Gas up the car for one more trip. For Eater Barbecue Week, contributor Robert Donovan explores some of the establishments tucked around South Carolina and states closely surrounding the region. Today, it's a closer look at Grady's Bar-B-Q at 3096 Arrington Bridge Rd., Dudley, North Carolina. For more hidden gems, check out True BBQ, B's Cracklin' BBQ, Big T's, and Scott's Bar-B-Que.
Located in the middle of eastern North Carolina, 10 miles south of Goldsboro, and 80 miles north of Wilmington, the town of Dudley, North Carolina is the sleepy kind of place you’d picture if you were looking for a country barbecue joint. Out past the cornfields of Dudley, you'll find Grady's Bar-B-Q. The stark white building housing the barbecue establishment sits at the merger of two country paths, Sleepy Creek and Arlington Bridge Roads. Actually, Grady's isn't even in Dudley proper. It's not on the way to anywhere, unless you make it.
Should you start a barbecue joint if you can’t handle the smoke? The origin of the barbecue establishment Grady's begins on July 4, 1986. Current owner Stephen (or Steve) Grady's brother opened the restaurant in a renovated service station, and two days later proclaimed that the barbecue business wasn't for him. "He couldn't handle the smoke. He couldn't do it," says Steve. His brother offered him and his wife Gerri the restaurant. In 1986, Steve worked at the sawmill and ran a farm. Gerri was recently unemployed, but she helped out the one day her brother-in-law's place was open, and together, she and Steve figured they could take over. Steve had cooked hogs his whole life, helping his grandfather, the local pitmaster, and Gerri had her family's recipes for sides. They took over the restaurant while Steve continued on with the sawmill and farm, while also cooking hogs. Eventually Steve retired from the sawmill and went full time with Grady's BBQ in the mid '90s and even gave up some of the responsibilities of the farm.
This July 4 will mark their 30th anniversary serving barbecue. I asked Steven how long he planned on doing this, and he replied "I guess it all depends on if I live or die. There are no guarantees in life. I'm 81 years old and the older you get the closer you get, you know? I guess I'll go till I don't."
The restaurant is a simple, cinderblock building flanked by a pit house and a huge stack of seasoning wood. The dining room has a few booths, like those you could expect to find in an old soda shop or bowling alley. Each table is set with a squirt bottle of the ever-present (in N.C. barbecue joints) Texas Pete and vinegar sauce that's tangy and complex with cider vinegar and enough chile flakes settled to add fire to a plate of pork — though it doesn't need it.
Place your cash-only order through a small window into the kitchen, where the sides of steamed cabbage, black-eyed peas, slaw, potato salad, and collards are made fresh from Gerri's family recipes. The hushpuppies, served in little paper envelopes, are light, little crispy pillows of love. The sweet tea is brewed fresh and is sweet.
The clientele is familiar. Not just to Gerri as she takes their order, but familiar to any rural barbecue restaurant — agricultural workers on their day off, families after a baseball game, and a pair of brothers sharing a meal. "We've been coming here for years— every Saturday at 11:00 a.m.," one of the brothers told me, "There's not much like it anywhere. Maybe Pete Jones' place up the road." Pete Jones' barbecue, also known as Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC, is about an hour up the road towards Greenville. "We keep coming back."
Aside from barbecue junkies and locals, Grady's remote location keeps them relatively under the radar, despite the press from Southern Foodways Alliance, Our State magazine, and mentions in regional barbecue books. I make wide, out-of-the-way trips to Grady's whenever I'm in the eastern part of the state, frequently taking multiple hour detours just to have a plate of Steve's pork and Gerri's sides.
Four days a week, Steve splits his whole hogs into halves and smokes them over oak and hickory in a smokehouse just a few feet from the restaurant. What makes Grady's barbecue some of the best eastern N.C. style is the perfectly-smoked meat mixed with the right amount of skin, fat, and outside brown bits. It's all chopped into a such perfect ratio that every bite gives you tender juicy meat, a crunch of skin, a little pop of fat, and the deep smoky caramelization of outside brown. Every time I go, it's a new revelation. Even short periods of time away — you somehow forget how damn good it is.
There are places that have been around longer than Grady's that are getting by on nostalgia and familiarity alone and have abandoned the slow, attention-greedy process of cooking whole hogs over real wood and making scratch sides every day. I don't know if it's the less-exacting crowds of more accessible locales or just the reality of generational drift from the "old way" of doing things, but those places suffer. Their quality isn't what it was. Some survive, but most do not. Grady's still produces some of the best barbecue, not just eastern N.C. style, but any that's being served today. Barbecue devotees talk of 100-mile barbecue, meaning you'd drive 100 miles for it — I've driven twice that, multiple times, to go to Grady's.
It's not just the wonderful barbecue that draw fans to Grady's, the unassuming owners are just as much a part of why people speak so highly of the place.The Gradys are welcoming people. Steve is willing to listen to a fumbling photographer ask him the same questions he's probably been asked dozens of times before. Gerri walks through the dining room, checks on customers, makes sure someone helps carry bags of food to their cars, and grabs their hands to look them in the eye to say thank you for coming by. There's no pretense here, just great food.