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America's Best BBQ Restaurants

Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Illinois.
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Photo: Courtesy of Oklahoma Joe's

Skip the Salad, This is Barbecue

One thousand miles into our journey, we resolved that perfect barbecue is a liberation from restaurant conventions. It knows no appetizers or white tablecloths. As we rolled across North Carolina, we categorized the fresh-air, order-window type places that use hardwoods from the local forests and specialize in one style of barbecue as Heritage. And the chains we had encountered? Those with air-conditioning, the Hi-may-I-help-you waitstaff, the all-things-to-all-people menu and wines by the glass, we dubbed Contemporary.

But in Raleigh we found a third barbecue style—Postmodern—at the Pit. Eyes rolled and tongues wagged in this town when developer Greg Hatem, a guy with a knack for restoring downtown landmarks and outfitting them with upscale restaurants, recruited one of eastern North Carolina’s preeminent old-school whole-hog pit masters, Ed Mitchell, to take up shop in a loftlike former meatpacking warehouse (for comparison’s sake, imagine your local morning show luring the Rolling Stones to be the house band). Though Mitchell still wears his trademark overalls, the place is a barbecue joint for a new age: the kitchen is a spotless, open, stainless-steel affair at the back of a dining room with—you guessed it!—white tablecloths. All the meats—and, one presumes, the fish and barbecued tofu—are organic, humanely raised specimens.

We chose to sit in the stylish bar area, where college guys drink Bud Light longnecks, gnaw on ribs, and watch The Game on big-screen TV’s. And while Mitchell’s briquette-fired smokers might raise a few eyebrows farther east in the state, we were impressed by the chopped whole hog, which was classically eastern N.C. in style, with a blast of vinegar, red pepper flakes, and smoke, and the baby back ribs, with the lightest brush of caramelized sauce to frame the background smoke and salt. And they were crispy outside and moist inside. There were some thoughtful regional touches up front we didn’t expect, like a delicious sangria made from North Carolina Scupperdine wine. We had a lovely dinner at the Pit, but that’s just it—the place got us to thinking: At what point does barbecue become so mannered it stops being barbecue?

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