And so it begins.
The fire of the great Triangle barbecue Renaissance is officially burning, as Sam Jones BBQ opens in downtown Raleigh, perfuming the capital city with some of the country’s most famous whole hog barbecue.
Jones is a third-generation pitmaster from North Carolina barbecue royalty, whose grandfather, Pete Jones, opened the legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden nearly 70 years ago. In 2015, Jones opened the first Sam Jones BBQ near Greenville. Like the Greenville restaurant, Jones opened Raleigh with business partner Michael Letchworth.
The Raleigh Sam Jones BBQ at 502 Lenoir St. will hold its grand opening Feb. 16, allowing indoor and outdoor dining. The restaurant started serving takeout at the end of January, with demand crashing its online ordering system the first weekend.
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‘Natural progression to come here’
When the time came for the second Sam Jones BBQ, Jones said Raleigh was the only place it could go, despite offers from all corners of the state.
“The capital city was the next logical step,” Jones said “We have a lot of friends here, especially in the restaurant community. It just seemed like the natural progression to come here.”
The new Raleigh restaurant looks nothing like the Greenville Sam Jones, its country cousin built out of dark wood with a wide front porch. The Raleigh Sam Jones was built from the former Dusty’s mechanic shop, with large windows where garage bays once opened.
Jones credits his friend, Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, with the vision that the auto repair shop could be a barbecue restaurant.
“She told me, ‘I pass this building every day and I can smell smoke with your name on it,’” Jones said.
The result is a handsome building of painted cinderblock and glass, with picnic tables and indoor and outdoor seating for up to 140, once COVID restrictions are lifted. There’s a cement bar, as the Raleigh location will be the first Sam Jones BBQ to serve cocktails.
“We fit the restaurant to the community,” Jones said. “This mechanic shop, Dusty’s, has been here forever. Even though this is technically a new restaurant, the way of making barbecue is pretty damn old. … Maybe the exterior doesn’t look it, but I can assure you it will be old school North Carolina barbecue.”
Jones is most proud of the urban smokehouse, what he calls Smokehouse 3.0. Hogs are cooked fundamentally the same as they have been for decades in North Carolina, but here made for the city. The chimneys are located on the edge of the building and hood systems from a half dozen smokers lift that oak-scented air toward the heavens. With the chimneys outside, Jones said it stays cooler in the smokehouse.
“This is a different market, out of our home turf, but there will always be a smokehouse,” Jones said. “That is the epitome of what barbecue has historically been in North Carolina.”
It takes between 14 and 18 hours to cook a hog, Jones said, depending on if he’s doing one with friends in a backyard, or if he’s staggering four through a day of service in the restaurant. Whole hog is distinctive among the country’s great barbecue traditions, using meat from the shoulders, hams, ribs and belly, all chopped up and combined for a mix of textures and flavors.
The Jones family’s take on tradition is the crisped up pork skin chopped up into the barbecue, discovered like crispy jewels in the mix of slow-smoked meat.
“The main difference is the skin,” Jones said. “Once we’re done cooking the hog, we blister the skin. That’s my style.”
As it is in Greenville, the menu at Sam Jones is built around the whole hog barbecue, but here’s also pork spare ribs, smoked chicken and turkey, and giant baked potatoes topped with barbecue, green onion, bacon, cheese and barbecue sauce. Sides include slaw, mac and cheese, baked beans and fries. Despite the many departures, the old fashioned Jones Family tray of pork, slaw and a rectangle of cornbread sits at the top of the menu.
Barbecue restaurants opening in 2021
Raleigh and the greater Triangle is in the midst of a resurgence of the state’s most iconic food, buoyed by a national hunger for barbecue. Suddenly, or at least over the past decade, cooking meat over wood coals has become one of the country’s hottest food trends. Here the fire is burning hotter than ever, as more than a half dozen new barbecue restaurants have already opened or will open in the next year. Jones has developed a national profile by cooking at barbecue festivals all over the country.
Barbecue’s leap into the limelight has been derailed somewhat by the pandemic of the last year, with COVID delaying many of the projects for months. But Jones said if there’s ever a food people cling to for comfort in a pandemic, it’s barbecue. After early weeks of sales hits, Jones said his other restaurants turned in one of their best years ever in 2020.
“It’s a bare bones food,” Jones said. “It’s gotten popular in recent years. … I didn’t want to be a fine dining barbecue restaurant, that’s not who we are. We make the highest quality food we possibly can.”
Other barbecue restaurants set to open this year:
▪ Wyatt’s Whole Hog BBQ: Wyatt Dickson’s venture into Raleigh will open this summer in Raleigh’s Gateway Plaza development, joining Union Special Bread and Mordecai Beverage Company.
▪ Lawrence Barbecue: From chef Jake Wood, Lawrence Barbecue will open in the Boxyard RTP development in late February.
▪ Longleaf Swine: The homegrown duo of Adam Cunningham and Marc Russell will open their first brick and mortar restaurant in the former Oakwood Cafe space on Person Street in Raleigh. Construction is currently underway, with a summer opening in mind.
▪ BBQ Lab: The folks behind the Redneck BBQ Lab in Johnston County are opening a new franchise in Raleigh’s North Hills.