Editorial: East vs. West, which BBQ is the best?

Published 8:26 am Tuesday, August 17, 2021

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East vs. West.

Which is the best?

It depends on where you live.

And when it comes to barbecue in Norh Carolina, most folks who have been around these parts for a while already have a favorite. And most likely, it goes along with where they live.

Around here, the favorite is Lexington style. Whole pork shoulders or butts cooked slowly over coals, with plenty of hickory smoke, and topped off with a ketchup/vinegar sauce.

Down East, they like it whole hog style. And the sauce is more of a vinegary blend of spices minus the ketchup.

As one gets closer to Raleigh, the shift has already begun from West to East. As one goes west toward the mountains, forget it. There’s no telling what you will be served for barbecue as the elevation increases.

Growing up, we weren’t big barbecue aficionados, but we did like the stuff. We liked the western style, but only because it was all that was available. We had no idea there was a difference.

I remember well the first barbecue I had after leaving home for college, all the way to eastern North Carolina. It was good, but different, and I didn’t eat it often enough to form an opinion as to which style is the best.

I left eastern North Carolina for eastern Tennessee. I remember sitting down at the most famous barbecue restaurant in Johnson City, Tenn. at the time. I ordered a barbecue sandwich, and my mouth was watering for that succulent, juicy bits of pork surrounded by a vinegar based sauce. It wouldn’t have mattered if the sauce had ketchup or not. They brought my sandwich. I got the waiter’s attention as soon as I looked down. “There must have been some kind of mistake, I ordered the barbecue sandwich.” Their reply? “Sir, that’s what you have.” What I had was some thinly sliced roast beef (think Arby’s) topped with a thick, tomatoey and sweet sauce. The sandwich may have been good, but not after expecting what I had become used to living in North Carolina. I ate it, but only because that’s what poor college students do because they don’t have enough money to throw it out for something else.

Back to the East vs. West debate.

I’ve debated in my mind which is the best, and here are the results.

If stopping at a restaurant, especially one I haven’t heard of, I’d pick western style. It seems that at too many places Down East, they grind instead of chop the meat. Way too often, it comes out almost thin enough to eat through a straw. In the West, it’s always chopped with a cleaver, leaving chunks of meat. It seems that more places in the eastern part of the state cook with gas rather than coals. Shame on them. In my book, if it ain’t cooked over coals it ain’t barbecue.

But if it’s a backyard barbecue, I’d choose the eastern style, if they’re cooking it right, using coals. There’s something about using the whole hog that adds more flavors and textures.

As for sauce, I’ll go for eastern style, but only by a slight margin. Vinegar and spices help cut the fattiness of the pork, and leave your taste buds wanting more. Adding ketchup is good, too, but I like it better without it.

The sides are another story. Hands down, I’ll choose the western red slaw over the mayonaisse-based cole slaw used in the eastern parts. That’s with barbecue. Give me a hotdog, and I’d rather have the cole slaw.

I’ll call it a draw on the hushpuppies. Both are good. Down East, you’re more likely to get corn sticks.

In the West, expect fries. In the East, expect boiled potatoes with a ketchupy red sauce. I’ll call it a draw on this one, as well.

Where the East comes on top with the sides is with the Brunswich stew. Man, that stuff is good.

So which is best? East or West?

Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ll choose West. Why? Because you’re loyal to your home and there’s nothing wrong with that.

– Mike Barnhardt