Barbecue has captured a cultural and visceral spot in our collective psyche,
inspiring powerful loyalties. We sent one North Carolina native and barbecue
lover out to sample the local barbecue scene and find a tasty home recipe.
Here’s what he discovered.
It’s not something you do; it’s something you eat. And that “something,” in most of the country, is slow-cooked, finely seasoned, pork. Pulled pork, preferably, though minced will do.
Few dishes in American fare generate the kind of loyalty – some would say obsession – that barbecue does. And fittingly, few cause such heated debate
Chili, perhaps, in the West. Fried chicken and collards in the South. But those dishes tend to be cook-specific. I’ve seen more than one family reunion devolve into a fight over a collard recipe.
Barbecue is regional. Your opinion of a style is typically based on where you grew up – or, rather, where you grew up in proximity to North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas. That’s because there are four basic styles, each linked to one of those locations. Kansas City is known for ribs, made with a dry rub. Most Texans skip pork altogether, using beef to make ribs and brisket sandwiches. Memphians make a pretty tasty pulled pork, though they douse the meat in a sweet tomato-based sauce.
The original style (and best, if you ask this native) comes from the Tar Heel State and is made with a mixture of vinegar, red pepper and, sometimes, brown sugar. It is a delicacy typically served with cold slaw on top and cornbread or hush puppies on the side.
The vinegar-based sauce is known to natives as “Eastern North Carolina barbecue.” Among the orthodoxy, it is the preferred style. But if you travel west of Greensboro, you’re likely to find a tomato-based heresy known as Lexington Barbecue.
There are those who prefer it.
They are apostates.
Don’t even get me started on the South Carolina style, which replaces vinegar with mustard, the result of early German migration.
For some reason, Virginia (and by extension, Hampton Roads) never fell in love with barbecue. Perhaps it was the coastal influence. The call of the sea is strong, and crab cakes are delicious.
Of course, it could have been a history of lies. Dirty, dirty lies.
In the 18th century, Virginian William Byrd wrote poorly of my ancestors in his book The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina.
Byrd wrote of my fellow Tar Heels, “The truth of
it is, the inhabitants of North Carolina devour so
much swine’s flesh, that it fills them full of gross humours. … whenever a severe cold happens to constitutions thus vitiated, it is apt to improve into the yaws, called there very justly the country distemper. … This calamity is so common and familiar here, that it ceases to be a scandal.”
Yaws was one of those old diseases that sounds made up, like “consumption” or “Jake-leg,” but evidently was pretty devastating.
Whatever the reason, barbecue never really caught on north of the state line, at least not to the degree it has in other parts of the country.
Still, if you look hard enough, you can find some pretty tasty pulled pork sandwiches in Hampton Roads, most of them variations of the North Carolina specialty. These are some of my favorites.
I promise, you will not develop a case of the yaws.
1. Belmont House of Smoke
Since around 2009, the Belmont has become something of a Ghent hotspot. A two-story restaurant with a bar upstairs (often home to live music), the Belmont is known for its dry-rub and wet-rub ribs, cooked in the styles of Memphis and Kansas City. But the restaurant does offer a wide selection of sandwiches, including a very tasty pulled pork. The cooks smoke the meat in a brown sugar dry-rub and serve it with vinegar sauce. You can add more if you like, but I didn’t find it necessary. The combination of brown sugar and vinegar had me right at home. If only they served it on cornbread.
2117 Colonial Ave., Norfolk. 757.623.4477.
A Norfolk staple since 1904, Doumar’s is known for ice cream cones and burgers, but it makes a pretty righteous pulled pork sandwich, or technically a “minced” pork sandwich. I got the small sandwich with slaw on top. Tasty. Vinegar-based. It hit the spot. And at a cost of $2.60, the price was hard to beat. Also hard to beat: the atmosphere. Doumar’s is an old-school drive-in. I enjoyed my sandwich indoors. Feel free to drive up and eat one in your car. But make a note: Doumar’s is cash-only and closed on Sundays.
1919 Monticello Ave., Norfolk. 757.627.4163.
3. Malbon Bros. BBQ & Catering
Malbon Bros. is one of the few places in Hampton Roads dedicated to barbecue in all of its forms, including brisket, baby back ribs and pulled pork. The pulled pork sandwich is essentially a sweet North Carolina style. I got mine with hush puppies and French fries. The restaurant sells containers of pulled pork, in case you want to take one home.
1896 General Booth Blvd., Virginia Beach. 757.427.9607.
1601 Hilltop West, Laskin Rd., Virginia Beach. 757.428.2266.
4. Pollard’s Chicken & Catering
Pollard’s is known for its chicken. The restaurant is said to have some of the best fried fowl around. But Pollard’s also offers a North Carolina-style minced pork sandwich, served with cold slaw on top. It is similar to Doumar’s, though with a bit more pepper (which I prefer). The restaurant has several locations, so chances are one is close to you. But I prefer the Tidewater Drive location. It has the feel of a place with some history.
8370 Tidewater Dr., Norfolk. 757.587.8185.
3033 Ballentine Blvd., Norfolk. 757.855.7864.
717 Battlefield Blvd. South, Chesapeake. 757.482.3200.
3545 Buckner Blvd., Virginia Beach. 757.416.0003.
1924 Centerville Tnpk., Virginia Beach. 757.333.3313.
6523 College Park Sq., Virginia Beach. 757.424.2024.
100 London Bridge Rd., Virginia Beach. 757.340.2565.
405 S. Witchduck Rd., Virginia Beach. 757.519.9000.
5. Moseberth’s Fried Chicken
Moseberth’s, like Pollard’s, is best known for its fried chicken. But this place makes possibly the best North Carolina-style minced pork sandwich in the region. With just the right combination of vinegar and pepper, Moseberth’s had me thinking I was back home. I had the sandwich combo, which came with slaw on top and fries and hush puppies on the side. Servers will open your box at the counter to make sure you approve of the meal. If you can keep from grabbing a hush puppy when that happens, you’re a better person than I. Moseberth’s is take-out only and closed Sundays and Mondays. The restaurant has a very small parking lot, but overflow is allowed across the street.
1505 Airline Blvd., Portsmouth. 757.393.1721.
6. Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que
If vinegar is not your thing, 50 miles up I-64 is Pierce’s, a very popular restaurant that offers several types of barbecue, including a pulled pork sandwich. Pierce’s recipe seems closest in styles to a mix between Memphis and western North Carolina. It is tomato-based, but not as sweet as the Memphis style. I got mine with slaw and crinkle fries. The restaurant does a heavy business, despite its slightly hidden location a bit off the highway. Follow the signs, or use the GPS.
447 E. Rochambeau Dr., Williamsburg. 757.565.2955.
7. County Grill & Smokehouse
Up the road a bit in Hampton is the County Grill & Smokehouse, a restaurant and bar that offers a different atmosphere from the other barbecue joints. From the outside, the County Grill is brick and boxy and looks for all the world like a VFW. From the inside it looks like a traditional bar, complete with 20 beers on tap. But don’t let that fool you into thinking barbecue isn’t taken seriously. County Grill serves true pulled pork that has been smoked on premises. It is tender, but rather bland. The restaurant offers six sauces to add at the table: North Carolina (east and west), Texas, Kansas City, Savannah (basically South Carolina mustard-based) and Memphis.
Some people may like that approach and selection, but to a true barbecue lover, it’s as different as marinating meat and dousing it after cooking.
26 E. Mercury Blvd., Hampton. 757.723.0600.
1215-A George Washington Hwy., Yorktown. 757.591.0600.
8. Small’s Smokehouse & Oyster Bar
The latest entry into this category is Small’s, a new restaurant and catering company not far from the Belmont in Norfolk. I have to admit, seeing “oyster” in the name did not immediately fill me with confidence about the barbecue. But I found the pulled pork sandwich to be among the area’s best. Small’s pulled pork is smoked in-house and served in vinegar sauce with a touch of brown sugar. The taste is excellent. It is also very similar to the Belmont’s. Fitting, given that Small’s head chef used to work there.
2700 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk. 757.626.3440.
It sits in an old service station with a country-store feel and dining rooms no bigger than truck beds. The floors are unfinished and the slat walls are lined with pictures from the floods it survived.
It seems more fit for a country song than for a culinary delight. But if you want expertly prepared vinegar-based pulled pork, you can do no better than Bunn’s Barbecue. Located just off Highway 17 in Windsor, North Carolina, Bunn’s is a local landmark that has been making the dish since 1938.
The restaurant serves its barbecue in a rather unique way – between two slices of cornbread.
Sure you can get it on a bun. But why would you?
Baked fresh daily, the cornbread is firm enough to hold the pork yet soft enough to soak up the juices. It’s so good that it makes you question why more things aren’t served this way.
In the ’40s and ’50s, Bunn’s was a local secret. Farmers and factory workers crowded the place at lunch, their work clothes covered in dust and mud.
The changing economy shuttered a tobacco market, three lumber mills and a clothing factory, costing the lunch hot spot hundreds of regulars.
These days the place has become something of a tourist attraction. Magazines like Southern Living and Garden & Gun have introduced Bunn’s to a new clientele of expat Southerners jonesing for a taste of the past. They detour off I-95 and drive an hour through the winding roads of eastern North Carolina for the experience.
The restaurant is as simple now as it was when overalls and flatbeds outnumbered Bluetooths and SUVs. The food is served on a paper plate. The waitresses are also the cooks. The owner runs the register. Cards are not accepted.
Several years back, Bunn’s added a few other dishes to the menu. Depending on the day, you can now get Brunswick stew, hot dogs with homemade chili, grilled chicken and chicken pastry.
“Can’t eat barbecue every day of the week,” says Russ Russell, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1969.
True. But after one visit to Bunn’s, you’d sure be tempted to try.
127 N. King St., Windsor, North Carolina (just over 90 minutes south of downtown Norfolk). 252.794.2274. Open 10 to 2 Mondays through Thursdays, and Saturdays; 10 to 5 Fridays. Cash only.
At his 80/20 Burger Bar, where he is chef and co-owner, he expertly crafts grass-fed hamburgers – the quintessential American comfort food.
But Pavey at heart is a Southern cook who first learned the craft by watching his grandmother. Maude Pavey was an expert with all dishes Southern. Collards. Chitlins. Fried chicken. And, of course, barbecue.
“She would do it in a crock pot,” he says. “It was sort of a combination of braising and confit.”
Maude made her barbecue with vinegar, molasses and crushed red pepper. Joe took her recipe and added some personal touches, including bourbon.
“It’s funny how ready people are to argue about which style is the best,” he says from his restaurant in Ghent. “But really, it’s nostalgia. Barbecue keeps us tied to our youth.”
For the record, his favorite barbecue is just across the state line in Corolla, at Corolla Village Barbecue.
“It’s just a shack, not far from the lighthouse,” he says. “You can’t even go inside.”
Pavey’s Bourbon-Molasses Barbecue
3- or 4-pound Boston butt
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
½ cup dried onion
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper
½ cup molasses
2 ounces bourbon
Mix all ingredients into a paste. Rub it onto the Boston butt. Let the meat sit overnight in refrigerator. Cook it in a slow cooker on medium for at least 4 or 5 hours. It’s better if you cook it up to 10 hours. Take it out of the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes. Put on gloves and pull the meat apart by hand. Mix the juices from the pot in with the meat and serve.