BBQ Jew’s View: Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q

11964 N.C. Highway 50 North, Willow Spring, NC
No Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C
Porky Says: “Dude, where’s the wood?” [Editor’s note: it’s somewhere]

A good looking barbecue plate from Stephenson's.

Stephenson’s barbecue plate.

Stephenson’s has a long, proud history and is featured as one of 24 barbecue joints on the NC Barbecue Society’s exclusive Barbecue Trail (which lists only those joints that cook with wood and meet various other criteria).  Yet I was underwhelmed during a recent visit.  First of all, despite being listed a wood burner I saw no evidence of a wood pile  and the barbecue did not taste wood-cooked to me.  I wonder if Stephenson’s has switched from wood cooking, or perhaps they use charcoal instead of split wood and keep their charcoal inside.  Even if they do cook with wood and I somehow missed it, I simply did not think Stephenson’s ‘cue was particularly good. [Editor’s note: I’ve been told by reliable sources that they do indeed stick cook over wood!]

I found the barbecue a bit greasy, almost slimy even.  It was coarse-chopped (seemingly by hand) to a nice consistency, but lacked in flavor.  Stephenson’s almost straight vinegar sauce helped the flavor but did not save the ‘cue from mediocrity.  The sides, on the other hand, were quite good.  The coleslaw was lightly “mayo’d,” with quite a lot of added sugar (a bit more than I think slaw needs, actually) and generously flecked with pickle/relish.  The hush puppies were perfectly fried, fluffy golden brown spheres.  The barbecued potatoes were also good, with a classic Eastern-style tangyness to them.  In summary, I always judge a BBQ joint primarilyby the pork, and though the sides were good the Stephenson’s ‘cue was lacking, thus the “C” rating .  Slow-cooking a pig is a tricky business, so it’s possible I just caught Stephenson’s on a bad day, but a couple other reviewers (here and here) had the same impression I did on separate visits.

On a positive note, the service and overall dining experience at Stephenson’s was nice.  It’s a classic family friendly barbecue restaurant, and appropriately enough features family-style dining for those who want to share bowls of ‘cue, chicken, and more.  Oh, and the Stephenson family also runs a plant nursery right next door, for whatever that is worth…

4 Responses

  1. Stephenson’s has that yesteryear feel to it. I like the banged-up pitchers of strong, sweet tea and buckets of crushed ice that sit on the heavily-lacquered, knotty pine tables. The dusty, ancient piano in the dining room adds to the nostalgic air.

    The last time we were there my young son said, “Dad, I think I can remember being here before, but the last time it was in black and white.”

    I haven’t been to Stephenson’s in a couple years, but the last time the ‘cue was slightly better than you describe here — I think I would have given it a B (I could detect smoke). The barbecue chicken was also particularly good. And on some days they serve pastry and chicken that is to die for.

    But, as you say, the ‘cue’s the thing.

  2. Stephenson’s cooks with charcoal, not wood. I think Bob Garner mentions in his book that the barbecue remains on the pits for a few hours after it has cooked to give a very smokey flavor while the fire dies down. The last time I visited, it had a distinct pit flavor. I agree with Dave in his B rating.

  3. I have just found your awesome website and have been looking through the reviews. My response here is overdue, but I do want to mention that Stephenson’s has good BBQ chicken. As you mentioned in your review, the sides are generally quite good and the BBQ is average. If you are looking good pork BBQ, Stephenson’s is not the place, but if you are forced to live in the southwestern-southeastern Wake County area, and are Jonesing for some decent East Cackalacky-like cuisine and atmosphere, check out Stephenson’s BBQ chicken with the trimmings.

  4. I have been going to Stephenson’s Barbecue at McGees Crossroads for over 25 years and usually find it to be a great experience. It is an old-time barbecue place and they cook the pork with charcoal. The barbecue is usually very good, but sometimes varies a little. Many of the side dishes are very good, especially the slaw, brunswick stew, boiled potatoes, hush-puppies, and cooked apples. You can also order fried chicken gizzards if you like them. You will have a pitcher of great iced tea on your table, and a bowl of crushed/shaved ice as well, this is nice touch. This is one of the best barbecue places in North Carolina, especially for eastern style barbecue.

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