As much as barbecue brings people together across the country, there are also some historical influences and regional distinctions that inspire a bit of friendly (and delicious) competition between the masters of ‘cue. For the rest of us, that means a tasty variety of flavors and styles to sink our teeth into. Here’s a rundown of America’s best BBQ and where to find it.
Its sheer size means Texas contains four distinct regional variations of barbecue. Central Texas is home to the style that is most commonly referenced when talking Texas ‘cue, and for good reason. Slow and low brisket is the ticket, and despite the popularity of sauces, Texas brisket speaks for itself without a sauce in sight. Oak coals smoke their flavor right into the tender meat, which is seasoned very sparingly. In addition to brisket, homemade sausage and beef short ribs are often on the menu.
The other parts of Texas have a style all their own, influenced by their neighbors. In South Texas, Mexico lends a hand in the form of barbacoa. East Texas features chopped beef while in West Texas the style is more akin to traditional grilling, cooking meats over direct and high heat.
Where to Get It: While the original Black's BBQ is located in Lockhart, about a 45-minute drive from Austin, there’s also a spot in the city. A beef rib might clock in around 30 pounds, and the lunch buffet will leave little room for dinner. The line at Franklin BBQ in Austin forms four hours before the place even opens, and although that may be a deterrent for some, the brisket and banana cream pie are more than worth it.
Barbecue in Kansas City has been going strong since the early 1900s when a man named Henry Perry served his dry rub from the depths of his inner city pit. Local pit masters will dry rub everything in sight, including beef and pork ribs, grilled or smoked chicken, pulled pork, smoked sausage, brisket, and smoked turkey. Meats are cooked with a dry rub but sauces are served generously and offered in a range of varieties; most recipes include tomato and molasses for a tangy sweet flavor and thick texture.
A Kansas City specialty known as the burnt ends consists of the charred tips of smoked beef or pork brisket which prove to be a crispy and flavorful side dish or satisfying contents of a sandwich.
Where to Get It: Gates Bar-B-Q may have a long line but it moves fast, as everyone is eager for their signature sauce and the burnt ends from Gates’ hickory wood fire. BB'S Lawnside Barbecue serves up the good stuff with a live blues band accompaniment and plenty of cold beer to wash down those saucy pork ribs.
A Tennessee barbecue is essentially a pork party. Pork ribs, pulled pork, and pork butt are cooked very slowly over a low-temp hickory wood fire, resulting in a meat so tender it can’t even manage to keep itself on the bone. It’s seasoned with either a wet or dry paprika-based rub before the smoking begins. The sauce is vinegar- and tomato-based and tends to be on the thinner side, but for sauce lovers, it will do just fine.
Where to Get It: Not only loved by locals, Central BBQ slings their sauces and spices across state lines to satisfy their legion of hungry fans. Meats abound at this joint, so everyone can try their favorite meat Central BBQ-style.The dry rub ribs at Charlie Vergos Rendezvous are the stuff of legends, and the Vergos family has been luring hungry rib-lovers into their back alley basement eatery in downtown Memphis since 1948.
Barbecue enthusiasts rejoice, for North Carolina claims to offer two distinct styles of ‘cue from east to west. The Eastern style includes smoking the whole hog and then chopping it up into an unidentifiable mixture of light and dark meat served with a pepper and vinegar sauce. In the east, fried pork fat referred to ascracklin’ is often served alongside a meal, adding a crispy texture and salty flavor to tender meats.
On the Western side of the state, more focus is given to the pork shoulder, and tomatoes and brown sugar are added to the vinegar sauce and served on the side as “dip” used for dunking. The specialty in the west is to caramelize the skin, creating a crispy layer that surrounds the juicy meat.
Where to Get It: Located 30 minutes south of Greenville in Ayden, North Carolina, is Skylight Inn, one of the few remaining BBQ joints still using the old-fashioned method of slow smoking overnight using nothing but wood. Stick with the pork, cornbread, and vinegar slaw to get a taste of traditional Nor Car ‘cue. Still the mood for seconds? Lexington BBQ or Wilber's will not disappoint.
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In South Carolina, whole hogs smoke for an entire day on very low heat, making pork the meat of choice.
South Carolina lies within the “mustard belt” (by far the most appealing of all belts) and the German immigrants who settled there made their contribution to ‘cue in the form of a pungent mustard-based sauce that is sometimes referred to as “Carolina Gold.” For those prefer to hold the mustard, additional sauces such as vinegar and pepper, light tomato, and heavy tomato are also in rotation.
Where to Get It: Pit masters at Sweatman's BBQ spend the entire week smoking hogs and making sides for a knock out weekend-only buffet where no item should be left untasted. Go hog wild on their selection of mustard sauces in varying shades of yellow.
To find out how the rest of America does barbecue, including Florida's tropical-influenced pig roasts and smoked mullet, visit Fodor's.