I struck out on brisket at my first barbecue stop in North Carolina. It was on the menu, but the cashier said they weren’t able to cook it because the Skilsaw (a saw usually reserved for portioning bone-in meat) wasn’t working. Almost all of the brisket I’ve ever eaten has been boneless, so this tidbit had me worried for what was to come. Over a week of travel between Greenville and Charlotte, I searched for smoked beef in a state where barbecue is essentially defined as “chopped pork.” My luck improved considerably after that first stop, and I’m happy to report that North Carolinians have adopted brisket into their barbecue lexicon. Stunningly, the state even has two Texas-style barbecue joints that would hold their own in the Lone Star State: Prime Barbecue in Knightdale and Jon G’s Barbecue in Peachland.
Why go looking for brisket in a state that’s downright hogmatic about its pork-centric barbecue traditions? For the same reason that, last year, I wrote about the adoption of Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue at several Texas barbecue joints—it’s evidence that barbecue boundaries are blurring. Barbecue techniques are now shared and consumed online rather than through in-person apprenticeships. There’s no longer a knowledge barrier separating far-flung pitmasters, and I knew food suppliers could easily deliver a box of briskets to any restaurant in North Carolina. I was curious if the North Carolina pitmasters would treat Texas’s sacred cut of meat with the same reverence they do a pork shoulder or a whole hog. The answer was . . . not really.
Over a half dozen North Carolina joints, I sampled sliced brisket that ranged from tough and wet to so overcooked that the slices crumbled apart. Then I walked into Prime Barbecue in Knightdale, a Raleigh suburb thirty minutes east of downtown. Given the reputation of cookbook author, competition barbecue champion, and, most importantly, Texan native Chris Prieto, I had high hopes. The line of customers that stretched back from the cutting block—on a Tuesday morning twelve minutes after the doors opened—was also promising.
Light from the south-facing windows poured onto the polished concrete floor of the restaurant, which opened in May 2020. Local architect Tony Johnson designed the jewel box of a building to fit Prieto’s directive to avoid barbecue kitsch. “I don’t like it when people make a new restaurant look like an old restaurant,” Prieto tells me. The striking building also signals diners to shift their expectations away from the standard North Carolina barbecue joint menu. Instead of chopped pork at $10 per pound, the feature here is $24-per-pound smoked brisket, with at least five different smoked meats available daily. Rather than table service, which is common at barbecue joints in these parts, diners are introduced to a ritual familiar to any Texan—standing in line to order directly from the meatcutter.
To this Texan, the barbecue trays served up at Prime Barbecue looked mighty familiar. A slice of brisket was nestled next to a house-made sausage link with a couple spareribs on top. Dill pickle chips, pickled onions, and side cups of sauce were served alongside slices of smoked turkey breast and pulled pork shoulder. The bark on these juicy pork spareribs glistened. Though the ribs were mottled with black pepper, the rich pork flavor came through, as did the smoke picked up from Oyler smokers that Prieto had shipped over from Texas.
Loyalty to J&R Manufacturing, the maker of the Oyler, is part of Prime Barbecue’s origin story. Before Prieto opened the restaurant, he was working to build the Prime Barbecue brand through barbecue competitions, television appearances, barbecue classes, and premade rubs. He needed funding to build the joint, and thought his ticket would be a refurbished Oyler smoker that he planned to use for his catering business. But in the middle of his first cook on the Oyler, in his driveway, a man from Virginia drove up and offered him more cash for the smoker than he could refuse. Prieto still finished the load of ribs and chicken wings he already had in the smoker, but that was his first and last time cooking on it. It was still warm when they loaded it onto the stranger’s trailer. The money was enough to launch a brick-and-mortar Prime Barbecue.
Prieto grew up in Richmond, Texas, southwest of Houston, and his first memory of barbecue was a visit to Dozier’s Barbecue in Fulshear when he was five or six. His father, who moved to Texas from Puerto Rico before Prieto was born, came home from his engineering job so excited by the lunch his coworkers had treated him to that he demanded the family return to Dozier’s for dinner that night. They enjoyed the full spread and got a pit tour. “It was the most inspiring thing in my life,” Prieto says, without a hint of hyperbole. The family soon discovered the barbecue at Richmond’s Swinging Door, and Prieto went to school with the daughter of Goode Co.‘s Jim Goode. His family became regulars at both, and Prieto used Goode Co.’s premade barbecue rubs in his first attempts at competition barbecue. He learned to cook on a tiny Brinkmann smoker, which now hangs in his pit room.
Some Prime Barbecue menu items blend Prieto’s Puerto Rican roots with the barbecue traditions of his adopted home state. On Saturdays, he serves up Prime’s signature lechón, which begins with injecting a whole pig with Prieto’s “mojo injection” followed by a thick layer of adobo rub. The seasonings aren’t what you’d normally find in a North Carolina pit room, but the method of cooking a whole pig in a North Carolina–made BQ Grills smoker will be familiar to any barbecue fans in the eastern part of that state.
The few unfamiliar touches, for barbecue fans of either denomination, are the most exciting. The “barbecue rice” on Prime’s menu uses a Puerto Rican method that Prieto learned from his mother. It starts, as many good things do, with lots of thinly sliced onions cooked in bacon fat. The dry rice is then browned right in the fat before beef stock and chunks of house-made sausage are added. It was rich, hearty, and unlike anything I’ve had at a barbecue joint, though I have now found a new purpose for my barbecue leftovers.
Prieto’s brother is also a chef, and before the restaurant opened, they tested a dozen different potato salad recipes with friends. All were made with white potatoes, and the group deemed each one boring. Then Prieto’s brother smoked some sweet potatoes, chilled them, cubed them, and folded them into a dressing for a sweet-potato salad. It’s now one of the joint’s signature items.
I was lucky to have timed my visit to Prime Barbecue on Pastrami Tuesday. Prieto puts briskets into a pastrami brine for six days, then smokes them at a low temperature for 24 hours. It’s a lengthy process, but the sandwich was a masterpiece. It’s served on rye bread with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and spicy brown mustard. The thick yet tender slices of pastrami seemed to melt away with every bite.
At Noble Smoke, I was a day too early for the pastrami. Charlotte doesn’t have much of a reputation as a barbecue town, and owner Jim Noble tried to change that when he opened Noble Smoke in 2019 with five thousand-gallon smokers. Housed in a massive pit room, they’re used for smoked meats like brisket, ribs, turkey, and beef sausage, while the brick wall opposite has built-in pits to produce pork shoulders in North Carolina’s heralded Lexington style. Noble serves those finished pork shoulders chopped, on a bun, with the style’s signature red slaw, tinted with a thin, spicy vinegar-and-tomato barbecue sauce.
The well-appointed restaurant has a full bar and waitstaff, and a menu that goes far beyond barbecue. Each meat or side gets its own plate—our table quickly ran out of real estate, an experience that highlighted the efficiency of the Texas barbecue tray. I thoroughly enjoyed the sides and the barbecue, especially the pork ribs. The brisket was admirable, an accomplishment in a state where the cut is rarely treated with care and attention. Still, Noble Smoke remains neutral in its barbecue loyalties, and feels more like a modern brasserie than a barbecue joint.
Jon G’s Barbecue, in tiny Peachland, is where a Texan will feel most at home. Brisket devotees line up every Saturday morning, sometimes over an hour before the joint opens, for this once-a-week barbecue experience. If I dropped a Texan into line, he’d grab a free cold beer from the community cooler and assume he was in small-town Texas (until he saw the bottles of Cheerwine, which is the Big Red of North Carolina).
Jon Garren Kirkman and his wife Kelly Kirkman opened the place last June, after Kelly gave up teaching competitive dance and Jon (who goes by Garren) quit his job in health care. Unlike Prieto at Prime Barbecue, Jon G’s didn’t grow from a yearning to recapture a former life in Texas. The Kirkmans are both from rural North Carolina. They grew up on pork barbecue. “We didn’t really think of beef as barbecue,” says Kelly. But they didn’t think of pork barbecue as something special, either. “I didn’t know any better,” says Garren. “I was one of those people saying it’s all about the sauce.” He first tried smoked brisket at Mac’s Speed Shop in Charlotte in 2009, and he was hooked. After sampling a few other versions, he cooked his first a couple years later. Garren recalls the discounted, out-of-date brisket from Walmart that he smoked on his backyard Char-Griller. So does Kelly. “It was terrible,” she says.
The briskets got better, and the couple first sold barbecue at a pop-up outside a brewery in 2016. They honed their craft by taking barbecue research trips to Texas. A visit to the Saturday-only mecca of Snow’s BBQ in Lexington was particularly influential. (Part of the employee training at Jon G’s Barbecue is to watch a short film about Snow’s BBQ pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz.) Garren remembers thinking, “Oh God, I’ve got some work to do,” after that fateful trip. The couple bought a food truck, then in February 2020, they put their life savings into renovating an old restaurant building that sits along U.S. 74. The pandemic delayed the opening until June, but the crowds have grown every week since.
As my small group studied the menu outside the front door, our anticipation grew. When we reached the cutter, thirty minutes after opening, I ordered a little of everything—or almost everything. Maybe it was my Texan subconscious, but I forgot to order the pulled pork. Garren said some customers will only order pork, but brisket is by far the most popular item. Every item slowly sells out, but the pork is always the last to go.
I didn’t wait in line at a barbecue joint for a burger, but the brisket burger was certainly memorable. Garren uses all of his brisket trimmings for a trio of fantastic beef sausages and still has enough for brisket burgers. They’re seared on a hot griddle and topped with house-made American cheese with a base of sharp cheddar from nearby Brown Creek Creamery. A whole burger might put too much of a dent in your barbecue appetite, but a half burger makes an excellent appetizer.
Those three beef sausages were both creative and well made. The snap on the casings was impeccable. A Cheerwine hot link brought the local flavor a little heat, the jalapeño cheese sausage would be comfort food for any homesick Texan, and the Cheesy Tex had some real fire. Garren credits a sausage course he took at Texas A&M for getting him on the right track for his sausage making. And the smoke comes from locally grown white oak, which feeds the firebox of his Oyler rotisserie smoker.
The brisket picks up plenty of that smoke. The Kirkmans go through thirty all-natural, Meyer brand Angus briskets every week—the same brand Franklin Barbecue was using when it was ranked number one in our 2013 50 Best BBQ Joints list. I wouldn’t say Jon G’s brisket is yet on par with Franklin’s (few are), but as the cutter unwrapped a brisket from the fat-soaked butcher paper at the counter, the familiar aroma of sweet oak smoke, buttery beef fat, and black pepper perfumed the air. Slices from both the fatty and lean sides were juicy and tender. A bite of the lean brisket included a line of well-rendered fat cap with an impressive bark. I wasn’t in Texas anymore, but this was a dead ringer for Texas brisket.
As I made my way through the tray, I kept shaking my head. A North Carolina barbecue joint shouldn’t be putting out Texas barbecue this good, I thought. Then I’d try the impeccable pork spareribs or the juicy smoked turkey breast or the side of cold corn salad, which was a refreshing take on the elotes often found at Texas barbecue joints. The only component that seemed out of place were the sweet baked beans instead of savory pinto beans. Garren explained their presence, confessing, “I have not had one Texas-style bean that I liked.”
I didn’t try the barbecue sauce at Jon G’s because they didn’t give me any. Garren promises it was just an oversight, and he’s not against barbecue sauce, but I didn’t find myself wanting. “It takes me twelve-plus hours to smoke meat and five minutes to make the sauce,” Garren says, so the meat should be the customer’s priority. That’s just another lesson he and Kelly are trying to teach to a populace that didn’t grow up eating brisket. The Kirkmans’ task is to educate, or maybe indoctrinate, customers and employees in the ways of an unfamiliar barbecue culture. Thankfully, they’re not the only brisket acolytes in the pork state.