Updated Jan. 2, 2022: As of December 2021, we are sad to report that The Flying Pig near Shelby’s airport is permanently closed.
In any part of American barbecue country, announcing a favorite produces instant disagreement among supporters of other choices. Here in Cleveland County, N.C., the front-running favorites are a pair of legendary Bridges-named establishments, including one that has won multiple recent national competitions, that have successfully served customers for decades. And as much as both of those restaurants deliver unique meat, side and atmosphere experiences, I believe I have a different favorite than most of my neighbors.
The Flying Pig on N.C. 150 between Shelby and Boiling Springs sits in a small, unassuming building across from the local airport. It’s part of the landscape enough that some people pass it not realizing it serves up delicious barbecued pork, chicken, brisket, slaw, hushpuppies and some of the meatiest ribs I’ve ever eaten.
When you drive past The Flying Pig during the morning hours, you see smoke rising from the back of the joint. If you come back at lunchtime, there’s often a big enough crowd in the parking lot and in the dining room that your choices for spaces are limited. Don’t be fearful or fooled though: the service here is always fast, even at the busiest times. (And we experienced that again recently when we were taken care of at dinnertime by one employee who was serving a surprise group of 20-plus young customers in addition to a half dozen other tables.) If you do have a bit of a wait, it’s absolutely worth it, and here’s why.
A few things that set The Flying Pig apart from the local and regional competition. One, it’s all about the delicious flavor of the meat. You won’t get a meat drenched and swimming in sauce when it comes to your plate. You get a pure, flavorful meat, no matter which you choose.
Two, you get plenty of sauce in the form of three individual and unique choices that come in cups to your table. You can enjoy sweet, sour or spicy. My favorite is the sweet, which reminds me of a reddish, transparent sauce you’d find alongside chicken in a Japanese restaurant. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the warm, vinegarish sauces that come in Styrofoam cups at some other restaurants in the North Carolina foothills. The Flying Pig sauces are a very welcome difference.
And three, this eatery maintains a bit of “best kept secret” off the beaten path.
The first time I visited The Flying Pig, I entered at an “off time,” later than the early dinner crowd and on a weeknight. The owner gave me the royal dining treatment, explaining how everything is freshly made, sharing the specifics of the different sauce choices and even offering a chance to look through a barbecue book that chronicles some of the most unique and celebrated BBQ restaurants in the region.
I’ve recommended The Flying Pig to colleagues at multiple former employers, to old friends coming through Cleveland County and wanting to know where to get the best barbecue, and to people who find out just how much I love food and want to know where I like to eat. I highly recommend The Flying Pig to you, too.
While the “big boys” on the local “Q” scene are certainly purveyors of delicious meats, sides, sweet tea, desserts and a hometown restaurant scene, there’s nothing that beats walking into this place, biting into plentiful, flavorful meat, getting a greeting from the owner and always being encouraged to come back again. And you get all of these treats for about the cost you would expect for barbecue (less than what you would expect to pay for expertly crafted brisket and ribs).
There are a lot of places in our part of the world that serve outstanding barbecue, but there’s not one that does it any better than The Flying Pig.
Originally posted 2016, Updated June 2019