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.
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Photo By: N.C. Sweet Potato Commission
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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.
Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs
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.
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 (which sadly closed in 2021) 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, earned awards for its thoughtful preparations of regional foods.
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 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
Biscuits and Gravy
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.
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.
Macaroni and Cheese
Sweet Potato Pie
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.
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.
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
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.