Mike Neal serves up a healthy option for barbecue lovers

By Tina Vasquez

Published in Carolina Country

In a state where pork barbecue is king, a man who does turkey barbecue is something of an anomaly. But Mike Neal is OK with that — and in his defense, he’s smoking whole, North Carolina-raised turkeys in an Eastern North Carolina style. Traditionalists will get the vinegary bite they love, with a fraction of the fat.

Neal is the owner of Hickory Tree Turkey BBQ), a quickly growing barbecue business in Greensboro. As of December, Neal has a storefront, two catering trucks and was recently approved to do wholesale. He also is looking to expand to another location, possibly Durham. Neal took over Hickory Tree from its original owner, Joe Roundtree, a North Carolina native who, after receiving a heart transplant, began smoking turkeys as a healthier alternative to pork barbeque.

Roundtree sold both pork and turkey barbecue out of Hickory Tree’s storefront, and Neal has struggled with whether he should follow suit.

“North Carolina is all about pork barbecue, and I’ve asked myself if I should be doing pork, but at the end of the day I’m happy with what we’re doing,” Neal says. “Turkey has this halo over it as a ‘super protein’ because it’s a meat without many of the adverse health issues that come with other proteins. People come in all the time and tell me they’re glad we’re around because they have health issues that have made pork off limits.”

Anyone who has cooked a large turkey for Thanksgiving knows the birds are hard to cook well. They overcook easily. As Neal puts it, pork — especially cuts like the shoulder — are “tough and can take a beating.” Turkey, not so much.

“You have to be very intentional with turkey; it requires finesse,” Neal explains. “You not only have to make sure it doesn’t dry out, but you also have to debone the whole thing. It’s a very labor-intensive process.”

Neal is a pit master in his own right, though he’s taken an untraditional path to the food world. He began as a chemical engineer. A job offer took his family to Memphis, Tennessee, where he came to appreciate its distinctive ribs, but longed for North Carolina’s peppery, vinegar-laden chopped pork.

This homesickness, coupled with the high stress of his job, led Neal to smoke meats on the weekend as a way to unwind. His wife began inviting new friends to their home, and Neal was more than happy to man the smoker as others socialized.

“My wife might have 50 people over one weekend, but as long as I was in my element and able to smell some hickory smoke, I was able to relax,” Neal says.

Neal swapped recipes and techniques with colleagues in Memphis, and even competed in the Memphis in May world championship barbecue contest. But before long, North Carolina called his family home.

Once back in the Tar Heel state, Neal began re-exploring barbecue spots, which is how he encountered Roundtree, who was looking to close shop so that he could retire and travel. Neal began helping Roundtree run the business, but an unforeseen illness had Neal taking over. The rest, as they say, is history.

Neal has since interjected new life into Hickory Tree, with one dish in particular becoming signature: Crack-n-Cheese®.

Crack-n-Cheese®

Crack-n-Cheese®

It came about by happenstance. Neal and his team were headed to Winston-Salem’s Burke Street Food Truck Festival, and it was the first time they were selling macaroni and cheese. Just hours before the festival, he decided the recipe needed “more panache,” so he wrote up the menu board for the day with something he called Crack-n-Cheese®: a hearty cup of Neal’s gooey macaroni and cheese, topped with a generous helping of smoked turkey, which is sprinkled with turkey skin cracklin’s and finished with a drizzle of Hickory Tree’s signature sweet and tangy barbecue sauce.

The dish has developed a cult following, and this year Neal is hoping to develop another version with more greenery, perhaps incorporating slaw or collards.

While Hickory Tree has its fair share of indulgent treats, the beauty of Neal’s eatery is that it offers a little something for everyone.

“Growing up, having a meal meant it was time for family, friends, and fellowship,” Neal says. “Everything in Hickory Tree is made with love. We do this work because we want to offer our community food that’s different and food that’s healthier; food they can only get here.”

About the Author

Tina Vasquez is a journalist originally from Los Angeles. She is currently based in Winston-Salem, where she is a full-time immigration reporter. In her spare time, she writes about food.