by Eric Ginsburg
Zach Ward’s brother isn’t a fighting man — he’s a pastor — but there was one time that he seemed ready to plant his fist in someone’s face: While eating at Mr. Barbecue in Winston-Salem, he heard someone order a cheeseburger.
Who would do such a thing?
Some people don’t understand that in North Carolina barbecue is a noun rather than a verb, third-generation barbecue man Chip Stamey of Greensboro explained. The food is a part of the culture, an integral component of the state’s heritage. And the people like Stamey’s grandfather who sold barbecue in tents outside the courthouse in Lexington — arguably the barbecue capital of the state — could even be considered the originators of fast food, he said.
Zach Ward, like his brother, is just one of the North Carolinians who takes that history and its preservation very seriously. The respected Campaign for Real Barbecue began in the Old North State and has several tenets that restaurants must meet to be certified, primarily the use of pit-cooked barbecue that is slow-roasted over hardwood coals as opposed to an electric or gas grill. Ward’s guidelines for the places he patronizes are even more strict: He wants places without frills or too many other items on the menu, served quickly, with an everyman sort of clientele and a reasonable price point.
A native of St. Pauls, a speck of a town south of Fayetteville, Ward spends part of his summers teaching social sciences at Governor’s School at Salem College. Each time he returns to Winston-Salem from Chapel Hill, where he lives the rest of the year, Ward helps lead a relatively informal but longstanding barbecue club.
The premise of the group is simple: For more than a decade, a smattering of people working at the Governor’s School have made excursions once or twice a week to authentic barbecue joints in the region. The size of the crowd balloons as schedules and interest allow, involving everything from impromptu midday trips to the nearby Mr. Barbecue on Peters Creek Parkway to longer weekend rides out to places like Keaton’s Barbecue, a restaurant in Cleveland, a small town in Rowan County that is one of the few authentic, black-owned options in the state.
With plates of barbecue, hush puppies and slaw in front of them at Mr. Barbecue, Ward and a couple of the group’s regulars discussed an upcoming multi-day trip during a school break. Ward had sent out an agenda with five barbecue restaurants listed for the tour of the best eastern North Carolina barbecue, but friend Matt “Chuckles” Evans pointed out that Ward hadn’t bothered to say anything about where they’d be staying.
“In my car,” Ward joked, before admitting that he hadn’t finalized details for one of the nights but had two choices in mind.
The trip, as well as the shorter, single-restaurant outings between teaching sessions at school, provide a chance for Ward and other natives of the state to showcase North Carolina and Winston-Salem alike. In the same spirit, some staff members introduce others to racing at Bowman Gray Stadium or explore taquerias in the nearby Waughtown neighborhood.
Many of his colleagues travel from places like New York and Philadelphia to the program each summer, living together at Salem College and forming a close community, Ward said, and the off-campus activities — particularly barbecue-oriented ones — are a chance to better understand their surroundings.
Ward takes the decision about where to bring his coworkers seriously, but the group’s experience at restaurants is intentionally like that of any other customer. No speech from the owner or history lesson on its founders, just a nice sit-down meal with a full plate.
And sometimes, like last week at Mr. Barbecue, one plate isn’t enough; after downing his lunch, Ward’s friend Ben Stallworth ordered a large to-go cup of barbecue. A tall, stringbean sort of kid, Stallworth started digging into the cup while he waited for his coworkers to finish up.
“I’m still hungry, and it’s really good,” he said between bites.
Evans — a Georgia native who came to the Governor’s School in 2010 after finishing a masters in math at Wake Forest University and is now pursuing a PhD in New York — agrees. Mr. Barbecue was his favorite in the state until he joined more of the barbecue club’s trips, including the eastern North Carolina tour last weekend, and he still really enjoys it. He’s been exposed to much of what the state has to offer on this front over the years, especially after teaching at a community college in the northeastern corner of the state, but Evans doesn’t consider himself picky.
“I’m the kind of guy who’s pretty easygoing about it,” he said. “If it’s barbecue, I’ll eat it.”
The Campaign for Real Barbecue lists only about 50 restaurants in the entire state that meet the requirements for “True ’Cue NC” certification, though there are hundreds of barbecue joints populating North Carolina. To be certified, restaurants must meet seven requirements — some easy, like being located in North Carolina or serving barbecue on the regular menu at least monthly, and others more specific pertaining to the type of sauce or meat and how it is prepared.
The site’s founders — who include retired UNC Chapel Hill professor John Shelton Reed, the co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue — are considered respectable, independent certifiers. But they only act in an unofficial capacity, conducting “inspections and re-inspections as time, money and cholesterol levels allow.”
Of their list, only four are located in the three Triad cities: Mr. Barbecue, Little Richard’s and Hill’s Lexington Barbecue in Winston-Salem, and Stamey’s in Greensboro. A few more are nearby, like Clark’s in Kernersville or Hursey’s in Burlington. It is unclear why Keaton’s, one of Ward’s favorites, didn’t make the cut, but his top choice, B’s Barbecue in Greenville, appears.
Though quite popular, Kepley’s Bar-B-Q on North Main Street in High Point comes up short. The barbecue restaurant founded in 1948 uses a combination of pit-cooking and electric, owner Bob Burleson said — which would disqualify it from True ’Cue NC certification.
Hill’s on North Patterson Avenue in Winston-Salem displays its True ’Cue certificate behind a counter running along the front room, but it too starts the barbecue out in hardwood-fired pits before moving the pork shoulder to electric grills after several hours. On a recent Friday, all the shoulders and butts had been transferred to the electric grill by around 10 a.m. That’s more than four hours before Stamey’s in Greensboro, where the pit team also started three hours earlier than the folks at Hill’s that morning.
The restaurant doesn’t sell nearly as much barbecue as its counterparts, which may be due to an expansive menu that includes things like omelets and waffles. The use of electric is what runs afoul of True ‘Cue NC, but Ward would look at both unfavorably.
Little Richard’s, Stamey’s and Mr. Barbecue are different, following traditional methods as closely as possible and only cooking its barbecue over hardwood coals — usually hickory — the owners all said.
Each of the three venues cooks their butts and picnics — the cuts that make up a pork shoulder — slightly differently, and despite some similarity in taste, each restaurant offers a different ambiance and way of doing things. As far as Zach Ward is concerned, Mr. Barbecue is the best of the three, followed by Stamey’s. He doesn’t like the style or taste at Little Richard’s, though he admits he hasn’t been in years. Evans — who like Ward sports a modest beard and glasses, while exuding a churchy sort of wholesomeness — disagrees with his friend’s assessment.
“That was not my experience,” he replied quickly. “Have you ever considered that maybe you’re just wrong?”
Stallworth, who grew up in Lewisville and frequented Little Richard’s as a kid, defends the barbecue restaurant as well. But then again, his parents are from Knoxville and he was born in Houston, where he must have developed a taste for brisket, he said. Stallworth admits that it’s his favorite kind of barbecue, a comment that sends Ward over the edge.
Because barbecue aficionados like him — even though he lived in Austin for three years — take that sort of thing as a personal affront.
By around 4 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, Chhqnuon Ponn may have been dozing slightly while sitting upright at the edge of the pits, arms folded across his chest as NPR played in the background. Ponn, a Cambodian immigrant who has worked at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro since 1984, oversees more barbecue pits than probably everyone else in the three Triad cities combined.
This summer, Craver Stamey — a college student at UNC-Wilmington and the first of his generation to work in the hot and smoky pits — asked to work alongside him.
It’s a job with its share of waiting, but before long Ponn was up and clearing out the burned hardwood coals from short but wide slots underneath the mouth of the ovens.
Craver said he appreciates the downtime because it allows him to get to know Ponn and the other pit workers. There is no manual for how to be a true barbecue chef, no thermometer in the pits at Stamey’s letting him know when the meat is ready. He would ask those sorts of questions when the summer started, and said this coworkers would just look at him and say something like, “When it’s ready.”
Since then he’s learned how to wield the two-pronged forks that Ponn makes himself; the long, skewer-like tools and the shovels needed for the hickory coals aren’t easy to come by.
Now Craver can stab the pork shoulder in the right place to hook the bone, making it easier to hoist the heavy slab of browned meat into a metal cart. With a wet washcloth wrapped around his left hand and another resting on the front of the oven to protect his forearm, Craver pierces a pork shoulder with the long fork, and a crisp crackling sound lets him know the meat is ready.
There are 10 pits in the building behind Stamey’s longstanding location across from the Greensboro Coliseum. Housing it separately significantly reduces the risk of a fire, said Chip Stamey, who is the company owner and Craver’s father, even though they are the only true ’cue restaurant here to split the restaurant from the pits. Four or five of the oven pits are in use on an average day, Craver said, each able to hold about 21 pork shoulders.
One early afternoon last week, Craver, Ponn and a coworker named Johnny waited for a round of barbecue to finish cooking. They’d been at it since around 3 a.m. — a typical day — and at around 2 p.m., Ponn took his leave.
His remaining workers removed long sheets of tin foil covering the pork, designed to trap heat and protect the meat from any buildup in the chimneys — Mr. Barbecue uses face-down metal pans while Little Richard’s employs built-in metal doors. Then Craver and Johnny checked each shoulder, both leaving a few above the smoldering coals to finish cooking. The first batch off the fire would go to the restaurant’s Battleground location, while the second crop would make the trek across the parking lot.
Stamey’s opened in Greensboro on an adjacent lot in 1953 across from what was then the city’s fairgrounds, Chip Stamey said, but the restaurant traces its history back to 1930.
[pullquote] We just hope that people realize we’re just trying to do one thing very well. We don’t want to complicate it.’ — Chip Stamey [/pullquote] C. Warner Stamey, Chip’s grandfather, founded the restaurant in his native Shelby that year after working closely under one of the progenitors of Lexington-style barbecue. Jess Swicegood was one of two men selling barbecue out of a tent across from the city’s courthouse, and Stamey would later return to Lexington and buy his mentor’s business.
What started at the original Greensboro location grew from a drive-in and two pits into a restaurant pushing into its fourth generation. Chip’s 15-year-old daughter works at the Battleground location and his oldest son has worked for the business too, though not in the pits like Craver.
Chip hasn’t always been on the business side of things. He worked several jobs at the family restaurant and also spent several professional years away from the company. But barbecue has always been a big part of his life, even when he was in college at Wake Forest University, where he’d head over to Little Richard’s out of convenience rather than driving back to Greensboro.
Governor’s School staffer Jonathan Bass, who grew up outside of Shelby near the True ’Cue-certified Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, told his fellow barbecue-lovers over a meal last week that he doesn’t trust a barbecue restaurant that looks like it was built after 1995. Anything newer than that likely lacks authenticity, he mused.
Lucky for Little Richard’s, then, that it opened in 1991.
The restaurant with conk-rockin’ dapper pig belting into a classic microphone — paying homage to the flamboyant musical talent but named for owner Richard Berrier — is the youngest of the Triad’s true ’cue restaurants, save for Clark’s in Kernersville, which opened two years later. But even though Little Richard’s adheres to the time-honored, pit-cooked and hickory-coal method, there’s little else traditional about the place.
AC/DC’s anthem “Back in Black” played over the house speakers during a recent Friday lunch hour as a white kitchen staff chopped pork shoulder, heated a bun, and readied a BBQ salad. The walls are lined with old-school ads, especially for Winston cigarettes, and a jukebox stands near the register at this cash-only restaurant.
But while other barbecue restaurants spare the flair in favor of wood paneling — the Stamey’s on Gate City Boulevard feels almost like a converted barn — in the ways that it matters, Little Richard’s is part of the same cultural canon.
A patron’s pickup truck, a greasy auto mechanic or someone wearing camouflage are tell-tale signs of a genuine barbecue restaurant; these are meant to be affordable, working-class venues with at least a touch of country.
Multiple recent trips to Little Richard’s, Stamey’s and Mr. Barbecue found all the above every single time. One customer last week at the Little Richard’s on Country Club Road — there is another, newer store in Wallburg — with grimy hands had come straight from work at an auto shop, and the day before, a pickup with two small, Confederate car-flags waited out front.
Twice a week, sometimes thrice, a dump-truck full of hardwood empties its load in the parking lot, where smoke can be seen billowing from stacks and wafting over to customers as they exit their vehicles. A sign out front advertises Little Richard’s curb service — a practice formerly in use at Stamey’s and other similar venues — allowing patrons to park and honk to summon an employee.
Matt Kelley, the 33-year-old manager, started working at Little Richard’s doing curb service when he was 16, working off and on at the restaurant ever since. He’s done just about everything there save for waiting tables, including pit work. Even still, Kelley says he isn’t sick of barbecue, though he admits it doesn’t hold the same mouth-watering appeal it once did.
Little Richard’s, like Mr. Barbecue and Hill’s, has two wood-fired barbecue pits just off the main kitchen, but only here could the pit master turn around and tap someone chopping barbecue in the kitchen on the shoulder. With three pin-up girls tacked over the doorway, it’s the most decorated of the local pits, and also boasts an added fan along one wall to vacuum out the smoke.
The pits can collectively hold about 36 pork shoulders at a given time, and will average that number of shoulders four days a week, Kelley said. Wax-paper-wrapped barbecue sandwiches are more popular at lunch, he said, while plates with a disposable cup of slaw and chopped meat move better at dinner.
Kelley describes the sauce — or dip, as the restaurant and other old-school joints call it — as a little spicy, in part due to the vinegar, but like other barbecue purveyors including Jim Carros at Mr. Barbecue, Kelley said they prefer to let the meat do the talking.
Zach Ward, a student-services specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Curriculum in Global Studies, doesn’t care much what other people think of barbecue. He needs no help from online polls to make up his mind, he said over lunch at Mr. Barbecue last week, adding later in the conversation that he has no regard for the brisket of a recent James Beard Award-winner in Texas. Ward doesn’t even really think brisket should be sold in North Carolina.
So when an unswayable man like that says your barbecue is his favorite around, it’s a badge of honor. This is a man who has a preference for eastern-style barbecue where the whole hog is used anyway, and who is well versed in the state’s offerings.
But the most popular menu item at Mr. Barbecue is the pork-skin sandwich, owner Jim Carros said. And you have to try the fried chicken, it’s the best in town, he lobbied.
Even though Ward — and his brother the pastor — would prefer people ignored the cheeseburger and stuck to the ’cue, there are other things that are favorably distinctive about the fast-paced restaurant.
For starters, it’s the only authentic barbecue place in the three cities that doesn’t offer table service. Instead cashiers order via microphone at several registers, only to spin around a moment later to grab the completed order from the kitchen and place it on the counter. With the possible exception of the drive-thru at Stamey’s, Mr. Barbecue provides the fastest service around. And that’s a core tenet, Chip Stamey and Ward agree, of barbecue culture.
Carros worked at the restaurant, which his dad and uncle opened in 1962, in high school and partially during college, later founding his own, similar restaurant, Pig Pickin’s on Reynolda Road. Wake Forest University bought up the area, including the pit-cooking restaurant. After it closed, Carros’ dad called and asked for help at Mr. Barbecue, and he’s been back at the family business for eight years, he said.
Carros said he doesn’t mind showing up around 4 a.m. to start the pit-cooking process.
“If you love what you do, it’s not really work, right?” he said after finishing a call outside his office at the back of the restaurant.
Carros’ father trained a team of three Latino men who oversee much of the barbecuing process, including making red BBQ-style coleslaw from scratch and tending to the sweltering pits. Using bread from Florida Bakery in Greensboro and a cooking method and sauce recipe that are “from the tree” of Lexington barbecue, Carros’ team cranks out anywhere from 20-50 pork shoulders-worth of the commoner’s cuisine daily.
With only 63 seats in the restaurant, it’s not surprising that many of the orders at Mr. Barbecue are for carry-out, and like his fellow practitioners, Carros also sells sliced or chopped barbecue by the pound.
With the mid-session trip to eastern Carolina behind them, Ward, Evans and their peers returned to Salem College on Sunday. By now the annual Governor’s School program is more than half over, though there are still a few weeks of barbecue exploration left to squeeze out. Before it’s done, maybe Evans will convince Ward to reconsider his impression of Little Richard’s.
But more likely they’ll make a spontaneous trip elsewhere, where they will continue their friendly barbecue banter.
That camaraderie, fostered by the community at Governor’s School, is part of why Evans made the trek down from New York this summer, though he joked that the real reason was to beat Ward at ping pong. But even though he finally triumphed over his friend, Evans’ meal at Mr. Barbecue last week was strong evidence he will likely be back next year.
A Winston-Salem T-shirt from local designers at Airtype was a dead giveaway. But the smile on his face as he lifted a forkful of chopped barbecue to his mouth made it all the more obvious.
Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.
We believe that reporting can save the world.
The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.
All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.