By: Alexander Basek
America is a melting pot, and barbecue, the most American of foods, is just as diverse. You might be tempted to spend the summer grilling in your backyard, but when there are so many different kinds of smoked meats to try from sea to shining sea, why not explore all the true BBQ that America has to offer? From dry rub in Memphis, to Vinegar-based sauces in North Carolina, to brisket with a ring of smoke in Texas, you’ll get a little bit of everything as you crisscross the map. Here are ten of our favorite cities for indulging in BBQ.
Austin & Lockhart, Texas
Austin: Texas’ state capital. Lockhart: The BBQ Capital of Texas. There is little doubt to that claim with Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market located in this BBQ-obsessed town just 30 miles outside of Austin. Kreuz is BBQ at its most elemental: sausages, made in-house, served on brown butcher paper. No sauce, no sides. Still hungry? Order a side of Mac ‘n’ cheese or German potatoes. Back in town, the current reigning champ is Franklin Barbecue in East Austin. Lines form early here (seriously, go at 11am, lest they run out) for the beef brisket, which is cooked low and very slow – for eighteen hours, in fact, and is Franklin’s top seller. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, the brisket is nearly matched by the pork ribs, which have a “secret seasoning” that verges on criminally addictive.
Seems counter-intuitive, but yes, you can find some very impressive BBQ in Chicago. Like New York, it’s more about curating different styles from across the country: you’ll find pulled pork and pork pastrami at Pork Shoppe, authentic Texas sausage at Smoque BBQ, and North Carolina-style (vinegar sauce ahoy) at Lillie’s Q. Even Lille’s gives you a little bit of everything, as they boast the option of five different sauces to go with your Carolina Dirt dry-rubbed baby back ribs. Note: The Bucktown location of Lillie’s Q is temporarily closed for renovation from fire damage. The French Market location opens at 10am, Monday-Thursday.
Less orthodox than Austin, the BBQ here takes from all over, befitting the diversity of cultures in Houston. Closer to the city center you’ll find Gatlin’s, serving St. Louis-style ribs and brisket. Thirty six year barbecue veteran, Goode Co. Texas Bar-b-q boasts a packed menu of jalapeno pork sausage, beef brisket, and sweet duck. Virgie’s Bar-B-Que does “real pit-style” ribs, beef links, and brisket in the ever-familiar meat-and-three format. The Houston World Championship BBQ Contest is part of the Livestock Show and Rodeo, so, um, you know the quality of the beef will be top notch.
Think of Kansas City as the land of barbecue plenty; whatever it is that’s tickling your fancy, you’ll likely find it here, be it pork, chicken, beef, or some delicious mixture of all three (we can dream). You’d be remiss to skip the iconic Arthur Bryant’s and Gates. Like Philadelphia and cheesesteaks, debates rage over which is superior, with Arthur Bryant’s serving the best burnt ends and Gates serving superior ribs. The two restaurants even battled for BBQ glory on the Travel Channel show Food Wars, with Arthur Bryant’s coming out on top. Recently, locals and meat expert Anthony Bourdain have been singing the praises of Oklahoma Joe’s. Who can blame them when they offer “Pig Salad” (just your typical garden salad with warm pulled pork and barbecue sauce on top)? The coolest part? Oklahoma Joe’s is located inside a gas station, so if you can get past that, you’re in for a finger lickin’ treat.
Lexington, North Carolina
North Carolina BBQ is a unique beast; the eastern style has a vinegar-based sauce, while the western, or Lexington style, uses ketchup in the base. It’s the Mason-Dixon of barbecue styles in the state. Why does Lexington get called out by name? Because it hosts the yearly Barbecue Festival. The eponymous Lexington Barbecue is a beloved destination, serving up an impressive pork shoulder. Swing by The Pit, in downtown Raleigh and immerse yourself in Texas-style brisket, barbecue turkey, and unique barbecue tofu. About 10 miles south of Greenville, you’ll find the Skylight Inn in Ayden. While the self-proclaimed BBQ capital hosts a very limited menu (you can only order a chopped pork bbq sandwich with coleslaw, or chopped bbq and sides), the slow roasted, whole pig is worth the trip.
If horse racing is the sport of kings, and Louisville is home to the Kentucky Derby, and nearby Owensboro plays host to the International BBQ Festival, does that mean BBQ is the food of kings? Let’s go with yes. The festival boasts some of the region’s best, including Owensboro favorite Moonlite BBQ (they serve a BBQ buffet, so bonus gluttony points there). Volume is important in Louisville, as Mark’s Feed Store boasts the “World’s Largest BBQ Sandwich,” while Bootleg BBQ (tagline: “So good it oughta be illegal”) can dish out a whole BBQ chicken or Cajun ham for less than two sawbucks. Doc Crow’s, run by two Vietnamese brothers, boasts a plethora of whiskies (it is, after all, located on Whiskey Row) to pair with St. Louis style ribs.
Home of Graceland, Stax records, and dry rub ribs, Memphis celebrates its BBQ heritage with the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. If you want the paramount of dry rubs, hit the Rendezvous, which everyone recommends and is worth hitting once. However, true aficionados know that the chopped pork sandwich at Payne’s, a former garage with erratic opening hours, is the best BBQ in town. And you don’t even need to leave the airport, which boasts an outpost of the highly esteemed Neely’s, open bright and early each morning. For the art of fine, fall off the bone barbecue, Corky’s gets right to the point with a tender, hand-pulled pork shoulder and slow-cooked, pit fire ribs, all marinated in sweet and tangy sauces.
We like Jack’s BBQ in Nashville for the sign alone — neon flying pigs, people! — but the downtown location certainly helps. This being Tennessee, pork is the name of the game, and the pork shoulder sandwich is the star player. Maintaining the pork theme (it’s BBQ, of course the pork theme must be maintained) is the nearby Hog Heaven. The name is misleading, as they’ll smoke, pull, and slather just about any meat with bbq sauce and put it on a bun. On August 23 and 24, you’ll be able to try them all with a side of tunes at the Music City Festival and Barbecue Championship (they know what they do well in Nashville).
New York City
Beards. Brooklyn. BBQ. Attack of the killer B’s! OK, not exactly, but you’ll find some of the most interesting versions of the genre in the New York‘s hippest borough, at Fette Sau and Fatty ‘Cue, both in South Williamsburg. Fette Sau takes the more traditional route, while Fatty Cue integrates the Southeast Asian flavors of chef Zak Pelaccio. Back in Manhattan, Hill Country BBQ serves up Texas-style sausages, chicken, and brisket. Looking for a bit of a New Orleans flair? Virgil’s Real Barbecue is a massive roadhouse that serves up NOLA style barbecue shrimp, chicken fried steak, and racks of ribs. Pair your meaty entrees with a side of hushpuppies and buttermilk battered onion rings with a blue cheese dipping sauce. If you want to maximize your BBQ sampling, hit the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party June 8 and 9.
The twin lodestars of barbecue in this town on the Mississippi are Pappy’s Smokehouse, which turns out Memphis-style ribs, cooked low and slow, and has even been endorsed by the mayor, and Super Smokers, perennial top ten finishers at Memphis in May. A recent competitor has emerged in the form of Bogart’s Smokehouse, run by a former Pappy’s employee (isn’t that always the way?) who goes a little bit further than Pappy’s with creations like BBQ pork skins, pastrami, and the aptly named “sausage fatty,” three sausage patties on a Portuguese bun with a vinegar and pineapple topping. Yum.