BBQ Jew’s View: Hillsborough BBQ Company

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:
Porky Says: “Unconventionally traditional barbecue.”

New Traditions
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.

6 Responses

  1. […] Hillsborough Hog Day, the classic barbecue festival, cook-off and cultural event, moves up a month from past years in order to beat the heat.  The 29th annual event is held in River Park behind the courthouse and features live music, other entertainment, arts and crafts, and lots of chopped pork.  I’ll be dropping by bright and early on Saturday morning to help judge the pork shoulder cooking competition, so I’m looking forward to partaking in some breakfast barbecue.  I hope you’ll come out later on in the day to take in the festitivies, as it’s always a well run event and in the past the hot June weather has been my only complaint!  While you are in Hillsborough, be sure to check out the new Hillsborough BBQ Company. […]

  2. I was not very impressed by the BBQ at the Hillsborough BBQ Co. The meat was too bland and there was no smoke flavor, the tradmark of good BBQ. The bun was soggy and very bland. Although the side offerings were very “country” but there were somethings missing like potatoe salad. The beer selection was limited and disappointing.This was surprising considering that the resturant is associated with one of the best bars in the triangle, the Wooden Nickel.. The service was good , very polite.and the atmosphere was pleasant. I hope the cooks work at improving the flavor of the BBQ. This place has good potential and I will give it a try again. I

  3. Been there several times have had the chicken, pork and brisket. Also have eaten the wedge salad. Having been there a few times I have seen all there food improve with time as they have grown.

    I agree the first time we had the brisket it was a bit dry. The next time it was moist and great. There hush puppys are to die for, they serve it with real butter. My wife has ordered the catfish bites and they are real good. They give a nice portion and if you like they will make your sandwich with extra meat.

    Its a fun place to go and the price to eat there is inexpensive. I took 4 adults and 2 children and with tip was under $80.00 were can you get great food feed that amount of people.

  4. Well, finally tried HBBQ today. I had not eaten BBQ since my all time favorite went out of business recently, that being A&M Grill in Mebane, where I had happily eaten for over 55 years. A loss I’ll never get over. I have eaten BBQ from every part of this state, and none has ever compared to A&M. I guess I am a BBQ snob. From my first memories I remember BBQ pits in the ground, whole hogs and chickens roasting all night, big open brick pits with hickory coals being shoveled under.
    Now to today. I’ll have to say nice try to HBBQ, not the worst I’ve had. Could be better. The que had no smoky flavor at all, but was lean,and a little too chunky. The mild sauce was sweet, needs a little more pepper and vinegar, but ok. And for gosh sakes, cut some potatoes and make your fries, frozen strings just don’t make it. Wife had some mac and cheese, one bite that is.
    The acoustics are awful in the small dining room. Too much bar space.
    Be a bbq place or a bar, can’t be both. A little too pricey, but business was good, so a lot of people like it. Newbies.
    As for me, I’ll have to keep looking for BBQ with the old time taste I grew up with. It’s not here. Not saying I won’t try HBBQ again, there are other dishes on the menu I would try. I do love the fact that old W.Hillsborough has new life. Nice to see people around there again.
    HBBQ is actually in the building that up to sometime in the 50s was a movie theater. I hope they continue to do well.

  5. My family and I are from Kansas City and have also traveled to and enjoyed many of the finest BBQ in the US. So we know what good smoked meat should taste like. When we moved here from KC we were heartbroken to leave behind our BBQ. What we found in Eastern NC BBQ was that it was overly chopped, overly vinegared and under smoked. But we have been spoiled by KC and Tennessee. Now, we actually can tolerate Lexington BBQ because despite the “sauce” the smoke flavor is exceptional, but that’s a long drive for us and still no substitute for our smoked KC favorites that don’t need to be drenched in vinegar or any sauce for that matter. So when we discovered HBBQ a few doors down from out favorite pet food supplier 😉 and noticed they had more to offer than the typical NC style BBQ, we got a little excited. My first experience was the rubbed brisket sandwich. That particular day it had an okay smoke flavor, not as much as I was hoping for, since to us the smoke flavor is the only thing that makes it BBQ, not sauce, not vinegar, not spices. But it was not drenched in vinegar and even though the smoke flavor was not what I was hoping for, it was still somewhat pleasant. The sauce I was given to add to it was sweet and since the flavor was a bit lacking in the meat, I was happy to use it. The first impression did not bring tears of joy to my eyes, but it was still encouraging. One thing I noted about the brisket sandwich is that I pulled a giant chunk of fat out of it before I could continue eating it, but I still had enough meat to make a sandwich, so I didn’t lose too much stride. The corn pudding and hush puppies were a treat and I vowed to give the brisket another chance and overlook the fat that had made it into my sandwich.

    We recruited my Dad, who HATES NC BBQ and who became so excited about the brisket. The whole family tagged along for the experience. The only one at the table that could eat any of the slaws offered was my husband, but he is from Baltimore and the only one who doesn’t mind vinegar. So the rest of us will never enjoy slaw at HBBQ. I make my own, and I do use vinegar as well, but nowhere near that much. There is a perfect balance between the vinegar and sweet that makes a good cole slaw, HBBQ doesn’t have it. But again the quiet dogs and corn pudding were hits. I tried the brisket plate this time, with some bread, hoping I could make my sandwich myself (my thinking was they would put more effort into the brisket plate presentation and I would be spared the fat that snuck its way into my first sandwich. The brisket on my plate was dry, still managed to be slightly tender and had the same amount or lack of smoke flavor from my first try of their brisket, via sandwich. And they did do better with the fat without my having to ask, but I did get a cut from the drier portion of the brisket. Overall, everyone enjoyed their experience, including my Dad who became even more excited about the place, especially with its location because we stop in at Paws at the Corner at least once a month. We have tried HBBQ 2 more times since our first two tries. The 3rd time I remember not having any significant complaints. I ordered the rubbed brisket sandwich again and it was not fatty like the first try, and not quite as dry as the plate I got on my second visit.

    The most very recent and fourth try was not pleasant at all. We walked up, noticed seating outside, and upon entering we noticed there was plenty of seating inside as well. The person seating people asked if we would like to sit outside and we said no we would like some AC, but he argued with us and said, “but its a really nice day today” and stood and grinned at us hopefully, when in reality it was very warm and flies were going crazy. We again had to say no, and he seemed disappointed. We were seated, everything went well from there, but when my favorite, the rubbed brisket sandwich, arrived I lost OVER 50% of my sandwich to pure charred FAT. I literally had to dissect my sandwich before I could eat it. When the waiter came to ask if everything came out looking good, I smiled and told him I lost most of my sandwich to fat… he just stared at me. So I chuckled to pass the awkwardness and allowed as how I may still have enough for a sandwich, after which he walked away without responding. I began to get angry thinking about the $8 sandwich sitting in front of me with only about 40-45% of the original volume still remaining edible. Finally after my Dad offering to do something about it, my husband took it upon himself to relocate the hush puppies and used the bowl to present the fat from my sandwich to the waiter. He had to walk up to the bar, because the waiter did not come back after my complaint. And much to my husband’s surprise, the waiter argued with him, explaining there is supposed to be fat on a brisket… I guess we are just dumb. Eventually they made up for it 10 minutes later by bringing a few slices of brisket to the table, long after we had both finished our meals. My husband had to give me a slice of brisket from his combo plate so I would have a sandwich. It was nice and tender, but the peace offering brisket was drier in comparison… I guess they were trying to be snotty about the undesired fat and thought if they sent dry brisket we would understand the need for the fat… LOL. Like we don’t know what a brisket is. Not to mention my Dad got the same thing and his was fine, he had to pick one chunk of fat out. My bread was absolutely soaked with grease. I don’t know if it was the staff there that day that just didn’t care, maybe the owner is letting his employees run things and doesn’t know whats going on? Not sure, but we looked forward to our visit all week, saved for it, planned on it and it about ruined the experience for us. Hopefully my Dad and husband will not mind giving them another try, because I do not give up that easily when I find a place I like. Everything was off that day, so maybe it was a bad day. The place was full of flies, the seater argued with us, the corn pudding had an odd texture to it, the only thing that was consistent was the hush puppies. So we will try again. However if we get attitude again just for asking to sit INSIDE when there are tables available and for not wanting an ANIMAL FAT sandwich or the food continues to be inconsistent in general, we will be heartbroken about it but, it will officially turn us away from HBBQ Co. for good. It has so much potential if they will make sure things are done right. The place is priced to high to allow mediocre service and food to happen at all.

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