North Carolina is also known as the “Cradle of ’Cue,” and we take our barbecue so seriously that old North Carolina families will tell you the four most important things in life are God, family, basketball, and barbecue. The North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail, organized by the North Carolina Barbecue Society, features two dozen renowned barbecue pits and joints that serve true barbecue: cooked over live coals, never on a gas grill or in an electric oven.
Running from east to west, the trail starts in Ayden at the famed Skylight Inn, where you’ll sample eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. This is cooked whole-hog, most often pulled apart rather than chopped, and finished with a pepper-laced vinegar sauce that’s clear, tart, and perfect (if you ask folks out east, anyway).
As you move westward, more restaurants add barbecue chicken and ribs to their menus rather than focusing on whole-hog cooking. The transition between eastern and western ’cue becomes apparent in the Piedmont. In Lexington, home to the annual Barbecue Festival held in October, you find the Lexington Dip, a sauce that’s somewhere between east and west: just vinegary enough to bring a tang to the pork, but ketchupy enough to thicken it a bit. The Lexington Dip is a bit of an anomaly, and it’s hard to find outside the central corridor of North Carolina. For a good example, try Smiley’s Lexington BBQ.
Moving into the mountains, the style changes completely, and the sauce makes all the difference. It takes on a thicker consistency, more like a Kansas City mop (I’ll have to watch my back next time I’m having ’cue in the mountains because of that remark) but without so much sweetness. They still use the vinegar of the eastern style, but in less copious amounts. Try Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby for ’cue that’s a cross between western and Lexington Dip. But for the full western North Carolina barbecue experience, you have to head to Herb’s Pit Bar-B-Que in Murphy.