The scene: Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue is a landmark of the genre. The North Carolina mainstay has been rated in the nation’s Top 20 barbecue eateries, wins all sorts of local awards including best Raleigh restaurant of any kind, and draws a dedicated mix of area faithful, traveling BBQ roadtrippers and office workers and government employees, as it sits in the heart of downtown (but with ample public parking within a block).
The urban street front location stands in stark contrast to most of its rural roadstop national peers of this vintage, making it pretty easy to stop in when visiting Raleigh – in fact, Bono did just that and then had the restaurant cater U2’s show when the Irish supergroup came to town.
Reason to visit: Pulled pork, hush puppies, pork rinds, fried chicken
The food: The signature of North Carolina style barbecue is chopped whole hog, an entire pig smoked, chopped and then seasoned with a vinegar-based sauce.
But Clyde Cooper was a bit of a rebel in this regard and always preferred whole pork shoulders because he could trim them to his liking, use just the best meat and avoid all the parts of the pig he considered “junk.” It was a more expensive way to do it, and less common at the time, but he believed in quality, and to this day, Cooper’s uses just shoulders for its signature dish – or one of many – pulled pork.
That’s just one of the many quirky things about the menu here. The other half of this equation is the pork skin from the shoulders, which have always been used for homemade crackling, or fried pork rinds, served in a plastic basket full of half rinds and half the best hushpuppies I have ever tasted as a house extra along with your meal. Most people nosh on the rinds like chips, some add one of the BBQ or hot sauces on the table, but old time faithful often add them into their pulled pork sandwich for crunch – a strategy worth trying.
Because its roots are more Southern than just barbecue, there is a lot here you won’t find at your modern style BBQ joints that specialize in just smoked meat and a few sides. For instance, there is BBQ chicken, by the piece or chopped pork-style, but there is also exceptional fried chicken, and in either case you order by your preferred meat, white or dark, an interesting wrinkle.
The menu is big for a place like this, and there are a lot of different ways to order, with trays (one meat, slaw and the side of hush puppies); dinners (one meat with choice of two veggies and hushpuppies) and combos (choice of two meats, two sides and hush puppies) as well as BBQ sandwiches and a few random items like the pork chop sandwich.
More meat: Other BBQ meats include beef brisket, the Texan barbecue signature that is not as common in these parts, as well as ribs, a favorite of smoked meat fans everywhere. The brisket could be a bit more moist, but it’s quite tasty, while the ribs are excellent.
Carolina BBQ, done right: The standout is the pulled pork. You can find ribs and fried chicken as good as these superlative examples elsewhere, but you will be hard pressed to beat Cooper’s in terms of Carolina style vinegar scented chopped pork – which they just call chopped BBQ. Unfortunately, this style is often too dry and/or too vinegary, but they hit the perfect sweet spot (maybe it’s the shoulders) and it is delicious.
A side of Southern bliss: The sides also deeply reflect the regional cuisine, with fried okra, butter beans and collard greens in addition to more universal BBQ staples like potato salad, cole slaw and mac & cheese, along with some more rarer local specialties such as the baked beans simmered in Cheerwine, an old fashioned Southern soda that is a staple consumed with barbecue, and Brunswick stew, a sort of chili-like concoction of tomatoes, beans, chopped veggies and meat, usually (and in this case) pulled pork.
The macaroni and cheese is not the best you’ll find, but noteworthy in its experimentation, using a mix of elbows and bowties. On the other hand, the hushpuppies are amazing, and these are fried fritters made of corn meal, a dish that often sound better than they taste and tend to be either dry or hard, but the log shaped version here is crispy outside, light and delicate inside. There’s a lot and it’s tough to choose, but the good news is it is also heard to go wrong.
Finally, there is a bin of bags of pork rinds for sale to go by the door so you can take part of your Clyde Cooper’s fix with you.
The history: In 1938, Clyde Cooper took the fifty dollars he had saved and used it to open a Southern food and barbecue restaurant in downtown Raleigh. It proved a wise investment, as Cooper’s BBQ became and remained immensely popular.
Half a century later, Cooper sold it to Debbie and Randy Holt, and five years ago, the current longtime owners were forced to move out of the original 1884 building, but relocated just down the street.
Many of the original wooden booths were relocated, as was the signature green awning, now inside, and the vast array of photographs, memorabilia and pig-shaped novelties (like the porcine neon in the window) that had accumulated over the years. There are still stools at a diner-style counter overlooking an open kitchen, the main seating area in the middle with all the booths, and another row of stools against a small dining counter on the backside.
If you had never been to the original Clyde Cooper’s you could easily believe this one had been here for eight decades – well, maybe except for all the neon.
Pilgrimage-worthy? Yes, this is a key stop on any tour of America’s pantheon of BBQ joints.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Cash only: Clyde’s does not accept credit cards but does provide an ATM on-site
Details: 327 S. Wilmington Street, Raleigh; 919-832-7614; https://clydecoopersbbq.com/
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/greatamericanbites/2019/08/08/bbq-road-trippers-owe-themselves-visit-clyde-coopers-raleigh/1954555001/