236 South Nash Street, Hillsborough, NC
Hours: Tue-Sat 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Fri&Sat), closed Sun&Mon
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B+
Porky Says: “Unconventionally traditional barbecue.”
As of this moment, the Hillsborough BBQ Company is the newest barbecue restaurant in North Carolina, as far as I know (of course, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit may open three new franchises before I finish this sentence). It’s obvious from the vintage black and white barbecue pictures on the Hillsborough BBQ Company’s website that the owners of the newly opened joint respect the state’s BBQ tradition. And it is obvious from the simple fact that the joint has a website, and a fairly slick one at that, that the Hillsborough BBQ Company is not afraid of breaking from tradition. More to the point, Hillsborough BBQ Company shows its dedication to tradition by cooking whole hog Eastern-style barbecue over wood coals in a real pit. Yet unlike the few dozen other BBQ joints in NC that still use a wood pit, Hillsborough BBQ Company cooks much more than just pork.
Although hand-chopped pork barbecue is featured on the menu, diners may also order the following meats: beef brisket, pork ribs, chicken and turkey. The rest of the menu is similarly diverse: NC staples like hush puppies, slaw (white and red), okra and banana pudding; and non-traditional NC dishes like a wedge salad with pork skins and keylime pie. But the Hillsborough BBQ Company is definitely not trying to be all things to all people: the menu remains focused around barbecued meats and dishes that go well with them. The well-stocked bar–featuring draft beers, cocktails, and “vino”–is really the only jarring element of the BBQ Company from a barbecue traditionalist’s perspective. And since I am no teetotaller, I am willing to accept a bar as a nice addition to a barbecue joint.
Judging the Food
To be honest, it is much more difficult for me to review a place like the Hillsborough BBQ Company, where the menu goes far beyond chopped pork, than it is for me to judge more typical North Carolina ‘cue joints. First, my primary reviewing strategy of ordering the same basic meal–chopped pork, slaw and hush puppies–at each restaurant in order to compare apples to apples is unfair to a place like the Hillsborough BBQ Company. Clearly, they want to be more than a NC BBQ purveyor, so it’s not really fair to judge them on one visit without trying more of the menu. Second, I simply have less experience with brisket, ribs and the like and do not fully trust my palate to assess the finer points of these relatively foreign dishes. But the show must go on.
I ordered a 2-meat combo plate with chopped pork and sliced brisket, as well as collards and white slaw (red slaw is also offered, but since the joint refers to its barbecue as “Eastern-style whole hog” I stuck to the variety meant for the pairing). The brisket was somewhat overcooked, fall apart tender rather than a little give to it, but tasted good–heck, it’s brisket after all. I was not especially impressed with the sauce available for the brisket. It was too ketchupy and lacked the depth of flavor that exists in the best Texas and Kansas City style sauces. Still, brisket really needs no sauce so perhaps that critique is irrelevant. The white slaw and collards were both good but not exceptional. The slaw was slightly sweet, delicate and well chopped–slightly too much so for my taste–as Eastern NC slaw specimens typically are. The collards tasted fresh and were not cooked to limp death, but were tender. There was a bit of bitterness present but other that that no complaints. The hush puppies were much better than average, a tad crunchier and denser than in many restaurants.
As for the whole hog barbecue, it was chopped very coarsely, something I like but that is fairly uncommon in the eastern part of NC where a finer chop dominates. The pork was good but not great; it seemed a little more lean/bland than most whole hog barbecue, perhaps indicating that the portion on my plate was skewed toward hams and short some of the fattier/more flavorful meat chopped in? I also did not notice any subtle hickory smoke flavor, surprising for a place cooking over wood pits. The best NC BBQ requires little to no sauce, but the prototypical vinegar sauce available on the table was a welcome addition. It seems likely that the meat was not sauced at all in the kitchen, which is fairly common for Lexington-style joints and rarer for Eastern-style ones, which may well explain some of the blandness. All in all, pretty good barbecue but I hope it continues to get better as the pitmaster learns the ins and outs of his new pits.
In addition to offering better than average food, the Hillsborough BBQ Company offers one of the more enjoyable barbecue dining settings in the state. The joint occupies a modest sized storefront adjacent to the old textile mill complex just a few blocks west of Churton Street on the edge of Hillsborough’s historic district. The inside features wood floors, a sturdy wood bar, and ceiling fans, while four large picnic tables offer a patio dining experience and a good view of the stained glass pig that stands guard above the front door.