Every morning at 4:30 AM, riding or walking past Tar-Heel-Q off of Old Highway 64 in Lexington, North Carolina, the smell and crackle of fired-up hickory chips and logs fill the air for about a mile. No one minds the enormous amount of smoke that is being produced by this Mom-and-Pop Southern barbecue joint, especially because of the rich, warm and comforting smell. It’s the smell of Lexington, some people might say.
It takes a full tractor-trailer load of hickory wood to get Tar-Heel-Q through a month of making some of the best lip-smacking, finger-lickin‘ barbecue in all of the Piedmont Triad. It’s the only kind of wood that can smoke a 25-pound brisket to perfection.
I moved to North Carolina about five years ago to go to college, and one of my favorite hobbies (naturally) became eating at different barbecue restaurants around this beautiful state. I quickly found that the best places to visit weren’t searchable on the Internet. No websites or Facebook pages are necessary for these hole-in-the-wall joints – just word-of-mouth and a reputation for good old Carolina barbecue crafted by recipes handed down from generation to generation.
It’s something about sharing an old family fixin‘ that has made places like Snooks in Advance, North Carolina, and Little Richards in Winston-Salem, N.C. a place for gathering on Saturday afternoons. A chopped barbecue sandwich with a side of hush puppies and a tea (no need to say sweet tea around here) – it’s good for the soul.
My favorite plate to order is usually the standard barbecue beef brisket, chopped, with red slaw. Some prefer brisket to be sliced thinly, put on a sandwich, and drizzled with some homemade vinegar-based sauce. To me, you can’t go wrong with either.
Red slaw, usually better with chopped pork, is a little different than the traditional white slaw. The finely-sliced cabbage, marinated in apple cider vinegar and a little bit of Texas Pete hot sauce, compliments a barbecue plate nicely. What makes Carolina barbecue so unique is how chefs use apple cider vinegar quite liberally and smoke the meat with freshly-cut hickory wood.
A few friends and I always enjoy making our own barbecue – a perfect sunny Saturday afternoon affair. We start with usually about a 10-pound brisket, sometimes smaller, and a propane or electronic smoker. I buy bags of hickory wood chips (usually found at Home Depot), take about two handfuls, and soak them in a bowl of water overnight. This way, no chips catch fire.
After the brisket is left out and comes to room temperature, I apply a paprika and brown sugar-based rub, covering the meat. Preparing the brisket two or three hours in advance is best.
For about eight to 10 hours, the meat goes in the smoker, where it’s checked hourly and “mopped” with a mixture of Mott’s Apple Juice and apple cider vinegar. It’s important to keep the temperature consistent throughout the day so the meat is cooked evenly – I usually look to keep it around 225°. Adding wood chips hourly is also key to having the right amount of smoke. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened the door to the smoker just to get a smell of the brisket and hickory wood, only to regret it when the temperature drops 30°.
For the final hour of smoking, I usually turn up the temperature about 15°. But the important thing to remember is not to rush barbecue – it’s finished when you stick it with an internal thermometer or poker and it falls apart. I promise you, you’ll drool like a dog.
Brisket smokes have become all-day affairs, planned a few weeks in advance. Heck, we’ve even mailed out formal invitations. Barbecue is the best centerpiece to parties I have at my home – no one ever leaves hungry, and everyone always asks when the next one will be.
Carolina Barbecue Rub
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup paprika
2½ tablespoons brown pepper
2½ tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1½ tablespoons chili powder
1½ tablespoons onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Apply all of the rub to brisket or pork shoulder. Let rubbed meat sit for 2 to 3 hours, then smoke as desired.
Carolina Barbecue Mop
1 cup vegetable oil
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
½ cup apple cider Vinegar
4 cups apple juice
Mix all ingredients for the mop together in a bowl. Using a turkey baster or heat-safe brush, apply mop hourly to a smoking brisket or pork shoulder. Reserve about ¼ as a sauce for sandwiches and platters.