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.