What Happened to the Raleigh BBQ Boom?

A barbecue capital still in waiting

Brisket and turkey are among the not-so-traditional North Carolina offerings at Lawrence Barbecue
Brisket and turkey are among the not-so-traditional North Carolina offerings at Lawrence Barbecue (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Robert F. Moss

The day after Christmas in 2019, the News & Observer offered a bold prediction for the upcoming year: “Raleigh will become a barbecue capital.”

“There’s a smoky haze on the horizon,” reporter Drew Jackson observed, and he foretold that it would “usher in a new era in North Carolina barbecue . . . with a new generation of homegrown pitmasters picking up the barbecue torch and lighting their own burn barrels and smokers.”

Throughout the fall of 2019 there had been a steady parade of announcements of new restaurants in the works. There were follow-on ventures from long-established whole hog legends, like Ed Mitchell (formerly of The Pit and Que) and Sam Jones, grandson of Skylight Inn founder Pete Jones. Others were projects by local fine dining veterans, like Jake Wood of Lawrence BBQ and Adam Cunningham and Marc Russell of Longleaf Swine, who had launched successful pop-up barbecue operations and were stepping up to brick-and-mortar.

They weren’t the only ones thinking the Triangle needed a few more barbecue joints. By early 2020, more than a dozen restaurateurs had thrown their hats in the ring and announced a forthcoming operation somewhere in the greater Raleigh area.

None of the prognostications foresaw a global pandemic, of course, and the ensuing lockdown pushed the pause button on almost all of the plans.

The Attrition

Some restaurateurs eventually decided to press stop altogether. The most recent is Wyatt Dickson, co-owner of Picnic in Durham, who announced in July that he was pulling the plug on his much-anticipated next venture, Wyatt’s Whole Hog Barbecue. That restaurant was originally slated to open in late 2020 in the Gateway Plaza, a redevelopment project that is transforming an old shopping center into “a reimagined retail and creative office space” just north of downtown Raleigh.

Wyatt Dickson of Picnic won't be bringing whole hogs to Raleigh—for now
Wyatt Dickson of Picnic won't be bringing whole hogs to Raleigh—for now (Forrest Mason/JNK Public Relations)

I reached out to Dickson to ask about the reasons behind his decision, and the long and short of it is that the landscape has simply changed too much.

“This was an idea conceived before the pandemic,” Dickson told me, “and so much has changed in the last eighteen months that make the project untenable.” Costs have increased on all fronts—construction materials, food, labor—so the original financial model no longer works. Add to that the general uncertainty facing the industry, and Dickson decided it was just too risky.

“As you might expect,” Dickson says, “I’m disappointed, but I know this is the right move. The stars just aren’t aligned, and at this point I think its wise to cut my losses and move on.”

As for what the future might hold, Dickson says, “Who knows? These are pretty crazy days.” He has a few ideas for future projects, but for now he’s focusing on Picnic and already has a busy catering schedule lined up for the months ahead.

Dickson isn’t the only restaurateur who decided to hit the brakes. Caterer Anthony Bowman was slated to open Smoky Tony's Barbecue in Wake Forest, but he decided the prospects were brighter on the coast and ended up opening his restaurant in Holly Ridge instead. A second location of the popular Redneck BBQ Lab in Benson was supposed to be the first tenant in the Old North State Food Hall off Interstate 95 in Selma. That deal fell apart after the developers demanded that owner Jerry Stephenson change his restaurant’s name. (The entire Old North State Food Hall project, as of this writing, is stalled as well.)

Jason Howard, owner of Raleigh’s Cardinal Bar, was planning a downtown barbecue venture in the former Auto Interiors and Tops on West Street, but he shelved that idea in favor of two non-barbecue concepts. Former Top Chef contestant Kenny Gilbert was going to move to Raleigh and open a wood-fire themed restaurant called Cut & Gather, but he ended up staying in Jacksonville and opening a new restaurant there.

What was shaping up to be a crowded barbecue market has a lot more elbow room now.

The Ones That Made It

Of all the barbecue restaurants in the works at the beginning of 2020, just three have managed to open for business so far. Fortunately for Triangle barbecue fans, all three are very impressive operations.

The Perfectionist

Prime Barbecue opened in Knightdale in May 2020
Prime Barbecue opened in Knightdale in May 2020

First out of the gate was Prime Barbecue in Knightdale. Owner, pitmaster, and self-proclaimed barbecue nerd Christopher Prieto opened for take-out business in May 2020, mere weeks into the pandemic lock-down. Indoor dining followed in the summer.

It’s a prime setting for sure, with meticulous attention to detail. Thoughtful design shows in everything from the gleaming white tiles and stylish black and orange accents to the polished reclaimed pit lids that hang as decoration above white enamel handwashing sinks. (The latter, Prieto says, are a nod to the old sinks on local farms where workers could wash their hands when they came in from the field for lunch.)

There’s a trio of J&R Oyler smokers in the large screened-in pit room, and those big rotisseries aren’t designed for cooking North Carolina-style whole hog. Smoked brisket is the star of the show, and Prieto comes by it honestly, for he was born and raised in Bryan, Texas, and cut his barbecue teeth there.

The Texas Trinity of brisket, ribs, and sausage plus the phenomenal barbecue rice at Prime BBQ in Knightdale
The Texas Trinity of brisket, ribs, and sausage plus the phenomenal barbecue rice at Prime BBQ in Knightdale (Robert F. Moss)

Prieto’s father moved from Puerto Rico to the Lone Star State to get a Ph.D. at Texas A&M, and Chris grew up eating barbecue in local restaurants as as well as cooking it with his dad in their backyard. After Prieto went off to college, his family ended up moving to North Carolina, and Prieto later joined them there. He worked as a manager and trainer for the Carrabbas restaurant chain for almost a decade, and during that time got big into the competition circuit, competing at 30 or more events each year.

A side gig teaching barbecue classes at the Spice Shop in Raleigh led to Prieto’s being invited by John Markus to appear on BBQ Pitmasters, and that led to more TV appearances, a catering career, live instructional events, and writing a cookbook for Southern Living. And that led, eventually, to his own brick and mortar restaurant.

Prieto may be a native Texan, but his family’s roots as well as the traditions of his adopted home state show through once a week on Saturdays, when he fires up his customized BQ hog cookers. “We cook eastern Carolina-style pigs,” Prieto says, “but the Puerto Rican way.” That means injecting the pig with a citrus-laced mojo marinade and seasoning it with his family’s adobo recipe.

“Then we cook it just like a normal Eastern North Caroline pig,” he sais. “[Directly] over coals to crisp the skin, so you have a lot of flavor.”

The Fundamentalist

15 miles to the west in downtown Raleigh, whole pigs are cooking seven days a week at the new Sam Jones BBQ. In January of this year, the third generation restaurateur from the family behind Skylight Inn in Ayden cut the ribbon on the second restaurant to bear his name. (The first is not far from Ayden in Winterville.)

They're cooking old fashioned whole hog at Sam Jones's new Raleigh restaurant
They're cooking old fashioned whole hog at Sam Jones's new Raleigh restaurant (Robert F. Moss)

Sam Jones is a barbecue fundamentalist, upholding his family’s doctrine that “if it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ.” The family’s signature whole hog, with bits of crisp skin chopped into the meat, is the star player in Raleigh, and there’s not an ounce of brisket to be found in the place.

You can sample the tradition in all its glorious simplicity with the Jones Family Original BBQ Tray—a small paper boat filled with that juicy, smoky chopped pork and topped with a slice of dense, firm cornbread made with just cornmeal, salt, water, and pig lard, plus another little boat filled with cool, tangy mayo-dressed coleslaw.

The fundamental Jones Family Barbecue Tray at Sam Jones Whole Hog BBQ
The fundamental Jones Family Barbecue Tray at Sam Jones Whole Hog BBQ (Robert F. Moss)

Like those fancy megachurches with coffee shops and climbing walls, the new Raleigh outpost does make a few concessions to more modern demands. The tri-fold menu offers smoked chicken, turkey, ribs, and wings, and the sides include mac ‘n cheese and fresh fruit. In a significant departure from the Ayden format, there’s a full bar with a cocktail list, too.

The Iconoclast

Owner/pitmaster Jake Wood checks the smokers at the new Lawrence Barbecue in Boxyard RTP
Owner/pitmaster Jake Wood checks the smokers at the new Lawrence Barbecue in Boxyard RTP (Anna Routh Barzin)

The third entrant across the finish line opened for business just in time for summer. After a long series of pop-ups, Lawrence Barbecue started onsite service in June in Boxyard RTP, a new food and retail development in the heart of the Research Triangle Park

Owner Jake Wood got his start in seafood—namely, shucking oysters at Raleigh’s classic 42 Street Oyster Bar. Stints as head sushi chef at The Cowfish then executive chef at Raleigh Raw and at Plates Neighborhood Kitchen soon followed.

A North Carolina native born and raised in Apex, Wood grew up cooking whole hogs at family reunions. While his devotion to barbecue is informed by his family roots (the restaurant is named for Wood’s ​​maternal grandfather, Allen Lawrence), he’s not particularly bound by local traditions.

Due to limited room for pits at his Boxyard RTP site, Wood had to abandon his original plan of cooking North Carolina-style whole hog. That leaves pulled pork shoulder and Texas-style brisket as the main headliners, along with turkey and a daily selection of creative specials.

For a North Carolina boy, Wood cooks some pretty impressive brisket, with a juicy fat cap and a salty, tangy bark. For me, though, the real draws are the oysters and the daily specials. The former, dubbed “BBQ oysters,” are fresh North Carolina beauties topped with a sweet, brown sugar-laced butter and crumbles of cotija cheese and grilled till slightly charred on top.

Grilled BBQ oysters with cotija cheese at Lawrence Barbecue
Grilled BBQ oysters with cotija cheese at Lawrence Barbecue (Robert F. Moss)

Recent specials have included pork belly burnt ends, brisket birria tacos and—in a particularly over-the-top move—footlong smoked pork belly corndogs. These start with a long strip of pork belly that’s smoked on the pit, enrobed in corn meal batter, and fried golden brown. ​Topped with tangy sorghum mustard, jalapeño relish, and a long strip of crunchy pork skin, it’s a hefty, smoky flavor bomb that it might be wise to share with a friend (or three.)

Capital Prospects

The Triangle’s once-rising barbecue tide may have ebbed, but a few more restaurants are still the works. Adam Cunningham and Marc Russell abandoned their original plans to open Longleaf Swine inside the Transfer Co. Food Hall in downtown Raleigh, but they found an alternate spot nearby in the former Oakwood Cafe site on Edenton Street. It’s taken longer than expected to close the sale on the property, Cunningham reports, but he hopes to start construction in late September and open in early 2021.

Earlier this year, Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan appeared on the verge of opening The Preserve in the former Carolina Ale House building on Creekside Drive. The duo launched a series of delivery-only pop-ups at the site in March but abruptly put those on hold in April. Local sources report that the Mitchells are no longer moving forward on Creekside Drive and are now working on a different venture at another site. (I’ve reached out a few times to confirm the new plans but have received no response as yet.)

Finally, at the end of July, a new entrant emerged when the operators of the popular Charlotte-based Midwood Smokehouse announced they will be heading up to Raleigh to open their sixth location in early 2022. (Four Midwood locations are in the Charlotte area and a fifth is in Columbia, South Carolina.) Prominently featured on the Midwood menu is Texas-style smoked prime-grade brisket along with chopped pork, ribs, and chicken.

So let’s call it six . . . maybe. Perhaps not enough to transform Raleigh into a barbecue mecca, but not too shabby, either.

Notably, all three of the restaurants that have opened so far are cooking on 100% wood-fired pits, and their owners aren’t cutting any corners. These are serious barbecue operations with a real respect for old barbecue traditions.

But, still, the arrival of these new players is shifting the character of barbecue in North Carolina’s capital. The prominence of Texas-style brisket is notable, as is the fact that all three offer counter service instead of ordering at the table.

They also feature something else rarely found in North Carolina barbecue joints a decade ago: booze. Prime BBQ has a discrete selection of NoDa cans and Shiner Bock bottles in an ice bin near the counter. At Sam Jones there’s a full list of “high octane cocktails,” including “Samuel’s Drink”—Evan Williams bourbon with Cheerwine syrup and cherry-vanilla bitters. In the second floor spot above Lawrence barbecue, Jake Wood is preparing to open the Lagoon Bar, where guests can order slushy, tropical-themed drinks to sip alongside their smoked meats.

Will the Raleigh-Durham area eventually fulfill its ambitions of becoming a new hot-bed of North Carolina barbecue—the Barbecue Triangle, if you will? Perhaps. But if the early evidence is any indication, it’s not going to be a locus for any one particular style the way that Lexington is for the Piedmont North Carolina tradition or Lockhart is for the Central Texas meat market style.

This much seem clear, though: the barbecue options in Raleigh are much more promising now than they were going into the pandemic, and that’s something to celebrate.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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