As the first two plates of chopped and sliced pork were placed on the table in front of us, accompanied by sides of Ore-Ida-looking French fries and an entire basket of hush puppies, my first thought was, “I hope I can handle a whole week of Carolina barbecue.”
My son Nick and I were at Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, the first stop on one of our somewhat annual barbecue tours. Our first trip, the Barrage of Brisket Tour back in 2013, took us to the Austin area, where we made five stops. The next tour was 2015’s Madness in Memphis , where we hit six barbecue places (and one fried chicken joint). In 2016, it was Kicking It in Kansas, for seven stops.
That last name is pretty damn awful, and I admit I’m retroactively naming some of these because I dubbed this year’s trip The Meat Sweats Tour.
For The Meat Sweats Tour (#meatsweats) we basically doubled the number of places. Thirteen stops in one week. We had more on the itinerary, but there’s only so much even hardcore carnivores can take.
Just the facts
For those with short attention spans, I’ll serve you up the basic facts and then you can scroll through the 40 or so pictures of pig meat and fried corn balls. All of these places we liked. If I had to pick a favorite based on food alone, I’d go with Allen & Son in Chapel Hill. Fans of old-school road-side barbecue shacks will like B’s and Grady’s in North Carolina and Scott’s in South Carolina (if you can find them).
- Miles driven: 1,549.
- States covered: 2
- BBQ Joints visited: 13
- North Carolina: Lexington Barbecue, Red Bridges Barbecue, Speedy Lohr’s, Stamey’s, Picnic, Parker’s, B’s, Skylight Inn, Allen & Son, and Grady’s. (Click for map/directions: Note, this is geographical, not a chronological order of events.)
- South Carolina: Scott’s, Sweatman’s, and Hite’s. (Click for map/directions.)
Barbecue tour pro tip: Bring cash. Many of these places don’t accept credit cards.
The long version
I should tell you up front that my personal barbecue biases lean toward beef, heavy on the smoke and hold the sauce. If I can’t have brisket, pork ribs is typically my second choice. When I gave Nick the choice of regions to go, if he’d said Texas, I would have happily agreed. It’s a big state and we missed so many places the first time around.
But out of principle, he picked the last major barbecue region we’d yet to visit. I was up to the challenge, even if it meant figuring out just how to pull this one off without a central city from which to work.
First up, I drew up a long list of possible barbecue locations. I wanted traditional, so I leaned heavily on the North Carolina Barbecue Society Historic Barbecue Trail, which doesn’t include places who’ve switched to gas smokers. (Gas smokers used by restaurants actually make pretty damn good barbecue, but we were angling for “authenticity” as much as possible.) I also turned to a couple of other lists, one from Time and one from the Washington Post. And turned to social media and real live honest to god people for some fine-tuning.
Due to time, geographical constraints, and a barbecue history that rightly or wrongly gives North Carolina prevalence, we decided to focus mostly on North Carolina. You’ll notice only three stops in South Carolina, and we didn’t try any of the places in Charleston. Looking back on it, I regret that a little bit now, but many of the places in Charleston seemed to be urban or multi-regional barbecue, which wasn’t what we were going for. And quite frankly, we needed seafood and vegetables (or at least a side dish other than hush puppies or cabbage) at that point.
The next concern was plotting the route. After staring at the map for a couple of days, looking at my multiple lists, and checking business hours, I settled on something that wasn’t completely insane. We’d fly into Charlotte, N.C. (I flew in from New York, Nick flew in from Baton Rouge), work from there for the western (or Lexington style) North Carolina barbecue, then proceed eastward, then southward toward Charleston and wind up back in Charlotte. The maps above don’t represent the chronological order in which we hit these places. The list below does that.
Barbecue tour pro tip: When planning your trip, pay close attention to days and hours of operations. A lot of places are closed on Sundays. Many are closed on Tuesdays. Hell, Allen & Son in Chapel Hill is only opened Wednesday through Saturday. And there are some places only open one or two days a week.
Where did we stay? I typically favor downtown areas and hotels with charm, but at this point, I just threw in the towel and went mostly for price and highway access. This resulted in a bit of a Holiday Inn tour. Two Holiday Inn Expresses (Charlotte and Durham) and an actual Holiday Inn (Charleston). For a change of pace, we stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn near the airport on our last night.
A quick lesson in Carolina barbecue
Carolina barbecue is broken down into different regions. How many regions? Depends on how much you want to fight over this. I’m going to go with the three that we tried.
In all cases, what you’re going to be served is pork. It’s going to come in some version of chopped, sliced, or pulled. In North Carolina, you’re not really going to see ribs. The regions are defined by the type of sauce (or “dip”) they use and the parts of the pig which they chop up to serve.
Note on sauce: Although I’m calling it sauce, the main North Carolina sauces aren’t anywhere near what you’re thinking if you’re used to store-bought sauce from any other region. By my very scientific calculation (and excluding spices) it consists of between 95% to 120% vinegar. This might sound horrible to you, but it’s delicious when made right and applied correctly. It does mean that the sauce is very thin and isn’t something you slather or spread, which is why some folks call it a dip.
Lexington Style, aka Piedmont style, aka Western North Carolina: Here, they rely mostly on pork shoulder or butt (which is just another way to say shoulder and not actually the animal’s ass). If you’re not from the Carolinas and you’ve had pulled pork, this is likely what you ate. The sauce here is vinegar based with a touch of ketchup, giving it a reddish hue and making it slightly sweeter than its cousin to the east. Despite what the haters in Eastern Carolina might have you believe, this sauce isn’t tomato-BASED. It’s just got a hint of tomato. They also use this sauce in the coleslaw, giving it a reddish tinge.
Eastern North Carolina: Eastern style is distinguished by use of the whole hog and a sauce completely free of the sin of tomato. It’s practically vinegar and pepper and it’s really damn good on pork. While they use the whole hog, that doesn’t mean the menu offers anything than pulled pork. Some folks offered ribs, but others seemed to pull the whole carcass to shreds, which is fascinating to watch. Most of the coleslaw in this region was along the more traditional mayo and whatever variety. I’m not quite sure where the dividing line is for this geographical distinction. You’ll get a mix of styles in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham, but east of those three, it’s going to be pure Eastern style.
South Carolina: South Carolina also has multiple regions to argue about, and Jim Shahin lays those out in this piece. Of the three places we hit, one was basically the same as Eastern North Carolina and the two others were apparently “Midlands” style, which is “characterized by mustard sauce, hash and the barbecue buffet.” Yes. Mustard sauce. Yes. Hash. Hash struck me as parts of the pig that didn’t get served cooked down even farther into some sort of gravy that’s served over rice. It’s not pretty to look at, but it is damn good.
Side dishes: While a few of the below places leaned toward a meat-and-three sort of restaurant rather than pure barbecue joints, the default side dishes at almost all of them were hush puppies and coleslaw. Word of warning for those of you from the rest of the South: Most Carolina hush puppies are oblong instead of round. It is weird, yes, but they are the same tasty fried balls (or ovals) of corn meal that you know and love. If a place offers mac and cheese, I’d say go for it. In 98% of cases, I’d say skip the beans because they’re likely coming out of a can. Or at least ask first. One waitress told me that they were Bush’s. A few places do make their own and they’re delicious.
Desserts: There are other desserts to be had in the region, but this is banana pudding nirvana and if you have any room left, go for it.
Drinks: If you like an adult beverage or two with your food, you’re out of luck. Only one of the places below served alcohol. Plenty of sweet tea. Some unsweetened tea. And my recommendation: Cheerwine. It’s a soda, not a wine, and I’d call it a cross between Cherry Coke and Dr Pepper. Sort of like Big Red in Texas, it’s the perfect blend of sugar, carbonation, and artificial fruit flavors to pair with barbecue. It should be North Carolina’s No. 1 export.
Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, are you ready to eat? Below is the list, in order of eating. If they have a website, I’ve linked to it.
Lexington Barbecue, 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, N.C. 27295
What a better way to kick off a tour of Lexington-style barbecue than a place called Lexington Barbecue in Lexington.
LEXINGTON! The word now sounds like nonsense.
There are a number of choices to be had in Lexington, but I’m glad we went with this 56-year-old institution, as it basically served as a primer for all that was to follow. While other regions might make the smoker or pit very obvious or might have you walk across fire or close to it to get your meat, most of the Carolina places simply looked like restaurants or takeout joints built at some point in the last century. No point in making the customer smell like smoke, I guess.
Lexington Barbecue is a wood-paneled sit-down family joint that was hopping on a Saturday evening. And it was the first place we went to after checking into our hotel.
While we sat and watched other orders go by, I had a brief moment of panic when I mistook the finely-chopped coleslaw for meat and thought, “They’ve run the pig through a blender!” But no. They did not.
I ordered sliced pork, Nick ordered chopped. Sides were coleslaw, fries, and hush puppies. The pork was tender, juicy, and mild. There wasn’t a great deal of smoke flavoring, which would be the case across the state. Obviously, if you’re a fan of heavy smoke, this might be an issue for you. But one upside is that milder smoke flavoring makes it easier to eat a lot more! (Or maybe that’s a downside). The dip was sweet and tangy on the meat, but registered very sweet in the slaw. Hush puppies were delicious in part because they were well made and in part because we had yet to suffer hush-puppy fatigue.
While I typically stick to meat only meals, at a number of places where bread was offered, I’d make a small sandwich to see how everything worked together. If you’re going, I’d suggest you do the same.
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. CLOSED SUNDAYS
Red Bridges, 2000 E. Dixon Boulevard, Shelby, N.C. 28150
Sunday being Sunday in the South, our options were limited. Luckily, one of those options for lunch is considered to be a North Carolina legend, Red Bridges Barbecue, the sort of place that knows a thing or two about signage. Between the old-school neon signs and the pigs plastered everywhere, we were in … wait for it … hog heaven.
We were also lucky to be joined by Jim Mitchem and his family. Jim and I have known each other for almost ten years via Twitter and had never met. Not only did we meet in real life, but we met over a Sunday barbecue lunch. A good time was had by all!
You can see from the menu below that Bridges offers more than barbecue, but we stuck to the barbecue. Again, Nick went with chopped and I went with sliced. Sides were beans (skip ’em), slaw and French fries. Oh, and hush puppies. My serving came from the leaner parts of the pig and it was still juicy — honestly, we didn’t have any bad meat on this trip — and still pretty mild in terms of smoke. Here the sauce was actually almost a sauce. It was thicker than that offered by the other places in the region.
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. CLOSED MONDAYS AND TUESDAYS
Speedy Lohr’s BBQ, 3664 NC-8, Lexington, NC 27292
The first picture below is clearly not a sign that reads Speedy Lohr’s BBQ. Speedy Lohr’s was an audible hastily called after driving over an hour to find that Hill’s was closed on Sunday evenings. This, despite listing Sunday hours on the web and in Google search results. Remember kids, scheduling a barbecue tour that includes Sundays is tough. And it never hurts to pick up an actual phone.
Speedy Lohr’s had been on an early list but hadn’t made the cut. I’m glad we squeezed it in. (It sits across the highway from one of the most haunted-looking houses you’ll ever see, so keep an eye out for that.)
While the sign and menu play up the pit-cooked BBQ, it has a wider menu and is basically a meat-and-three. I forgot what the specials were on Sunday when we walked in, because we weren’t there for meatloaf and collards, no matter how good they might have been.
Again, we went with chopped and sliced. Sides were fries, potato salad, beans, and approximately six barrels of hush puppies. We also had a pitcher of Cheerwine.
Speedy Lohr’s was the first place on this journey where the smoke was actually noticeable. As you can see from the photo, we actually got bits of bark in these servings as well. With a touch of the sauce, I could have just eaten that all night. But I went ahead and made a sandwich combining the meat and the slaw and it was magical.
Not pictured, the giant servings of banana pudding that we got to go. I didn’t include a photo because my picture looked less like a bowl of banana pudding and more like a bowl of snot, which wouldn’t be fair to some of the best banana pudding you’ll ever put in your face.
Hours: Seven days a week, 6 a.m. – 9 p.m. (There’s also a location in Arcadia, N.C.)
Stamey’s, 2206 W. Gate City Blvd, Greensboro, N.C.
Monday we packed up and departed Charlotte, making a bee-line for Greensboro, N.C., for a lunch stop at Stamey’s Barbecue. Open since 1930, Stamey’s is a giant of a place with a giant of a woodpile and smoker across the parking lot from the restaurant. Just get an eye full of that thing. It could stand in for London during the Industrial Revolution.
We ordered the tuna melt and salad topped with cottage cheese.
Of course we didn’t. Sliced and chopped, with slaw, hush puppies and fries. I wanted to taste a little more smoke on the meat, but it was still tender and juicy. Of the Lexington places, the dip at Stamey’s was my favorite and that’s because it was heaviest on the vinegar, lightest on the ketchup (or sugar), and had a nice peppery kick. In other words, it was the closest to eastern style sauce. (Don’t tell them I said that.) This also made for a coleslaw that didn’t turn cloyingly sweet after four bites.
Of interest: If you take a close look at the menu, you’ll notice that pork has the word barbecue attached to it and chicken doesn’t. They don’t even bother throwing the chicken on the smoker. They bake it and sauce it. (The Chicken Q is simply chopped and sauced chicken.)
One thing I’m regretting in hind sight is we didn’t order dessert at many of these places because we were already full and had another location to go to later. Stamey’s has a Cobbler of the Day and we didn’t even get the Cobbler of the Day! In our defense, this tour was called The Meat Sweats Tour, not The Fruit Pie Excursion. #meatsweats
Hours: Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. CLOSED ON SUNDAYS.
There is a second location 2812 Battleground Ave., Greensboro, N.C. 27408
Picnic, 1647 Cole Mill Road, Durham, N.C. 27705
From Stamey’s, we headed east, but only after a brief detour to Greensboro’s Bog Garden at Benjamin Park. Nothing helps you digest pounds of meat like a leisurely stroll through a bog in 90-degree heat. (Seriously, though, if you’re in the area check it out. It’s beautiful.)
Our next stop was the Durham-Raleigh area, which Calvin Trillin once referred to as “the demilitarized zone” of North Carolina barbecue. It’s neither East nor West. Or maybe it’s both. We marked our arrival by going to the only “fancy” barbecue joint of the trip. And by fancy, I mean it was open for normal dinner hours and served adult beverages. No more, no less. It wasn’t even as fancy as a Blue Smoke in New York or Fiorella’s Jack Stack in Kansas City. But compared to the places we’d been to before, it was almost enough to make me wish I’d put on proper pants.
It was also the first place that served non-native barbecue like brisket. Because we were on a highly scientific mission, we stuck to pork, even if I did end up ordering ribs and even if those ribs did look like they might have been more at home in Kansas City. The pulled pork was solid, the mac and cheese was amazing and the hush puppies and fries were on point. The cocktail soothed the soul (though, honestly, I would have been fine with Cheerwine). The ribs? Eh. They had less smoke flavor than the pulled pork and that couldn’t compete at all against that sauce.
Oh, and we did get dessert here. Nick ordered a cobbler and I ordered peanut butter pie. No regrets!
Hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Friday & Saturday 11 a.m – 10 p.m. CLOSED TUESDAYS.
Parker’s, 2514 US-301, Wilson, N.C. 27893
Tuesday was going to be the biggest, baddest day of the tour, with four or five stops crammed in. Because we are only human, we made three, including Parker’s, which wasn’t originally on any of my lists, but had been mentioned by a few locals, largely on the strength of its fried chicken.
Sure, this was a barbecue tour, but if a place was going to serve barbecue and fried chicken that people talk about, I’d be stupid to pass it up. (When we’d done our Memphis tour, we squeezed in a trip to Gus’s after being brow-beaten into it and did not regret that decision at all.)
Parker’s is a massive place with a parking lot befitting a truck stop. That parking lot wasn’t empty, either. It’s another no-frills wood-paneled interior but with waiters wearing uniforms that look straight out of a 1950s joint, complete with those little paper hats.
We went with chopped pork, fried chicken, fries and slaw. Oh and hush puppies and corn sticks. The pork was solid, but the chicken was outstanding. I’m still thinking about that chicken. If you’re ever there, be sure to order the chicken. Yes, go ahead and order the barbecue. It’s good! But don’t skip the chicken.
You can skip the corn sticks, though. I’m not quite sure what they’re supposed to be, but they were dense and sort of dry. The hush puppies, on the other hand, were good. I’d call the hush puppies a delight, but by this point in the trip, we were getting a little corned out. Not sure why one corn-meal based product was so much better than the other, but there it is.
We did not get dessert because we were basically getting in the car and driving directly to another barbecue place.
Hours: Seven days a week 9 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
B’s Barbecue, 751 B’s Barbeque Road, Greenville, N.C. 27858
Now, B’s Barbecue? If I told you to close your eyes and think of a barbecue shack in North Carolina, B’s might be the sort of thing you imagine. Just look at it there, a humble building with a white-brick facade on the corner of neither here nor there. It has limited seating inside and a couple of tables under umbrellas outside. You expect to see lines of hungry workers inside and out walking off with sacks of barbecue sandwiches.
When we rolled up at 1 p.m., though, there was no line. Because, by the clocks kept by the Barbecue Gods, we were late. We’d been spoiled by the restaurant nature of other North Carolina barbecue joints, lulled into keeping regular hours, forgetting hard lessons learned in Texas. If it’s good, get there early. Because if it’s good, they’re going to run out. And when they run out, they’re done for the day.
And B’s is good. I’m telling you this based on the strength of the one plate of pulled pork we got. I really wanted to try the barbecue chicken here because I’d heard good things. But the chicken was long gone. B’s opens at 9 a.m. It’s done so since they first threw open the doors and they haven’t changed the hours since. So that means people are ordering their barbecue at 9 in the morning, yall. They’re eating all the chicken before I’m even ready for lunch.
You can get a barbecue sandwich at B’s for something like $3. We sprung for a plate and assembled sandwiches ourselves. Keep in mind we’d eaten barbecue and fried chicken maybe an hour before arriving here. Didn’t matter. Tore it up. The tender, smokey pork dressed in that eastern Carolina vinegar sauce (which apparently has an extra secret ingredient) was stellar on its own, but combined with the traditional slaw and slapped on a hamburger bun? Get out of town. Shut your mouth. Slap ya mama. Etc. Etc.
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. (or whenever they run out). CLOSED SUNDAY & MONDAY
If your GPS doesn’t like “B’s Barbecue Road,” you can try: 751 State Road 1204, Greenville, N.C. 27858
Skylight Inn 4618 S Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513
After an afternoon kayaking excursion, Nick and I headed over to Skylight Inn in Ayden. Skylight Inn is one of the grand-daddy’s of the eastern North Carolina barbecue scene. World-famous and all that jazz. How much business does it do? Just look at the size of that wood pile out back.
Skylight does not disappoint. While you’re at the counter ordering your food, you might even get to see a guy actually pulling the pork. This is a sight to behold, especially if you’ve only ever seen pork pulled from the pre-butchered shoulder. Remember, eastern style is all about whole hog, so you’re seeing strands of meat being pulled off of bones and from skin before chopping. It’s pretty cool.
We ordered pork, chicken, slaw, potato salad, beans and cornbread. The beans at Skylight, I was assured, are made in-house. They were delicious. (How many times have I used that word in this post? I don’t even want to know.) The pork was great. The chicken, we liked, though I kind of wanted the skin crisped. The slaw? Good. As was the potato salad.
The cornbread? NOPE. Like the corn sticks at Parker’s, it was dense. But this was an entire slab of it. It was also a little oily and tough to chew through. Did not like it. I felt bad about this, like it was a failing on my part. Then, lo and behold, I was watching the pilot episode of Texas Monthly BBQ Editor Daniel Vaughn‘s “Smokelandia” and he was at Sam Jones BBQ, the sibling restaurant of Skylight and which serves the same cornbread. And right there on national TV, the owner of the joint had this to say: “You really like the cornbread or you think it sucks.”
Vaughn then interviewed customers in the restaurant, who seemed to be split 50/50 on liking it or hating it. Vaughn seemed to like it, so I asked him about it on Twitter. His response: “I love that cornbread straight from the oven. An hour later, not so much.”
I can see that making a difference. Something in it seemed to have congealed. And we were there at the end of business hours. In fact, about five minutes after we ordered, they ran out of meat and placed the closed sign on the door.
There’s a small part of me that wishes we’d checked out Sam Jones BBQ as well. The menu there is much more varied and includes spare ribs, wings, turkey, and a host of other things. But if you’re looking for the traditional experience, Skylight Inn is the way to go.
Skylight Inn Hours: Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. CLOSED SUNDAYS
Sam Jones Hours: Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Allen & Son Barbeque, 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516
Overall, Allen & Son Barbeque was the best barbecue of the trip. And just to be extra clear, Allen & Son Barbeque on Millhouse Road is not to be confused with Allen & Son Bar-B-Que in Pittsboro. Is the latter any good? I couldn’t tell you.
What I can tell you is that I’d heard and read good things about it, so I actually built the itinerary of this portion of the trip around Allen & Son’s schedule. It’s only open Wednesday through Saturday.
What inched it above the others? Their hush puppies were round instead of oblong!
No, actually, it was that of all the places we had barbecue, Allen & Son had the most smoke flavor and the pulled pork came with quite a bit of crunchy bits. They also served ribs that, while sauced, had been properly smoked and were moist on the inside but had just the right amount of char on the outside. The mayo-based slaw was a nice accompaniment as was the potato salad. The fries clearly didn’t come from an Ore-Ida bag.
And while not pictured (because my already shoddy food photography failed completely in this case), the pound cake I got for dessert was incredible. Nick liked the cobbler he got as well. The place had a plethora of pie options. So save room for dessert.
Hours: Wednesday 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Thursday – Saturday 10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY, TUESDAY.
Grady’s, 3096 Arrington Bridge Road, Dudley, N.C. 28333
Pulling up to a place that looks like Grady’s, you expect either really good barbecue or to be murdered by a madman. Seemingly out in the middle of nowhere, Grady’s is a white almost windowless cinder-block building. While there, two ministers, a black guy, and a Mexican guy came in for lunch. It sounds like the set-up to a joke, but it made me think I was in the right place even if I also wondered where exactly these people were coming from. (They’re coming from town, Ken. Just because you didn’t drive through the town doesn’t mean it’s not there, you twit. There’s even a Mexican store literally 300 feet away.)
That said, we took it easy at Grady’s. We were doing an early lunch followed by a late lunch so didn’t want to stuff ourselves completely silly. Order? Chopped pork, fried chicken, slaw, and black-eyed peas. Both the pork and the fried chicken are worth repeat trips. If I had to pit Grady’s fried chicken against Parker’s, I’d probably declare it a draw. The pork was mild and the sauce had that nice eastern Carolina pepper touch to it. Despite the corn-meal fatigue, these might have been the best hush puppies of the trip. Surprisingly, the black-eyed peas were on the bland side. I should have gone with the butter beans.
Apparently lines here can get pretty long, but we beat the lunch rush. So it was a quick in and out. It might depend on the day of the week, as well.
Hours: Wednesday – Friday 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY, TUESDAY.
Scott’s, 5420, 2734 Hemingway Highway, Hemingway, S.C. 29554
Your factory-installed GPS probably isn’t going to like Scott’s. Hell, Google Maps seemed to have some issues with its address even though I got its address from Google Maps. I don’t know what to tell you. If your GPS won’t find it, just go to Hemingway, South Carolina, and drive around. Or ask.
Scott’s was our first stop in South Carolina and we pulled up late in the afternoon, a little tired of driving and, to be honest, getting a little tired of pulled pork, cabbage, and hush puppies. But it was worth the trip.
Scott’s is old school. It looks like a barbecue joint that started to sprout a grocery store and then changed its mind. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s a repurposed gas station that was turned into a variety store that became a barbecue stop. Robert Donovan has a backgrounder here. And here’s an old John T. Edge New York Times piece.
For those readers who love words like “authenticity,” this is the place for you. Beat up, run down, with hand-lettered signs not only saying “No credit,” but declaring credit a tool of the devil him own self, Scott’s is the real deal. And the food is good, too. Though we were in South Carolina, the style was fairly close to eastern North Carolina style. Pig, mild smoke, vinegar, and pepper. You could it eat it all day and twice on Sundays (except Scott’s is closed on Sundays). No mustard sauce at Scott’s. There was a touch of mustard in the potato salad, though, and I always appreciate that.
Rodney Scott got so famous he went and opened up a joint in Charleston. Perhaps we should have checked that one out. Like the Skylight Inn offshoot Sam Jones, Rodney Scott’s in Charleston has a wider menu. But I’m glad we went to the original.
Hours: Wednesday 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Thursday & Friday 9:30 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. Saturday 9:30 a.m. – 7:45 p.m. (!?!). CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY, TUESDAY.
Sweatman’s BBQ, 1427 Eutaw Road, Holly Hill, S.C. 29059
It’s now taken me longer to write this post than it did to conduct the actual trip. But we’re almost done. Have you reached peak pork saturation yet? Too bad. After a restful night in Charleston and a sweltering morning run through a sleeping beauty of a city, it’s off to Sweatman’s BBQ.
While looking into places to go, I didn’t pay extremely close attention to the exterior shots of Sweatman’s, so I was expecting another shack on the side of the road. While it does have that middle-of-nowhere feel, Sweatman’s isn’t a shack, but rather a lovely old farm house nestled between a few oak trees, the sort of place you could sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and just while away the day drinking sweet tea, chewing some fine Carolina tobacco, and maybe whittling yourself something.
But we were there to eat.
Sweatman’s operates a buffet line for dine-in lunch, something I’d mostly tried to steer clear of after a sub-optimal experience with one in Lockhart, Texas. But barbecue buffets seems rather common in this region and pork isn’t nearly as fussy as beef when it comes to sitting around. Beef dries out rather quickly, pork doesn’t.
While there is an all-you-can eat option for the buffet (around $15, but they still limit you on the ribs and skins), we opted for the $12 one-time through. And unless you’re a glutton, the single-serve buffet is a gut-buster all on its own. It includes sides, chicken, pulled pork, ribs, banana pudding, and all the lemonade or sweet tea you can drink.
We availed ourselves of all the meat options, plus macaroni and cheese and our first introduction to hash. If you can remember about 4,000 words ago, I explained what hash was. Kind of. Let’s just say it’s a meat sauce made with ground pork leftover from earlier barbecue. It’s served over rice. The hash at Sweatman’s has a reddish tinge, which means a hint of tomato. It might take some folks some getting used to, but as a Louisiana guy who grew up eating meat gravies and sauces served over rice, I jumped right in. It was plenty tasty, almost like a porky bolognese sauce.
But we were there for the meat, which had no hint of tomato because we were finally in mustard country — or at least at a restaurant that believed pig should be sauced with mustard. You can really see the yellow in the ribs below. The ribs were great, with just the right amount of pull. And the sauce, while, yes, mustardy, wasn’t overpowering on that particular flavor. In fact, it was a little sweet. We ripped apart the serving of chicken we split. And then we savored the pulled pork. Despite a week of pulled pork preceding this meal, I loved it. Sweatman’s does something I really appreciated: they separate the pork into, for all intents and purposes, light meat and dark meat. So if you like that sweaty, greasy meat from darker half, you can go crazy. If you want to pretend you’re on a diet and sticking to loin-type portions is going to counteract the mac & cheese, you can do that, too. Or you can have them mix it up for you. The pulled pork comes with just a hint of the mustard sauce. I found it the perfect amount, but there’s more sauce on the table if you’re the drown-your-food sort.
The serving of banana pudding was, as we say in Louisiana, tee-tiny. But it was delicious and just the right amount to send us on our way without completely regretting the paths our lives had taken (you know that feeling).
Hours: Friday & Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Hite’s Bar-B-Que, 240 Dreher Road, West Columbia, S.C. 29169
Bar-B-Que, Bar-B-Q, BBQ? Hite’s had all the Q-variants of barbecue covered. Hites in West Columbia is not to be confused with Jackie Hite’s in Leesville, just over half an hour west. Jackie Hites seems to get more media love, perhaps because its owner seemed to have an outsize personality, but Hite’s in West Columbia got itself a write-up in Garden & Gun (hey, look, it’s John T. Edge again), so that’s not too shabby.
We’d meant to try both places on the drive back to Charlotte from Charleston, but by this point, we could only stand the idea of one more barbecue meal. Hite’s seemed the smaller, more rustic of the two, and was more convenient to our route. It also had an outdoor eating area with a view of a pond — which was good, because it didn’t have an indoor eating area. (Hite’s isn’t actually in the middle of nowhere. It’s got a rustic feel, but it’s pretty close to I-26, so it’s one of the few of these places you can make a quick detour to if you’re hauling ass between two other places, like Charleston and Charlotte, and as long as it’s Friday or Saturday.)
Hite’s is another mustard sauce joint. It’s mustard sauce had a little more bite. And it’s hash used a mustard base rather than tomato. We ordered pulled pork, ribs, hash, slaw, and beans.
We made short work of the ribs. I never thought I’d refer to ribs as refreshing, but after a week of chopped pork, just having it served in a different format was a nice change of pace. (I almost felt like understood that guy I saw that one time eating pre-race ribs in the starting corral of the Brooklyn Half Marathon.) The ribs at Hite’s had a little bit of crunch and crisp on them despite the sauce, which I find optimal.
The pulled pork was juicy and tender and the mustard sauce balanced nicely with the mayo-based coleslaw when slapped onto a sandwich. The beans were made on premise — or at least had enough chunks of pork in them to fool me into thinking that. The hash was good enough to make a meal of — and they certainly give you enough — but by this point, we were ready to throw in the towel.
Sitting by the side of a pond, eating all of the pork, it was a good last barbecue meal for this trip. And Hite’s was a good place to do it.
Hours: Friday 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Non barbecue drinks and eats
We did squeeze in a few non-barbecue options, if not for our health then for our sanity.
First up was Ponysaurus Taproom in Durham, N.C. It’s not actually a restaurant, but, well, a taproom and beer garden. There are snacks and there is typically a food truck out front. Ponysaurus is the passion project of my friend David Baldwin, a guy with decades of experience in the ad industry and now runs Baldwin&, one of the most creative agencies you’ll find out there. The beer came first, followed by the taproom. All of this beer is amazing. So get thee to the Taproom. It’s a great way to spend an evening in Durham. And you can get four-packs of cans to go. (Picnic, by the way, had a Ponysaurus brew on tap.)
We asked David for non-barbecue suggestions and he sent us to downtown Durham (well, it looked like downtown) to Pizzeria Toro for some grownup pizza.
Since Nick’s in college and subsists on a diet of cafeteria food, Chick-fil-a, and Domino’s, I like to expose him to the snobbier things in life. But he was the one who shocked the hell out of me by ordering the kale and lamb meatball pie. This is a kid who doesn’t eat vegetables. Like at all. Like even a potato in a non-fry format is pushing the boundaries. But he ordered a pizza with kale on it. And ate it. He also took a stab at the conch salad I ordered as an appetizer, and that thing was a good 70% celery and onions. (There was cannoli for dessert. Nick had a blueberry something or other, but I can’t remember what it was.)
Our first night in Charleston, we walked over to the Coast Bar & Grill, a homey place tucked away down an alley. For all I know, it’s a tourist trap, but they served seafood. Again, Nick shocked me. I was expecting him to order a plate of fried shrimp. He ordered a pasta dish that had spinach in it. Not only did he order it, but he ate it.
Our last meal in Charleston was a proper seafood blowout at Bowens Island Restaurant. The restaurant isn’t open until evening, but it’s right next door to Charleston Outdoor Adventures, so I’d say make a day out of it. Head down there, rent some kayaks or stand-up paddle boards (or take a guided tour) and work up an appetite. It’s a great way to see the marsh and paddle along-side dolphins. Time it right and you can be first in line for the restaurant. The line can get long and it can be brutally hot, but it moves fast enough once the doors open and it’s plenty cool inside. It’s also mildly chaotic inside, but you get your bearings soon enough. Order up mounds of fresh local fried shrimp and boiled shrimp (and oysters if they’re in season), some local brews, and just stuff your face full of seafood.
And that, my friends, is that. Ok, we did go to a cheap steakhouse in Charlotte before flying out on Sunday morning. We were in desperate need of red meat and while it did serve us red meat that was perfectly fine, the place had seen better days and I don’t want to end this post bagging on a restaurant.
And if you’ve managed to read all of this, you should a) definitely start planning your own barbecue road trip and b) go run a couple of miles. Seriously, just looking at this post is probably 1,200 calories.