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Coleslaw Is a Condiment in the Carolinas

Don't even think of calling it Carolina BBQ if you don't top your sandwich with slaw.

Published July 26, 2021.

Everyone is clear on the Carolina barbecue rules, right? Eastern-style is whole hog, basted with vinegar-based sauce with red pepper and no tomato. Lexington-style (it’s not called Western-style) is pork shoulder, basted with a sauce of vinegar, red pepper and a little tomato. South Carolina-style is either of the above, sometimes (not everywhere) served with a mustard-based sauce.

All of it is pork, all of it is cooked slowly over wood. No wood? No sale. Go somewhere else.

Pretty simple, right? But there’s still one issue to discuss: coleslaw. When restaurants outside the Carolinas try to cook the Carolina styles, that’s the one thing they get wrong.

Carolina coleslaw picture

Coleslaw is a whole conversation in the Carolinas. Outsiders find it strange, but we like our coleslaw on things. A Carolina burger is properly topped with chili and slaw. A Carolinas hot dog is the same: Chili and slaw, along with mustard and onions.

And a barbecue sandwich? If it’s not topped with slaw, it’s naked.

The common denominator in all of those situations is proper slaw placement: On top. Not beside. On.

Carolina coleslaw isn’t a side dish. It’s a condiment. That means it has to be chopped fine, almost minced. This isn’t the milky dish of cabbage shreds you might get with a pastrami sandwich or a platter of fried chicken. It’s finely minced and usually not about mayonnaise. There are red slaws, sometimes called barbecue slaws, that have barbecue sauce mixed in, and mustard slaws that are yellow.

In Carolina barbecue restaurants, customers can't get enough of this spicy slaw. Once we tasted it, we had to figure out how to make it.  

The idea behind Carolinas slaw is texture: Finely minced slaw gives a little crunch and a palate pushback to complement the softness of slow-cooked pork, pulled from the tender parts of the pig. Carolina barbecue isn’t about smoke rings, like Texas brisket, or outside brown, like Kansas City, or bark, like St. Louis ribs. It’s about moist, soft pork, and the coleslaw gives it contrast.

At a classic North Carolina barbecue joint—at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, or the Skylight Inn in Ayden or Lexington Barbecue No. 1 in Lexington—even if you skip the sandwich, you can get a cardboard boat that’s half barbecue and half slaw, conveniently delivered side by side, so you can eat the two together. Or the barbecue comes on a plate with the slaw, so you can add it to the barbecue as you go along.

A lot of things are changing in Carolinas barbecue. Texas brisket and sausage are invading, gas cooking is pushing wood aside. There are even barbecue restaurants now that don’t serve sweet ice tea. But if you want to know if you’re at a classic, old-style barbecue joint, there’s still a simple way to tell: Check the slaw.

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