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The Race to B’s Barbecue, Greenville, NC

First Published July 14, 2008

It has no phone line, but it has a state road named after it. It only opens for lunch, and it closes as soon as the last scraps of smoked meat are sold. The anomalies and challenges surrounding B’s Barbecue make it the grail of any barbecue quest, so we made it the first stop on our second North Carolina trip.

Now, about those challenges. First, you have to work around B’s summer vacation schedule. Impossible! They have no phone or website. In 2006, we showed up late on a Saturday morning to find the place closed for a week. (Okay, it was close to July 4th.) Second, you have to get there before they run out of food. Greenville looks reachable on a map, but it’s actually four and a half boring hours from D.C., where our NCBBQ tours begin.

This time, we did the requisite planning. We had to wake up hung over on a vacation Friday at 6:30 a.m., grab bagels, and book it southward from the District. I-95 is heavily policed in all of Virginia, so one must drive the speed limit. As the stereo in Rob L’s Taurus blared blared Dale Watson and John Hiatt, the NC border grew closer and closer. Traffic jams in DC and road work in VA slowed us down, and a nervous silence pervaded the cabin of the auto even as country and blues emanated from its speakers. Would we make it to Greenville in time?

The gas needle moved leftward as our route took us over a very rural road. With eighteen miles to go, we were down to less than an eighth of a tank. Noon approached. Would we ever find a gas station between highways? If we ran out of fuel, could we hitchhike to the barbecue? I neurotically rolled up my window to reduce drag. Rob left his down. We drove on.

A rural outpost of three independent gas stations appeared; this was Belvoir, NC. One of the gas stations sold beauty supplies, and another was out of business. We gassed up at the third, where lunching farmers inside stared uncomfortably at our bright shirts. Quite the opposite of Texas, everyone wore baseball caps instead of Stetsons. Onward.

Around Belvoir, NC:

Like many small southern cities, Greenville is ringed by rural suburbs and thick summer verdure. We knew we were close to B’s, right around noontime, when the restaurant almost literally exploded into sight. At a T-shaped intersection stood the white brick structure and its smokehouse, the latter bellowing even whiter smoke into the clearing. Cars and trucks and every type of human covered every available inch of ground. There were many nurses and paramedics from the nearby hospital, schoolteachers, delivery drivers, a road crew, and us. We ditched the car and got on (in) one of the two lines.

Eat-In:

Take Out:

Friendly natives, visiting their former home from Dallas, welcomed us into the line. They told us that they’d come at 1:30 the day before and found the place deserted — the barbecue had run out. As we moved slowly into the building, we discovered that there was a quite large and dimly lit dining room inside.

As the line made its way to the counter, we debated — again, neurotically — whether to get pork sandwiches or the chicken and pork combo. We were glad we chose the latter, for B’s is the only place I’ve been to that gives its chicken and pork equal treatment. This means that instead of using a thick, tangy, tomato-based sauce on the chicken (like Stamey’s in Greensboro does, for instance), B’s douses its chicken with the same vinegar-based sauce or “dip” that the pork gets. Every joint in NC makes its own sauce, so it’s hard to describe the faint variations, but B’s is accentuated by bright flecks of red pepper.

But enough about the chicken. The pork, of course, was perfect. B’s barbecue was tender and almost smooth, with nary a bit of skin or bone to interrupt its texture.

Meals also come with two sides and corn sticks, a strange, fried cornmeal concoction. Like the more common hushpuppy, they seem designed to soak up vinegar-based sauces. For my sides, I got a boiled potato salad and coleslaw.

The pork and chicken combo:

B’s sauce, served in old Crown Royal bottles:

Outdoor close-up:

We ate and ate and only got halfway through our meals. By one p.m., the crowd showed no signs of dissipating. Smoke still bellowed from the smoker. Cars and delivery trucks hunted for parking spots, and some ended up parking in front of neighboring houses.

The Smoker and Its Keeper (This is a Dignity Hunt photograph):

Yes, B’s really has a state road named after it, though the road uses a different spelling of barbecue.

Though sated, Rob and I had more work to do: we had to eat lunch again. So we hopped in the car and drove down Route 43 to the Barbecue Capital of the World, the tiny town of Ayden, NC.

Text & photos: Rob Bellinger
7/14/2008

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