Barbecue is pretty much its own food group in here in North Carolina, especially when you’re talking perfectly pulled, vinegar sauced, Eastern Carolina style. I’ve been raised with the understanding that vinegar based barbecue is the only barbecue and all others are inferior. I’ve recently been introduced to a place that could not be a better example of true, superior to all, Carolina style barbecue. Stephenson’s in Willow Springs, NC has what I think might be the best barbecue in our area.
When you walk in the door, someone who works there will make you feel right at home and welcome you to choose your own red checked table clothed table. I’m not positive, but I have to think that some of those ladies are descendants of Mr. Stephenson himself. I’m also pretty sure that when I was there, I heard one of them call to see if “Grandma” was working the register. If that doesn’t let you that this is a family owned, family run establishment, I don’t know what will.
When you sit down, they make sure to serve a small bowl of their perfectly crushed ice. This is of course to go with the pitcher of tea on the table (though you can also order other drinks). The sweet tea is true Southern sweet tea, so I usually opt to split it with the unsweet. With your own ice bucket and pitcher of tea, you can be sure you’ll have enough.
The menu at Stephenson’s is just enough. You can see in the picture that they don’t really have any crazy options, but cover all of your barbecue joint basics. Their fried chicken is amazing, but know you need to call ahead or wait about 30 minutes for an order. It’s worth the extra effort. They chicken is juicy and not overcooked. The outside is golden crispy perfection. I personally, am a huge fan of their Brunswick stew. It’s not as meaty as some of the other stews I’ve had which I like and is full of veggies. The Brunswick stew at Stephenson’s also has more of a tomato soup tasting base which I’ve never really had before but I absolutely love.
Now let’s talk barbecue. The barbecue at Stephenson’s is smokey, juicy, not greasy goodness. According to the NC BBQ Society’s review of Stephenson’s, their meat is slow cooked over coals helping to produce its rich smokey flavor. The meat is coarsely chopped and served up warm. This barbecue doesn’t have a lot of spice to it and that’s good for me. They have vinegar sauce on the table though for you to spice it up however you like.
The story behind Stephenson’s makes me love this place even more. Paul Stephenson, Jr. was a farmer who had hogs. After awhile, he began to realize he was on the wrong side of the hog game. Having never cooked barbecue before, he built a small building to cook and sell his pigs. More than 60 years later, Stephenson’s is a famous barbecue joint with a stellar reputation.
It’s definitely a haul for most of us to make it out to Stephenson’s but I can honestly say it is worth it. They do get busy, but seem to move things through pretty quickly. You can dine in and also call ahead for take out. They are open Monday – Saturday and their hours are seasonal.
- March – September 10 AM – 9 PM
- October – February 10 AM – 8 PM
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