Restaurant Critic Greg Cox offers his favorite barbecue restaurants in the Triangle.
Shhh! Did you hear that? Sounds like a fiddle, coming from somewhere down the street. There it is again, a little louder now. Pretty sure I hear a banjo, too – and is that a mandolin?
It can only mean one thing. The World of Bluegrass is in town, along with the conference for the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Bands from all over the world are warming up for performances this weekend in downtown Raleigh – for the Wide Open Bluegrass concerts as well as the Bluegrass Ramble shows.
Whether you’re a world-class fiddler or just a toe-tapping fan, you’ll need food to fuel your efforts. Hundreds of local restaurants stand ready to fill your tank with everything from Ethiopian to Mexican-Southern fusion.
But here in the heart of barbecue country, it would be a shame not to indulge in at least one meal of bluegrass’s natural culinary companion.
Naturally, the two famous North Carolina styles of barbecue dominate: Eastern whole hog with a peppery vinegar-based sauce, and Western pork shoulders with a slightly thicker, tomato-tinged variation.
But you don’t have to look too hard to turn up rewarding renditions of Texas brisket, Memphis barbecue and other smoky fare.
Allen & Son
Torn between Eastern and Western North Carolina barbecue? Check out Allen & Son, where the ’cue is a hybrid of the two styles, and the pork is cooked the old-fashioned way, over seasoned hickory and oak. It’s a winning formula that has kept fans coming back to the little shack tucked in off a country highway a few miles north of Chapel Hill since 1970.
Pro tip: Don’t fill up on hushpuppies, or you won’t have room for homemade cobbler.
Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque
A couple of years ago, when this legendary downtown Raleigh joint was forced to vacate the building it had occupied since 1938 to make way for new construction, it relocated just around the corner – moving all the timeworn dining room decorations with it. Returning fans were happy to see that the fine chopped Eastern-style pork hadn’t changed either.
Pro tip: Pick up a bag of house-fried pork cracklings on your way out.
Daddy Bob’s Barbeque
Food truck owner/operator Miller Howerton traces his barbecue pedigree back four generations to Mississippi, but Howerton grew up in North Carolina. His barbecue – pork shoulders smoked for 12 hours over a mix of hickory, apple and pecan, and moistened with an Eastern-style sauce – adapts the family tradition to his new home. Check the website for the truck’s schedule, and – well, what do you know? It’s going to be at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival.
Pro tip: Spice things up with some jalapeño cheddar hushpuppies and a side of jalapeño slaw (Howerton’s father’s recipe).
Hillsborough BBQ Company
Opened in 2011, this upstart went against the gas-fired grain and revived the laborious and expensive old-fashioned method of cooking exclusively over wood. The star is the Eastern-style whole hog that’s so juicy it hardly needs saucing, but baby back ribs, Texas-style beef brisket and barbecue chicken are also on the money.
Pro tip: First-rate Brunswick stew is just one of many worthy scratch-cooked sides.
Pork shoulders, subtly smoky and pulled into coarse shreds so juicy you’ll think twice before adding sauce, is just one attraction at this spot where the fried chicken is so good you’re almost tempted to order it instead. Almost.
Pro tip: Deviled eggs, their creamy, mustardy yolk fillings enriched with rendered bacon fat, are a worthy tribute to the restaurant’s name.
The Pit’s urban vibe isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think “barbecue joint,” but the pork barbecue is the real whole-hog, pit-cooked deal. Don’t let the extensive selection of smoked meats – everything from beef brisket to chopped turkey – distract you from your goal: Eastern-style chopped pork.
Pro tip: OK, if you insist, the Carolina-style ribs are another winning option.
Smokey’s BBQ Shack
Smokey’s is one of those rare versatile barbecue joints that turns out a wide range of smoked meats, all worthy options: pulled pork, ribs, beef brisket, even chicken. If forced to choose one, I suppose I’d go with the brisket. Happily, I don’t have to because the Sampler combo gets you all four.
Pro tip: If you’re going for lunch, get there early to avoid a line that frequently snakes out the front door.
Pork shoulders, slow-cooked over hardwood coals and seasoned just right with an Eastern-style sauce, have been drawing pickup trucks like a magnet to the parking lot in front of this low-slung cinder block building since 1958. Worth a drive to find out why? You bet.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the restaurant’s first chopping block on display just inside the entrance. That deep well worn into the top is the result of nearly 30 years of chopping pork.