It seems like everyone knows someone who is obsessed with grilling and barbecue – or maybe you are that person. There is no denying that since our caveman days, humans have been fascinated by the delicate interplay between meat and fire. Perhaps most fascinated of all are three lifelong friends from High Point, North Carolina – Tommy, Kenny, and Mark, known as the “Barbecue Bros” – whose love for the cuisine runs so deep that they curate a barbecue blog together. Although Mark has moved to Austin, Texas, the Bros manage to collaborate long-distance to review as many barbecue establishments as they can. We sat down with the Bros to find out how various barbecue scenes compare and learned more than we ever thought possible. Let’s dig in!
Windstream: Hi, guys! This is the first interview we’ve done with co-bloggers. Why don’t we start off with some brief introductions from each of you.
Tommy: My name is Tommy, but I go by “Monk” on the blog. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I graduated from NC State, and when I’m not barbecue blogging, I watch a lot of sports, including soccer. I play a little bit..
Kenny: I’m Kenny, but I go by “Speedy” on the blog. Like Tommy, I live in Charlotte. I’m 31 years old, and I’m an accountant for a big firm here. I do a lot of traveling for work, which is kind of nice in that it allows me to try barbecue all over the country, and not just in North Carolina.
Mark: I’m Mark. I go by “Rudy.” I live in Austin, Texas and work in athletics. Growing up in North Carolina with Tommy and Kenny, the three of us have a similar barbecue background.
WS: Awesome, thanks for that. So let’s move into the history of the blog. Why did you start it?
T: After a few years of living in Charlotte, Kenny and I had been to a few places, and found that we weren’t getting the quality of barbecue that we wanted. We went to the number one barbecue restaurant on Yelp, and we were really disappointed. So we said, "Forget Yelp. They don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to barbecue. Why don’t we create our own list?” I think we just Tweeted out, “Hey, Kenny and I started a barbecue blog.” Within just a few minutes, Mark said, “Do you need a beef correspondent?” since he was living in Austin. It actually came together pretty easily, and quickly.
WS: How does your process work for reviewing restaurants? Do you do it separately since you’re in different places?
M: Yeah, we do it separately. I think Kenny and Tommy, when they can, will go together. But there are times, like when Kenny travels, that they go separately. I have to do the visits by myself, which I think is a little bit more difficult.
This summer, I was home in North Carolina, and we went together and did a review, all three of us. I think that was the first three-person review that we had.
WS: Despite its growing popularity, authentic Southern barbecue remains uncharted territory for a lot of people. We’ve heard it can take up to 18 hours to create some forms of barbecue. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of cooking barbecue?
K: It kind of varies from place to place, and I think that’s a big part of what we talk about in our reviews. We really like, and were raised on, the old-school style of barbecue, which is barbecue that’s wood-smoked, and not cooked with gas cookers or electric cookers. We’ll go to places with gas and electric cookers, but generally, they don’t taste as good to me. To cook a pork shoulder or a beef brisket on a wood fire, you’re usually cooking at very low temperatures, 225-250 degrees, for anywhere from 10-15 hours. We really appreciate the places that will take the time to do that, as opposed to taking short cuts.
WS: Do the processes differ across regions?
T: In North Carolina, there are two styles. There’s the eastern North Carolina style, which is whole hog, cooked with very minimal spices, salt, and pepper. There’s not really a rub. It’s cooked over wood like Kenny said, low and slow, up to 18 hours or more. And then the sauce itself is vinegar-based but with salt and pepper, with maybe crushed red pepper to give it some spice. And presentation – they mix up all of the meat inside the hog, the ham with the shoulders and ribs. And then it’s chopped up pretty finely. That’s eastern style. Their slaw is mayonnaise-based, and you get it on the side.
In western North Carolina, or Lexington or Piedmont style, they only use the upper half of the leg of the pork shoulder, or the Boston butt. Our favorite places cook those on open-wood cookers, or stick burners, ideally. And their sauce is also vinegar-based, but they add a touch of ketchup to sweeten it a little bit, and provide some balance with the tang of the vinegar. The pork shoulder gives a little more surface area to the meat that cooks, and you can mix in the outside. It’s called the bark. That’s what a lot of people seem to like. You can ask for outside brown, or extra bark, when you go to a Lexington joint. It’s an insiders’ tip.
WS: What about Texas, Mark?
M: In Texas, the main thing is brisket. A lot of places around the country are starting to do more Texas-style brisket, and it’s catching a lot of momentum. It’s beef that’s cooked for a long time to break down that tough meat and make it a lot more tender.
WS: Wow, that’s really cool. So out of the three of you, who makes the best barbecue?
T: Kenny and I are by no means competition cookers. But we do cook barbecue. Mainly we’ve done pork shoulders, but we have done brisket a few times. We’ve been pretty satisfied every time we do it, so I think we win this one hands down.
M: I don’t do it. It’s not like you can throw something on the grill and be good. You just have to try it so many times, and it’s so time-intensive. I’d rather spend the time to go and get something good from somebody that knows how to do it well.
WS: It’s funny you mention competition, actually, because we were also reading that barbecue gets pretty competitive between states, as well as within states. What would you say are some of the bigger barbecue rivalries between states?
M: You have North Carolina barbecue pulled pork. You have Memphis ribs. Kansas City does ribs too, but they season them differently. And then you have Texas, which is going to be brisket. One thing about barbecue is that everybody just likes what they grew up on, for the most part. It’s hard to convince people that what they grew up on is wrong.
T: Even within North Carolina, there’s east versus west. People will swear off Lexington because they grew up on eastern, or swear off eastern because they grew up on Lexington. South Carolina is known for their mustard sauce. They have a vinegar sauce in the east, and kind of a ketchup base in the southwest. But they like to claim that they’re the birthplace of barbecue, which I think has been debunked, but they still claim it anyway on the state tourism campaigns. That’s throwing down the gauntlet to North Carolina especially, since they’re neighbors, and Virginia, which I really think is the birthplace of American barbecue.
WS: Speaking on growing up on barbecue – do you have any childhood memories of enjoying barbecue?
K: I have a really good childhood memory of barbecue that I can share. It’s funny because it takes place in Canada, just outside of Toronto. My dad has some family there. When I was about six, we were up there visiting. Of course, the first thing I had to do was use the bathroom after a long road trip. So I went into their bathroom, and there was a pig in the bathtub. They ended up cooking that pig on a spit, but it was there thawing out. That was really my first memory of eating barbecue.
WS: Wow! Let’s switch gears a little bit. To many Americans, the South as a whole is known for its friendly people, leisurely pace of life, warm weather, and great barbecue, obviously. Do you think these associations paint an accurate picture of the South?
K: We all grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is about an hour and half north of Charlotte. We all are Southern boys and have Southern roots. I think a lot of those Southern stereotypes are fairly true, in terms of nice people and good values. Charlotte is a city where most people are not from Charlotte. We’re really starting to see diversification of background. And it even shows in the barbecue itself. In Charlotte, our favorite brick-and-mortar restaurant is a place that doesn’t just serve Carolina barbecue, but Kansas City burnt ends and Texas beef brisket as well.
WS: Perhaps unrelated to barbecue, if I’m from out of town and I’m coming to Charlotte and I have 24 hours, what are a couple of key things that you would recommend I do?
T: Charlotte, I guess like a lot of the country, is really getting into the craft beer movement. Since 2009, a lot of breweries have popped up and are continuing to pop up. I think there’s a couple more planned even for this year. I think that’s definitely one thing that I would recommend for folks to do in Charlotte, just check out the local brews. It’s different by neighborhood. Go to a couple of different ones across the city and see how they compare.
K: If you’re talking barbecue specific to Charlotte, I would say go to the suburbs, because the barbecue in the city itself is not as good as what you find outside of the city. There are places that have been around for 50 or 100 years, and are still cooking the way the current owners’ grandparents used to cook it. They’re 45 minutes to an hour outside of the city. Tommy and I try to stop by those places anytime we road trip somewhere.
WS: Thank you so much for talking to us, Kenny, Mark, and Tommy. You guys really know your barbecue! One last question for you: what’s next? What are your plans for the blog, and life in general?
K: We’re going to keep doing the blog for a while, for sure. We’re actually starting to get to be a little bit more recognizable, at least in Charlotte. Tommy and I were meeting with a guy who’s kind of famous in Charlotte named Boone Gibson. He started several restaurants and now runs a food truck. We got to take a tour of his truck and his kitchen, and he thanked us for a nice review that Tommy had written about his food. It was really cool to have that opportunity, and to eat some of his food. So hopefully this can continue. It’s definitely a great hobby.