As regular readers know, I recently declared Bum’s restaurant in Ayden, North Carolina, as having the best Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue in the world. I did not do so lightly; rather, I went to the legendary Skylight Inn, also in Ayden, within minutes to re-check their barbecue to make sure I was right. As follow-up, Nancy and I checked into the Greenville Residence Inn (Greenville is just north of Ayden, and Winterville is in between and, all are in Pitt County), and that evening, we went back to Sam Jones BBQ to compare their barbecue to Bum’s.
If you read a “Best Barbecue” lists these days, you definitely will see Sam Jones’ place. The Jones family also runs the legendary Skylight Inn, and Sam is the third generation of the family to cook great barbecue. Sam Jones maintains a very high profile, and spreads the gospel of whole hog barbecue all around the US and beyond. It seems he’s always in New York or Hawaii or somewhere. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that everyone has heard of Sam Jones, and that no one has heard of Bum Dennis.
So back I went to Sam Jones BBQ to make sure I had not lost my mind. Sam Jones BBQ is a big, roomy new place with an extensive menu. They sell ribs, brisket, turkey, chicken, and fried catfish. And they sell beer, which is a big plus at dinner. I think they may sell wine, too. I suppose that if I lived near Winterville, I might get to some of the other meats eventually, much as I visited a barbecue place during a long stay in Paris. But on a short trip, pork is the only thing to eat.
I had a barbecue plate with cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread. And I had a local IPA from the Pitt Brewing Company, which was good.
I should here note that Nancy, my wife of 43 years and the love of my life for so many reasons, fully supported, or at least quietly tolerated, my decision to try a third barbecue place in one day. Nancy skipped the food entirely at the Skylight Inn, however, and at Sam Jones limited herself to a glass of water, a baked potato, and some fruit. I feel so sorry for her. She really missed something.
The barbecue was delicious, and, naturally, similar to that at the Skylight Inn. I really respect the guys who manage the cooking with such care, attention, and skill.
Sam Jones has great barbecue, but I still give the edge to Bum’s.
Another thing: unlike the meat at my last visit, and unlike that at the Skylight Inn, this time the meat included a lot of good-sized pieces of pork rinds, which you can see in the picture of my plate, above. The smaller bits of pure skin add texture and flavor, but the pork rinds don’t add much texture, and the flavor they add isn’t as good as the flavor of the pork alone. I checked carefully. Much as I like pork rinds, they’re better enjoyed separately. I know pork rinds are a “thing” now in some barbecue circles, especially in the many, many cases where the meat doesn’t have much flavor: the pork rinds do add a sort of porkish flavor. Here, where the pork is delicious, the pork rinds don’t help a bit; rather, they detract. It strikes me as a doomed effort to gild the lily. (Sam Jones also came up with a pork skin and pimiento cheese combination on which I have commented. What is it with him and pork skins?)
All in all, the pork at Sam Jones BBQ is, not as hood as the pork at Bum’s, and a few steps behind that of the Skylight Inn, not to mention Wilbers and Grady’s. The visit affirmed my judgment that Bum’s is the best.
Beyond the meat itself, Bum’s has a better sauce: vinegar and pepper to balance and complement the richness of the pork. The Sam Jones/Skylight Inn sauce adds enough sugar and, I would guess, ketchup, to create a distraction.
The sides: the slaw was good, refreshing, really. The macaroni and cheese was a bit gluey, much as a gravy gets when you overload it with thickener and let it sit for a while. And the pasta was overcooked. The cornbread was even more dense than that at Bum’s, so dense that it couldn’t be crumbled — but then Sam Jones doesn’t have vegetables, so there’s no pot likker. Of course I ate it all.
But Sam Jones BBQ is an great place. You should go there for dinner and have a beer. Actually, you should spend a night or two in Greenville — it’s a nice place, a prospering college town and agricultural center — and try all four of the great local barbecue places — Bum’s, B’s, the Skylight Inn, and Sam Jones. A college visit trip to East Carolina University is a colorable excuse — or Pitt County Community College if your child isn’t interested in college. Who cares if your child won’t be going to college for 10 or 15 years, or if you don’t even have a child? Go. Eat. And let me know what you think.