This Small-Town North Carolina Barbecue Joint is Getting National Attention

Southern Smoke BBQ is worth the trip to Garland, N.C.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Smith Hardy

Everyone has their favorite: From West to East, barbecue can get controversial in North Carolina. Matt Register, a native of Garland and a fan of the Eastern stuff, is cooking it with the best of ‘em at his restaurant, Southern Smoke. It’s on the way—kind of—when you’re headed to Wilmington or its nearby beaches, and only an hour and change from Raleigh. Any way you slice it, a visit to Southern Smoke is well worth the detour. On the Western edge of Sampson County, Garland has under 1,000 residents, but it’s rich in agriculture and Southern flavor. Register’s restaurant is smack-dab in the center of the 1.1-square-mile town, and officially opened in 2014—before that, Register was smoking and grilling just for fun. “I was always a grill guy because I could stand outside, listen to music and drink beer,” he says. He credits the genesis of his career in barbecue to a book: “I read John Shelton Reed’s Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina BBQ and it changed me. It inspired me to start my own barbecue journey, using traditional techniques that had fallen by the wayside.” And since he started smoking the old fashioned way, on oak wood, he’s certainly made a name for himself. Register and Southern Smoke have been featured on The Today Show, he travels to share his dishes at festivals like Charleston and Wilmington’s Wine + Food and was named 2019’s Top 10 Best N.C. Barbecue by USA Today.

Back home in Garland, however, he’s keeping it simple, and the decision to stay in his small town was intentional. “If we were going to succeed or fail, the best thing for us was to do it in Garland. My focus was to build it here and do it our way,” he says. “I wanted it to be a bright spot, not just for Garland but our whole county.” His charming joint is exclusively open for lunch Thursdays and Fridays, and the limited menu is likely to sell out before close. The atmosphere feels like you’re right at home in your backyard; the space is small but packed with all the fixins’ and the menu changes daily.

After ordering from the chalkboard menu, head out back to find picnic tables and a wraparound bar that’s built from a 1965 Ford truck. Sell-out specials include Delta tamales—simmered in a spicy broth—and fried chicken sandwiches. Some mainstays are classics like pulled pork, slaw and ribs, but Register flexes his creativity when it comes to sides. “People love our barbecue, but the sides are just as important. We have funky, weird sides that people love.” Bill Smith, renowned chef of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, says he was blown away by Register’s creative vegetable combinations. “I immediately loved his point of view: the way he sees his cooking and the way it informs how he lives his life. Matthew is doing a cool take on a traditional North Carolina thing. The barbecue is top notch, and when I tried his collard chowder, it was both familiar and a surprise at the same time.” Taste anything on the menu at Southern Smoke and you’ll feel just that: familiarity, surprise and perhaps a pang of why didn’t I come up with that?

Register’s hospitality and Southern Smoke’s atmosphere, plus the squash casserole and fried chicken on the day of my visit, had me feeling right at home. Even if you don’t have Eastern N.C. roots like I do, take one trip to Southern Smoke and you might feel like you’ve been there your whole life.
Some of Register’s creativity is driven by local farmers (of which there are a plethora in Sampson County), who drop by with whatever’s in season that week or month. “We’re sourcing everything we can from local farmers. Sometimes we have a ton of squash, or a ton of sweet potatoes, and we work with what we get.” Register is joined in the kitchen most days by his right-hand man Rodolfo Sandoval, who started four years ago as a high-schooler looking to make some money, but is now crucial to the business, working events and developing new recipes with Register. “I was sitting outside talking to Rodolfo about soccer, and told him I needed a little extra help. He’s been with us ever since.” After Sandoval graduates from UNC-Pembroke, he’ll join Register full time at Southern Smoke. “Most people don’t realize that Rodolfo and I are the only ones that cook at the restaurant,” he says. While Sandoval and Register may be the only two cooking out back, it takes a village to run the place. “Most of our employees didn’t interview. They were either friends, customers or students
of my wife, who’s a local high school English teacher. Now they’re like family,” says Register.

Register is a self-proclaimed bookworm, and credits his collection of quirky cookbooks to his creativity in the kitchen. “Our house is full of books. I’ve got everything from The French Laundry Cookbook and Sean Brock’s Heritage to vintage books on Southern cuisine. We really want to expose our kids to all different kinds of things.” Family, which he mentions often, is a constant for Register and his business. He says that his dad, Tim, ‘manages the chaos,’ helping with everything from brining chicken to manning the smoker. His wife, Jessica, and three children, Taylor Grace, Nash and Harrison, serve as sounding boards for new recipes. “When I’m going through a process of new recipes, they’re the first I go to. Especially my wife, she just has an amazing palate. And she has no problem telling me when I’ve missed something.” He also named his two signature sauces after his children: Sweet Grace, a Memphis-style sauce and Two Brothers, a vinegar-based blend. Register says that he also draws a lot of inspiration from his wife’s Italian roots, where he’s learned to stretch outside his comfort zone of Southern cuisine. Jessica Register’s grandfather owned a barbecue restaurant in Sanford, North Carolina, and Register says he learned much of his business from conversations with him. “I can remember things he said to me vividly before we even started talking about a restaurant. I was just trying to gain knowledge and learn his philosophy,” says Register. “He never got to see Southern Smoke, but he was very influential in the early stages of my career in barbecue.”

While Register doesn’t have any formal culinary training, it seems that watching his family members cook turned out to be just as helpful. “I was so lucky to be surrounded by cooks in my childhood.” His first book, Southern Smoke, which was released in May, pays homage to a particularly special cook—his grandmother, Dorothy Hart. Many of the recipes in the book are from the influence of her kitchen. “There was always substance to her food, what most people would call soul. I don’t think she intended to cook food from the soul every day; it just seemed to happen… As a kid, I wondered why she would constantly be sending my grandfather out on a food delivery to someone I didn’t even know. But as I got older, I understood that food was her way of showing someone that she cared. When you were eating her food, you were family.” Register has certainly maintained that feeling in his own cooking. So much, in fact, he’s selling out his restaurant each day and is booked full with catering gigs across the state. As a result, he expanded his business and launched South Catering, the upscale sister to Southern Smoke. “We wanted to showcase the diversity we’ve been doing for several years now. It’s the more elegant side to Southern Smoke,” he says. The catering menu features items like smoked tomato gazpacho, pimento cheese crostinis and oyster shooters—but don’t worry, you can cater classic barbecue items, too.

At the root of it all, Register says that he hopes to celebrate the South and the history of Southern cuisine. “Growing up in Eastern North Carolina, I’ve always eaten barbecue, but I never grasped how important it was to who we are.” He says he hopes to teach people the stories behind the recipes in his book. “The barbecue guy is going to buy my book, but his wife will probably use it more,” Register laughs. It includes over 100 recipes from cornbread to catfish, as well as a condensed history of three regions of cuisine: Memphis and the Delta, the Low Country and of course, North Carolina. He delves into topics including: the age-old East vs. West N.C. barbecue debate, the origins of Frogmore Stew and why you should try a Kool-Aid pickle (hint: they resemble the bread-and-butter variety). There are anecdotes and historical references, like a tribute to the Gullah People and the legend of Country Captain (a curried chicken and rice dish). “I didn’t feel like I could share these recipes without including some sort of history behind them.” Register says that these regions have meant the most to him while cooking, and each recipe is something he has served at Southern Smoke or South Catering. “When you look at regions where we predominantly cook from in Southern cuisine,” he says, “these are it. These are places that have shaped the way I cook.”

Register calls his book deal ‘a dream come true,’ but he wasn’t sure at first if he had a story to tell. “When I sat down, I just started writing. It’s easy to write about something you really love.” He says that he hopes people read the book and learn something about Southern cuisine: Why is fried chicken important? How did okra get here? Why do we eat rice with everything? His book answers all of these questions and more. “A book about Southern food is really like a love letter about why this is important,” he says. “I finished writing knowing more about the food I cook than when I started.” Possibly the most important thing, however, is that you can actually make recipes yourself. In the book’s foreword, Smith agrees: “Matthew means for you to really use this book. He starts with the elemental, like in the Joy of Cooking, where they tell you how to boil water.” Aside from the storytelling and mouthwatering recipes, Register offers tips and tricks, like why he believes Duke’s Mayonnaise is always the best option or to make sure the butter for your biscuit mix is cold. There’s a page on what belongs in a Southern pantry—including Texas Pete Hot Sauce, made in Winston-Salem (“This classic hot sauce has a great balance of heat and salt.”) and a hot tip on mustard (“No need to get fancy. I find that the vinegary acidity of Piggly Wiggly brand mustard goes well with most recipes”). Register also includes recommendations for further reading, including Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots and The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Register’s book is an anecdotal how-to of Southern food, filled with nostalgia and humor. “I did not want to write a chef-y cookbook. You can get most of these ingredients at any regular grocery store.”

Register isn’t just teaching with his cookbook. He coaches high school women’s soccer at nearby Harrells Christian Academy and he visits other local high schools to talk about his food and his business. He even recently judged a Shark Tank-style food truck competition at Lakewood High School in Salemburg, N.C. He says these relationships are important to him, as many of his employees are high school or college-aged. He talks to them about cooking, owning a business and finding success in your hometown. “I hope some local kids can look at the success I’ve had and say ‘If he can do it where he is, I can do it where I’m from.’ You don’t automatically have to go to a big city to start something. I can provide for my family and lift up the community where I am.”