Southern barbecue culture spawns hot competition. Even if there’s not some official tasting competition going on, rivalries simmer in the abstract. Eastern North Carolinians are fiercely proud of their pulled pork with a spice-infused vinegar treatment, turning up their noses at sugary tomato-based sauces. South Carolina’s signature sauce features mustard in the lead role, and Alabama favors mayonnaise. In Texas it’s more about the meat: cow over pig, usually in the form of beef brisket.
But in touristy Western North Carolina, it can be dicey for a barbecue joint to claim a distinct style. Usually, a variety of sauces are offered, the better to please a variety of tastes. Recipes can get fancy, with berries, tropical fruit, and obscure peppers announcing their presence. Some restaurants come and go quickly, while others become famous, such as presidential hangout 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville’s River Arts District.
It’s a little steamier south of Asheville, though — just far enough down the mountain from Foodie Central to be able to rate independent barbecue spots that aren’t competing in an ultratrendy atmosphere. Our secret foray tasted like this:
Green River BBQ
This efficient little smokehouse in Saluda has been around 30 years, a long time to work on a business recipe. Theirs is sound, seeming to appeal to tourists and locals alike.
Trimmings take the top note here: Green River puts out so many creative sides that these dishes almost overshadow the main affair. They include several kinds of slaw (the one made entirely of sweet onions was a revelation) and a locally renowned tomato pie. Serving sizes are generous and reasonably priced; the more-is-more view manifests in such house specialties as the Hog Trough, an entire loaf of Italian bread stuffed with ‘cue.
Green River covers all of its bases, offering pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs, chicken, and even smoked turkey breast. The meat is basic, subtly flavored, but it’s paired with the full bouquet of sauce choices: vinegar, mustard, and tomato-based “mild,” “hot,” and “volcano.”
I appreciated the long list of homemade desserts, including a deep, dark cliff of a brownie and a sumptuous peanut-butter pie. Because it’s never wise, in the South, to publicly voice one’s dislike of banana pudding.
Green River BBQ, 131 U.S. 176, Saluda, 828-749-9892; greenriverbbq.com
Flat Rock Wood Room
Recently, in local press, it was expressed that among the hundreds of barbecue restaurants in North Carolina, only a couple dozen or so authentic, wood-fired barbecue pits were still being used to cook meat; these have been gradually abandoned in favor of timesaving electric smokers. Perhaps because barbecue is not all they do, the handsome Flat Rock Wood Room (located just north of Flat Rock) wasn’t mentioned in the lineup of restaurants committed to slow cooking.
But this airy mini-empire — the eatery has its own high-end gift shop — declares on its menu that “cooking with wood has been a passion of ours for years,” and boasts a fire-stoked barbecue pit as well as an artsy, wood-fueled pizza oven. The restaurant is a regular award getter on the barbecue competition circuit, and, in the dining room, is equally well known for its fantastic Neapolitan-style pizzas and panini sandwiches.
Since we were there for the ‘cue, we had the thinly sliced beef brisket, which was stellar, as soft as macaroni and deeply savory, thanks to co-owner Kim Hicks’ signature dry-rub seasoning. The pulled chicken was a little drier but had about it the same clean taste, a stamp of quality.
The sides are masterful: basics raised to the standards of any discerning foodie. One can taste real cream in the mac-and-cheese, and the delicate tangle of fried onions is exquisite. Not onion rings, but onion lace.
In the high season, the Wood Room’s parking lot is a parade of out-of-state plates. Significantly, when one reaches for sauce, a wide array is at hand, including a house “bold” (that means as rich and dark as you can take it) that nods to St. Louis, alongside the restaurant’s popular ribs from that region.
Unlike traditional Southern cornbread, the squares here are unabashedly sweet. To convert the skeptical, perhaps, they’re even served with a side of honey-pecan butter.
Not surprisingly, the Wood Room’s desserts are monumental. An apple cake with a caramel cream-cheese frosting honors Henderson County’s prime agricultural export and merits its own ribbon for size, form, and multi-layered deliciousness.
Flat Rock Wood Room, 1501 Greenville Hwy., Hendersonville, 828-435-1391; flatrockwoodroom.com
Hubba Hubba Smokehouse
Just down the road in Flat Rock, semi-hidden in a to-go cabin behind the town’s “Little Rainbow Row” of bright shops, Hubba Hubba Smokehouse is another barbecue joint that loudly lays claim to a wood-fired pit. (“Pitmaster” Starr Teel is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.)
If it’s true that only a scant percentage of the state’s barbecue joints smoke their goods the old-fashioned way, then it’s a quaint miracle to find two within a mile or so of one another. Hubba Hubba is circled by an expansive outdoor patio and does a large seasonal business in to-go orders and catering. The pulled pork and chicken come in coarse, juicy hunks — heaps of brawny awesomeness, like the restaurant’s title suggests. All of the meat has a strong smoky flavor that seals the wood-smoked claim.
The WNC “everysauce” trend continues here. Tomato-, vinegar-, and mustard-based options are all on tap, plus a house special: cherry chipotle. Sides-wise, Hubba Hubba does a mix of classic (tangy baked beans, traditional Southern potato salad) and fancy, including a sautéed slaw and a clever stew of black-eyed peas, okra, smoked cherry tomatoes, and Andouille sausage.
And then there were the deviled eggs, a relatively rare offering, as far as local barbecue places go. They were demure deviled eggs. Creamy, delicate deviled eggs that tipped the scales. During the happy minutes it took to devour them, the deviled eggs rendered the more burning questions of sauce types and cooking techniques just so much barbecue ado, a tasty mirage of smoke and mirrors.
Hubba Hubba Smokehouse, 2724 Greenville Hwy., Flat Rock, 828-694-3551; hubbahubbasmokehouse.com