Pigs Up in Smoke/Moka Café in Calabash is Brunswick County’s destination for Lexington-style barbecue.
While driving down Hickman Road, just at the Indigo Farms Market, you may have seen a human-sized pink pig hopping about and waving at cars. Do slow down a bit if traffic allows, honk a greeting (Greg Rollo, the man under the pig head, counts them, once marking 1,400 in a day) and be sure to let the seductive aroma of pork waft into your car from the old black smoker next to the driveway.
If you are the least bit hungry, you need to signal a turn, park and take the steps into the country cafe that is the home of Pigs Up in Smoke/Moka Café.
The restaurant has two names for a reason. At around the same time the morning and lunch eatery called Moka Café on Hickman Road was closing, Rich and Brenda Turner were looking for a place to serve up Lexington, NC–style barbecue in Brunswick County. Rich felt it was his mission to apply his 25 years of barbecue cookery to this restaurant. He and Brenda had been serving these delights — ribs, pulled pork, red and vinegar sauces, red slaw and banana pudding — to friends and family during their years in Brunswick County, and both felt it was time for a place to serve customers.
“We heard about this spot’s availability from a friend at church,” Rich says. “We came over and looked at it and really liked the country-style décor and rustic atmosphere of the place.”
They opened in late 2019, keeping the old name, an old Moka Café sign and some of the favorites from the menu for the longtime customers while adding their new name, their barbecue and a roadside smoker that entices customers with the delicious aroma its smoke sends out over Hickman Road. During the pandemic, they served clients take-out through a small window on the side of the building. Now customers can eat in or take out.
“In a short time, we realized people wanted barbecue most of all,” Rich says.
The restaurant still offers a late breakfast/brunch (opening at 10 am with Southern specialties like biscuits and gravy, eggs, chipped beef and more, hamburgers, chicken, egg salad sandwiches and homemade Brunswick stew. Side dishes include fried okra, slaw and more. However, Lexington-style barbecue (the ribs and sauce) reigns supreme.
Pulled pork, available as a plate or sandwich with Lexington red sauce or vinegar-based sauce, is served along with red slaw, a Lexington specialty in which apple cider and hot sauce give the cabbage a bit of twang. All of these items are available for eat-in and take out in individual plate and family-sized containers. They also sell their famous sauce, both the red and the vinegar, in Mason jars.
If your sweet tooth needs satisfaction, the restaurant still makes the Moka Cafe pies that local residents have known for years and still scoops ice cream. The Turners have added Brenda’s scrumptious banana pudding, a favorite that often sells out. Indigo Farms apple cider is their secret ingredient to making absolutely delicious apple cider donuts.
Pigs Up in Smoke has a steady flow of customers all day long. For example, recently I visited at around three in the afternoon, and there were two couples and a family of four enjoying barbecue. One of the couples was Stacie Colwell and Terry Bellamy, who sampled the pulled pork and the banana pudding and declared them to be delicious. The pair then ordered ribs and more pudding to take home. The next day, I saw Stacie by chance and she pronounced the ribs, “Meaty and delicious too.”
I took pulled pork, ribs and some Lexington sauce home with me, along with an apple cider donut. The pulled pork was sweet, tender and moist. My husband thought the ribs and the red sauce were “tasty and meaty.”
The Turners are committed to serving the best food using local ingredients (many from Indigo Farms) and to having the restaurant serve community groups, especially first responders and nonprofits.
Pigs Up in Smoke reaches people primarily through word of mouth and by its work in the community. And customers do pass the word. Yelp ratings consistently praise the place.
The Turners also have a food truck to sell food at events, which increases their reach beyond Hickman Road and also offers more opportunities for people to be delighted by their food.
The next time you are headed in the direction of Hickman Road, be prepared to wave and honk at the pig and do your taste buds a favor by stopping in for some delectable barbecue.
Want to go?
Pigs Up in Smoke/Moka Cafe
1542 Hickman Road, Calabash
Check the Facebook page for upcoming news and for updates on the location of the restaurant’s food truck.