However you spell it — barbecue, barbeque or BBQ — it all means two things in North Carolina: whole hog or pork shoulder.
The methods of barbecue in Winston-Salem have changed. Long gone are the men and women who rise well before dawn to stoke and control the fires of the smokehouse. Feeding hand-chopped hardwood to the pyre and turning the cuts of pork in order to serve the masses each day is an art that has become lost over time. Stacks of wood have given way to electric smokers and the flip of a switch.
In the past 18 months, the flavors of barbecue in the city have changed too. No longer is Lexington-style — smoked pork shoulder or pork butt dressed with a thin, vinegar-based sauce made with ketchup, sugar and red pepper flakes — the king of the land.
One purveyor of Lexington-style barbecue is Little Richard’s which has been open since 1991 and quickly became a barbecue dynasty in the area. Its partners went separate ways in early 2018 with Real Q emerging from the ashes off Country Club Road and Wallberg, using the traditional smokehouse cookery methods. The remaining Little Richard’s locations and the new Little Richard’s Smokehouse Bar N Que (opened in late 2019), use natural gas-powered wood smokers. Two other Lexington-style barbecue legacies were laid to rest in 2019: 68-year-old Hill’s BBQ on Patterson Avenue and Mr. Barbecue on Peters Creek Parkway which fell victim to a fire in April 2019.
Along with the death of the Twin City Rib Fest in 2018, which celebrated many styles of barbecue, where does that leave the legacy of Lexington-style barbecue in Winston-Salem?
“I think you’re seeing an influx of a new generation who are wanting to explore new and different things,” says Sam Platt, owner and operator of Honkytonk Smokehouse.
Platt was a barbecue aficionado and hobbyist before opening his restaurant off Jonestown Road. He believes the new school of barbecue gives deference to the old ways but is adapting to changing times and tastes. Honkytonk’s style closely mimics Memphis-style barbecue with the addition of six different sauces.
Platt says that part of the reason why the barbecue landscape is changing is the local economy and the influx of white-collar jobs.
“Winston-Salem is becoming more medical and research with desk jobs and labs,” Platt says. “I’m not seeing the blue-collar jobs. The history and growth of Winston is changing. Barbecue is adapting to new tastes.”
And while Lexington barbecue may not have as strong a footprint as it once did in the city, others argue that the culinary tradition has always been more varied than just Lexington or Eastern-style, another popular version in the area.
“Owners are traveling to different regions and cherry-picking what they want,” says culinary historian Adrian Miller. Miller’s newest book “Black Smoke: African American Adventures in Barbecue,” slated to be published Spring 2021 by UNC Press, explores the tradition of African-American pitmasters and their contributions to culinary artistry.
“They’re cooking meat, drowning it in vinegar and calling it barbecue,” he says.
Miller identifies trends in barbecue that he’s seen across the country. Central Texas barbecue is the default barbecue edition: sausage, brisket, ribs to some extent and Texas beans or cowboy beans as a side. The state even has a dedicated barbecue editor at Texas Monthly magazine — Daniel Vaughn, a former architect turned barbecue hobbyist. Memphis barbecue used to be the default, characterized by dry rub and wet or sauced pork and ribs.
“If other regions did the same, they could be part of the conversation,” Miller says.
A trend like chef-driven barbecue with an emphasis on high-quality meats like wagyu and kobe with cheffed-up sides like gourmet macaroni and cheese or brussels sprouts could well be on its way here, pushing the humble pork butt to the side.
Little Richard’s newest venture, the Bar N Cue, suffers from an amalgamation of trends. While technology advances, some of the elements have been lost in translation.
There’s even a “Mexi-que” section of the menu with pulled-pork tacos, taquitos and a barbecue quesadilla served with pico de gallo. Eight different types of meat and seven different sauces are served alongside 15 different sides in a restaurant that is one-third sports bar and two-thirds traditional table service.
Some in the industry take issue with the overdressing of the meats.
“I’m traditional,” says Mark Little, pitmaster and part owner of Bib’s Downtown. “I like the smoke, I like the flavor of the meat. Any time it gets overpowered with sauce, they’re hiding something.”
Bib’s style of barbecue, which closely mimics Texas, has also jumped into the changing landscape with a breakfast menu and is looking to add wine and beer dinners in the future. In order to stay relevant and change with the times, the menu has to evolve but not so much as to muddy the waters with multiple choices of sauce and styles of meat.
“To me that’s someone who has lost the passion for barbecue and maybe they’re not confident in their style in trying to offer it everybody,” he says. “Do what you do and do it well.
“Don’t worry about giving everybody every sauce kind in the world,” he continues. “It just becomes food and not barbecue.”
Try them for yourself:
- Bib’s Downtown — 675 W 5th St.
- Honky Tonk Smokehouse — 145 Jonestown Rd.
- Little Richard’s Smokehouse Bar N Cue — 109 S. Stratford Rd.
- Real Q — 4885 Country Club Rd.
Note: An earlier version of this article said that Little Richard’s uses electric wood smokers, and that cooking had become “automated.” They in fact use natural gas-powered wood smokers and the process is not automated. The article has been changed to reflect this correction. Triad City Beat regrets the errors.