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Editor's Note: This story is unlocked for everyone to read courtesy of the CRVA, our partner in nourishing culinary exploration for residents and visitors of the Queen City.

May 24, 2024

Area pitmasters discuss Charlotte’s barbecue scene

Lewis Donald, Matt Barry, and Garren Kirkman talk about talk about what barbecue means to them and how Charlotte fits in

by Ebony L. Morman

Pork and brisket combo platter from Sweet Lew’s BBQ. TM Petaccia/UP

While North Carolina barbecue still remains a debatable topic, there’s no doubt that barbecue has a rich history here. From eastern-style barbecue (whole hog and a vinegar-based sauce) to western-style (pork shoulder and a sauce made with vinegar and ketchup), the state has something for everyone. No matter the style though, community is a common ingredient when it comes to barbecue in Charlotte.

We connected with Midwood Smokehouse pitmaster Matt Barry, who has worked at the restaurant for 13 years; Lewis Donald, owner of Sweet Lew’s BBQ, which has been serving up barbecue in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood since 2018; and Garren “Jon G.” Kirkman of Jon G’s Barbecue, which is known for its brisket, as well as the notable long lines it draws on Saturdays at its location in Peachland. 

Worth noting is that while talking with each pitmaster separately, they were quick to mention at least one of their counterparts by name and their specific contribution to the area’s barbecue scene. This alone is evidence of their respect for one another’s craft — and supports their shared belief that barbecue is synonymous with community. 

Unpretentious Palate: What inspired you to become a pitmaster? Why barbecue and not something else in the culinary industry? 
Matt Barry: I was going through that phase where you’re trying to find yourself. We would go to NC State football games and I would always end up smoking ribs, pork butts, or doing something for the football games. I enjoyed it and I have a passion for it. I like other food, don’t get me wrong, but like there’s something about putting that much time and effort into producing a single piece of meat versus the quick reward of cooking a piece of fish or a steak. You’re talking about 12 to 14 hours and there’s just something about it, you become attached to it. There’s no immediate gratification and no corners to cut. You have to do it low and slow and you have to do it right.
Lewis Donald: ​​Barbecue is a lot more family-oriented than normal restaurants. When I say family, I mean barbecue family. That’s people like Garren at Jon G’s. We’ve got partners that come down from Raleigh, that are heavily involved in barbecue, charity, and fundraising and that’s what barbecue is to me. That’s what drew me to barbecue, the charitable aspects and everybody always getting together, cooking food, and raising money. That’s kind of all I know how to do and the only way I know how to do it is through food. That’s given me that outlet. Barbecue is a strong community that’s always doing that kind of stuff.
Garren Kirkman: That’s still a good question. I just felt like this [brisket] is probably good enough to serve. I had played around with it for five years and I thought, let’s just throw this out there. Brisket is not the number one barbecue protein. But I felt good about it for whatever reason. Looking back on it, it’s almost embarrassing. But people liked it, they came out and supported us. We built a network. It’s something I continually want to get better at producing. We’re trying to make it better every Saturday.

UP: What was Charlotte’s barbecue scene like when you started in the business? 
MB: A lot has changed. If you’re thinking back to 2011, there were not that many barbecue restaurants. I think you have a lot more competition [today], which is great, but there’s a lot more places that are doing a good job. Sweet Lew’s, Jon G’s, and Noble Smoke, these are real prominent restaurants with prominent food. You had Bill Spoon’s. I ate there when I was a kid but there weren’t a ton of places like it here like there are in the eastern part of the state. I think that the barbecue has improved significantly.
LD: Over the years, we lost Bill Spoon’s over on South Boulevard and we lost the Old Hickory House over on North Tryon, which were whole hog, all wood, no gas or electricity driven barbecue joints. And I think if you interview any true Charlotteans, those are the places that they refer to as Charlotte barbecue. When we opened, we looked at Green’s Lunch, Price’s Chicken Coop, and Brooks Sandwich House and I wanted to be the barbecue of those arenas. Nothing bougie, nothing fancy. If you want a couple of piles of pork and you want coleslaw, I’m your guy. We just try to keep it simple and consistent. Back in 2010 and 2015, we didn’t have a lot of barbecue. And we’re in North Carolina, in barbecue country. We just didn’t have it. Not saying that we have more now. We didn’t have them then for sure. 
GK: Sweet Lew’s came along about the same time we did. Noble Smoke opened up. Bill Spoon’s closed. I hate we lost that old school spot but I feel like we’re getting some new ones, as well. 

Rack of ribs from Midwood Smokehouse. Photo courtesy

UP: What’s the difference between then and now? 
MB: You have to evolve and things kind of change over time. Back in the early 2010s, we kind of had a bit of a barbecue renaissance, not just here in North Carolina, but across the country. That’s when you saw these places in Charlotte, and around the region, elevate their game with more Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex barbecue, and just having maybe a wider selection of sides, maybe venturing off your typical barbecue menu. For example, offering prime rib or beef rib. I doubt anybody in North Carolina did the whole bone, whole plate beef ribs 25 years ago. Part of Texas barbecue is the Texas barbecue culture and food scene. I think it has helped to elevate us some because we’re not just doing pork and coleslaw. We’re doing more, we’re doing brisket and sausage. We’re doing other things that North Carolina barbecue maybe 20 years ago didn’t even have a taste for. And clearly, by the popularity of it, something is there. 
LD: I think with Charlotte barbecue and Carolina barbecue as a whole what you’re seeing now is more Texas-style joints opening, you’re seeing less and less whole hog joints. I want to make sure people know that whole hog is too expensive to produce. Barbecue in general is expensive to produce but the whole hog is the most expensive pork product to produce. That’s because of the yield. If you buy a 200 pound pig, you might be lucky to get 90 sellable pounds. So that’s where people get a disconnect, too. But that’s why you also see a lot more Texas-style barbecue joints opening up. 

Kelly and Garren Kirkman, the couple behind Jon G’s. Photo: Jamey Price

GK: To me, barbecue is just meats and smoke. It’s not based on the sauce, vinegar, or tomato debate. It’s just good meat cooked right. I wish Charlotte still had Bill Spoon’s, North Carolina barbecue-centric place with old school traditional pork. I like that. Going back, North Carolina is hog-based barbecue because that’s what was here, tons of pigs. You kill one, you slaughter it, you cook it and you have a bunch of people over to eat it. Times are a little bit different, logistics are completely different.

UP: What is something you like about barbecue in Charlotte? 
MB: I like how fresh it is, everyone’s still passionate. Everyone tries to get better and there’s not a complacency from anybody. I don’t think anybody’s resting on the laurels saying Charlotte’s  got a bit more of a barbecue scene than it had 10 years ago and we should be happy with that. No, we want to be known as the barbecue city in North Carolina. Ten years from now, I want us to be better than we were today. Charlotte, can it be on a national barbecue level, not just a regional one? Charlotte can get there. People can say Kansas City, Memphis, Charlotte, and Austin. That would be cool. 
GK: Going back to Sweet Lew’s again, Lew’s done an awesome job building the Carolina BBQ Festival, pulling talent from across the state, and even outside the state, into Charlotte to create that tradition of a barbecue festival. 

UP: Years from now, in your opinion, could Charlotte be known for its barbecue? Why or why not?
MB: It’s not just barbecue, things change. Charlotte’s changed as well. Everything goes in cycles. Right now, Charlotte is really hitting its stride as a barbecue city. And I think that’s fantastic. But you have to look back at the legwork that people like Lew, Garren, and myself have all put in, five, six, 10 years ago to get this where it is now. It didn’t just happen overnight. There’s a lot of hard work that led up to where we are now. 
LD: Being here for 16 years, I would say that unfortunately we are meat, potatoes, burgers, fries, pizza, and pasta. I don’t know that it’ll ever be what the city is known for. There’s a lot going on right now. Raleigh, right now, has a lot more barbecue places opening and have opened in the last few years. Charleston is barbecue heavy. I personally don’t think Charlotte will ever be known as a barbecue city but it hurts my heart.
GK: I think Charlotte is continuing to grow. It’s a melting pot of a city. You got Edmar [Simoes], executive chef at Resident Culture. He’s got a Brazillian background. He’s doing barbecue now. That’s where I see the barbecue scene going. It’s not going to be that hardcore, eastern North Carolina whole hog. It’s going to be more of a melting pot of barbecue based on the population. There’s tons of Texans moving to Charlotte that miss that taste as a whole. We have been in Texas Monthly three times with call outs here and there. I feel like being featured in the magazine has richened our culture with the Texan transplants. That little endorsement says it’s good. People come out and they love it.

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