Barbecue and Beyond: The Most-Iconic Food in North Carolina

 Smoky ribs, fresh-caught shrimp and plucked-from-the-tree peaches are just a few of the most-iconic treats that await in North Carolina.

Photo By: bhofack2

Photo By: bhofack2

Photo By: DebbiSmirnoff

Photo By: Amy Wester

Photo By: IcemanJ

Photo By: N.C. Sweet Potato Commission

Photo By: Jennevere

Tasty in the Tar Heel State

North Carolina boasts a bounty of flavors, from coastal seafood to farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to multiple styles of barbecue that spark friendly rivalries among fans. Here are some favorite places to enjoy the best of what the Tar Heel State has to offer.

Lexington-Style Barbecue

When it comes to choosing sides in the barbecue battles, it all comes down to the sauce. In the Lexington area, that means a tangy, vinegar-based blend with ketchup, salt, pepper and an occasional "secret" spice or two. It’s tradition to dip the pork shoulder meat into the sauce, rather than pouring it on. Don’t be confused when you see "barbecue slaw" on the menu. It’s not cooked, but dressed with this favored sauce in lieu of bland mayonnaise. Lexington’s legendary Barbecue Center has been operating since the 1950s and continually wins over new generations of fans, including Bobby Flay, who visited on BBQ with Bobby Flay.

She-Crab Bisque

Blue crabs thrive in the temperate Atlantic waters off the Carolina coast, and provide local restaurants with plenty of iconic seafood dishes, especially she-crab bisque. The rich blend of fish stock, crabmeat, cream and sherry is often finished with the orange fish roe that gives the soup its golden color. Colington Café in Kill Devil Hills is famous for its version of the iconic dish. Tucked into a cove, the quaint, Victorian-style space makes the most of North Carolina’s bounty.

Peach Cobbler

North Carolina is ninth in U.S. peach production. And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense that you’d find great Peach Cobbler at an eatery inside a farmers’ market, since that’s where the freshest food is. The State Farmers’ Market Restaurant is located on the Raleigh grounds where growers for decades have brought their crops to sell, and it’s open for breakfast and lunch. Here, the restaurant staff bustles about serving fresh-made biscuits, omelettes and sandwiches. Those alone would be enough to entice diners to stop in, but it’s even more tempting when peach cobbler is featured as the dessert of the day. It’s the perfect combination of sweet fruit, mild spices and a buttery, baked crust.

Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits first began as a Carolina fishermen’s breakfast, but it’s become a cult favorite for its buttery base and plump, sweet local shrimp. Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill helped put shrimp and grits on the menu map, especially for newcomers unfamiliar with the dish. The space, which was formerly a market, a taxi stand and a pool hall, now earns awards for its thoughtful preparations of regional foods. These days, Chef Bill Smith helms the Crook’s Corner kitchen, where diners come to enjoy a memorable combination of tender shrimp sautéed with bacon, served atop coarse-ground grits that are flavored with cheese.

Glazed Doughnuts

When the red neon "Hot Now" sign beckons from the highway, few drivers can resist the pull of Krispy Kreme. Though it’s now an international sensation, the doughnut chain got its start in Old Salem, North Carolina. Inside the store, delicious doughnuts arrive, fresh off the conveyor belt that delivers them the instant they’re fried and finished with glaze from a mesmerizing waterfall of frosting. The company offers dozens of different flavors and shapes, but lots of regular customers still prefer the original.

Eastern-Style Barbecue

Eastern North Carolina barbecue can lay claim to the phrase "whole hog," because it’s where pit-masters cook the entire animal over wood, then use cleavers to chop the different light and dark cuts of meat together. Smoky bits of skin add flecks of flavor to the dish. The farther east you travel, the less you’ll see the ketchup-based sauces favored in the central and western parts of the state. Skylight Inn has earned a legendary reputation, and a spot on Top 5: BBQ, giving diners all the more reasons to line up at the spot where the proprietors have been "Choppin’ since 1947."

Go to: Skylight Inn BBQ

Fried Green Tomatoes

A summertime favorite across the South, fried green tomatoes are ideal straight from the garden. After that, Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill is the next-best option. Diners have the option of a small or a large serving of sliced green tomatoes, dredged in cornmeal, fried to crispness and served piping hot. That might make some people wonder: Is this dish so good that you’d want to eat double the amount of any other vegetable? The answer is yes. Nicknamed Dip for her long arms that could reach the bottom of a water barrel, Mildred Council has been cooking for her entire life. In 1976, she opened Mama Dip’s in the heart of Chapel Hill’s college community. Two acclaimed cookbooks and several branded products later, Mama Dip still lures home-cooking fans to her restaurant for the best fried green tomatoes anywhere.

Biscuits and Gravy

Forget toast: In the Carolinas, biscuits are the accompanying bread of choice. And though most anything sweet or savory can be served on a hot, fluffy biscuit, gravy is the topping of choice. There are hundreds of places in the state to get a tasty version of biscuits and gravy, but for inventive takes, head to Asheville’s Biscuit Head. The kitchen delivers gravy “flights” to the table so guests can sample several different tastes at a single sitting. Purists will want to include chicken or pork gravy. There are also mushroom and meatless “chorizo” options for vegetarians. An updated version of classic red-eye gravy replaces the traditional coffee with espresso.

Ruth's Pimento Spread

With its unassuming plastic container, this cheese product — sold in supermarket dairy cases — may not look like a star dish with its own cult-like following. But a grilled cheese sandwich made with Ruth’s Pimento Spread is a regional favorite that turns skeptics into believers. The family-owned company, founded in the 1950s, also makes chili, slaw and other salads, but the blended orange cheese, studded with red pepper flakes, remains the favorite.

Fried Catfish

Fish camps were some of the first "pop-up" restaurants. They originated along river shores where fishermen pulled up to unload, clean and sell their catch. And while there may be more elegant fish in the region, none are more popular than catfish, which are now farm-raised for milder, more consistent flavor. Some fish camps became permanent but they still maintain their casual atmosphere, just like Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant, a waterside spot with a bucolic view and simple décor. It’s been in operation since the 1980s, and serves up a Fried Catfish and Shrimp Platter that’s a doubly delicious combo.

Barbecue Tray

Even with the car windows rolled up, travelers can smell the hickory wood smoke before Bridges Barbecue comes into view. Red Bridges and his wife, Lyttle, opened their first joint in 1946, but moved in 1953 to the current location on a busy stretch of Highway 74. The second and third generation of the Bridges family have succeeded their elders, now smoking the pork shoulders daily. Served chopped and topped — after cooking — with a sweet-and-tangy sauce that’s lighter than most others, the meat is the star of the show. Add hot-from-the-fryer cornmeal hushpuppies with some slaw, and you’ve got Bridges’ perennially popular Barbecue Tray, which draws diners from all across the U.S.

Macaroni and Cheese

Creamy, cheesy and utterly comforting, macaroni and cheese is nearly ubiquitous in North Carolina. The United House of Prayer for All People is a church denomination that’s growing across the country. With several locations in Charlotte, its restaurants serve traditional, Southern meals in the meat-and-three style. Parishioners and casual visitors alike make their way through the cafeteria line as cooks dish up meatloaf, smothered pork chops, ribs and other all-American favorites. True Southerners know the sides — beans, greens, potatoes, rice or corn — are just as important as the main event. But of them, the mandatory selection is a generous scoop of UHOPFAP baked macaroni and cheese. It perfectly combines a lightly browned top with the creamy pasta inside.

Sweet Potato Pie

North Carolina is the top U.S. producer of sweet potatoes, so it’s only natural you’d find the best pie here, too. The old tobacco town of Winston-Salem is now home to a modern arts district, a flourishing area that chefs Stephanie Tyson and Vivián Joiner chose as the locale for Sweet Potatoes, their restaurant. Guests who tuck in to lunch, brunch and dinner plates know to save room for dessert. Here, that means the unparalleled pie that begins with a flaky crust and a layer of candied sweet potatoes, topped with a layer of mashed sweet potatoes that’s baked before a finishing layer of whipped cream.

Cheerwine

Cheerwine’s motto is "Born in the South, Raised in a Glass." The bubbly, cherry-flavored cola was invented in 1917, and received the gift of distribution outside the Carolinas for its centennial. There’s no alcohol in it; the "wine" refers to the garnet color. Audaciously proclaiming itself the perfect beverage to accompany the South’s most revered dish — barbecue — the company now markets its own barbecue sauce. Even better, add the soda to genuine Cheerwine ice cream to create a float with a double dose of that unique flavor.

Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is one of the South’s iconic foods, and North Carolina has its fair share of great places to partake. Of them, Price’s in Charlotte has reached classic status, due in part to a long-held secret ingredient: a proprietary marinade that adds flavor and juiciness. Cooks fry the chicken (and fish, too) in vats of bubbling peanut oil, in full view of — and just steps away from — the lines of customers that stretch out the door. Price’s is takeout-only, and that’s another reason why it’s hard to find a parking space: People who can’t wait to get home with their chicken simply eat in their cars.

Go to: Price's Chicken Coop

Johnson's Drive-In Cheeseburgers

Fans will tell you there aren’t a lot of reasons to travel to the tiny town of Siler City, but that a burger from Johnson’s Drive-In is the best one there is. Leonard and Christine Johnson opened in 1946; today, their son, Claxton, is in charge. Each day Claxton selects and grinds the beef for the burgers, then shapes the thick patties. It’s a quick trip from the grill to the plate and on to the lunch counter, where hungry customers await. Regulars know to arrive early, because once the burgers sell out, folks will have to settle for a hot dog or cheese sandwich — or come back a bit earlier the next day.

Moravian Sugar Cookies

A favorite at Christmas, Moravian sugar cookies are impossibly thin wafers that date back to American Colonial times. Nab them in Old Salem’s living history village, where they’re made by bakers garbed in period costumes at Winkler Bakery. Long-time fans still prefer the original ginger and sugar, although new flavors include pumpkin and key lime. Grab some in souvenir-style tins or steal a tip from the pros and get a bag of broken cookies — unsalable but still delicious — to snack on while strolling the cobblestone streets that date back to 1766.

R.O.'s Slaw

For years, slaw lovers have tried to unlock the mystery to R.O.’s secret recipe. The slaw at this Gastonia spot is no mere side item on a take-out plate; it’s a key ingredient that tops burgers or sandwiches and makes them memorable. The unique preparation starts with a slurry of finely processed cabbage, then gets a hit of mayo, hot and sweet spices, and pimientos. The result isn’t green like ordinary slaw: It’s a creamy, light orange color. While the uninitiated may scoff at first, most become fans after just a few bites.

Liver Pudding or Livermush

Traditional liver pudding (or livermush) is a type of country-style sausage made without casings. It dates back to the early days of Colonial America, when European settlers blended pork livers with spices and small amounts of wheat or corn to make a smooth-textured pâté. Since the Carolinas lacked grasslands to graze cattle, pork became preferable. The Neese family started delivering farm-made sausage to customers in 1917, although they have long since replaced their original covered wagon with a fleet of refrigerated trucks. Sliced and fried, liver pudding or livermush often accompanies eggs and biscuits for breakfast, but its fans will also top it with chili and chopped onions and serve it up on a hamburger bun.

Brunswick Stew

Both Virginia and South Carolina trumpet Brunswick Stew, but North Carolina also boldly lays claim to this thick preparation of tomatoes, lima beans, potatoes and meat. It’s an old dish believed to have been developed by European immigrants. Admittedly, the stew is typically plays a supporting role to barbecue at the family-owned White Swan in Smithfield, where it’s served as a side item. It doesn’t have to be that way: A bowl is satisfying enough to stand as a meal on its own.

Pork Chop Sandwich

Mt. Airy is best known as the town that inspired the fictional Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. And here on Main Street, Snappy Lunch has been operating continuously since the 1920s. As a boy, Griffith ate here and once mentioned it on his show. According to local lore, the name came about early on, when workers on their lunch breaks ordered sandwiches and requested that the clerks "Make it snappy!" Each day, the line forms early and stretches down the block. But it moves quickly past the large storefront window. That’s where customers can watch as cooks dip boneless pork chops in batter, fry them until golden, then place them on fresh buns with condiments and chili.

Briskets and Butts

Determined to create a product that’s a cut above, Haywood Smokehouse uses only meats without hormones or steroids. Cooking pork butts from 14 to 18 hours and beef briskets from 16 to 20 hours on-site guarantees the best result. Inside the homey, barn-red building decorated in rustic style, guests dine to the tunes of local bluegrass pickers. Order your chopped pork either "naked" or "dressed" with slaw, and your beef brisket in the unadorned "cowboy" style or as a "Texas melt" with grilled onions and peppers.