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How to Eat Your Way Across North Carolina

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Visit North Carolina

Explore the state’s culinary adventures, from the mountains to the coast.

Welcome to All the Levels of Adventure, a field guide to North Carolina’s top outdoor and culinary attractions.

The only thing more adventurous than the terrain in the Tar Heel State might be the food. Just ask Lee “Natty” Trebotich, chef and owner of Food For Adventures, which provides chef-driven backcountry meals and experiences throughout the state, and beyond. “We’re proud to be located in the heart of Asheville, North Carolina, and we take inspiration from our surroundings,” Trebotich says. “From the mountains to the sea, North Carolina’s culinary offerings are second to none.”

With 13 national park sites, including a national seashore to the east, North Carolina’s distinct geography gives way to diverse culinary offerings from widely-debated barbecue styles to fresh-off-the-boat seafood to regional delicacies like sonker and livermush. Eat your way across the state with these food-centric activities.

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Along the Coast

Calabash Style Seafood, Brunswick County: Fried fish is common throughout the South, but the Calabash style stands out from the crowd because of its light, crisp batter. You’ll find hundreds of restaurants along North Carolina’s coast advertising Calabash-style seafood, but the town of Calabash in Brunswick County is the seafood type’s birthplace. There, two sisters, Ruth Beck and Lucy Coleman, helped popularize the seafood genre by opening a pair of fish camp restaurants in the ’40s. You can still belly up at Beck’s, one of the original restaurants — if you go, order the shrimp and flounder. 

Cradle of ‘Cue: One of the biggest debates in the state surrounds the best styles of barbecue: Eastern or Western, also known as Lexington style. Chefs that praise Eastern-style barbecue use the whole hog and smoke it thoroughly over wood, before dousing it with a simple vinegar-based sauce. Instead of covering up the meat with a thick sauce, the thin vinegar concoction enhances the natural flavor of the pork. It’s distinctive, it’s delicious, and you can find practitioners of the artform on the state’s Historic Barbecue Trail. Start in the small town of Ayden, where you can get a chopped pork sandwich at the Skylight Inn, before moving to Bum’s Restaurant for a full plate with pork, slaw and collards. 

Oysters: Oysters are an integral part of North Carolina’s coastal culture, and the tasty bivalves thrive in the sounds and marshes inland from the coast. They grow wild, like the large and buttery Crab Slough oysters found in the Outer Banks’s Pamlico Sound, but they’re also cultivated on small, artificial reefs, like the briny Croatan Select, located near the Croatan National Forest. The NC Oyster Trail strings together a number of restaurants and shellfish farms, like Cape Fear Oyster Company, where you can explore the farm and sample oysters fresh out of the water. 

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The Central Piedmont Region

The Original Krispy Kreme: The origin story of Krispy Kreme’s iconic hot, glazed doughnuts begins with a secret yeast recipe purchased from a French chef in New Orleans by Vernon Carver Rudolph. In 1937 Rudolph rented a building in Winston-Salem and started baking doughnuts. Public demand prompted Rudolph to cut a hole in the side of his bakery, and thus, Krispy Kreme was born. There are Krispy Kreme locations all over the world, but you can only see the doughnuts being made in Krispy Kreme’s flagship store in Winston-Salem. 

Sonker: Sonker is often mistaken for pie, but this hot, soupy fruit-based dessert is its own dish that originates from Surry County. Follow the Sonker Trail to sample this native dessert at seven different establishments, each with their own distinct take on the local delicacy. Anchored Bake Shop uses seasonal fruit as the base of its sonker, while Rockford General Store serves a sweet potato sonker. Some sonkers are even served with a warm, vanilla dipping cream. 

Red Hot Dogs: In Johnston County, or JoCo for short, the hot dogs are red, bright red. The county, located near Raleigh, has two hot dog producers that make red-hued dogs: Carolina Packers and Stevens Sausage Company. Locals are proud of their dogs and you’ll find red hot dogs served at dozens of restaurants throughout JoCo. Use the Local Red Hot Dog Trail to navigate your way through hot dog bliss, from Barefoot’s Country Store & Grill in Four Oaks to Fry Daddy’s in Selma. Along the way, see if you have a favorite — the Bright Leaf dog from Carolina Packers or Stevens Red Hots. Regardless of your favorite, order it Carolina style with chili, slaw and onions. 

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In the Mountains

Cheese: The Western North Carolina mountains are rich with dairy farms that whip home-grown milk into everything from cheddars that are aged in a cave to soft goat cheese. The WNC Cheese Trail links together 10 farms, plus wineries and specialty cheese shops, mapping out an adventure touring working creameries and strolling scenic dairy farms. Attention blue cheese lovers, be sure to try the Green River Blue, a particularly unctuous cheese from Looking Glass Creamery.

Livermush: Dubbed the “poor man’s pate,” livermush is a loaf made of minced pork liver and other pig scraps mixed with cornmeal that’s chilled, sliced and fried. Don’t let its description turn you off, it’s rich and seasoned, served as a sandwich or the anchor to a meat and three, and it’s a staple in Western North Carolina. In October, the town of Shelby hosts North Carolina’s official livermush festival: Mush, Music & Mutts. And the town of Marion celebrates its mush every June at Marion’s Livermush Festival, where you can sample a variety of different versions of the local staple and participate in contests like pig calling and pig squealing.

Ice Cream: What’s better than a single scoop of ice cream? Multiple scoops of ice cream. The new Hendersonville Ice Cream Trail links together 12 locations serving homemade ice cream, milkshakes, custards and ice pops. If you want to taste the dessert straight from the source, head to McConnell Farms for a dense, buttery treat featuring local fruits. Meanwhile, Celtic Creamery serves super thick, Irish-style ice cream.