By Laurie Paolicelli
In the wee hours of the morning, you will find Eric Browning, Pit Master at Hillsborough BBQ Co., is poking at the stack of burning wood in a compartment in the smokehouse area at the back of the restaurant. Once enough coals have mounded, Browning will shovel the embers into the cookers next to the fire pit. The heat and smoke will rise to cook the pork and chicken above the bright orange fuel.
Wood is stacked high and all over the place behind the restaurant on Nash Street. Tommy Stann, who opened Hillsborough BBQ Co. twelve years ago, dedicates time each week to gathering the wood, splitting it, loading and unloading it for use at the restaurant.
Welcome to Hillsborough BBQ on Nash Street
North Carolina is arguably one of America’s barbecue meccas. Many styles of barbecue can be found in North Carolina, but there are two styles that dominate the rest: Lexington style and Eastern style. Both are pork-based barbecues but differ in the cuts of pork used and the sauces they are served with. As it is with sports fans, you are usually on one team or the other.
But everyone loves pit barbecue. Historically pit barbecue was just that – meat cooked in the earth – but it can also refer to an enclosed, above-ground “pit” such as a horno or outdoor pizza oven. The meat is cooked slowly, using various hardwoods to flavor it.
Stann, who spent 20 years working as a landscaper before trading the heat of working outdoors for the heat of working in a barbecue pit, said he’s fine with the manual labor. He said he’s always been a blue-collar kind of person.
He’s also managed to run a successful restaurant that has established itself as a local landmark and favorite for visitors and residents.
“We’ve been voted Best Barbecue in the Area many years,” Stann said.
Of course, Hillsborough BBQ took from a hit from COVID. With a strong to-go menu, they closed the dining room without losing a big share of their business. Stann said he and his staff have accepted working with the realities of COVID as the new normal. Some guests continue to wear masks; others chose not to. There’s outdoor covered seating for those who prefer that.
Barbecue is the people’s food, but Hillsborough Barbecue has taken it to another level. It’s as good as any food anywhere, fine dining with a paper towel and disposable forks. It’s destined to find a spot of the famed North Carolina Barbecue Trail.
“Our barbecue is as good at 4:00 pm as is at 6:30 pm,” Stann says. “Come in for an early lunch, late lunch or early dinner when there’s nobody else in here — a way to stay safe and still support the community,” he says with a smile.
The Hillsborough BBQ Co. is at 236 S. Nash St. in Hillsborough. https://hillsboroughbbq.com
Sample Menu Items:
Pork Nachos – $10.79
A starter sized portion of tortilla chips smothered in cheese sauce, fresh black bean salsa, smoked pork, pickled jalapenos, and lime sour cream
Black Eyed Pea Sandwich – $9.99
Pan seared black eyed pea cake, lime sour cream, lettuce, and tomato on a French roll
It stays on the coals for about 15 hours. Served sliced with Texas toast (available Wednesday-Sunday, post-cooking weight.)
While Visiting Nash Street Hillsborough, Try Some Other Places
Whit’s Frozen Custard
Whit’s Frozen Custard of Hillsborough proudly makes frozen custard fresh all day, every day. Whether you create your own flavor with a sundae, milkshake, float, or our famous Whitser, or enjoy a scoop of vanilla, chocolate, or our weekly or daily flavor, they promise you the freshest, supreme frozen treat experience that we simply call a “smile in a cup.” https://whitscustard.com/locations/tag/Hillsborough
Eno Arts Mill
The Eno Arts Mill is an arts hub located in the historic Eno Mill in West Hillsborough, NC, managed by the Orange County Arts Commission and spitting distance from Nash Street. Galleries, food trucks and live music are often part of the fun. https://artsorange.org/enomill
Nash Street Tavern
Stop on by Hillsborough’s corner bar in the West End. They feature a diverse selection of domestic and craft beers in bottles and cans, as well as on tap. Their wines are all personally selected and the shelves are stocked to provide you with a variety of spirituous libations. Some guests settle in and order Nachos from Hillsborough BBQ right at their table. It’s that kind of community. Nash Street Tavern is proud to showcase local and regional bands on stage every Friday and Saturday night. https://www.facebook.com/NashStreetTavern
Right next to Hillsborough BBQ for curbside and pickup orders as of now, and their Neapolitan pizza is best right out of the oven. Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday 4:30 pm – 8 pm; Friday and Saturday 4:30 pm – 8:30 pm. https://www.napolihillsborough.com
Editors Note: Correction to last week’s story on the Burwell School. Anna Burwell had twelve children, not sixteen, as was reported.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.