“One can’t help but notice the recent intrusion of Texas barbecue into places where it doesn’t belong—like North Carolina,” John Shelton Reed wrote in Gravy magazine in August 2021. In “A Curmudgeon Looks at Barbecue,” Reed, a noted barbecue scholar, shared his lament about the waning regional distinctions in barbecue culture. It was published a few months after I heralded the smoked brisket at North Carolina barbecue joints Jon G’s, in Peachland, and Prime Barbecue in Knightdale. I recently returned to the state to check in on a few old favorites and try some promising new spots. I can report that Reed’s beef was only a preview of North Carolina’s current brisket bounty.
Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and the surrounding suburbs make up the Research Triangle in the middle of North Carolina. The region has historically been a neutral zone between the staunch factions of eastern North Carolina–style whole hog and the pork shoulders and red sauce of the Piedmont, to the Triangle’s west. That made it fertile ground for Chris Prieto to open Prime Barbecue, an homage to his Puerto Rican roots and Texas upbringing, in Knightdale, just east of Raleigh. The barbecue on this trip was as stunning as the last: silky, tender brisket, juicy sausages, and pork ribs that had me imploring everyone in line to order some.
Prime Barbecue sells out by the early afternoon, but Prieto recently debuted a food truck, parked behind the restaurant, that opens at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. Primo Latin Cuisine serves barbecue tacos, quesadillas, empanadas, and nachos. That excellent smoked brisket is sprinkled around the menu, but also try the lechón carnitas made with juicy pulled pork and crunchy cracklins. I was skeptical of the pineapple cobbler and dessert nachos, so I didn’t order them, but Prieto brought out both anyway. I was surprised by how much I liked the churro-seasoned fried flour tortillas topped with finely diced fruit and Chantilly cream, but the cobbler was the showstopper. Prieto lets fresh pineapples get very ripe before cutting them open and cooking them down. Think of the concentrated flavor of the best pineapple you’ve ever eaten folded into a cobbler. I’ll be longing for it until I get back.
After Prime Barbecue opened in early 2020, Nick and Kimmy Dampf put a deposit down on a five-hundred-gallon smoker from Primitive Pits that December. The following year, Nick and his brother Bryce had their first Dampf Good BBQ pop-up near Nick’s home in the small town of Smithfield, about thirty miles southeast of Raleigh. “People didn’t understand why we didn’t do chopped barbecue,” Nick said, using the local term for chopped pork, “but the biggest deal was the prices.”
In late 2022, Dampf Good B.B.Q moved to Cary, a wealthy suburb of Raleigh, so it would get fewer complaints about the $32-per-pound brisket. It’s the best-selling item. The trailer is parked at Phillips Farms, a family-oriented park that hosts a farmers market during the warm months. It’s a lonely place in the winter, and not along a main route, so I didn’t have to endure the long lines the joint gets in the summer. Sitting at the covered picnic tables, I shared a couple hefty trays with Michael Letchworth, co-owner of Sam Jones BBQ, which specializes in whole hog barbecue in Greenville and Raleigh. (He said Sam Jones has added a smoked brisket special on Mondays and Tuesdays in Raleigh, but only a small amount, which sells out quickly.) We were both curious about this relative newcomer.
The slices of brisket from Dampf Good B.B.Q were the best of the trip. That could sound like faint praise, given the geography, but the hits kept coming over the four-day jaunt, which was the most fruitful in my search for great Texas-style barbecue outside of Texas. The fat was soft but not melted away. My fingers were tacky with collagen after plucking the tender burnt ends. The white oak smoke, black pepper, and salt were concentrated in these bites, but not overwhelming. The brisket was Red Angus from Local Harvest, which sources from regional farms in North Carolina and Virginia. The beefiness was pronounced while still offering plenty of good marbling. Dampf uses the same brisket for the house-made pastrami, which is also well executed.
Nick Dampf was born in St. Louis and moved around to Chicago and Wisconsin before landing in Plano from 2001 to 2004. He remembers more meals from Dickey’s Barbecue than anywhere else while in Texas, but his time here made an impression. “It was just a really pivotal moment in my life, so it’s very distinct in my memory,” he said. Along with the plethora of resources on how to smoke brisket, it’s why he chose to go with this style of barbecue. The meaty, simply seasoned spareribs are old-school Central Texas style, and the sausages, made by Nick’s cousin Hunter Spellhorn, are also impressive. The meltingly tender sliced pork belly, sold as “bacon brisket,” was another great bite. Despite all the options, plenty of customers still order a “barbecue sandwich,” and without questioning them, Dampf serves them a pulled pork sandwich with slaw like most North Carolinians expect.
I was surprised that I hadn’t seen Dampf Good show up on recent lists of good barbecue in the Raleigh area. Nick doesn’t have an explanation either, but he did note that more than half his social media followers are from outside the county, while about 10 percent are local. “We live in the shadow of Prime and Lawrence,” he said, referring to Prime Barbecue and another new joint about seven miles up the road in Durham.
Jake Wood was supposed to open Lawrence Barbecue just after Prime Barbecue debuted, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed his plans until summer 2021. Serving an eclectic menu of smoked meats far outside the usual realm, Lawrence has demanded the attention—all of it well deserved—of the local food community. Wood’s professional background is in fine dining, having worked most recently as chef de cuisine at 18 Seaboard, in Raleigh. Still, he told me, “I always knew I wanted to do barbecue.” When he was growing up in Apex, near Raleigh, family get-togethers centered around pork and oysters. Oysters, both raw and grilled with barbecue butter, have a constant presence on the Lawrence Barbecue menu. Get the latter and slurp a few down before getting to the main event.
“We didn’t have any brisket around here to compare it to Texas,” Wood said of his youth. He doesn’t consider his restaurant a Texas-style barbecue joint, but he did borrow our techniques for his smoked brisket. Fatty and lean slices were both juicy and tender, with a dark bark, but the rest of the tray kept stealing my attention. Sweet-and-sticky pork ribs, catfish stew, sweet potato tots seasoned with rosemary salt, and house-pickled Hungarian peppers were all reminders that this wasn’t a re-creation of any kind of joint. “We just want to cook good food, and we like cooking with fire,” Wood said. Lawrence Barbecue is smoking its own style of barbecue.
Take the beef fat–caramel chicken wings. They first went on special the day I visited. Lawrence Barbecue was my first stop from the airport, and I nearly ruined the rest of the day by eating those wings. They’re seasoned, smoked, then fried to order. The sauce is a mix of beef tallow, roasted garlic, and a quick caramel of butter, brown sugar, and cream. The recipe is from Wood’s late grandmother Helen. Extremes of crunchiness and juiciness collided in the texture. Salty, sweet, sticky, fatty, and acidic all at once, the chicken wings were some of the best I’ve ever had.
Then Wood took everything I knew about apple fritters and knocked it off-kilter with Granny Helen’s recipe. Wood wraps raw apples with premade croissant dough and coats them in the caramel sauce before baking. Another coating of the sauce is brushed on when they’re out of the oven, then they’re topped with a meaty cotton candy called pork floss. Each pillowy-soft bite was sweet and savory, and it’s certainly the most unique way I’ve enjoyed the classic combination of pork and apples. Of all the spots I visited on this trip, Lawrence is where I feel I have unfinished business. I need more of that menu.
Two hours east of Raleigh is the small town of Edenton, which was the capital of North Carolina when it was still a colony. When I learned that Adam Hughes of Old Colony Smokehouse had been focused on smoked brisket since he opened, in 2019, I felt out of the loop. Hughes had enough success on the competition trail that his Old Colony team was in the running for team of the year in 2018, the same year he competed on the show Chopped: Grill Masters. A friend told him there wouldn’t be a better time to capitalize on his name with a restaurant.
Hughes abandoned his career as a general contractor. His wife, Elizabeth, soon followed and left her corporate accounting job. “She was afraid I would sink without her,” Hughes joked. They took over an old bait-and-tackle shop and served brisket to a bunch of locals who expected pork. It sounds like a shaky premise, but the operation has grown into a new location with a bigger kitchen and a dedicated pit room. I got there for the couple’s third day at the new place.
In the next county over, Hughes’s grandparents ran a butcher shop where they harvested hogs. He was often there to see the sausage-making process using pork that hadn’t cooled down much after slaughter. Hughes prefers this method as well, which goes against the principles of most pitmasters in Texas, who stress the importance of keeping everything cold. Instead, Hughes lays cubed meat out on a large table in the kitchen and seasons it there. “As soon as the meat starts to sweat from that seasoning being on it, we give it another toss and run it through the grinder,” he said. Hughes stuffs it into links (the finished versions of which are as juicy and snappy as you could ask for) and also uses the ground meat to coat his Carolina Twinkies. They’re just like the Texas version—jalapeños stuffed with brisket and cream cheese—but the sausage replaces the bacon wrap.
The other sausage on the menu is a Bright Leaf Frank, made in Smithfield since 1939. “It’s the gold standard of North Carolina hot dogs as far as I’m concerned,” Hughes said. Hot dogs, sometimes listed as Carolina dogs, are pretty common at North Carolina barbecue joints. I tried one at all four of the old-school joints I visited in Lexington. They all topped theirs with chili and finely chopped red slaw that uses a vinegar-based barbecue sauce as the dressing. I asked Hughes if the Old Colony Carolina dog was similar. “No. We don’t make garbage slaw,” he said, speaking like a true eastern North Carolina mayonnaise lover. Hughes joked that his slaw wasn’t so much mayo-based as sugar-based. He tops the dog with a finely ground brisket chili, then the sweet slaw, a mustard-based barbecue sauce, and a few pickled red onions. It was quite a treat, but I didn’t tell him I liked the one with “garbage slaw” at the Bar-B-Q Center, in Lexington, just as well.
The brisket at Old Colony was impressive too, but the quality of the entire tray was most memorable. An item as simple as pulled chicken gets a dip in clarified butter and a sprinkle of lemon-pepper seasoning before it goes onto a tray or in a sandwich. The sweet and savory St. Louis–cut pork ribs had the perfect tenderness and a candylike bark. Smoke and pepper clung to the edge of each juicy turkey slice, and a slab of butter-brushed cornbread was moist and sweet. I got all that plus some of the aforementioned sausage and two sides for just $35. The joint calls it the Solo Sampler, and servings of each meat are on the smaller side, but I loved the ability to try so much of the menu for so little investment.
Out in the pit room, Hughes showed me Old Colony’s unusual method of making barbecue out of whole, skin-on, bone-in pork shoulders. Unlike the rest of North Carolina, which uses direct-heat cooking over wood coals, at Old Colony, pitmaster Evan Smith smokes the pork with indirect heat in an offset smoker. The skin gets used for the joint’s pork stock. It’s the backbone of the collard greens, green beans, and rich Brunswick stew.
Smith started as a dishwasher before moving to the pit room and eventually becoming the pitmaster. That left an empty position at dishwasher, so he recommended his sister, Jana Smith. After a couple weeks on the job, Hughes asked her to make the banana pudding. She made it well, then brought in some cheesecakes for the staff to try. Now she makes a dozen different pies and cakes every day for the extensive dessert menu. The lemon cheesecake was great, as was the Buxton Banana Pie, made from the recipe used at the defunct Buxton Hall Barbecue restaurant, in Asheville.
I had to cross the state line for this next stop, but Norfolk, Virginia, is just thirty minutes north of North Carolina. Bob Roberts opened Redwood Smoke Shack there in 2017 as a food truck serving from his driveway. He was still the food-service director for Norfolk State University then, and, he said, “it was never supposed to be a business. It was supposed to be fun.” By 2019 that had changed, and Roberts quit his job to open a brick-and-mortar in Norfolk the same year. He opened a second location in Virginia Beach in 2021, and Roberts said a third is in the works.
A native of upstate New York, Roberts grew up with the definition of “barbecue” being a gathering, rather than a type of food. When he decided to make the jump to a restaurant, he contacted the late John Brotherton for advice. Brotherton suggested he contact Brek Webber, who let Roberts stage at Tin Roof B-B-Q, in Atascocita, to learn his way around an Oyler rotisserie smoker. Roberts went on a self-guided Texas barbecue crawl for inspiration. Webber then traveled to the new Redwood Smoke Shack to show Roberts how to make sausage. “After two hours of making ten pounds of sausage, I looked at him and said, ‘I am never doing this again,’ ” Roberts recalled.
I’m glad Roberts revisited sausage eventually. It was one of the standouts at Redwood, which serves an impressive Texas trinity. A slice of lean brisket glistened with melted fat. A thick smoke ring was wrapped by a peppery bark and pulled apart easily. A thick sparerib from the center of the rack was tender enough to pull from the bone with minimal effort. The sweet glaze was amplified on the end-cut rib. I also loved the sides of collard greens and corn pudding, as well as the Bananamisu dessert, which is a cross between banana pudding and tiramisu.
After a side trip to Lexington, North Carolina, for some classic Piedmont-style pork, I headed down to Charlotte, where I found an improved lineup of smoked meats at Sweet Lew’s BBQ. I’d had a lukewarm visit to Lewis Donald’s restaurant before, but the brisket was much better this time around. Donald was also doing some sausage experimentation with kimchi brisket fried rice boudin, which I’m certain is one of a kind among North Carolina barbecue joints.
The Union Barbecue truck is new to Charlotte and serves a mix of barbecue tacos and sandwiches. The shredded beef-cheek barbacoa—topped with a red drizzle of salsa taquera, cilantro, and diced white onion—was smoky and spicy. The sliced brisket was a good effort that the joint is still working to perfect. Add it, or just about anything, to the sandwich topped with rajas con queso for an explosion of flavor.
While in Charlotte, I was too close to Jon G’s Barbecue not to revisit. These days it has a trailer selling kolaches and klobasniky to the hungry folks waiting in line for the Saturdays-only joint to open. Inside the restaurant, there’s a bevy of well-executed barbecue, including tender pork belly slices, juicy turkey, and stellar pork ribs and brisket. The joint has added a unique side dish since I first visited. Batata salad is a Lebanese potato salad made at Jon G’s with lemon, garlic, cilantro, and crushed red pepper, which gives it a brighter flavor than those of most potato salads. The salad and the brisket fried rice make for an unusual pairing at a small-town North Carolina joint.
One of the more interesting developments since I visited back in 2021 was how influential the barbecue joint has become in the region. When I wrote about Fork Grove Barbecue, in nearby Anderson, South Carolina, co-owner and pitmaster Dylan Cooke was doing a solid impression of Texas barbecue, but he had drawn his inspiration from the Texas-style barbecue served at Jon G’s. Jake Wood said the brisket at Jon G’s was his target when working to get Lawrence Barbecue open, and his success, along with Prime Barbecue’s, gave him more confidence in his eclectic concept. “It made me more comfortable leaning into other proteins in such a pork-heavy state,” Wood said, and evidently he’s not alone. North Carolina is now officially a smoked brisket wonderland.
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