Lawrence Barbecue celebrates North Carolina flavors and ingredients, from its classic whole hog barbecue to oysters sourced from the coast
By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Lawrence Barbecue seems to have found a winning recipe – take one part deep reverence for barbecue tradition, add one part fine dining training, and season with a whole lot of rock star attitude and fun. The end result gets you one of this year’s Best of Durham barbecue awards, a fitting trophy for chef Jake Wood and his crew.
The key to Jake’s success is focusing on a few things and really knocking them out of the ballpark (or in Lawrence Barbecue’s case, the shipping container park aka Boxyard RTP). “We’re doing very simple things,” he says. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to put our twists on modern classics.” Those twists include a crumble of Zapp’s Voodoo Potato Chips atop the uber-popular mac and cheese ( Jake estimates that they’ve sold close to 20,000 orders of the side since they opened in June 2021). There was also the beloved, and now sadly gone, smoked brisket birria tacos. (On the birria side of things, Jake notes that the demand got so high that his team couldn’t keep up given the small space of their kitchen, but that brisket birria will make a future appearance as its own stand-alone concept.)
Then there is the barbecue – pulled pork, naturally, but also smoked turkey, Texas-style brisket, ribs and chicken thighs. The pork is available on its own, but can also usually be found in some sort of sandwich, as can the brisket. The best way to enjoy everything is to order one of Lawrence Barbecue’s sampler plates, with your choice of meats and sides.
Another menu staple that sets Lawrence Barbecue apart from traditional barbecue joints is the focus on oysters. “I’ve never seen an actual raw bar and on the half shell oysters that are being sourced like we’re sourcing ours,” Jake insists. He partners with N. Sea Oyster Co. out of Hampstead, North Carolina, serving its Dukes of Topsail Sound oysters raw or sometimes broiled whenever he can get them. And when the oysters aren’t available, Jake leans on other coastal connections for seafood specials, like a recent offering of fried soft-shell crab sandwiches.
Upstairs from Lawrence Barbecue’s well-trafficked ordering window is the Lagoon Bar, a mini Tiki-style oasis created by Jake and his team. Here you can wash down your sampler platter with a tropical cocktail or a cold can of Leisure Land Lager, a collaboration between Lawrence Barbecue and Raleigh’s Trophy Brewing Co.
Every detail at Lawrence Barbecue comes together to give a dining experience unlike any other. The casual, counter-service style of ordering is complemented by the intense attention to detail Jake and his team provide to every aspect of the meal. The fun, whimsical atmosphere (look for the surfing and Mexican wrestling memorabilia inside) incongruously manage to go hand in hand with Jake’s fine dining background.
“I wanted to go and find what was very specific and special [to barbecue] in different parts of different states,” he says, “and figure out what I like and incorporate that into what we do on a high-profile level.”
Jake credits his grandfather, Allen Lawrence, with instilling in him a profound love for food, especially for whole-hog barbecue and oysters. Lawrence Barbecue is the manifestation of that adoration, of a childhood spent watching his grandparents gather oysters in the coastal marshes of North Carolina, of a love for family-run barbecue joints and of a deep desire to feed people truly good food.
“There’s just a little bit of everything that I love put into [Lawrence Barbecue],” he says, “which, I mean, what else could you ask for?”
Durham diners would agree, which helped launch the new restaurant right to the top of this year’s list of best barbecue in the Bull City.