I’ve now savored barbecue pork, chicken and beef throughout the Carolinas, down to Georgia, Alabama and Texas, and all the way out to Memphis and Kansas City.
But before I compiled all of these experiences across all American styles of Q, I had my first encounters with barbecue at a place called the Bar-B-Q King just up the road from where I grew up in western North Carolina.
When I think of the taste of chopped pork barbecue, my thoughts still to this day center on the Bar-B-Q King. The pork is smoky, moist but not quite wet, and tender to the point of falling apart on your teeth. As far as I know, Bar-B-Q King pork is the first I tasted, other than the products of a few home-pit-cookers who supplied local fundraisers in my hometown.
Growing up, my mom and I were the only ones in our home who ate pork barbecue. Since Lincolnton was about 15 minutes from our house and on a route we often traveled for groceries and other stops in those days, my mom would go into Bar-B-Q King and get a pound or so of chopped pork from time to time and bring it home. We’d top a bun or two slices of loaf bread with pork to “make us a sandwich,” and a good meal was as easy as that. Simple memories like that are what make food so special.
The Bar-B-Q King has been in business since 1971. They hand-chop their hickory wood every morning and smoke their meat over coals fresh every day. And, if it’s even possible, I love the flavors more now than I ever have. I recently had business to do in Lincolnton and used that travel as an excuse to visit the King for lunch for the first time in a number of months.
While we usually got pork to go for eating at home when I was a kid, I’ve visited the Bar-B-Q King more often for dine-in service in recent years. They do a barbecue sandwich special with a drink on Mondays, and you can get their Cheeseburger King, a great burger for a barbecue restaurant, with a drink on Tuesdays for a special price. They’re even hip with the digital times we live in and do social media giveaways often to reward their online supporters with gift certificates.
In addition to the smoky smells and the wondrous tastes, the sounds are special at the Bar-B-Q King, too. The cashiers “hollar” the orders out to the kitchen in the back, so there’s always a steady stream of auctioneer-type chatter happening. On top of that, there’s plenty of local conversation going on throughout the restaurant. You’ll likely encounter local politicians, farmers and business leaders when you’re there at lunchtime. This, like many other spots across the country, is a place the locals gather.
If there’s one knock I’ve ever had on the Bar-B-Q King, it’s their sauce. As a kid and young adult, I was never a big fan. It had more of a vinegary tinge than I preferred. (After all, I grew up in western North Carolina, which is often tomato-based sauce country.) But after living in Eastern North Carolina for a few years and experiencing the vinegar-based sauces down that way, I came back to western North Carolina with new and enlightened tastebuds. Now, I love the sauce at Bar-B-Q King, though, I’m more likely to tear off a bite of sandwich, dip it in the sauce and eat it than pour the little cup of sauce on my sandwich or tray. (The trays and plates are the true staples of local barbecue restaurants in North Carolina, as they come with slaw, fries, hushpuppies and other delights. But I prefer a sandwich, I think, because of how I ate my pork on bread growing up.)
Unfortunately, some old-time barbecue restaurants have been closing or changing across North Carolina in recent years. We’ve lost original spots like Allen & Son’s in Chapel Hill, Tommy Moore’s in New Bern and Wilbur’s in Goldsboro. (Though, I’ve heard Wilbur’s has had a bit of a rebirth, and new owners have overturned Moore’s and made it a more modern joint.)
I sure hope the Bar-B-Q King in Lincolnton sticks around and keeps doing what it does best. Nothing beats an original. For me, the Bar-B-Q King is my original pork barbecue taste.