DURHAM, N. C. -- Someday there could be a Q near you. But for now, Scott Howell and his two partners are focusing the growth of their outstanding Q-Shack barbecue joints in the South.
Howell, 40, earned celebrity chef status here with the upscale Nana's, one of the area's foodie favorites. After he bought the building that Nana's is in, he found himself with additional space and decided to go downscale in price and ambience, but certainly not in quality.
"We wanted to do a place where we would like to eat -- the guys I work with and the guys that cook around here," he said. "We always get together and do pigs and stuff and drink beer. It seemed like a good fit."
Indeed, the Q-Shack leads a new generation of North Carolina barbecue restaurants. The old school sticks to whatever meat the region prescribes. In the eastern part of the state, it's the whole hog, chopped and smothered in vinegar. In the west, it's the shoulder, and the vinegar is mixed with a tomato sauce. And then there are the Southern home-cooking side orders; Howell calls them homestyle.
At the Q-Shack, the meat comes from all over. There's hickory-smoked pork butt; chili-rubbed beef brisket, Texas style; mesquite-smoked chicken and turkey; St. Louis-cut pork ribs; and mesquite-smoked beef sausage. Plates ($7.50-$8.50) come with two sides and hush puppies; sandwiches ($4.95-$6.50) come with one side and the pups.
The brisket and pork butt, Howell said, are cooked "overnight real slow." The pork is hand-pulled, with no gristle or fat, and the attention to detail is evident in each bite.
Among the favorite dishes is, believe it or not, a salad. The Q-Cobb salad ($5.95) is romaine lettuce and peppers with smoked chicken, beef brisket, avocado, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, and a choice of homemade ranch dressing or chipotle blue cheese, served with a few homemade hush puppies, of course.
Side dishes ($1.50) are homemade potato salad made with new potatoes and chopped eggs; sliced cole slaw that's not too sweet or creamy; barbecued beans; and macaroni and cheese. The fried okra is one of the few things that are frozen, but you'd never know. The Q-Shack makes its own ice cream, and the "fried pies," like fruit turnovers, are made daily by the pastry chef at Nana's. Beverages include beer and the regional cherry-flavored soda Cheerwine. And, of course, there's iced tea.
The original shack, self-serve, has some outdoor and porch seating; tables with benches are inside. The pig logo is all over, and a large, colorful abstract pig painting graces one wall.
As the franchise grows (there's now one in Raleigh, with more on the way), so will its dining options, Howell said, perhaps in the form of a full-service restaurant. The challenge, of course, will be to retain its down-home appeal and upscale quality.
The Q-Shack, 2510 University Drive, 919-402-4227. Open daily.