By Leah Hughes
Charlotte is a melting pot of people from different places who bring with them a variety of tastes. The city is also geographically located in the middle of several regional barbecue traditions. These combinations lead to a flexibility of styles—in the type of meat, cooking method and sauce used—not typically found in barbecue strongholds. Restaurants in and around the city have varied approaches to their sauces. Some stick relentlessly to one style, while others serve a sampling.
Western North Carolina: Vinegar with Tomato
Meat: Pork Shoulder
North Carolina has two barbecue camps. They have more similarities than they care to admit, but the one that dominates the Piedmont and western regions is defined by the cooking of a pork shoulder and a sauce that involves vinegar with a touch of tomato and typically a pinch of brown sugar for a bit of sweetness. The town of Lexington, North Carolina, which falls in the Piedmont region of the state, is universally known as a barbecue stronghold, so you’ll also often hear western-style sauce referred to as Lexington-style.
One example lies just to the west of the city in Shelby. Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, about an hour from Charlotte, has been in business for 70 years. Plates and trays of smoked pork shoulder are the staples here, served with barbecue coleslaw and a sauce made of vinegar and ketchup.
“We call it Shelby-style,” says Natalie Ramsey. She and her brother, Chase Webb, are the third generation of the family to run the business. Their grandparents developed the sauce recipe, and not much has changed since. “We’re just a whole big family out here,” Ramsey says. “We have customers that come in every single day, and we love them like family.”
Closer to Center City, just outside of Uptown on Wilkinson Boulevard, the Bar-B-Q King has been a staple since 1959. The drive-in restaurant is a nostalgic stop for regulars and a cultural history lesson for kids and teens. Smoked pork shoulders are topped with a vinegar and tomato sauce for plates, trays and sandwiches. The sauce is also a star of the restaurant’s signature Bar-B-Q fried chicken, which involves breading chicken, frying it and submerging it in barbecue sauce. The unusual delicacy was a hit with Food Network star Guy Fieri, who visited the restaurant for an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Eastern North Carolina: Vinegar
Meat: Whole Hog
In the eastern half of the state, a thin vinegar sauce is the norm. The tangy sauce also gets a little heat from the addition of pepper. This style involves smoking the whole hog. Traditionally, this process was done over a pit of coals dug into the ground.
The motto at Bill Spoon’s Barbecue on South Boulevard is “We cook the whole pig; it makes the difference.” The eatery has been serving eastern North Carolina-style barbecue since 1963.Charlotte native Bill Spoon moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a while, and that’s where he learned the barbecue tradition of the region. When he returned to Charlotte, he brought the craft back with him.
“It’s kind of a mild-to-medium hotness,” Steve Spoon, Jr. says of the sauce. Steve, Bill’s grandson, now owns the restaurant. “It’s very smooth and complements the barbecue well. It enhances everything in the pork.”
South Carolina: Mustard
Meat: Pulled Pork, Chicken
This mustard-based sauce is distinct to South Carolina. The roots link back to the state’s German settlers. Recipes often include common barbecue sauce elements such as vinegar, pepper, onion, garlic and something sweet, like brown sugar or honey.
In South Charlotte, the yellow sauce is one of three sauces on the menu at The Q Shack on Providence Road. Owner Dave Weil got the recipe from a friend who was a chef in Charleston, South Carolina. In addition to mustard, it includes Worcestershire sauce and honey. Customers enjoy it on different meats that range from pork to chicken. The restaurant’s other two sauces are a tomato-based Texas chipotle and an eastern North Carolina-style vinegar.
“We like to give a variety,” Weil says. “We have a customer base that likes all three sauces.”
Midwood Smokehouse also sticks to South Carolina tradition, offering a killer mustard-based sauce—in addition to eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce, a Midwood signature sauce (sweeter, mild and tomato-based) and a spicy habanero blend. Try it atop a combo platter, which comes loaded with chopped pork, pulled chicken barbecue, St. Louis-style pork ribs or hickory-smoked sausage, plus two side items, pickled onions and hushpuppies. The barbecue mainstay, helmed by Charlotte restaurateur Frank Scibelli, has locations in Plaza Midwood, Matthews, Ballantyne, Columbia (South Carolina) and, coming this winter, Park Road Shopping Center.
The spot’s so delicious that President Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton stopped here on a campaign tour in July. “Our most popular dishes would be our burnt ends and our brisket. Both were ordered by President Obama,” explains General Manager Kristen Bobenage.
Meat: Smoked Chicken, Turkey
Similar to South Carolina’s mustard sauce, Alabama’s white, mayonnaise-based sauce is found almost exclusively in its state of origin. More specifically, the sauce is linked to pit master Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama. He originally specialized in smoking pork and chicken and complementing it with his tangy, peppery white sauce.
Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, which now operates local outposts in Concord and Steele Creek, originated in Alabama. In a nod to its home state, the restaurant introduced the Morgan County white sauce. It is designed to accompany the restaurant’s chicken and turkey. Jim ’N Nick’s original sauce is a well-balanced tomato-based sauce that’s not too thick and not too sweet. The restaurant also serves a Carolina vinegar sauce and a habanero sauce.
“Barbecue is so personal to people,” says Troy Taylor, local owner for Jim ’N Nick’s. “The style of barbecue you grew up on will always be your favorite.”
Kansas City: Sweet Tomato
Meat: Burnt Ends, Ribs
When many Americans hear the word barbecue, they think of a sweet, thick sauce of tomato mixed with brown sugar or molasses. This style of sauce is versatile, which suits the mix of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and more found inside Kansas City smokers.
Just west of Charlotte in Gastonia, Ray’s Country Smokehouse-Grill makes all of its sauces in house, but its signature molasses sauce, using local molasses, is the most popular.
All of the meat at Ray’s, including pulled pork, ribs, brisket and chicken, is dry rubbed and served with sauce on the side. The molasses sauce is also used to make candied bacon.
“We put the bacon on the grill, coat it down with the molasses sauce, and it caramelizes like candy,” says owner Ray England, who got into the family business at age 12 when he cooked chickens with his father.
The Southern Sweet sauce is one of the most popular at The Smoke Pit in Concord. Southern Sweet is one of seven sauces the restaurant serves. Lexington-style, South Carolina mustard and Alabama white sauce are available, too.
“It goes well with all of our meats,” says restaurant partner Jeremy Beaver of the Southern Sweet sauce.
The meat offerings include pulled pork, smoked sausage, beef brisket and barbecue chicken.
A Kansas City-style sauce shows up at City Smoke in Uptown Charlotte, too. The sweet sauce is offered along with a vinegar-based option. The two complement the lineup of pulled pork, brisket and ribs.
“Barbecue is one of those personal preference things,” says Pierre Bader, owner of Sonoma Restaurant Group, which includes City Smoke. “Everyone is very passionate about what they grew up on.”
Regardless of where your taste buds land and loyalties lie along the line of the never-ending regional barbecue debate, one thing’s for sure: The variety of styles and sauces offered in Charlotte set the stage for a hearty and delicious national taste test.
This article ran in the October 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.