Central North Carolina Feature

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North Carolina Barbecue

The birthplace of barbecue is as hotly contested as a grand champion title at one of the nation's ubiquitous BBQ festivals.

North Carolina, however, states its claim as the "Cradle of Cue," arguing it is home to the longest continuous barbecue tradition—a tradition variously linked to Native Americans, African slaves, and Scottish-Irish settlers. Enhancing its bid (or perhaps diluting it if you come from a state competing for top barbecue billing) is the fact that North Carolina is home to two distinct styles of barbecue. Expect a vinegar-and-pepper-based sauce in the east, while the western barbecue mixes sweet with smoky flavors.

Over the past decade many barbecue restaurants have switched to cheaper, faster gas or electric cooking. Yet plenty of family-run barbecue joints remain, where pitmasters savor smoky flavors as they bring love and patience to secret recipes for slow-cooking the pig over wood or charcoal flames.

Ultimately, the debate ends in agreement over three things that barbecue always represents: good food, good friends, and a good time.

East vs. West

North Carolinians have distinct ideas about the proper preparation of this Southern meal. Easterners (typically east of Interstate 95), prefer a vinegar-and-pepper-based seasoning after the entire hog is cooked long hours and the meat is pulled (shredded) off the bone. Expect a sweeter, thicker "Lexington-style" secret sauce (is it ketchup? brown sugar?) in western barbecue joints, where just the pork shoulder is sliced or chopped.

Here are some of our favorite North Carolina BBQ joints:

Lexington Barbecue #1. The town of Lexington is the base for Carolina's sweet, red-sauce style of barbecue. At Lexington Barbecue #1, meat is pulled from smoked pork shoulders and served up as a sandwich in a soft bun topped with red slaw. Finish with peach cobbler—unless it's the first of the month, when Berry Berry Cobbler is served. 100 Smokehouse Ln., Lexington, NC, 27295. 336/249–9814. Closed Sun.

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge. For old-fashioned western-style barbecue, take a bright-blue seat here, where the meat cooks in a pit over hickory all night long. The meat comes minced (almost a mash), chopped, or sliced with crunchy hush puppies and tangy sweet-and-sour dipping sauce served warm. Try the particularly smoky shoulder meat known as "outside brown" for a real woodsy taste. 2000 E. Dixon Blvd., Shelby, NC. 704/482–8567. www.bridgesbbq.com. Closed Mon. and Tues.

Skylight Inn. The big flavor tradition of Down East barbecue thrives in the little town of Ayden, where this family-owned, no-frills spot does it right. There's no menu and no waitstaff. Order a BBQ sandwich and you'll get smoky, oh-so-tender pork mixed with tiny morsels of pork skin for crunch, served with slightly sweet slaw and corn bread. 4618 Lee St., Ayden, NC. 252/746–4113. Closed Sun.

Stamey's. Here the chopped, eastern-style BBQ is mostly shoulder meat already sauced in the kitchen, though there's also plenty of vinegary Stamey's Secret Sauce at your table. If you're looking for something other than pork, try the Brunswick Stew, a traditional Southeastern thick tomato-based stew. 2206 High Point Rd., Greensboro, NC. 336/299–9888. www.stameys.com. Closed Sun.

Wilber's Barbecue. Here you'll find pit-cooked (oak wood) barbecue. (There's even a 100-foot woodpile on the premises.) This flavorful chopped BBQ mixes ham, shoulder, loin, and side meat. You sauce it yourself, using bottles of "spicy good" eastern peppery vinegar sauce. Try the white slaw for more vinegary tang. Wilber's been celebrated since it opened in 1962—come see why. 4172 U.S. Hwy. 70 E, Goldsboro, NC. 919/778–5218 or. www.wilbersbarbecue.com.

Updated: 09-2013

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