Liquid Gold: Regional BBQ Sauces
Upgrade your barbecue sauce with help from six legendary pit masters.
Charles Vergos' Rendezvous ( 52 South Second St.; 901-523-2746) is famous for its spice-rubbed ribs, and John Vergos, son of founder Charlie, still smokes them the way his father did when he opened the place in 1948: He cooks the pork ribs over oak charcoal briquettes, bastes them with a mix of vinegar and water, and seasons them with a paprika-heavy spice blend before serving with the sauce on the side. "Our sauce is not too heavy," he says. "I like the little mustard and vinegar bite." The recipe is a long-held family secret, but chefs in Food Network Kitchens ordered a few bottles and reverse-engineered the recipe.
South Carolina's distinctive yellow mustard barbecue sauce is by no means ubiquitous — you have to go to Lexington County to get the real deal — and it's not a universal favorite, either. Barbecue junkies are as divided on this one as they are on politics. Jackie Hite of Jackie Hite's Bar-B-Q in Leesville ( 467 East Columbia Ave.; 803-532-3354) has been barbecuing in his corner of South Carolina for 60 years, and he's a trusted source for honest-to-goodness mustard barbecue sauce. He smokes his pork over hickory, pulls it off the bone, then flavors it with his famous sauce. If you're ever in town, stop by for a Friday pig pickin': He roasts a hog for 22 hours and then lets everyone have at it.
If you ask pit master Keith Allen what makes barbecue barbecue, he'll always tell you: It's the sauce. "Before that," he says, "it's just hickory-cooked pork." Keith, owner of Allen & Son ( 6203 Millhouse Rd.; 919-942-7576) in Chapel Hill, N.C., fires up his pit at two o'clock every morning and smokes 700 pounds of pork a day, dressing it with a traditional eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce. His famous sauce is tart and spicy yet light enough to let the taste of the long-smoked pork stand out. "It takes 12 hours to cook this meat," he says. "I surely don't want to cover that up." His recipe is a closely guarded secret, so our test kitchens ordered a ton of the stuff to come up with this close match.
Any Texan will tell you that barbecue isn't about the sauce — it's about beef and smoke. Wayne Mueller, of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas ( 206 West Second St.; 512-352-6206), agrees, to a point. "My grandfather [founder Louie] told me that if someone leaves talking about how good your barbecue sauce is, you've failed." So Wayne smokes his beef ribs and brisket over oak with nothing more than a salt-and-pepper rub. But he serves sauce on the side, for dipping. He wouldn't call it a traditional barbecue sauce — just a thin, oniony tomato dressing that complements the beef. "I've never tasted any other sauce like it," Wayne says.
L.C. Richardson was born in Mississippi, but he has been making quintessential K.C. 'cue since 1986, the year he retired and started doing what he really loves: smoking meat with hickory wood. The specialty at LC's Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Mo. ( 5800 Blue Pkwy.; 816-923-4484), are the burnt ends — fatty, blackened edges cut from smoked brisket — doused in his Kansas City-style sauce. It took L.C. years to perfect his sweet and tangy tomato-based concoction. "I threw it out by the barrel until I got it right," he says.
Even some serious barbecue junkies haven't heard of mutton dip: It's a highly localized western Kentucky specialty, designed to pair with barbecue mutton (sheep). Patrick Bosley, of Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Ky. ( 2840 West Parrish Ave.; 270-684-8143), has been smoking mutton and making mutton dip all his life. His grandparents bought the Moonlite in 1963, when it was a tiny run down bar with a barbecue pit in the back, and Patrick's business is still going strong, to the tune of 1,000 orders a day. The tangy house dip is acidic enough to cut through the rich, gamey meat, and the mutton gets a double dose: It's basted while it is being smoked, then again when it's served. (The dip tastes great with any strongly flavored meat.)