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Destination North Carolina: A Southern Food Road Trip Extravaganza

The American South is a land seemingly devised for road tripping. It keeps journeyers rapt with beauty and eccentricity and contradiction: A drive through the majestic Great Smokies can lead to Dollywood; a day spent on an Everglades alligator farm might segue into a night drifting around South Beach. For the food-obsessed, I wager that no Southern road trip itinerary brings more pleasure than a west-to-east trek across North Carolina. Over the last decade the state’s small, charismatic cities like Asheville and Durham have soaked up plenty of attention for their budding food scenes. But five recent days of feasting between North Carolina’s mountains, hilly piedmont, and coastal plains revealed an astounding breadth of accomplished cooking.

NC full map

Illustration by Adam Baumgartner

Of course my two travel mates (who happen to be my Eater bosses) and I ate ungodly amounts of barbecue, North Carolina’s most famous culinary asset. But the state’s cooks also put forth overstuffed biscuit sandwiches, obscure foraged greens over rabbit loin, hams from Spain and from Appalachia, local strawberries at just about every meal, and the best damn mac and cheese in the country. Like every corner in the South, the region takes pride in the bounty of its many farms. Beyond the beloved barbecue traditions, North Carolinians generally don't adhere to confining notions around food. Its many fine chefs have the freedom to explore their own definitions of Southern cuisine.

Over an ambling 338 miles, we made it to 26 restaurants — and one middle-of-nowhere coffee shop with strong wifi when work called. We saved Charlotte for another trip. And as we drove ever eastward, we ate remarkably well, mapping out this primer on essential North Carolina dining in the process.


Barbecue

North Carolina and Texas form the geographic brackets within which the regional styles of American barbecue emerged. Texans naturally favor beef (though recently they’ve been applying their smoky arts to other proteins with winning results), but North Carolinians are forever devoted to the pig. A pulled pork sandwich served anywhere in the country descends from its Tar Heel forefathers. The state divides into two fiercely competitive barbecue regions: the western piedmont plateau, where smoked pork shoulder rules, and the eastern coastal plains, where whole hogs have slowly smoldered over wood since the country’s founding. Barbecue seekers could easily devote an entire road trip to the subject matter; we hit highlights in both regions.


WESTERN STYLE

Among the dozen or so barbecue restaurants around Lexington, a town long considered the nexus of western-style pork shoulder ’cue, head to the one with the most obvious name: Lexington Barbecue. Cheerful waitresses deliver plates of barbecue served sliced, chopped to a frilly texture, or (the most satisfying to me) coarsely chopped. The tang of ketchup, a signature flavoring in western Carolina, thrums through the vinegar sauce that lightly dresses the meat as well as the pink-tinged slaw served alongside. Minced pork and slaw meld into a juicy union between a hamburger bun in a simple, iconic sandwich.

Wayne Monk founded Lexington Barbecue in 1962. He learned the craft from Walter Stamey, whose legacy lives on at the two locations of Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, 37 miles northeast of Lexington. We swung by the outpost near the city’s Coliseum sports complex. A gruff server didn’t take long to drop off respectable cue hacked into appealingly uneven bites—some pieces minced, some in larger chunks. It came with the traditional red slaw and hot, oblong hush puppies, a traditional Southern companion to fried seafood but introduced by Stamey as a North Carolina barbecue side. They’re now staples in both the western and eastern lexicons. Legacy aside: If you have time to drop into only a single barbecue joint in the area, Lexington is the one.

EASTERN STYLE

Staffers stack individual orders at Skylight Inn like precarious sculpture: A checkered plastic tub full of milky, finely shredded slaw teeters atop a block of dense cornpone, which in turn lurches over a tub of long-smoked meat. This is the apotheosis of whole-hog barbecue. After the pigs roast overnight over pits filled with hickory and oak woods, a cook divides the skin and fat from the meat; cleaves meat from every part of the beast; seasons it with a combination of vinegar, Texas Pete hot sauce, salt, and pepper; and folds some diced skin and fat back into the flossy, textured pile of pork. I respect the western Carolina pork shoulder barbecue, but I revere the eastern whole-hog approach. Few outside this area even attempt it, much less excel at it.

I revere the eastern whole-hog approach. Few outside this area even attempt it, much less excel at it.

Pete Jones, who founded Skylight Inn in 1947 (his grandson Sam Jones now runs the business), proclaimed his place the "capital of barbecue" and mounted a likeness of the United States Capitol dome on the restaurant’s roof to emphasize the point. The place thrives in the small town of Ayden, 88 miles east of Raleigh, though the Jones family has competition across town at Bum’s. A barbecue restaurant that serves country favorites from a steam table, Bum’s also specializes in vegetables, particularly silky-chewy collard greens. It chops its pork into ropy threads, and the other two in our group actually preferred it to Skylight. (I’m staying loyal to the Jones’.)

Wilber’s, in Goldsboro west of Ayden, opened in 1962 and still looks the part with knobby wood paneling and oilcloth-covered tables. Its kitchen turns out commendable barbecue but we most especially relished an off-the-menu order of leftover ribs. They came in a domed rack, picked over from the kitchen mingling the hog’s meats, but they still sported smoky hunks of pork. We missed Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley ten minutes away from Wilber’s; it closed for the day (at 3 p.m.) before we could reach it. From past experience I know its vinegary pork riddled with chile flakes warrants a detour.

WHERE EASTERN AND WESTERN MEET

Allen & Sons in Chapel Hill

Given its central proximity in Chapel Hill, Allen & Son Barbeque is among the most trafficked independent barbecue joints in North Carolina. Our server was moving so fast on a hectic Saturday that she barely spoke to us, though she did hustle our food out. Beyond its cabin-in-the-woods charm, the restaurant showcases a singular, rebellious barbecue synthesis. Keith Allen smokes pork shoulders in the western fashion, but he blends in plenty of crackly browned exterior to give the meat a textural complexity similar to whole hog. And he embellishes the pork with the chile-tinged vinegar sauce and cloudy, ketchup-less slaw favored in the east. Perhaps locals once looked at this union of styles as heretical. Nowadays residents and visitors alike view it as ambrosial.


Biscuits

The barrage of options at Biscuit Head in Asheville can jangle the brain. Extra-large biscuit variations known as catheads barely encircle piled-high combinations like country ham, fried green tomatoes, redeye gravy, and cheese eggs. A tasting of accompanying gravies might include versions seasoned with fried chicken or smoked tomato or sweet potato and coconut. There’s a bar stocked with jams (straightforward blueberry alongside more outré creations like bananas Foster or fruit punch) and butters flavored with things like Grand Marnier or maple syrup and bacon. All the fracas can distract from the biscuits themselves: sturdy yet fluffy, sweet with butter and tangy from buttermilk. In the end I’ll take mine plain with the simplest jam and a strong cup of coffee.

Bill Addison
Bill Addison

Rise's sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit; a country ham biscuit with fried green tomato, cheese eggs, and red eye gravy at Biscuit Head

Biscuit Head’s sweet and savory barrage is the most extreme manifestation of North Carolina’s deep-seated biscuit cravings. Biscuits are an entrenched part of the food culture in every state between Maryland and Texas, but their adoration is particularly emphatic here, with restaurants across the state specializing in the staple quick bread. Why? Kathleen Purvis, culinary historian and food editor of the Charlotte Observer, has one keen answer: "Historically, this part of the South milled regional flours that were suited to a particular kind of baking — low-protein flours that best lent themselves to biscuits."

These days, biscuits are most commonly put to work as breakfast sandwiches. The drive-through window at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen in Chapel Hill doles out comforting bundles filled with fried chicken, sausage, and egg. Lines trail out the door on weekends at Rise in Durham for tender, crumbly biscuits cradling options like pimento cheese and bacon, though frankly the ever-changing lineup of crunchy-soft doughnuts at Rise outshines the biscuits. Regardless, order a potato hash cake on the side. And in a pinch, swing by Biscuitville, a regional chain that uses local products, for a classic sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit.


THE CITIES, WEST TO EAST

ASHEVILLE

It can be easy to dismiss the artisanal-this and foraged-that food vibe in Asheville as "Brooklyn heads to the mountains." But plenty in this town of 83,000 residents—and three million annual visitors—conspires to diffuse cynicism: the saturating lushness of the surrounding mountains, the earnest welcome from the locals, and the improbable number of stellar restaurants. (We were so busy eating we didn’t even wade into the booming beer scene.) Find most of these standouts among the warren of small and winding streets that form Asheville’s downtown.

CÚRATE: Katie Button, an alum of Jose Andres restaurants and El Bulli, has received ample attention for bringing true-minded Spanish tapas to the Appalachian South. She deserves it for the universal appeal of her menu. Graze through precise delights like fried eggplant with honey and rosemary or clams steamed in cider with crumbled chorizo and compressed apples. In an area rife with locally made charcuterie, it’s a pleasure to sample through Spain’s taut, nutty-tasting Iberico hams. Be it lunch or dinner, don’t miss the gin and tonic revved with mixed citrus and juniper berries, a specialty of Button’s husband and restaurant partner Felix Meana.

Bill Addison
Bill Addison
Bill Addison

Above: Fish and chips at The Nightbell; Below: Clams steamed in cider with crumbled chorizo and compressed apples at Cúrate and strawberries with cream and brown sugar cookies at Table

THE NIGHTBELL: At Button and Meana’s moody lounge, which opened last year, turquoise chandeliers, loveseats in swank prints, and a curvy purple banquette create a Mad-Hatter-goes-to-Barcelona atmosphere. Approach this as a late-night hangout serving heady cocktails and updated bar snacks with the occasional modernist fillip: a duck confit-studded waffle with foie gras poutine and cheddar mousse, fish and chips made with skate wing, and root beer floats frosty from liquid nitrogen.

TABLE: Jacob Sessums helped catalyze the new generation of ambitious, local-minded restaurants when he opened Table on busy College Street a decade ago. A recent lunch was the best of several meals I’ve had there over the years and one of the favorites of our trip. Sessums’ cooking manages to show a deeper awareness of place but also imagination: His boiled peanut ragout (see sidebar) was a thinking man’s comfort food, and his strawberries with cream and brown sugar cookies brought easy contentment. I only wish I’d stuck around to try the asparagus chawanmushi with trout roe at dinner.

CUCINA 24: Brian Canipelli’s sleeper hit along picturesque Wall Street navigates between the friendlier and gutsier aspects of Italian cooking. Among effortless pleasures: house-made gramigna (like a longer, thinner macaroni) tangled with ramps and pizzas covered with oozing burrata or kerchiefs of speck ham. On the adventurous side: sliced lamb heart and peas in a vegetal broth that tasted like springtime distilled to liquid. In the open kitchen I spotted talented chef Justin Burdett, who has worked in restaurants in Highlands, North Carolina, and Atlanta and will soon open his own place in Asheville called Local Provisions.

RHUBARB: John Fleer earned national accolades as the chef who took the restaurant at Blackberry Farm to starry heights; after 15 years there he laid low for a few years cooking at a restaurant in Cashiers, North Carolina, about 60 miles southwest of Asheville. It gave him the time to scout for his first solo venture. His kitchen at Rhubarb delivers broadly appealing modern Southern cooking—plates like sticky glazed lamb ribs with collard green kimchi or pork collar with braised Tuscan kale and Sea Island red peas. Don’t miss the selection of superb local cheeses from producers like Spinning Spider Creamery.

KNIFE & FORK: "Magical" is a word I usually avoid when writing about restaurants, but a charmed quality does pervade a meal at this haven in the tiny mountain town of Spruce Pine, an hour above Asheville. Chef-owner Nate Allen lavishly adds foraged herbs and greens to his dishes without veering into preciousness. His restaurant has become a destination for food lovers; call well ahead for summer reservations.

THE RESEARCH TRIANGLE

Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, collectively known as the Research Triangle (so nicknamed for the research universities spread among them), unite as one of the South’s most dynamic food scenes. The fertile land and collegiate temperament yield dedicated small-scale farmers and freethinking chefs. They may bleed together in the mind but each of the three cities has their own distinct character: Chapel Hill prides itself on its urbanity, culinary arts included; Durham, once a lethargic tobacco town, now serves as a hotbed for up-and-coming food talents; and Raleigh, the capital, boasts the ever-growing restaurant group of leading light Ashley Christensen.

Bill Addison

Above: Fried shrimp roll at Saltbox Seafood Joint and pie slices at Scratch; Below: Saltbox's exterior

CROOK'S CORNER: Before even glancing at a menu, ask about the honeysuckle sorbet and reserve an order if the kitchen hasn’t run out. The sorbet, haunting and floral with a faraway echo of cinnamon, is a seasonal ritual for Crook’s longtime chef Bill Smith and a happening for his customers. Plenty of other homey dishes deserve love at this funky Chapel Hill institution, including the impeccable shrimp and grits made famous by founding chef Bill Neal. Join the locals at a table on the lush patio.

LANTERN: Amid the many area restaurants espousing warm, bright Southern flavors, Andrea Reusing instead looks to Asia for inspiration at her 13-year-old Chapel Hill touchstone. Menu classics like pork and chive dumplings or crisp tea-smoked chicken with fried rice retain their vitality, while coconut braised pork shank with fried shallots and green papaya salad shows that the kitchen can keep its creative energy fresh. I’ve always loved the split personality of the space: the prim front dining room and then the dim back bar, with its shadowy red lights and East-West glamour that recall an imagined Hong Kong hideaway. Reusing is launching her second restaurant, which will not be Asian-themed, in The Durham hotel in July.

SCRATCH: Baker Phoebe Lawless perfected her craft under Karen Barker at Durham’s still-missed Magnolia Grill, but she carries on the legacy by making Americana sweets that show restraint. Pie is the lodestar here; a recent strawberry custard variation hit all the right rich notes.

Macaroni au gratin at Poole's Diner

SALTBOX SEAFOOD JOINT: The menu at Ricky Moore’s homage to beachside fish camps changes daily, depending on the day’s deliveries from the coast. His Durham stand is mostly takeout, with a few umbrella-covered picnic tables in front, and it’s best to join the line on the early side of lunch: Moore frequently sells out of seafood by 2 or 3 p.m. We snagged the last order of shrimp for the day, a generous dozen delicately fried, scattered on a toasted roll, and topped with cabbage and fennel slaw flecked with parsley and dill.

Whenever I’m in the Triangle this is the first place I want to eat.

POOLE'S DINER: The greatness of Ashley Christensen’s first Raleigh restaurant only begins with the macaroni au gratin. Made by combining cheddar, Jarlsberg, and Grano Padano and broiled to a crusty, bubbly bronze, it’s a straightforward recipe — yet I don’t know of a better version of mac and cheese anywhere. Don’t fill up on it too much. The nightly changing menu (written neatly on blackboards throughout the always-crowded room) highlights ingredients in their prime prepared with a light hand and maximum Southern savor. Some highlights from our recent meal: delicate flounder filet over turnip greens creamed with pureed turnips; fried soft-shell crab, the shattering batter giving way to a fat, sweet interior, over early tomatoes with a Brussels sprouts slaw; and a soothing strawberry-rhubarb crisp for dessert. Honestly, whenever I’m in the Triangle this is the first place I want to eat.

Beasley’s fried chicken Bill Addison

Above: Chicken and waffles at Beasley's Chicken + Honey; Below: Crawfish at Stanbury and fried soft-shell crab over tomatoes and Brussels sprout slaw at Poole's Diner

BEASLEY’S CHICKEN + HONEY/CHUCK’S/FOX LIQUOR BAR/JOULE: Five years after Christensen took over Poole’s Diner (which had been a luncheonette and bar since the 1950s), she tackled a three-in-one project a few blocks away in the center of downtown Raleigh. Beasley’s came first, an emporium for fried chicken in all its essential Southern forms — served as a mix of white and dark pieces with sides like green bean casserole and pimento mac and cheese, or crowning a crisp waffle, or stuffed into a biscuit with pickled green tomato or (at brunch) fried eggs and cheese. It’s been a monster hit, deservedly, since the day it opened.

Chuck’s satisfies burger cravings with options like The Big House, topped with aged cheddar, sorghum-laced Dijon, and caramelized shallots. Fox Liquor Bar, housed in the basement of the building where Beasley’s and Chuck’s reside, requires a one-dollar membership thanks to quirky local alcohol laws. The vibe leans speakeasy and servers knowingly direct imbibers to cocktails that suit their exact tastes. Need a jolt the morning after? Christensen's coffee shop and dinette, Joule, is just up the block from Beasley's and company; look for the puffy pancake filled with seasonal fruit at brunch.

STANBURY: Drew Maykuth earned a following as chef at The Admiral in West Asheville, a local’s haunt that treads the line between gastropub and dive bar. Stanbury, in Raleigh’s burgeoning Mordecai neighborhood, feels entirely gastro-glam. A wall of mismatched reclaimed woods over the kitchen hides odd little figurines in its nooks. Bartenders pour no-joke cocktails like the German Roulette (rye, Jagermeister, Campari, and Cocchi Americano vermouth) as well as geeky wines (Italian Verdiccio, Austrian Zweigelt) by the glass. The menu rotates daily, but look for seafood wins like a heaping bowl of crawfish or local hauls like triggerfish daubed with sauce gribiche and crowned with pea shoots.

KINSTON

Rice-crusted catfish atop cracked Carolina gold rice "middlins" and beef tartare at The Chef and the Farmer

THE CHEF AND THE FARMER: Vivian Howard’s star turn on PBS’s Peabody-winning "A Chef’s Life" has turned this small town in eastern North Carolina into a pilgrimage site for fans and food lovers. Eating a buoyant, Italian-inflected dinner at her restaurant in Kinston, about 80 miles from Raleigh, is the ideal respite after a day spent visiting the area’s barbecue icons. Snack on fried collards tossed in olive oil (kissing cousins to kale chips) while deciding what to order. Options veer from flatbread baked with slivered leeks and herbs to a sumptuous smoked beef tartare or (my favorite of the evening) catfish crusted in rice and perched atop Carolina gold rice "middlins" cooked to risotto creaminess.

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