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February, 2019

BBQ Research–Northern Florida (Limited) Edition

This is always a welcome sign when I roll up to a barbecue joint, and this greeted me at Gilbert’s Social on Amelia Island, Florida.

Gilbert’s Social is owned and operated by Chef Kenny Gilbert. I was eager to try this place because I was impressed with Chef Gilbert’s run on Top Chef (Season 7 in Washington, DC). I was intrigued when I read that he was developing a “North Florida regional barbecue style.” I had to try it!

Gilbert’s Social is a fun space and the décor gives the vibe that you’re chilling in someone’s home. Though barbecue is a key part of the restaurant’s menu, there are additional creative southern dishes served. Chef Gilbert warmly greeted me and graciously spent some time talking barbecue with me. 

Chef Gilbert then gave me the full tour of my northern Florida barbecue special:

I’m not going to give my typical rundown because I’m writing about this experience in my book. I will highly recommend the alligator ribs, the jerk chicken, pork spareribs, and pulled turkey drumsticks. The side dishes are quite good with the field peas and the potato salad being quite spectacular. I finished this meal with a decadent, warm chocolate bourbon pecan pie with some ice cream.

Warm chocolate bourbon pecan pie


Later that night, I went to a Jacksonville, Florida favorite–Jenkins Quality Barbecue. I was too stuffed to get a full meal, so I just got a slab of ribs. At Jenkins, ribs are laid upon several pieces of white bread and drenched in a mustard-spiked sauce. Man, what it tasty. I think this video says it all:




BBQ Research–Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Charleston, SC


I’ve long been a fan of Rodney Scott since I learned about him more than a decade ago through the Southern Foodways Alliance. I’ve been to his family’s restaurant in Hemingway, South Carolina a few times. When I decided to write Black Smoke, I knew that he was a “must get” interview.

Chef Scott was so giving of his time during an extremely busy period of his life. He was keeping things humming at his Charleston, South Carolina restaurant, and he was in the process of opening up a second location in Birmingham, Alabama. He was so great to get insight into where he’s been and where he plans to go. Sorry, y’all, but I’m not going to give too much detail in this post because I’m saving most of it for me book. I will give you a rundown of my meal. 

Barbecue tray

Pork spareribs–thin cut, incredibly smoky, with a slightly sweet finish.

Chicken–great flavor, I think due to the spice rub.

Pulled pork–just what you’d expect from a whole hog cooking specialist–great flavor, vinegary (but not overpowering) with a nice kick of red pepper.

Collard greens–soft, with nice shreds of smoked meat mixed in. 

Other side dishes–the beans, coleslaw,  macaroni and cheese and potato salad were solid options. 

Drink–I don’t get Nehi soda in Denver, so I was grateful to swig it.

Nehi grape soda

BBQ Research–North Carolina Edition

After doing my The President’s Kitchen Cabinet event at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina, I took a couple of days to visit some select African American-owned barbecue joints in North Carolina.

Keaton’s Barbecue, Cleveland, NC

Keaton’s Barbecue, Cleveland, NC

My first stop was Keaton’s Barbecue in Cleveland, NC. This place has been open since the 1950s, and it specializes in something called “dipped chicken.” Dipped chicken is fried chicken that is drowned in a thin, spicy barbecue sauce. I first heard about dipped chicken in this Garden & Gun article written by Jed Portman. Portman describes dipped chicken as: “North Carolina’s answer to Nashville hot chicken.” Here’s a recipe if you’d like to make some at home.

Dipped chicken meal, Keaton’s Barbecue

In addition to the dipped chicken, I got green beans, a barbecue sauce-infused coleslaw, hamburger buns as bread, and some Sun Drop soda (something I don’t get in Denver). The dipped chicken was good, but it didn’t “wow” me. Everything else was pretty standard. I’m glad I tried dipped chicken, and I will try to make it at home.

Backyard BBQ  Pit, Durham, NC

Backyard BBQ Pit, Durham, NC

My next stop was Backyard BBQ Pit in Durham. This place was recommended to me by North Carolina barbecue expert John Shelton Reed. If you haven’t read his book Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecueit’s a must-read for understanding this regional style. Fortunately, John was able to join me. The interesting thing about this place, in addition to its old school vibe, is that its menu isn’t confined to the North Carolina regional style. For example, there are beef options on the menu. Yet, it does have the North Carolina standards which I did order.

The chopped pork shoulder was excellent: delicate amount of smoke, light vinegar flavor, and a nice amount of pepper. The same could be said of the chopped turkey which is also prepared in an Eastern North Carolina style. I’m seeing more turkey treated this way in African American barbecue joints. The spareribs were fatty and drenched in a wet sauce, but I like it that way. The hush puppies were spot on as well. I can see why Clay Aiken loves this place (he even signed his name on the wall).

Melvin Simmons, Backyard BBQ Pit

I really enjoyed chatting with owner Melvin “Big Paulie” Simmons. I definitely recommend this place!


Grady’s BBQ, Dudley, NC

Every once and awhile, I visit a barbecue joint that is truly superlative. Grady’s BBQ is that place. It’s a true temple of Eastern North Carolina Style Barbecue.  Read more about Grady’s here

I really loved this meal. Everything was well-seasoned and satisfying. The chopped pork was succulent, and all of the sides hit the right notes, especially the lima beans seasoned with pork. Here’s my video:

Steve and Gerri Grady are a wonderful couple, and I’m not sure how much longer they’re going to be operating this restaurant. If you’re in the Raleigh area, and you’ve got some time, you need to roll though. Just make sure you call before heading over since they have limited hours. This place is definitely on my top ten list for best barbecue in the U.S.

BBQ Research–Houston, Texas Edition

Let me first write this: Houston is a serious eating town. If you have a diverse palate, you need to book  a trip to this city and stay several days. I was focused on African American barbecue joints, but I did sample some other cuisines. The food (Himalayan fried chicken, Vietnamese crawfish boil, and Palestinian fried chicken) was amazing. Whew! OK, on to the barbecue:

Lenox Bar-B-Q and Catering


This was my first stop. It’s a takeout place, so I ate the barbecue on the hood of my rental car. I ordered beef brisket, chicken, spareribs, macaroni salad and coleslaw. Pretty standard stuff here. Of all that I ordered, I liked the spareribs the most.

Ray’s BBQ Shack

For a mid-afternoon on a Friday, this place was JUMPIN’! Much more crowded than I expected. I can see why.

The food is pretty fantastic. I ordered beef brisket, chicken, pork spareribs, turkey breast, hot links, barbecue beans, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and banana pudding for dessert. Of these, the chicken, spareribs and turkey were the best. I highly recommend this place.

Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue

Pizzitola’s has a very interesting backstory. It first started in the 1950s as “Shepherd Drive BBQ” run by an African American couple named John and Lela Davis. It is now run by others outside of the family. I had beef brisket, pork spareribs, a Czech-style sausage, coleslaw, and potato salad. Of these, the sausage was the best. Everything else was pretty standard.

Triple J’s Smokehouse

I rolled to this place and a Friday night, and I thought I was in a club. Old school funk was blaring with a group assembled on the patio, and there was a steady flow of to-go orders. I wasn’t too hungry, but fortunately some other people joined me. I ordered beef brisket, boudain (a Creole sausage made of seasoned pork and rice. It’s usually spelled “boudin.”), chicken, hot links, pork spareribs, barbecued beans, dirty rice, green beans, and potato salad. The best of these were the boudain (nice texture, peppery), the hot links (coarse grind and spicy), and the pork spareribs (thin cut, and great flavor).

Gatlin’s BBQ

Such a great dining experience. Gatlin’s does so many things right. I ordered beef brisket, chicken,  hot links, pulled pork, venison sausage, turkey, coleslaw, collard greens, dirty rice, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad. The real standouts were the brisket, ribs and venison. I was surprised by the pulled pork . . . it was made in North Carolina style with a healthy dose of vinegar and red pepper. I liked it, but I wonder how Houstonians feel about it. The collards and mac ‘n’ cheese were great sides.

Burns Original BBQ


When the late Anthony Bourdain made one of his filming trips in Houston, he made a stop at this joint. His research staff served him well. Of a trip full of spectacular barbecue, this took the slight edge as my favorite place. I ordered beef brisket, chicken, hot links, pork spareribs, baked beans, dirty rice, green beans, mac ‘n’ cheese, and potato salad. The spareribs were amazing . . . a slight char on the outside, a little chewy, and well-seasoned. The chicken had nice skin on the outside, and moist on the inside. The brisket was flavorful, and the hot links had the right amount of spice. I highly recommend this place!

Soul Food Scholar Featured on Denver’s Channel 7!

Thanks to Micah Smith for interviewing me about the current trends in soul food. This segment is part of Denver Channel 7’s on-going tribute to Black History Month.  Here’s a link to the full article. Enjoy!

Soul Food’s Backstory

Have you ever wondered how the term “soul food” came into existence? Well, here’s the backstory!

I hope you enjoy Episode 1 of my “Soulful Bites” series produced by Ascender Communications.

Episode 1: How Black People Got ‘Soul’ (-Part 1)