Sometimes I think the more BBQ I eat, the less I know. I grew up in eastern NC, and my favorite local (Chareleston, SC area) BBQ place has long been Momma Brown's, which serves the coastal Carolina vinegar and pepper 'cue I grew up with on a large buffet that usually features great fried chicken, hash, hush puppies, banana pudding, and more to boot. I have to admit it's the whole buffet experience that keeps me coming back. The 'cue itself is heavily sauced, which means it's moist but sometimes mouth-puckeringly strong, and if it's cooked with wood, which I doubt, the scent of smoke is vastly overpowered by the vinegar.
All of which is to say, I've had my eye out for some alternative local 'cue, something smokier, subtler, and more sublime. I'd already tried JB's Smokeshack and wasn't overly impressed. I've taken a pass on Melvin's, not being a fan of the Bessinger style of BBQ. Hearing good things about The Hickory Hawg, my wife and I decided to give it a try.
Yes, it's in a strip center. Yes, it's very clean (a good thing in my opinion, but some people think cleanliness corresponds to lack of soul when it comes to BBQ). But you've got to admire these folks. Their BBQ is entirely cooked with hickory wood (as their name implies), and they only serve it one way--Lexington, NC/"western" NC style, which means it's sauced with a thin vinegar and tomato mixture. In an area where V&P 'cue and mustard 'cue battle for the people's affections, you have to give credit to The Hickory Hawg's owners for the courage of their convictions.
Now, I lived quite a few years in the western piedmont of NC, and I never became a fan of the Lexington style of BBQ. The Hickory Hawg makes me think maybe I went to all the wrong places. The Hawg's chopped pork (from the shoulder) was clean, moist, and redolent of smoke. And the sauce was a far cry from the typical Lexington sauces I used to encounter that seemed little more than ketchup cut with vinegar. The Hickory Hawg's sauce had near-perfect balance--sweet, tangy, and a little spicy. It also wasn't as thin as many Lexington style sauces. The folks at The Hawg top their chopped 'cue with the sauce rather than mix it in, but it doesn't just sit there like icing on a cake (say, the way a Memphis or Kansas City sauce would). It's still thin enough to start to soak in a little. And once you start moving the 'cue around with your fork, it soaks in even more. In other words, you can exercise some control over it. And there's plenty of extra sauce in still-cold-from-the-refrigerator squeeze bottles on every table. The sauce was so good, I was still scraping it off the plate with my fork long after the chopped pork was gone. I've never done that before at a BBQ place.
Now, as good as the chopped pork was, The Hickory Hawg's baby back ribs outshone even it. Doused with the same lip-smacking sauce, they were meaty, smoky, and falling-off-the-bone tender. I was smelling the smoke on my fingers several hours (and hand washings) after the meal. Nice. My only complaint about the ribs is they could have been a little warmer, but that's always the dilemma with BBQ--once it's out of the pit, how do you keep it warm without drying it out?
I really can't think of one bad thing to say about this place. The service was friendly. The Hawg's hushpuppies were giant, fresh-from-the-fryer, and slightly sweet. Their cole slaw was creamy and good (they also serve red slaw, but I didn't try it). Their hash reminded me of Brunswick stew, but that's okay with me, since I grew up with stew as a traditional BBQ side. Their coconut and chocolate cream pies were of the light-as-air, whipped variety - maybe not the purist's ideal, but perfect after the heavy meal we'd eaten. The pies' crumb crusts were either homemade, or the owners have found a great supplier for the things.
If a repeat visit confirms all of my initial impressions, I will have to qualify Momma Brown's as my favorite local BBQ buffet but The Hickory Hawg as my favorite local BBQ, period. And there will definitely be repeat visits. For one thing, The Hawg also serves chili-and-slaw burgers, another of my favorites. But if I get a burger, I'll still have to get a side of ribs. And steal some of my wife's chopped 'cue from her plate. Their 'cue is just too good to miss even once. How good? The night we visited, The Hawg had just won a local BBQ contest, beating out, among others, Tidewater Foods and Catering (BlackJack Barbecue), former SC BBQ champions and top 5 Memphis in May finalists. I've had Tidewater Catering's BBQ a couple of times, and it is very good. And yes, The Hickory Hawg's is that good.
Web site: http://www.hickoryhawg.com/
[Note: We've edited this post to update the website, which has changed since this was posted. -- The Chowhound Team]