I’m an admirer of smoked meats and cheeses. I consider smoking to be one of the underrated culinary skills. The new eatery on College Road, in the T.J. Maxx shopping center, Mission BBQ, smokes as well or better than anyone in town. Thus, it’s a welcome addition to the local food scene.
One brief confession: I was inclined to like Mission from the get-go. They are staunch supporters of the Wounded Warrior Project, a phenomenal charity which helps injured veterans. I wouldn’t give the food a rave review if it didn’t earn it, but I’m glad I didn’t have to make that call with Mission BBQ. Locals can happily give their money knowing they’ll support a top-flight charity and get an excellent meal.
Mission BBQ makes no secret of its patriotic roots. They opened September 11, 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The owners wanted to give back to the people who protect and serve our country. A daily rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” plays at the restaurant, during which all service rightly stops. The walls are adorned with homages to the troops, first-responders and even astronauts. One far wall features a jersey and helmet from the football team of each service academy (Army, Navy and Air Force). An adjoining wall displays a UNC-Chapel Hill jersey which seems a touch out of place, but it’s never a bad idea to play to the preferences of a local audience.
Patriotic pride aside, the best reason to visit any restaurant is still the food. Smoking imparts a specific flavor and carries the scent of the wood into the meat. When done properly, smoking makes the flavor fuller and richer. I worked my way through a good deal of the Mission BBQ menu over several visits. I’ll spare you any suspense: If it’s smoked, it’s delicious.
Most of the meats are not heavily seasoned, but flavor doesn’t lack. Six different barbecue sauces, conveniently stored in a cardboard box designed for a six-pack, adorn every table. Diners are sure to love some and hate some, but there will be at least one for every taste. The Memphis Belle will likely appeal to the largest number of guests as a tasty but pretty routine barbecue sauce. I was partial to the Smokehouse myself, with hints of burnt carbon offsetting the tomato and vinegar. I could have done without the Tupelo Honey Hot. While it was spicy enough, I find honey a bit cloying.
Wait … scratch that “one for every taste” line. Conspicuously lacking is anything mustard-based. (Sorry, South Carolina.)
The brisket is offered lean or wet, meaning with or without additional fat. I’m partial to the lean, but diners won’t go wrong either way. The beef comes with a caramelized crust—a crispy outer layer brimming with flavor. When served as a sandwich, doused in the Memphis Belle sauce, it becomes a delightfully messy treat.
The turkey really shines. Smoked birds can dry out, but this version tastes as moist as any smoked poultry could hope to be. The thin layer of peppered skin gave it a little bite, and that tell-tale pinkish hue cues in diners that it’s been smoked for just the right amount of time. Adding one of their sauces gives it a touch more moisture and flavor, too.
No barbecue joint would be complete, or even welcome in North Carolina, without pulled pork. Mission BBQ manages to keep the meat moist without letting it stew in its own juices ‘til it’s soggy. Each porcine bite carries the rich, fatty flavor of the meat in a blend of spices I’m sure they’ll never share. I admit: As a non-native, I’m still partial to beef, but Mission BBQ makes a strong argument for pork.
Skin-on fries, crisped to one of the most beautiful golden browns I’ve seen, will complete any meal. They need little else but the hint of salt they’re given.
The mac and cheese is a delight because it comes with something a lot of versions don’t have: actual cheese. I could actually see strands of cheese coming up with my fork as it left the bowl. No yellow powder “cheez-like” substance here.
While ribs, both spare and baby back, are offered in five- and 10-bone servings, they also come in single-bone portions; I sampled one of each. Each taste moderately peppery, with meat that slides away from the bone. In one case I simply dropped the bone entirely, as it was in no way attached to the flesh. I have to give the edge to the pork ribs on this one. Mission makes them with a beautiful use of the flavor-rich pork fat without marring the texture of the chewy rib meat.
I admit, dessert comes as a bit of a whiff. The peanut butter pie envelops itself in a graham-cracker dusting I found gritty; though, the peanut butter itself is delicious. And the peach cobbler crust, though commendable, didn’t win more points as it tastes like canned peaches. I know they fit the motif, but I just love fresh peaches too much to ever do that to them.
The service could not be friendlier. The staff can’t do enough for you, and gladly answers questions quickly and accurately. The dining room stays clean at even the busiest hours, and dinner service is fast and efficient. In a half dozen trips, I’ve never waited a full 3 minutes from the time I swiped my credit card to the time I sat down to eat. I don’t know how they do it so well (I’m guessing that military precision plays a role), but I’m more than a little impressed.
Mission BBQ is the total package. This is their first restaurant in NC (they have others in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia), and it offers delicious food that Wilmingtonians can feel good about buying. OK, it’s not the healthiest food I’ve ever reviewed, but I think we can all do a few more minutes on the treadmill for a taste of brisket this good—and to make sure a couple more bucks make their way to the Wounded Warrior Project.
351 S. College Rd.
Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sun., 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.