For any North Carolina native who’s a pork barbecue lover, the annual Mallard Creek Barbecue on the north side of Charlotte is a true rite of passage to becoming an aficionado of the state’s Q heritage. The one-day-a-year community event boasts just as much legendary status as the Tar Heel state’s all-time-great backyard pitmasters and top-tier barbecue restaurants.
The recent 89th Mallard Creek Barbecue was the first I’ve ever attended, even though I grew up less than an hour from the historic community house where it takes place each Fall. It was such a wonderful experience, that I now wonder what took me so long to go. After meeting the fine folks from Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church that hosts the barbecue, eating a plate of their pork and side items, and wandering about the grounds for a bit, I can now confidently say that all the media coverage and hype you see about this barbecue is absolutely well-deserved.
If you have a notion to go to the Mallard Creek Barbecue, it’s always on the fourth Thursday of October, so you can go ahead and put it on your schedule for the future. The timing, about two weeks from Election Day, is why many refer to the event as “pork and politics.” Many local, state and national candidates have attended the barbecue over the years to meet voters. Don’t worry about having to talk politics though. During my visit the candidates who were present stuck to a specific area and did not appear to bother guests who were only there to dine, like I was. As a former newsman, I enjoyed overhearing others’ conversation about the issues and names on the ballot this year, but no one approached me for discussion.
Now that we’ve got the much-talked-about connection between the event and politics out of the way, here are all the other details from my first Mallard Creek Barbecue experience.
THE TRAFFIC: Aside from perhaps my slight concern about being mauled by politicians, heavy traffic is probably the biggest reason I’ve never traveled to Mallard Creek for the barbecue in the past. I’m not very patient about sitting in traffic. (My wife knows this too well.) It’s one of the main reasons I prefer small towns to big cities most of the time. Though it’s really easy to get to Mallard Creek’s Community House from I-485, and therefore I-85 and I-77, it took me about an hour to move a half mile down Mallard Creek Road to turn off into the parking lot. In all fairness, parking was free and a breeze, both getting in and getting out, so once I got there, it was easy. I was even pleased that bathrooms—including a very clean men’s restroom—were available on site.
THE PEOPLE: From the moment I got out of the car, parking volunteers, dining greeters, ticket takers, food servers and cleanup attendants were all incredibly friendly. I was welcomed and thanked for being in attendance more than a half-dozen times. Everything had the feel of a true old-fashioned church luncheon on the grounds. Even with the presence of television stations and political representatives and candidates, the place had a very relaxed feel, which was a bit of a surprise to me.
THE FOOD: Obviously, I attended the Mallard Creek Barbecue entirely for the food. And the food did not disappoint. The chopped pork was tender and smoky, not over-vinegary or pre-sauced, and it was plentiful. The Brunswick stew, which actually isn’t all that easy to find here in western North Carolina’s piedmont and foothills unless you are attending a church event, was a refreshing combination of vegetables, strands of meat and grains of tender rice, which I’m not as familiar with as a stew ingredient but greatly enjoyed. The coleslaw had a serious crunch and a bit of a vinegary bite. And the applesauce, another rare side item on a plate of barbecue for me, was just sweet enough and smooth to nicely complement everything else. In true old-fashioned barbecue style, there were loaves of white bread on all the tables to be used for making sandwiches or sopping plates. And there were plentiful bottles of a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce and a hot sauce. I stuck with the former and enjoyed just a dab on my pork. A plate was $10, and drinks were $1 apiece. For the money, this was a great value for such a heralded and filling meal. Complimentary coffee is even served, and that was very much appreciated on a day as cold as the one for the 89th barbecue. I would suggest taking cash to make things super easy for yourself and for volunteers serving you.
THE NIT-PICKS: I can’t complain at all about the Mallard Creek Barbecue. Nice people, great food and a whole lot of history make it easy to understand why it reportedly draws an estimated 20,000 or so people each year. But I did notice a few things as a first-time visitor that might make it even better. Most of all: When traffic is departing, perhaps drivers shouldn’t be allowed to turn left into the long line of vehicles waiting to enter the dine-in parking area or the takeout drive-through lines. That slows things down more as people are trying to get into and out of the event. Everyone could turn right to exit.
Also, back to food and beverage, I was very surprised to find there was no sweet tea offered among drinks. I opted for Sun Drop, but tea and barbecue just go together here in North Carolina. Though I usually drink water with my dine-out meals now as a health and cost-effective choice, I make an exception when I eat at a barbecue restaurant and go all in for the sweet tea. And finally, there was a small booth serving ice cream for $1.50 near the dine-in area, but I was a bit surprised there were no baked goods available, such as cakes and pies. Maybe that’s been offered in the past but didn’t go over well?
As a first-timer at the Mallard Creek Barbecue, I don’t believe I have any right to try to reinvent something that’s obviously worked very well for the community for nearly 90 years. And it’s a beloved event that doesn’t need any reimagining. Yes, the traffic and politicians have concerned me and kept me from going in the past. But I finally decided I would take the opportunity this year to see what all the fuss is about. I’m glad I did. If you have a chance and love barbecue, too, this is a bucket-list stop you must make one October—or every October moving forward. I’m not sure it gets more Southern and any better than a church barbecue on the grounds with great food and nice people. And that’s what #FoodieScore is all about.
Mallard Creek Community House, 11400 Mallard Creek Road, Charlotte, N.C.