East vs. West: North Carolina BBQ

There have always been rivalries between states, but in North Carolina, the state is split down the middle when it comes to BBQ allegiances. To outsiders, they may seem like small differences. In North Carolina, BBQ is pork, not beef, not chicken, pork. The state is one of the biggest hog producers in the country, and pigs have been a large part of the economy since the 1700s. The pork is smoked without much in the way of rubs or seasonings to let the flavor of the smoke shine through. And the meat is generally taken off the bone and served chopped or pulled in a pile or on a bun. But that’s where the similarities end and the name-calling begins. 

East Carolina BBQ is all about the whole hog, slowly roasted over a fire and then chopped or pulled. East Carolina BBQ sauce wouldn’t be considered a BBQ sauce anywhere else in the country. It’s a simple mix of vinegar, with a little sugar and chili flakes. Once the smoked pig has been chopped up the vinegar-based sauce is added and stirred in with the meat. The vinegar emulsifies with the hot pork fat and creates a clear sauce flecked with spicy chili. The pork is either scooped onto a tray or piled high in a bun served with coleslaw and hushpuppies, small fried cornmeal fritters. 

East Carolina Pulled Pork

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West Carolina BBQ, also known as Lexington-style, centers around Lexington, NC about 2 hours away from Raleigh. Here, instead of a whole hog, pork shoulders are smoked before getting chopped or pulled. By only smoking shoulders they are able to produce more meat faster since it takes less time then cooking a whole hog, and it’s easier to regulate how much smoke each piece gets. The other big difference: the sauce. BBQ sauces in this part of the state are tomato or ketchup based. Ketchup even finds its way into the coleslaw in some West Carolina BBQ joints. Sauces here are still quite tangy and heavy handed with the vinegar, as opposed to sweeter, thicker BBQ sauces you might find in Kansas City or Memphis. 

Cider Braised Pulled Pork

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The Raleigh-Durham area, also known as The Research Triangle, is a sort of neutral ground in the state, and due to its status as the state capital, there’s more freedom for experimentation. If you’re in Raleigh you should be able to find both styles, although most places do skew towards the east. Luckily, good Lexington-style restaurants are only an hour or so away. Don’t forget the hush puppies and sweet tea! No Carolina BBQ experience is complete without them.

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2 years ago

You summed this up perfectly! The only thing you might have added is the fact that BBQ (yes, BBQ being pork) is a noun in eastern NC. See, there is BBQ and there is grilling. We ‘grill’ hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, etc. BBQ is a whole other thing & that thing is pork. ☺️