Iconic Foods of North Carolina
Story and photos by Jason Frye
Every state has an iconic food. Think of Maryland and your mind goes to crab cakes, Pennsylvania and it’s a juicy Philly Cheese steak, West Virginia (yes, West Virginia, hey, it’s my home state, I have to show it a little love) has pepperoni rolls, and in North Carolina, it’s barbecue. While these foods may be the first to come to mind, they’re by no means the only foods worth note. Take North Carolina, my adopted home state, as an example. Yeah, we’ve got barbecue—two styles and a dozen great places for each—but with more than 300 miles of coastline we have exceptional seafood and every ethnic group that’s called this state home has left a greasy thumbprint on our food culture. So, if you’ve got a hankering for some of the iconic foods of North Carolina, here’s my list of where to start.
North Carolina has two styles of barbecue: Eastern and Lexington. Eastern, found from the coast to the Piedmont, cooks whole hogs over oak coals, and then seasons the meat with a thin, tangy vinegar and pepper sauce. Lexington Style, found from the Piedmont to the mountains, cooks shoulders over hickory coals and uses a thicker, sweeter sauce on the finished product. There’s no need to pick a favorite, unless you live here, and even then you can skate by with a couple of favorite restaurants and never commit fully to one style.
Out East, one of the OGs of barbecue is Skylight Inn, in Aden. Folks there have been cooking whole hog forever and the place is considered one of the signposts of southern ‘cue. Stop in for a sandwich or, better yet, a chopped basket, which comes with slaw and fried cornbread.
If it’s Lexington Style you crave—and you should, if only for comparison’s sake—then head to Lexington, just a bit northeast from Charlotte. Stop in at Lexington Barbecue also called Lexington #1, Honey Monk’s, or simply Monk’s. Order a platter of coarse chopped brown, a side of hush puppies and some of the red slaw (a dash of barbecue sauce gives it a little tang) and feast. Don’t worry about ordering something called “brown,” it’s what they call the bark, the crispy outside part of barbecue.
When you find your way to Asheville—one of the best food cities in the South—try the ‘cue at Buxton Hall Barbecue where Chef Elliot Moss cooks whole hog barbecue, chef-y sides (think the old standard barbecue sides—collards, green beans, potato salad—but with a chef’s twist), a variety of sauces, and one of the best fried chicken sandwiches you’ll ever eat.
Start in the southeastern town of Calabash, famous for its namesake flash fried fish, shrimp and oysters served in heaps and piles year round. You can find Calabash-style seafood in all 50 states—and a few places abroad—but this is the place where it was born.
The original recipe is simple, which is why so many places emulate it. Fresh fish is dredged in flour then condensed milk then a mix of flour and cornmeal, and then flash fried to sheer perfection. It’s sweet, light, has an ideal coating of batter on it, and is best served so hot you’ll try not to scorch the roof of your mouth with the first bite or two.
There are a handful of places still operated by descendants of the recipe’s originator, Lucy High-Coleman, but my favorite is a newcomer, Waterfront Seafood Shack. This spot is literally a shack on the waterfront next door to a fishmonger. You’ll see the kitchen door open and a cook saunter over to the fishmonger, have a brief chat, then return to the kitchen with fresh fillets for the fryolator. Get a mixed platter—flounder, shrimp and oysters—with fries, hush puppies and slaw and you’re doing it right.
For those of us fortunate enough to live here—or rent a beach house for a week, or travel with a cooler—we always find a fish market where the catch is fresh and the folks know their way around a fish. Throughout spring and summer, I pick up fresh tuna from the fish market and veggies from the farmers market to make a gorgeous tuna nicoise salad, a household favorite. But local seafood is available in restaurants like Catch, PinPoint, and Surf House in and around Wilmington, and at great places all along the coast.
For iconic local foods, let’s start in Ocracoke Island, an isolated spot that’s a three-hour ferry ride from the mainland. Here, Eduardo’s Taco Stand has dished up tens of thousands of tacos—carnitas, pollo, asada, fresh catch—to visitors for more than a decade. Visit Ocracoke and you’ll discover this little food truck is something between and institution and a landmark; on every visit to the island I eat an embarrassing number of tacos! My favorites are always fresh fish, or the crab, or the carnitas, or any of them, really.
In Raleigh, spots like Roast Grill—which serves one thing: hot dogs, one way—are synonymous with downtown dining. But new restaurants, like Crawford & Son, Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana have become iconic for their playful take on Southern cuisine (Crawford & Son), pure Laotian cuisine (Bida Manda), and inspired spin on dim sum and craft beer (at Brewery Bhavana), adding to the list of local favorites found across the state.
Throughout the state, there’s a laundry list of iconic restaurants: Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, Charlotte’s Heirloom, Kindred in Davidson, and little spots like Winnie’s Tavern, home to Wilmington’s Best Burger, or Duck Donuts, a made-to-order (seriously) donut spot that started on the Outer Banks and has spread like wildfire.
Ask anyone in any town you visit across North Carolina to name a favorite spot and you’ll learn about some place delicious. Sometimes it’ll be fancy, other times it’ll be one of those perfectly local spots where you stand in the parking lot and scratch your head, sure they’ve made a mistake, but then you’ll get a bite of biscuit, of barbecue, of authentic Oaxacan and say to yourself, “Why don’t we have this at home?”
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Jason Frye is a food and travel writer, author of the Moon North Carolina guidebook series, barbecue judge and cat lover living in Wilmington, North Carolina. Follow his adventures, bites and sips on Instagram where he’s known as @beardedwriter.