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.