Where is the best barbecue in the Carolinas? Your answer may be dependent on your birthplace.
People from those eastern towns will say Lexington barbecue cheats by adding dip (sauce). Advocates of Lexington barbecue claim Eastern style is too dry. Folks from the mountains have never really staked a claim to their smoky barbecue while people from South Carolina endure snide remarks about their mustard-based sauce.
Confused? Basically, it comes down to this. All North Carolinians agree that the flavor comes from the meat, not the smoke, and not the sauce. Barbecue has a naturally rich, vaguely smoky yet sweet taste that is enhanced with a sauce — not smothered by one. On the eastern side of the state, whole pigs are roasted, and the white and dark meat (even gristle) are chopped and mixed. That meat is flavored with a salty vinegar sauce sometimes spiked with some hot peppers.
In Lexington, only pork shoulders are used, and the dip is made with apple cider vinegar, tomatoes and sugar to achieve a subtle sweet-and-sour sauce. Remember, though, this is still a vinegar-based sauce — not a ketchup-based sauce.
Charlotte has not had a spot for Lexington-styled barbecue for about a decade. Then Sauceman's Queen City BBQ opened last December. This counter-service reclamation-chic restaurant on the edge of South End got off to a slow start with co-owners Adam Rappaport, a real estate developer, and Dave Pearson, an ER physician. Recently, the owners added chef and Charlotte native Zach Goodyear, and the flavor and menu have taken off.
Goodyear comes through barbecue honestly. His dad has been a Kansas City barbecue circuit judge for 20 years, and Stameys lurk in his family tree. If you know Carolina barbecue, Stamey is as inextricably linked to barbecue as Michael Jordan's name is to basketball. In fact, on the wall of the back dining room is a Lexington barbecue ancestral tree where you can trace the origins of Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby and Lexington Number One. They are all connected.
You can taste Goodyear's serious approach to barbecue in this straightforward eatery. Pork smoked over a mix of oak and hickory becomes alluringly succulent. Sandwiches, offered both chopped or coarsely chopped, are not sauced heavily: dip is on the table. Collards (not made in-house) are old-school good as is the potato salad and wonderfully delicate crackly onion rings. The baked beans, though, are too dense, like a pot of New England baked beans rather than sweetly flavored Southern barbecue beans.
Also on the chalkboard menu are the signature sandwiches with assorted pilings of helter-skelter ingredients. These are the build-your-own kind with a choice of a beef burger; pork barbecue; cherry-wood smoked chicken or hickory-smoked turkey; or "veggie." The Dixie Cuban with barbecue pork, pimento cheese, and fried dill chips commits a cardinal sin: Some sandwiches should be grilled in order to achieve sufficient melt. Another sandwich choice is equally unusual: a PB&J burger? A PBB&J? Is this the successor to the burgushi?
Meanwhile on Fridays and Saturdays, racks of pork ribs heavy with a spicy rub similar to Memphis' Rendezvous are offered. After the parade of gut-busting sides, you may forgo dessert, which include the prerequisite banana pudding and the heavily sugar coated fried biscuits. Or you may forget these compulsively edible biscuits entirely and order a fine barbecue sandwich to go.
Sauceman's Queen City BBQ
228 West Blvd., in SouthEnd, 704-333-7070. Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. www.saucemans.com.