Tough question. That’s like asking someone to choose between a Ferrari and Lamborghini (served on a bun). And to be fair, South Carolina should be added to the list—because their pork barbecue differs a bit from North Carolina’s, and enjoys the same cultlike following.
As for which is the best, it really depends on your taste. Do you like whole hog meat, or just shoulder? Do you prefer the sauce thick and sweet or thin and vinegary? Below is a rundown on the finer points of each region’s offerings, and at the bottom—because you asked for it—the (almost) scientific and (somewhat) unbiased choice of which pork barbecue sandwich truly stands supreme.
You’ll actually find two kinds of barbecue in the Tar Heel State: Eastern style and Piedmont (or Western) style. In both cases the meat is pulled from the bone and served with coleslaw and usually hush puppies. Eastern uses the whole hog, and its tangy sauce is made from vinegar. Piedmont barbecue comes from the pig shoulder, and the sauce is sweeter, thicker and redder with more of a tomato base.
Enjoy: To appreciate the varying tastes of Tar Heel State barbecue, follow the North Carolina Barbecue Society’s Historic Barbecue Trail, which includes 23 historic joints from Ayden in the east to Murphy in the far west.
Like its sister to the north, the tastes vary by region and the tender. The western part of the state’s sauce is sweet, and ketchup-based, and the slow-cooked pulled meat generally comes from the shoulder. The center of the state embraces a delectable yellow mustard-and-vinegar sauce called Carolina Gold. And in the Low Country, the whole hog is used in sandwiches with a vinegar-based sauce.
Enjoy: Family-owned Bessinger’s Bar-Be-Que has been firing up the pit behind the restaurant each day for seven decades. The specialty sauce is traditional mustard-based Carolina Gold, served on chopped pork with steak fries and an onion ring on the side.
The cradle of blues and Rock ‘n Roll was a latecomer to the barbecue scene, not making a reputation for itself until the middle of the 20th Century. Its pulled pork sandwich uses shoulder meat served either with a paprika-pepper-garlic dry rub (the true city specialty), or beneath a sweet tomato-based sauce with cole slaw on the side suspiciously similar to what you’ll find Western North Carolina. Although Memphis may lack the barbecue heritage, it more than compensates by taking the art of the slow-cooked pig to stratospheric levels, and by occasionally adding Tennessee’s greatest homegrown ingredient: whiskey.
Enjoy: Tens of thousands of pork lovers arrive every May in Memphis for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Tom Lee Park to test their recipes against some of the world’s best, enjoy the offerings from local vendors, and laugh at the Ms. Piggy Idol contest.
The Lone Star State is cattle country, so beef is the biggest object of barbecue obsession there. But East Texas is also known for its chopped or pulled pork sandwiches, usually doused with a spicy concoction of chili powder, pepper, onion, ketchup, and hot sauce.
Enjoy: The half-century-old Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler is a barbecue institution and makes some of the finest pulled pork sandwiches in East Texas. While you’re there, don’t miss the double rubbed baby back ribs, served only with bread.
After much deliberation and many samplings, the winner is South Carolina. Its distinctive mustard-based Carolina Gold, slopped on top of excruciatingly slow-cooked whole-hog pulled pork, makes for the prize-winning barbecue sandwich.