Indulge in Vivian Howard’s Barbecue Favorites

Indulge in Vivian Howard’s Barbecue Favorites

Skylight Inn BBQ has mastered the art of the chopped pork sandwich since the restaurant opened 70 years ago

North Carolina is serious about barbecue. Known as the cradle of ‘cue, the state boasts two distinct styles of its signature dish, and your preference may be a hotly contested topic when discussed among locals. Eastern North Carolina tops whole hog with a vinegar and pepper sauce – not a tomato in sight – while on the western side of the state, Lexington-style barbecue often features pork shoulder with a sauce that adds ketchup to the mix. And with a third style emerging further west, it’s no wonder Slate deemed pulled pork North Carolina’s official meat.

With so much history behind our state’s love affair with pulled pork barbecue, it’s little wonder that chef Vivian Howard has a few opinions of her own. As a native of Eastern North Carolina town Deep Run, near Kinston, Vivian has an insider’s appreciation of that region’s style. And luckily for her, four of her favorite BBQ joints are within a 30-mile radius of her home, and all adhere to whole hog pit cooking, a chopped presentation and that signature vinegary sauce. Together, the family-run B’s Barbecue, Skylight Inn BBQ, Sam Jones BBQ and King’s Restaurant account for many decades of barbecue mastery passed down through generations.

With four of Vivian’s favorite barbecue stops all so close together, it’d be hard to resist the chance to do a little taste testing. If you’re looking to plan a trip to this culinary corner of the South, read on for insights and advice from Vivian on a few of her favorites.

Skylight Inn BBQ chopped pork

The pulled pork at Skylight Inn is chopped ever so finely

Two barbecue hot spots have emerged from the genius of Pete Jones, who earned Skylight Inn the James Beard America’s Classics Award in 2003. Although he passed away three years later, his son, nephew, and grandson continue to stoke the fires. The original Skylight Inn BBQ is donned with a capital dome in honor of its “Barbecue Capital of America” nickname given in the 1970s by National Geographic, a moniker now adopted by the whole state. One of the reasons Vivian has been a long-time customer? Their slaw. Chopped super fine, it’s a little on the sweet side, always juicy, and tops all their pulled pork sandwiches. “Slaw is as integral to Eastern North Carolina barbecue as the barbecue in my opinion,” Vivian has said during a visit to Skylight Inn.

Eight miles down the road, grandson Sam Jones has struck out on his own, as a fourth generation Jones pitmaster, with Sam Jones BBQ. His modern 5,550-square foot building features mounted TVs, North Carolina craft beers and, perhaps most shockingly, ribs, smoked turkey and house salads. Certainly the most upscale of Vivian’s four recommended spots, Sam Jones BBQ still honors its roots. And Sam continues to be the face of Skylight Inn as well, representing the family at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party and Charleston Food & Wine Festival among other events. And while Vivian notes that she truly does love Skylight Inn, she says she prefers Sam Jones BBQ “for my whole family, because there are more options, and my kids are opinionated.”

Sam Jones BBQ patio

The stylish building of Sam Jones BBQ represents a new generation of the barbecue culture

In nearby Greenville, don’t miss B’s Barbecue for “the best barbecue chicken I’ve ever had,” raves Vivian. As with many of the best ’cue spots, B’s is in a nondescript building, doesn’t have a website and closes its doors when the food runs out. They just installed a phone in 2016 after nearly 40 years in business, so you can try calling to see if there’s any food left, but it’s best to just arrive before 2 p.m. B’s stands out for cooking its meat over charcoal instead of wood, and patrons come back time and again for the small-town atmosphere cultivated by its owners.

Every barbecue joint is unique, and King’s Restaurant in Kinston – where Vivian currently lives and runs her restaurant, The Chef and the Farmer – is no exception. Their claim to fame, besides excellent food across the board, is their Pig in a Puppy. This “best invention in barbecue history,” as Vivian puts it, is made of a long, oversized hushpuppy sliced in half and loaded up with chopped barbecue and creamy coleslaw. From the very first bite, you’ll understand why this one-of-a-kind super sandwich is envied throughout the barbecue world. And if you can’t make it back any time soon, it’s at least a small comfort to know you can get King’s sauces, sides and meats shipped to your door via their Oink Express. Alas, the Pig in a Puppy is for dine-in customers only.

King's BBQ Pig in a Puppy

The Pig in a Puppy at King’s Restaurant is odd yet very delicious

Hungry yet? Follow the smoke, load up on napkins, and enjoy your Eastern North Carolina barbecue extravaganza!

Shawndra Russell is a travel writer and novelist based in Asheville and has written for Forbes Travel Guide, BeerAdvocate and Travel+Leisure.

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