I’ve long believed that some foods rewire your brain when you taste them. Through some combination of surprise and intensity, they forever alter your perception. Nordic salty licorice, with its breathy ammoniac undertones, is one example. Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, an Italian red wine that tastes like a glassful of liquid violets, is another. Or how about a bowl of truly great pho, burbling with singed aromatics and prickly, piney culantro – one taste, and you’ll never think of a bowl of soup the same way again.

North Carolina barbecue, well really, Eastern North Carolina barbecue, is yet another mind-expander. I had my first encounter with this unique sub-species of wood-smoked meat when I was about 8 years old, at an outdoor neighborhood party billed as a “pig pickin’.” A recent transplant to Raleigh from Connecticut, I had eaten “barbecue” in New England and was probably expecting grilled hamburgers and hot dogs.

But then I saw aluminum catering trays laden with dish after dish I did not recognize: Brunswick stew, corn sticks, hush puppies, fried okra and a plate of plain-looking pork. I remember the next moment clearly: I leaned in and took a big whiff.

“Oh yeah, the vinegar thing takes some education,” Wilson County Barbecue co-owner and head chef Spencer Brantley said. “It really lets the meat speak for itself. When you smoke a hog for 8-14 hours, do it slow, over real wood, it’s the best thing. But if you’re not used to it, Eastern North Carolina barbecue can be a shock.”

Back in the day, my first lungful knocked me onto my heels, but I went back for more, drawn in by garlic and hot red pepper flakes, brown sugar, oak smoke and rendered fat. Eating that first plate of North Carolina barbecue, I remember the aroma of apple-cider vinegar in my nostrils as I chewed. I think about that olfactory memory to this day – the sensation was both marvelous and a bit like eating bacon while descaling a coffee maker.

The Barbecue Pork at Wilson County Barbecue. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When Wilson County BBQ (Brantley refers to it simply as “Barbecue”) opened in Portland just before the pandemic, I suspected its sharp, pit-smoked pork might not fly in Maine. Heck, it’s divisive even among native North Carolinians, some of whom prefer the more universally recognizable, tomato-based “Lexington” barbecue. As a nod to intrastate culinary diversity, Wilson County also serves terrific Lexington-style baby back ribs ($35/rack), but Brantley is careful to emphasize that he’s more interested in introducing people to the Eastern North Carolina variety.


“We did get a lot of pushback when we first started. People would say that there was too much vinegar when they ate the pulled pork ($24/plate) and also had collards and slaw. I mean, it’s maybe true that if you’re eating all those things at once, it could be a little bit of a vinegar bomb…maybe. But that didn’t make complete sense,” he said. “We realized the problem was that we left bottles of the barbecue sauce (their “yellow sauce”) on the table and people were complaining after opening the top and adding it to the plate without tasting anything first. When they’d say ‘it’s very vinegary,’ we’d be like, ‘Yeah, you just poured four ounces of vinegar on your plate.’ So we stopped giving it out and putting it on the tables, and all the comments just went away.”

After a few years and hundreds of staff meals workshopping his family recipes to adjust the acidic zing of the yellow sauce, Wilson County’s pulled pork hits a fine balance of tartness. It’s nowhere near as sharp as what you’d find in Eastern North Carolina, and that’s OK. It’s tangy enough.

If you’re vinegar-hesitant, you should go easy on the caraway-infused, slow-braised cabbage and the chicken-and-pork Brunswick stew (all sides $9) – a side that might be my favorite version of the lima-bean-and-corn-studded dish I’ve eaten in decades.

Instead, load up on creamy mashed potatoes served with blond pepper gravy, baked Great Northern beans slow-cooked that get smoked in shallow hotel pans before serving, creamy mac and cheese and the restaurant’s excellent butter-and-sour-cream biscuits ($4).

Derek Gambale mixes the biscuit batter. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For main dishes, Wilson Co.’s chicken entrees are also fantastic, especially the crisp fried chicken that gets an aroma boost from garlic and ground ginger mixed into the dredge ($16/$24), or stewy, seasonally appropriate chicken and dumplings (elsewhere sometimes called chicken and pastry), brimming with thick, flat, noodle-style dumplings and shreds of white meat ($19).

If you (like me) really want what Brantley calls an extra “kiss of vinegar that hits the nose when you first smell it,” you can request it when you place your order at the restaurant’s bar or counter. Just be prepared: Staff can sometimes be curt or even downright rude over the phone and in person. On a recent visit, I asked a member of the team (divisions between back- and front-of-house are blurred at Wilson Co. Barbecue) to direct me so I could collect my order of decent-enough but underwhelming buttermilk and key lime pie ($7/slice). He stood and pointed, wordlessly. Was he aiming at the back door, the back bar, the kitchen pass? “Just over there,” he said, unhelpfully, before walking away without another glance.


For me, a little occasional brusqueness is an acceptable trade-off to dining at Wilson Co. Barbecue. The indoor space manages to feel welcoming despite its high-ceilinged, warehouse-like geometry. Leather bar seats, butcher-block tabletops and whitewashed exposed brick all create warmth in the dining room. You’d never guess that the space seats nearly 100 people, plus another 100 on the patio, where live music, canvas tents and fire pits add a woodsy vibe to the restaurant’s aesthetics.

You might also never guess that Brantley and his business partners own and operate all four Rí Rá locations, including the original on Commercial Street. “We love that cozy, Irish pub vibe, but we wanted Barbecue to be homier,” Brantley said. “The whole team and I were in North Carolina. We drove to all my favorite barbecue places before we started this. The best places were always cafeteria-style with fluorescent lighting and basically zero atmosphere. I thought we could do more and put more on the design, not just rely on it to be 100% supported by the food.”

Brantley has done that and more. As a person who grew up ducking into hole-in-the-wall dives for my barbecue fix, it’s remarkable to me that I can sit somewhere fun and modern, sip a Hendrick’s gin-based cucumber martini ($13) or basil-infused bourbon lemonade ($13) while I devour an extra-large order of savory-sweet, oniony hush puppies ($9 for seven) that are every bit as good as the ones I’d eat at a grimy strip mall in Ayden, North Carolina.

Consider my mind expanded.

Inside Wilson County Barbecue at a quiet moment. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2

WHERE:  82 Hanover St., Portland. (207) 956-7788wilsoncountybarbecue.com 


SERVING:  Monday to Thursday 11 a.m.–10 p.m, Friday 11 a.m.–midnight, Saturday 9 a.m.–midnight, Sunday 9 a.m.–10 p.m,

PRICE RANGE: Snacks and sandwiches: $8-$19. Plates: $16-$35

NOISE LEVEL: American Bandstand

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes


BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails


BOTTOM LINE: If ketchup-based sauce and beef brisket are all that comes to mind when you hear the word, “barbecue,” it’s time for a visit to Wilson County Barbecue in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. Opened by Spencer Brantley and his business partners from Ri Ra, the restaurant is “a whole-hog-focused, sub-regional restaurant” specializing in Eastern North Carolina barbecue dishes. Chief among them, tangy, pit-smoked pulled pork that gets a jolt from apple cider vinegar and red pepper flakes. It is terrific, as are the deep-fried hushpuppies that derive sweetness from pureed onions, the tomatoey Brunswick stew of shredded chicken thighs and pork, and pretty much all the sides from collard greens to pepper-gravy-drizzled mashed potatoes. Service is hit-or-miss, and the current range of desserts seems like a step down from the high bar set by the dearly departed banana pudding, but strong, well-balanced drinks and a welcoming, cozy ambiance make up for most of the restaurant’s minor challenges.

Smoked collard greens at Wilson County Barbecue Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

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