Barbecue is one of our few truly American dishes. It wasn’t brought over from someone’s homeland or carried here on a wave of immigration. The original word may be French or Spanish, and the dish itself might have originated in Haiti more than 300 years ago, but barbecue reaches its absolute pinnacle in Eastern North Carolina.
For many people, “barbecue” refers to an outdoor cooking contraption of some kind, usually fired with charcoal, wood, or gas. In Eastern North Carolina, however, “barbecue” refers to the meat itself, not the thing the meat gets cooked on. The meat is most usually pork (read that as “always, except for the most extreme circumstances”), slow-cooked on a rack over a smoky heat source. Hardwood coals are the benchmark for heat and fruitwood for smoke.
Correctly cooked barbecue can be pulled apart with a fork; the interior meat shows a creamy white or slightly tan color and bursts with aromatic juices. The flavor is smoky and strong but pleasant and almost sweet.
For folks driving I-95 through North Carolina, eating barbecue can also be a welcome distraction, a recess, and reason to pause the journey. From north to south, we have polled the locals, and these are their choice spots for dining on authentic Eastern North Carolina barbecue.
Roanoke Rapids (Weldon)
1400 Julian R. Allsbrook Highway
Four generations of the Woodruff Family have been making barbecue from top-quality, U.S.D.A.-inspected pork shoulders, free from any additives or preservatives. Ralph’s serves both chopped and pulled pork. Brunswick stew from the restaurant’s original recipe comes with all entrees.
Nashville (Rocky Mount)
Doug Sauls’ BBQ & Seafood
813 Western Ave.
If you know folks who’ve never tasted Eastern North Carolina barbecue, this is the place to take them. It’s a classic barbecue joint serving classic ‘cue, just west of I-95 in the “original Nashville.” Excellent pulled pork with the requisite side dishes, served in a homey, welcoming atmosphere: Barbecue the way you want it to be.
2514 Highway 301 South
Serving iconic Eastern North Carolina barbecue, Parker’s has become the benchmark against which all others are measured — “as good as Parker’s” or “not nearly as good as Parker’s.” Visiting Parker’s is a pilgrimage for barbecue fans. The food and the ambiance are singular and the service is fast.
Bill’s Barbecue and Chicken Restaurant
3007 Downing St.
Being located so close to Parker’s has got to be tough on a barbecue joint, but Bill’s is up to the challenge. Starting as a small restaurant, Bill’s was rebuilt after Hurricane Floyd into an 850-seat buffet restaurant operation. Nearly 40 large trucks carry Bill Ellis’s famous pork barbecue all over the country. Many barbecue lovers believe Bill’s to be the largest barbecue pork and fried chicken restaurant in the nation.
5139 Webb Lake Road
Cherry’s is actually about 8 miles out in the country and serves excellent barbecue along with homemade desserts. The restaurant isn’t open every day, so you should check the schedule.
Stormin’ Norman’s Barbeque
404 S. Church St., Exit 107
Stormin’ Norman’s is one of those locally owned and operated barbecue joints that builds a devoted local following. You’ll find fresh, hand-chopped barbecue and fried chicken.
Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood
3506 U.S. Highway 301 South, Exit 90
Since 1979, Holt Lake has been offering quality pork, chicken, and seafood meals. Aimed at families, the menu offers family-sized portions, broiled seafood, and children’s plates. Be sure to check the desserts.
White Swan Bar-B-Q & Fried Chicken
White Swan has six locations, including U.S. Highway 301, Exit 90, in Smithfield. The restaurant uses a 50-year-old secret recipe, using a covered cooker that holds in the pork’s smoked flavor. A basket of hushpuppies is served with each platter.
Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q
924 N. Brightleaf Blvd., Exit 95
This is the home base of Smithfield’s 36 locations in eastern and central North Carolina; a half-dozen are within the loom of I-95. The chain serves credible chicken, pork barbecue, and shrimp dishes and very good Brunswick stew.
Cape Fear BBQ & Chicken
523 Grove St.
Locallly owned and just off of Business I-95, this is the place where then-Sen. Barack Obama ate while he was campaigning. There are also locations in Clinton and Elizabethtown. If barbecue is not your thing, then try the gizzard plate or collard sandwich.
Fred Chason’s Grandsons
5339 Marracco Drive
Calling itself “the most authentic soul food buffet,” Grandsons offers pork barbecue, fried chicken, and custom-made sausages. Along with more than five types of prepared beans, the buffet also boasts roast beef, ham, and ribs.
Papa Bill’s Bar-B-Q
A locally renowned drive-thru with a single picnic table, Papa Bill’s specializes in ribs rather than pulled pork barbecue.
Fuller’s Old Fashion BBQ
3201 N. Roberts Ave., Exit 20
The menu at Fuller’s focuses on pork and seafood dishes, and there’s also a buffet of Southern classics. You can even get a steak or hamburger here. Find a coupon for a 15 percent discount on the restaurant’s homepage.
Pauline Bridgeman’s Bar-B-Q
2535 E. Fifth St.
Pauline Bridgeman’s is known for amazing barbecue and speedy, helpful service. The ‘cue and burgers are local icons.
Tommy’s BBQ and Catering
1810 N. Pine St., Exit 22
Offering barbecue, brisket, collard sandwiches, and ribs, the restaurant has unusual sides such as white and red slaw, sweet potatoes, and seasoned red skin potatoes. It also offers a special new side weekly.