Few things stir up a heated debate among North Carolinians like barbecue. In a state that takes credit for birthing barbecue, and which calls itself the “Cradle of ‘Cue,” opinions run hot as to which style, which sauce, and which sides are best.
In eastern North Carolina, the style is dominated by the whole-hog approach, and barbecue consists of an entire pig cooked over hot coals, often overnight, then chopped and served with a splash of thin, peppery vinegar sauce. Western North Carolina favours barbecuing cuts like shoulders in a sweeter, thicker, tomato-based sauce. Despite what eastern or western purists may say, both styles, and both sauces, have their merits, and thankfully, you can sample true-to-form Eastern barbecue as well as Western ‘Cue with an Eastern twist in your quest to find the best BBQ in Raleigh.
The Pit, Raleigh
The Pit does barbecue a little differently. They serve straight up eastern-style whole-hog ‘cue (they like to brag they “serve everything but the squeal”) and the Southern sides you’d expect (heirloom recipe collard greens, mac ‘n cheese, coleslaw and fried okra), but they do so in an upscale setting, elevating casual barbecue to a fine-dining level while honouring the traditions of the cuisine. An impressive wine list, half a dozen locally-brewed beers on tap, and more than two dozen bourbons on hand compliment a menu packed with traditional chopped and pulled ‘cue, baby back and spare ribs, barbecue and fried chicken, and even beef brisket.
“Some guests see our wine list, scratch their heads, and say, ‘Wine? With barbecue?’” says owner Greg Hatem. “Pairing a good wine – or a good bourbon or beer, for that matter – with good food is all about matching up flavour. Barbecue’s smoke, savoury meat, spice, and sauce are every bit as complex as a fine drink, so we make sure you have your choice when you come to The Pit.”
While you’re at The Pit experiencing true traditional Eastern North Carolina barbecue, sample some other Southern favourites like fried green tomatoes (which The Pit dresses up with goat cheese and red pepper vinaigrette), cornbread, fried catfish, and, to finish the meal, banana pudding. And don’t forget the one thing that goes perfectly with every plate of barbecue – sweetened iced tea.
Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue, Raleigh
At Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue, they’ve been serving barbecue since 1938, and, as one customer put it, “Y’all have really kept the tradition going. I lived across the street from Mr. Cooper and this place smells just like my neighbourhood did.”
Mr. Cooper may have cooked whole hog, but the current owners specialize in shoulders, though they do cook beef brisket, ribs, and chicken – fried and barbecue – as well. But one of their specialties is pork cracklins, also known as pork rinds, or in layman terms, just skin. That’s what it is, fried skin, and with a dash of hot sauce, it comes alive – crispy, tangy, a little salty, and unlike any other food. Every meal at Cooper’s comes with a side of skin and hush puppies, and if you like your skin, you can pick up a bag to snack on later.
Recently, Cooper’s moved from its original location to a location half a block away, but kept the feel of the old spot. The long lunch counter is still there, as are the low wooden booths, and these elements, along with the interior brick wall emblazoned with the Clyde Cooper name, give it a yesteryear feel that’s spot on with the barbecue.
Header photo: BBQ flame grill © Ben6/iStock/Thinkstock
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Written by Jason Frye
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About the author: JFryeJason Frye
Driven by his need to know what's around the next turn, Jason Frye became a travel and food writer. He is the author of two travel guides - Moon North Carolina Handbook (2014) and Moon North Carolina Coast Handbook (2014) - and is a food blogger, columnist, and frequent contributor to publications across the Southeastern United States. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lauren.