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Barbecue Wars: Specialty Round 1, Pulled Pork Round 2

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If there was any doubt that barbecue has evolved from its humble, blue-collar beginnings, these restaurants prove that you can go gourmet with your pig.

Jamie Kellner

This is the final article of the first-round Barbecue Wars matchups. So far, we’ve determined the final four for both Eastern and Western barbecue (and voting is still open for both to identify the regional finalists!), and below we’ll see what varieties of pulled pork will join them in the second round. Today, we focus on the barbecue that doesn’t fit any other category.

There’s always been something blue-collar about barbecue in North Carolina. Whether it’s the factory and mill towns of the western part of the state, or the farm culture of the east, barbecue has long been the staple meal of shiftwork. But, like most things (cupcakes! Artisanal water! Home cooking!), barbecue has moved beyond its humble beginnings. Bourgeois barbecue? You betcha, and not just in Brooklyn.

Which is how we got to today’s entries. By definition, “specialty” barbecue is a bit of an oxymoron, but for most of these places, they serve some version of a traditional North Carolina ‘cue in appreciably haute-r couture surroundings. It’s probably not fair to compare a mom-and-pop place along some back road to a full restaurant in the downtown of a city with a half million people, so we separated out those types of restaurants and put them in their own bracket.

Chances are, you won’t need to bring cash to any of these places, is what we’re saying. As with yesterday, we have contributing authors helping out today: Jamie (JK), Andrew (AA) and Andy (AH).


1. Brew ‘n Que

The outgrowth of a food truck that has followed in the footsteps of so many others and established brick and mortar locations, Brew ‘n Que opened in 2015 in Cary and expanded two years later with a location in Apex. If it wasn’t for the fact that you were in a restaurant with 300 taps - anathema to many parts of the state where barbecue and booze never mix - you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported east of I-95 when you dive into a plate of chopped barbecue.

Brew ‘n Que’s pork is firmly in the eastern style, but they have enough other options - chopped chicken, ribs, and a brisket that I’ve yet to try but I’ve heard nothing but good things about - to make just about anyone happy. That is, unless you’re a cardiologist, in which case we strongly advise you to avert your gaze from the Big Cheesy sandwich: grilled Texas toast stuffed with pimento cheese, mac and cheese, chopped barbecue and pickles. Your cholesterol rises with every bite, but you probably won’t mind.

Two locations: 1222 NW Maynard Road, Cary and 2045 Creekside Landing Drive, Apex; open Sunday-Thursday 11a-9p (Cary location closed Sunday), Friday and Saturday 11a-10p. Website: brewnquenc.com.

8. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

Full disclosure: why is Dickey’s here and Sonny’s is in the pulled pork category? Honestly, it’s all about balancing out the brackets, and Texas is further afield than Florida so Sonny’s got into the pulled pork bracket and Dickey’s is here. (It’s a real scientific process we've got here.) Anyway, Dickey’s is kind of the fast-casual version of Red Hot and Blue: fine for what it is, acceptable in a pinch.

It’s Texas barbecue, which means copious amounts of pulled pork and brisket, plus some more off-the-beaten-path choices like jalapeño cheddar sausage, Polish kielbasa and pulled turkey. They’re famous for the big yellow cups in which they serve drinks, which will be a mainstay of your kitchen cabinets for years to come. They’re perfect for making homemade ice cream floats, but honestly, when you’re saying that one of the best things about a barbecue place is that their cups have a second life, well...you can read between the lines.

Two Triangle locations: 6552 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh and 1102 Parkside Main Street, Cary. Open 11a-9p seven days a week. Website: dickeys.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    (1) Brew ‘n Cue
    (62 votes)
  • 25%
    (8) Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
    (21 votes)
83 votes total Vote Now

4. Southern Charred BBQ Bar

A new entry into the Raleigh barbecue game, Southern Charred opened in late 2017 in Glenwood South as a concept that isn’t usually found in the relatively traditional realm of barbecue restaurants. The “bar” in the name gives it away: this is a bar that serves barbecue, not a barbecue restaurant that has libations. It fits in well among the other restaurants in the Glenwood South district, but the idea probably is unique to that area.

You know pretty much what you’ll get here: unsauced pulled pork, ribs, brisket and sausage. They have sauces from both sides of the state; I had the eastern sauce, which was fine but not anything real memorable. The barbecue sandwich looked quite good, though. Other regional sauces are also available, so like most pulled pork places you essentially get a blank canvas to make it what you want.

If you want to go for the atmosphere, though, this is the place for you. There’s an axe-throwing section near the bar, so keep your head up and know that you can take out your frustrations if necessary. The bar is lively, and open until last call Friday and Saturday nights. If you need a place to come grab a bite to avoid a hangover from one of the other Glenwood watering holes, this is as good an option as any. -AA

510 Glenwood Avenue. Raleigh; open for dinner seven nights a week plus lunch Tuesday through Sunday. Website: southerncharred.com.

5. Queen City Q

North Carolina’s largest city has very little traditional North Carolina barbecue, leaving it mostly to suburban outposts like Gastonia, Concord and Monroe. Queen City is about as close as Charlotte gets; it’s pulled pork, so it’s not quite the same, but the North Carolina sauces on the table are faithful recreations of the real thing. (You’re ten miles from being in South Carolina, so you’ll unsurprisingly also find a mustard sauce.) Since everyone in Charlotte seemingly came from somewhere else, you’ll also find St. Louis-style ribs and brisket on the menu as well.

Sides are plentiful, and much more hit than miss across the board. You have your standbys like green beans, fried okra and Brunswick stew, but you’ll also find relative rarities like fresh fruit and maque choux as well. This being uptown Charlotte, the prices are not cheap, but also not exorbitant; if you’re in the market for a $4 barbecue sandwich, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Think of Queen City as Charlotte’s answer to Brew ‘n Cue: it’s never going to be confused with the B’s of the world, but the different ambiance doesn’t detract from the quality.

225 E. 6th Street, Charlotte; open at 11a seven days a week, until 8:30 Sunday and Monday, 9:30 Tuesday through Thursday, and 10:30 Friday and Saturday. Website: queencityq.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    (4) Southern Charred
    (37 votes)
  • 48%
    (5) Queen City Q
    (35 votes)
72 votes total Vote Now

2. The Pit

Before I begin my review I need to break the fourth wall and talk about how this series came to be. We use a Canes Country Slack workgroup to kibitz about future story ideas and negotiate the schedule and share news that makes up Storm Advisory articles. Such was the case on July 20 when someone shared a tweet of new Cane Ryan Dzingel taking in dinner at The Pit. Within five minutes someone else WHO SHALL REMAIN NAMELESS commented “HOT TAKE ALERT. The Pit sucks,” and from there the conversation devolved into infighting and power rankings and general joking that barbecue wars would make a good summer series since we all had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than sit around and argue about barbecue on the internet.

Fast forward to the following Monday when the Dzingel tweet was featured in Storm Advisory and the third comment was literally “STOP. TAKING. PEOPLE. TO. THE. PIT!!!! That is terrible BBQ!” 80 comments later and our hunch was confirmed and the series took off.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out why The Pit of all places is so dang polarizing so I offered to throw myself on the grenade and pay a visit since I hadn’t been there in a while.

Here’s the thing, people. I grew up on mom and pop barbecue joints and church barbecue fund raisers and all that romanticized legacy is in my DNA as a born-and-raised North Carolinian, but it’s also okay to enjoy barbecue at a restaurant in a trendy section of town that has nice atmosphere and actually uses real dinnerware and glassware and cloth napkins and has a beverage menu.

The Pit is not just about barbecue, though I’ll get to that in a minute. In addition to whole-hog, pit-cooked barbecue, they also serve ribs, brisket, fried chicken, turkey, and even soy options for those who need a meatless main dish option. They have an extensive array of side dishes and desserts. In addition to beer and wine (and the obligatory sweet tea, which is just sweet enough and not cloying), they have an extensive collection of small batch bourbons to pair with the meat of your choice. In other words, something for everyone, which makes for an easy dining experience.

As far as their barbecue is concerned, I’m normally drawn to pulled pork, but I find theirs just okay. The texture is good and it’s tender and lean, but I wish it had a bit more smoke flavor or seasoning, though I can remedy that well enough by adding sauce (I mix eastern and western sauces, yes, I’m a barbecue heathen). But I really like their chopped barbecue, it has a good eastern NC tang to it and doesn’t require extra sauce to season further and I like the texture (not a fan of cue that looks like it’s been run through a food processor). Same with their cole slaw, it’s hearty and coarsely chopped, not too sour and not too sweet.

Anyhow, tl;dr version: It’s a very good restaurant that serves barbecue and a whole lot more in a great atmosphere where you can enjoy an evening out, so just go do it when the occasion warrants. -JK

Location: 328 W. Davie St., Raleigh. Open 7 days a week 11:00 am - 10:00 pm (11:00 pm on Friday and Saturday). Website: thepit-raleigh.com/

7. Midwood Smokehouse

In a way it’s appropriate that these two restaurants are matched up in a first-round matchup, because in much the same way as The Pit defines specialty barbecue in Raleigh, Midwood does likewise in Charlotte. Midwood is counter service, so it’s a little more casual (and less expensive) than The Pit, but no one’s ever going to confuse either one with a hole in the wall. Unlike most of the other restaurants in this category, Midwood offers honest-to-God chopped barbecue, with an eastern-style sauce (no ketchup) that is somewhat out of place in western North Carolina, yet somehow it works. And it’s nice to see a Charlotte restaurant unapologetically embrace North Carolina barbecue, even if it’s a little geographically challenged; you won’t find any mustard sauce on the table here.

What makes Midwood unique is their twists on how they use their meats. They offer such disparate choices as a “cheesesteak” made of brisket, a barbecue queso, a chopped-barbecue Cuban, and a build your own salad with whatever meat you want to use. The choices are extensive, and quite good across the board. How good? So good that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dropped in unannounced in 2016 while campaigning in Charlotte. When the leader of the free world swings by out of the blue, you know you’re doing something right.

Four locations in Charlotte: Central Avenue, South Park, Ballantyne and Huntersville, plus one in Columbia, S.C.; hours vary by location. Website: midwoodsmokehouse.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    (2) The Pit
    (57 votes)
  • 36%
    (7) Midwood Smokehouse
    (33 votes)
90 votes total Vote Now

3. Bar-B-Que House

If this series does nothing else for you, dear reader, I hope it encourages you to patronize the Bar-B-Que House. I realize that, this being North Carolina, I run the risk of being labeled a heretic for praising the virtues of a barbecue place that was started in (horror!) South Carolina, but words fail to express just how good this restaurant is. The menu says they serve chopped barbecue, but really it’s pulled pork with a very minimal chop. There’s no sauce on the pork as served, which is fine; they have both Eastern and Western sauces available, as well as a mustard-based sauce, but skip them all and head for the spicy house sauce.

I swear on my life this is true: it is the best barbecue sauce I have ever eaten.

It’s not the best combination - Lexington’s ‘cue and dip will always wear that crown for me. But the spicy house, which is a sweet sauce sprinkled with red pepper flakes, can stand on its own as well. You can’t dunk hush puppies into a Lexington dip, but do it here and you’ll wonder what took you so long to discover this secret. And if that isn’t for you, maybe some honey-cinnamon butter will do the trick. And don’t get me started on the white cheddar mac and cheese, which is outstanding - as is just about everything else on the menu. I’m #blessed to have fantastic in-laws, but even if they were the stereotypical avoid-at-all-costs parents of the bride, I’d still go visit them just to eat this barbecue. I can’t say this enough: you should visit Oak Island, and when you do, you cannot miss going to the Bar-B-Que House.

5002 E. Oak Island Drive, Oak Island; open 10:30a-9p seven days a week (until 10 on Friday and Saturday). Other locations in North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach, S.C. Website: bestbbqonthebeach.com.

6. Picnic

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the most “foodie” place in our bracket is in Durham, and while the Q Shack is probably more well-known, Picnic is more true to traditional North Carolina barbecue, with a gourmet take on Eastern-style whole hog barbecue. The restaurant is smallish, but the picnic tables (given the name, you had to know these were part of the experience) out front under the awning are the only place I have ever sat.

I delved into the tried and true eastern Carolina pulled pork plate. It is their most classic style, obviously, and the vinegar base is not overdone. It is not sopping wet, but at the same time, I never journeyed inside in search of reinforcement sauce. While the pork is in line with what you would come to expect in our neck of the woods, the real separator is the high-end side dishes and sweet tea, which has all the sweetness you expect from a barbecue joint. In many ways it’s a cousin to Clyde Cooper’s. (One other Carolina note: Cheerwine is available.)

For the side dishes, the slaw, which is not generally my favorite food item personally, is lovely in that it is not as mayo-heavy and finely chopped as you might see from some bbq places. It retains some crunch, which is a nice change. From there, the mac and cheese is thick and gooey, but made with actual macaroni noodles (I have seen many places go to a spiral pasta, which I enjoy less). No cheese layer on top. The bacon-braised collards were solid, and certainly provide a warm, comforting green to accompany the feast. I sampled the potato salad as well, and was impressed. There was a good dill flavor and the cooler temperature was correct for how you want that side to come across.

Eastern barbecue has had a rough go of it lately, with the likes of Wilber’s, Bill Ellis and Allen & Son all closing their doors. Picnic does a good job of carrying the flag, and is well worth a visit. -AH

1647 Cole Mill Road, Durham; open Sunday-Thursday 11a-9p, Friday and Saturday 11a-10p. Website: picnicdurham.com.

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    (3) Bar-B-Que House
    (36 votes)
  • 50%
    (6) Picnic
    (37 votes)
73 votes total Vote Now

Pulled Pork 2nd Round

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

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 52%
    (1) N.C. BBQ Company
    (36 votes)
  • 47%
    (4) Big Al’s BBQ
    (33 votes)
69 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who wins this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    (2) Pik ‘n Pig
    (43 votes)
  • 46%
    (3) Smokey’s BBQ Shack
    (37 votes)
80 votes total Vote Now