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Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. The epiphany comes in an

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. The epiphany comes in an

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series.

The epiphany comes in an old-school wooden booth at Lexington Barbecue, surrounded by a busy lunchtime crowd, with a Styrofoam cup of sweet tea and a paper plate full of chopped pork, red slaw, hush puppies, and fries in front of me. I’ve piled the barbecue and slaw on a warm bun (or “roll”) and added several glugs of sauce (or “dip”). I’ve just taken my very first bite when I realize: I’ve been fed some barbecue propaganda.

I grew up eating eastern-style barbecue in Durham County. I didn’t even know there was another way to eat barbecue in North Carolina until I reached my early 20s. Seriously. My family ate barbecue at birthday parties and cook-outs, where friends and neighbors would smoke a whole hog, chop it, and douse it generously with a vinegar-and-red-pepper sauce. I don’t remember going out to eat barbecue except on the way to the beach, when we might stop at Wilber’s in Goldsboro or Kings in Kinston.

Smoke funnels out of the smokehouse at Lexington Barbece

The scent of woodsmoke lures customers — about 1,000 per day — to Lexington Barbecue. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

By the time we started spending summer weekends down in Bath, where eastern-style reigns supreme, my taste buds were basically set in stone. I had an eastern-style barbecue buffet at my black-tie wedding, for goodness’ sake. The love runs deep.

So you can forgive me for not looking elsewhere to satisfy my barbecue cravings. Why would I? Somewhere along the way, an idea had lodged in my head: North Carolina’s other style of ’cue was tomato-based. As in, thick and sweet and saucy. Why would I ever give up my beloved tangy vinegar — the more the better — for that?

Customers entering Lexington Barbecue from the parking lot.

A steady stream of customers flows through the door all day long at Lexington Barbecue.  photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m somehow breaking a Tar Heel code of honor if I don’t at least give Lexington-style a chance. So I hop in the car and hit U.S. Highway 64 West in pursuit of the truth in the Barbecue Capital of North Carolina, because where else should a person try Lexington-style ’cue for the first time but in Lexington?

I cruise along a rural, rolling stretch of 64 until I pass Randy’s Restaurant (“LEXINGTON STYLE BARBECUE,” its sign announces) and, a few minutes later, Speedy’s (“BEST BARBECUE ANYWHERE”). I sit up a little straighter, my stomach starting to growl, as I reach Smokehouse Lane, where white smoke is, in fact, billowing out of four brick chimneys behind a barnlike building on a hillside. Because, really, where else should a person try Lexington-style ’cue in Lexington but at the hallowed Lexington Barbecue? (Yes, I know there are at least six other storied pits within a six-mile radius of downtown, but I had to start somewhere.)

• • •

Lexington Barbecue, established by Wayne Monk in 1962, is one of the venerable Piedmont joints that owes its existence to the ideas of a barbecue pioneer, Warner Stamey. Monk worked for and studied under Stamey at his restaurant for several years, soaking in his boss’s vision for Lexington barbecue as its own distinctive, regional style.

Monk later started his own venture in the roadside location that the restaurant still occupies — and which he and his son Rick still own. Today, Lexington Barbecue is a North Carolina institution that draws visitors from around the world, who come to eat pork shoulder slow-cooked over oak and hickory coals.

Grandfather and grandson sit at on the green stools at the counter at Lexington Barbecue

Pork slow-cooked over oak and hickory coals draws faithful customers like Mike Plummer and his grandson Ethan Stone. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

When the waitress sets my plate in front of me (approximately three minutes after ordering), I take a long look. There’s certainly no white, mayonnaise-based coleslaw. Instead, the slaw is red, and the sauce it’s covered in is thin. Otherwise, the barbecue appears to be … just about the same as what I grew up eating. Where was the dark red, tomatoey sauce I’d always imagined? I pick up a bottle of dip — the iconic Lexington-style sauce — and squint at the ingredients: vinegar, ketchup, spices, and sugar. I prepare my roll, take a bite, and sit back.

I’ve been hoodwinked! This isn’t “tomato-based” sauce. It’s tangy vinegar, with a touch of ketchup to offset the spiciness. The slaw is a thing of wonder, especially as a vinegar lover; it’s light and crunchy, a perfect complement to the ’cue.

I peer around at the other diners as I shake out more dip onto every square inch of meat. This is Lexington-style? I don’t dare admit to the sweet waitress that this is my first time trying it, but I’m flabbergasted. I know that there are other differences — eastern-style uses the whole hog; Lexington-style uses just the pork shoulder — but it doesn’t seem like the two are so different that they should inspire such passionate debate.

Wayne and Rick Monk inside Lexington Barbecue

Wayne Monk (right) established Lexington Barbecue — known to locals as “The Monk” or “The Honeymonk” — in 1962 and still owns it with his son Rick. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

And, well — hang on, this might be controversial — speaking of The Great North Carolina Barbecue Debate, I’m just not sure I understand what all the fuss is about anymore. Don’t get me wrong: I think both styles are worth being fussed over. What I mean is, we shouldn’t be fighting among ourselves. It was easy enough when I’d been led astray, but now I know the truth, and I’m overcome with the desire to assure both sides that there’s room in each of our Carolina hearts (and stomachs) for as much barbecue as we can eat. Most states aren’t famous for any style of barbecue, let alone time-honored traditions and generations of pitmasters willing to defend its honor. We have two.

Heading back east on Highway 64 after lunch, I exit onto Main Street for one more pit stop at another Lexington institution, the Barbecue Center, or Bar-B-Q Center, according to the sign. This time, I’m looking for a sundae (a regular portion, not the restaurant’s legendary three-pound banana split) to cap off my day in the Capital of ’Cue. Just like at Lexington Barbecue, the dining room is packed. Lexington, I think, gets it right: There’s room in this town for more than one icon.

Lexington Barbecue
100 Smokehouse Lane
Lexington, NC 27295
(336) 249-9814

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This story was published on Feb 14, 2024

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.