chopped barbecue is largely a North Carolina thing, but pulled pork is what most other places think of when they talk about barbecue.

Given the wide swath of real estate where it reigns supreme, it comes as little surprise that pulled pork is all about the sauce. Many places that serve pulled pork don’t sauce their meat at all before serving it, leaving the type of sauce up to the customer. You can make pulled pork whatever you want it to be, and its versatility is its main attraction.

So, let’s get started identifying the best pulled pork available in North Carolina! Today’s article is mostly by Brian, but there are contributions from Jamie (JK) and Andrew (AA) as well, and I greatly appreciate their help!


1. N.C. BBQ Company

Before I begin, let me acknowledge that both Brian and Cody really know their barbecue. That being said, I was raised on Stamey’s and Lexington Barbecue, and I’ve also spent over 20 years living in the eastern part of the state (B’s in Greenville is a personal favorite). So when those two barbecue snobs ask me to choose whether western or eastern is best, I usually choose “YES”. I mean we’re talking about slow-roasted smoked pig, what’s not to love? I mean can’t we all just get along? I enjoy it all, but to be honest, I have pretty simple tastes when it comes to food in general, and I’ve never found a need to cover up the flavor of fine quality meats with a bunch of sauce, so these days I actually lean toward pulled pork for my barbecue preference and lightly sauce it if I have to.

We’d be remiss in our roles covering all things Hurricanes if we didn’t acknowledge the fine barbecue served up at our own home rink. North Carolina BBQ Company is a creation of VAB Catering, the in-house team that provides food services to PNC Arena. They slow-roast their pork on site in smokers located on the arena level of the building, and if you’ve been to a Canes game in person you’ve probably been lured by the aroma at their carts on the concourse. There’s always a line, and my husband is usually in it, as it’s his meal of choice at a Canes game.

The downside of NC BBQ Company is that because they operate from a kiosk, they don’t serve side dishes to enhance the dining experience. Your options are meat, cole slaw, a bun, and sweet tea. Oh, and cheese sauce if you want to order the barbecue nachos, which is their only other menu option. They offer vinegar-based and sweet western sauces on the side, along with Texas Pete hot sauce. And that’s it.

But really, what more do you need? The pork is lean, tender, and full of flavor, and the cole slaw is just right: neither sweet nor sour and with plenty of crunch. Add a punch of sauce based on your mood (if you really need it, I usually don’t) and it’s a perfect option for a sandwich at a hockey game. -JK

Locations: PNC Arena (concourse kiosks, Arena Club Restaurant, and the most important location: the media dining room). Website, such as it is: www.pncarena.com/arena_info/food_beverage.

8. City Barbeque

What city, exactly? Well, it isn’t any in North Carolina, for sure. The chain comes from suburban Columbus, Ohio, but it’s to their credit that City Barbeque at least makes a reasonable effort to cater to the locals. Their version of an Eastern NC sauce is called “swine wine,” and while it’s never going to be mistaken for the Skylight Inn it’s at least serviceable. The star might be the Brush Fire sauce, which is a Kansas City-style thick sauce with a ton of spices, specifically pepper. Add to that a menu of side dishes that’s far above average (especially the mac and cheese), plus a solid selection of other meats (try the brisket and smoked sausage), and you’ve got a winner.

Locations in North Raleigh, Garner, Cary and Durham; hours vary by location. Website: citybbq.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 69%
    (1) N.C. BBQ Company
    (53 votes)
  • 30%
    (8) City Barbeque
    (23 votes)
76 votes total Vote Now

4. Big Al’s BBQ

Remember at the beginning when we said pulled pork tends to be what you make of it, with your choices of sauce to finish the deal? Big Al’s takes that to an extreme. Their claim to fame is a “sauce bar” that contains no fewer than 30 bottles of sauce. North Carolina? Yep, both eastern and western. Memphis? You bet. That godforsaken mustard stuff? They have that too, for some reason. If you can’t find a sauce you like at Big Al’s, you’re honestly probably wasting your time reading this series. The brisket’s also quite good here, but make yourself happy: order some pulled pork, find a sauce you like, go to town, and enjoy.

2920 Forestville Road, Raleigh; open Tuesday-Sunday 10a-8p (open until 9p Friday and Saturday), closed Monday. Website: bigalsbbqandcatering.com.

5. Q Shack

Sort of like Little Richard’s, there was a time when there were two somewhat-but-not-really related Q Shacks in the Triangle. The one at North Hills in Raleigh closed last year as the owner moved into the catering arena, leaving the original in Durham as the sole remaining retail Q Shack. It seems to want to be a Western place, with pork shoulders being the currency rather than whole-hog and a Lexington-style dip on offer, but unsauced pulled pork (rather than juicy chopped, the way most Western ‘cue would be served) muddies the waters. The Q Shack’s pork is good, for sure, but it’s almost like it can’t decide what it wants to be. The brisket is quite good, though, as are the hush puppies, and while I’m not one for fried okra in general I’ve been told that the Q Shack’s offering is better than most.

2510 University Drive, Durham; open seven days a week, 11a-9p. Website: theqshackoriginal.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    (4) Big Al’s BBQ
    (40 votes)
  • 42%
    (5) Q Shack
    (30 votes)
70 votes total Vote Now

2. Pik ‘n Pig

Kind of similar to Clyde Cooper’s in execution - Eastern sauce over pork shoulders, a bridge between the two regions that befits its location in the dead center of the state - the Pik ‘n Pig goes one step further and pulls, rather than chops, its pork. (And they season it with their signature Butt Rub, which makes five-year-olds the world over double over in laughter.) They do have what they call a Western-style sauce, but it’s thicker and touched with honey, more western Tennessee than western North Carolina. It’s quite good, but truth in advertising compels me to point this out.

The barbecue is as moist as you’ll find pulled pork just about anywhere. You may not even need the extra sauce, because the smoky taste of the pork is good enough on its own, and the sides are quite good too (don’t miss the Co-Cola cake). But the real attraction is the location: the restaurant is located on the side of a fairly busy landing strip. It’s not unusual at all for pilots to land, park their plane, and walk right into the restaurant. In a state of barbecue curiosities, this one might stand out the most.

194 Gilliam-McConnell Road, Carthage; open Tuesday-Saturday, 11a-8p, Sunday 11a-3p, closed Monday. Website: pik-n-pig.com.

7. Red Hot and Blue

First things first: despite the presence of “Carolina barbecue sauce” on the table, this is definitively not a North Carolina barbecue restaurant. In fact, it’s even in the name: the barbecue comes from Memphis, so as long as you can get past that, you’re good. (The blues music playing is a tip-off as well.)

And while it really isn’t able to be compared to the traditional North Carolina barbecue places, it more than holds its own. The pork is nothing special – fine, certainly not bad, but nothing out of this world. What Red Hot and Blue has going for it is a very tasty, although sweet, house barbecue sauce that almost completely lacks for a vinegary bite. If that’s your thing, you’ll be more than happy here.

You can also do pretty well with any of their other meats, especially the smoked sausage, which has a serious pepper kick to it and might be one of the best things on the menu. As a stand-in, the pulled pork at Red Hot and Blue is fine, but the sauce is what sets it apart here more than at almost any other restaurant.

6615 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh; open 11a-8p seven days a week, until 8:30 Wednesday and Thursday, and until 9 Friday and Saturday. Website: redhotandblue.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    (2) Pik ‘n Pig
    (50 votes)
  • 31%
    (7) Red Hot and Blue
    (23 votes)
73 votes total Vote Now

3. Smokey’s BBQ Shack

Smokey’s is a perfect spot for those Morrisville / RTP workers and was an institution in the Morrisville office that I used to work in. The little restaurant respects both Eastern and Western style BBQ and infuses both sweet and tangy into their sauce to deliver a unique Piedmont BBQ flavor. The restaurant sits on a charming plot of land and is consistently packed on weekdays during lunch hours.

I’m a firm believer in mac and cheese as a BBQ side, and I can say that Smokey’s mac does not disappoint. If you’re not in the mood for pulled pork, I can say that their Brisket offering is the best that I’ve had in the Raleigh area. This place has a ton of North Carolina character and consistently delivers one of the best Hickory smoked experiences in the Raleigh area. -AA

10800 Chapel Hill Rd, Morrisville, NC 27560, open Monday-Wednesday, 11a-2p, Thursday-Friday 11a-7:30p, Saturday 11a-7p, closed Sunday. Website: smokeysbbqshack.com.

6. Sonny’s BBQ

Sonny’s is on the list at the specific request of my son, who always wants to stop there whenever we make a trip to Charlotte. The one we frequent is in the most inconvenient of locations, just off I-85 and Bruton Smith Boulevard between Concord Mills and Charlotte Motor Speedway. I highly recommend you avoid this area at all costs. That said, the Sonny’s there is a pretty good option for pulled pork in the Cabarrus/Mecklenburg County area.

My son’s analysis: It’s juicy and well-seasoned without being too spicy, and they have garlic bread!

Sonny’s has been around since 1968, starting in Gainesville, FL, and making its way to eight states across the south. Their pulled pork is oak-smoked, tender and juicy, served with a variety of sauces to fit your palate. In addition, they serve brisket, pulled chicken, ribs, smoked turkey, and a long list of side dishes. I like their barbecue baked beans and cole slaw, my son likes their green beans. I’ve not tried it but I’ve heard their banana pudding is a winner. They also have an appetizer called “Redneck Egg Rolls” but we decided to pass on that one. -JK

NC locations in Charlotte, Concord, Mooresville, also in Rock Hill, SC. Website: sonnysbbq.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    (3) Smokey’s BBQ Shack
    (50 votes)
  • 26%
    (6) Sonny’s BBQ
    (18 votes)
68 votes total Vote Now

East 2nd Round

Vote for who should meet in the regional final for Eastern N.C. Barbecue! Check writeups on the contenders in yesterday’s article.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    (1) Skylight Inn/Sam Jones BBQ
    (74 votes)
  • 26%
    (5) Ole Time Barbecue
    (27 votes)
101 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 64%
    (2) B’s Barbecue
    (61 votes)
  • 35%
    (3) Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque
    (33 votes)
94 votes total Vote Now