When the temps drop in the fall, many North Carolinians take to the mountains to see the changing of the leaves. A diehard barbecue fan, on the other hand, grins with excitement to finally enjoy a plate of juicy meat sans sweltering temps. And this can mean one thing only: a proper road trip to eastern North Carolina barbecue country.
For a multi-stop road trip through this smoked-meat mecca, we turned to the experts for tips on how to do it right. Pack a day bag with ample water and try fasting first. Also: Get there early, especially at spots like Sid’s, where the barbecue sells out. Day one, you can hit a handful of iconic restaurants and shacks, including Wilber’s. On day two, start at Sid’s (as early as possible), then make your way to the original Skylight Inn followed by Sam Jones BBQ, to see one family’s take on the old-school versus the new. We’ve also got ideas for days three and four to experience more modern-day ENC styles.
Eastern North Carolina Barbecue: Day One
Parker’s Barbecue, known for its tangy vinegar sauce, has been slinging authentic ‘cue for more than fifty years. Pork aside, the fried chicken is also something to write home about.
Here, the chunky, chopped pork is cooked slowly over coals for hours and is then left on the pits to smoke even longer. Then, the skin and fat are finely chopped and blended back into the juicy meat making it super rich and smoky—no need for extra sauce.
This spot has been around since 1962, was closed in 2019, and reopened in July 2020 under the reigns of original owner Wilber Shirley’s son-in-law, Dennis Monk. The menu has refocused to “pit-centric” standouts like barbecued pork, turkey, beef, and baby-back ribs. The Southern sides remain the same as the original.
Grady’s has been a sought-after pit stop since the 1980s when it opened, and still remains the only Black-owned whole hog restaurant in North Carolina. The coarsely chopped barbecue will melt into your mouth while the coleslaw and collards are tried-and-true sides. Grady’s is my favorite OG spot,” Brandon Shepard, of Shepard Barbecue in Emerald Isle, says.
Day Two through ‘Cue Country
“In my opinion, this is one of the most iconic North Carolina barbecue experiences,” says Rich Pettitt, a barbecue enthusiast and pitmaster at Sam Jones BBQ in Raleigh. “They are only open Saturday mornings and this is the barbecue joint to visit and plan your entire trip around.” Get the whole hog and ask for the skin.
“I don’t know of any other barbecue joints that blister the hog skin and chop it into the meat itself,” says owner and pitmaster Sam Jones, whose grandfather started Skylight Inn. Order the whole hog, cornbread, and slaw trio, and use the cornbread like the base for a tostada and top it with the pork and slaw.
The Dennis family has offered coarsely chopped, wood-smoked pork since 1963 and remains one of the only barbecue spots that with a buffet of fresh produce and vegetables, grown in Bum’s garden.
“B’s is a quintessential barbecue joint,” says Butler. “They cook on fire, they’re open when they’re open, and they’re closed when they’re closed. It’s a dying art.”
Sam Jones BBQ
Sam Jones BBQ’s first location (there’s now a Raleigh outpost) opened in 2015. Alcohol service makes it a more modern approach to the original barbecue joints in the area. Sink your teeth into a Jones Family original tray, chock full of slow-smoked pork, Skylight Inn-style cornbread, and a side of choice (we recommend the beans).
Spots Worth the Extra Mile
Southern Smoke BBQ
Come for the ‘cue but stay for the wildly satisfying sides, like squash and rice pudding. “With his attention to detail and chef-driven sides, I truly believe Matthew Register is one of the front runners in the revitalization in North Carolina barbecue,” says Shepard.
Wood, fire, time, and heritage breed animals sourced from around the state are what keep locals lining up at Brandon Shepard’s tiny brick-and-mortar. The menu changes based on what’s available but expect his juicy, smoky pork and brisket to make an appearance.
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