Charlotte need no longer skulk about when people are talking about barbecue. Noble Smoke has arrived and Charlotte can hold its head high: they have a Top Place.
It was not always so. Famously, when Charlotte was announced as the site of the 2012 Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama touted Charlotte’s “great barbecue.” Mayor Anthony Foxx, perhaps America’s most honest elected official since … George Washington (if that isn’t damning with faint praise), admitted that there was no great barbecue in Charlotte.
Now there is.
For me, October opened with another family wedding, this time my cousin, Scott Griffin’s daughter Ann Lyndon to Michael Duckworth. The wedding would be in Charlotte — technically at a beautiful lakeside country club over the South Carolina line on Lake Wylie — but the location meant an opportunity to check out the Charlotte barbecue renaissance recently noted in Garden and Gun, which touted Sweet Lew’s, and, more important, high praise for some new places on the excellent Barbecue Bros website, with one of the brothers right there in Charlotte and all of them from High Point. The Bros rated Noble Smoke second best in Charlotte, after Jon G’s, an elusive food truck that only sells on weekends.
As soon as I got to Charlotte, I went to Noble Smoke with my cousins Scott Griffin and Nora Raynor,
and Sinclair Griffin Lee (Scott’s sister) and Eric Lee.
(Eric and Nora aren’t technically cousins, but they’re family.) And I’m glad I did. Eating at Noble Smoke with family after a lunch at Lexington #1 brought home to me once again what a blessed life I lead.
Noble Smoke is a big space, set in a former 11,000 square foot warehouse, with the cooking taking up about 2,000 square feet. There’s plenty of room for comfort, and it’s lively but not so noisy that you can’t have a real discussion, the sort of good discussion that makes you forget to take pictures of all the vegetables. It’s a good setting for a meal with family and friends.
We ordered way too much, of course. Eric and I conspired on a pound of pork,
a half or quarter pound of brisket, some of which seems to have disappeared before I took the picture,
a bunch of wings,
some crowder peas, and some greens. Scott added some ribs,
and Sinclair and Nora ordered pork and turkey sandwiches, respectively. And succotash and hush puppies and macaroni and cheese and buttermilk pie. And probably something else.
But first, a Toasted Smoke Lager brewed by The Suffolk Punch in conjunction with Noble Smoke. It’s one of the best lagers I’ve had, with a nice touch of malt flavor. Later, I also had a delicious hoppy Juicy Jay IPA by Legion Brewing and, before the evening was out, another.
But the food: I took a bite of the pork and said, “Wow!” Eric said, “John just said “Wow!'” The pork starts with a mouth full of smoke. It’s the smokiest barbecue I’ve had in North Carolina. After the smoke came pork flavor, a light crunch from outside meat, and the light amount of vinegar and pepper with which it had been tossed. Sensational.
The brisket also was very good. It was a mix of moist and lean, again with a good smoke flavor. The moist was just great, as good as the brisket at Lewis Barbecue, the Texas-centric sensation in Charleston, and the lean also was better than it had any right to be. The brisket’s bark was particularly good, almost as good as the unworldly bark at Pendergast in Amsterdam. The ribs were good, but not quite the standouts among ribs that the pork and brisket were. And I remember that the wings were nice and smoky and had good blend of spices, but, frankly, things were starting to blur.
This is meat whose flavor reflects Noble Smoke’s motto: Salt. Pepper. Smoke. They have some sauces there, and I may well have tried them — I always do, except for those labeled “sweet” — but the meat didn’t need any sauce.
The meat was so all-consuming (or I guess I was so consuming-all ) that I neglected to take pictures of the sides. They all were good. My hat is off to any place that serves crowder peas, which also were in the succotash, along with some nice butter beans and corn. The hush puppies were good, and the collards were very good. The macaroni and cheese was right up there with the macaroni and cheese people would take to Meeting at the United Methodist Dooly County Campground when I was a kid. You could have a great meal at Noble Smoke of just the vegetables (macaroni and cheese being a vegetable below Richmond).
You may not be familiar with buttermilk pie, here served topped with a blackberry sauce. It’s similar in a way to cheesecake. You should be cautious about eating buttermilk pie at Noble Smoke. If you do, you’ll never be able to eat cheesecake again without wishing you were eating buttermilk pie.
A nice thing about Noble Smoke is that it honors the men and women who came before in the North Carolina Piedmont — some of the staff t-shirts read Monk, Weaver, Swicegood — and well beyond, east to the Gradys all the way west to Tootsie Tomanetz.
And as if bringing some great barbecue to Charlotte weren’t enough, Jim Noble also has three branches of Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen (one of which had just closed due to fire just before I got to Charlotte; Mr. Noble found work for the affected employees at Noble Smoke so they could keep their paychecks coming). And he has The King’s Kitchen, a non-profit locavore restaurant staffed by people who needed a second chance: people released from prison, people seeking relief from addiction, and others. I hear that the food is really good. Jim Noble is an ordained minister as well as a chef (or perhaps a chef as well as an ordained minister), and he and The King’s Kitchen are involved in at least 15 other Charlotte organizations that provide food, emotional and mental support, and job training for those in need.
Talk about win-win. Go to Noble Smoke. Have a great meal. Celebrate the coming of great barbecue to Charlotte. And if you have another meal in Charlotte, go to The King’s Kitchen.
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