On the Road: Best BBQ Ever

There's nothing quite like authentic barbecue. Whether you prefer righteous racks of ribs or pit-smoked pulled pork, Kansas City- or North Carolina-style sauce, we've got FN-approved BBQ picks from coast to coast.

Photo By: Buff Strickland ©Buff Strickland Photography, 2014

©Art Meripol

Austin

Though Austin isn't a place that's running low on barbecue options, Franklin Barbecue is a joint worth waiting in line for. Here, barbecue is taken so seriously that patrons line up before the doors even open. With a little patience, you can fill a tray with expertly smoked meat — ribs, pulled pork, sausage, turkey ribs, brisket, you name it — along with traditional sides like potato salad, slaw and pinto beans. Slather the meat with a bit of the Espresso and Sweet Vinegar sauces, or go for a sandwich stacked high with the good stuff. If waiting in line isn't your forte, rest assured that Franklin Barbecue has an order-ahead option.

Decatur, Ala.

The smoky smell of success fills the air around Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, which bears four generations of hickory-smoked know-how, a seven-time world championship-winning pulled pork and a host of award-winning barbecue sauces. The sauces take first prize year after year from the National Barbecue Association, from habanero, hot vinegar and mustard to the unexpected tangy white barbecue sauce. With all of these accolades in mind, you might be surprised to hear that smoked turkey is “the best thing on the menu,” according to Dr. BBQ, Ray Lampe, on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. The doctor stands by his diagnosis, as the smoked turkey’s secret is its special brine and spice rub that yield a supremely juicy and succulent bird. So take it from the expert: Order one smoked turkey, and call us in the morning.

Raleigh, N.C.

For tried-and-true North Carolina barbecue, look no further than Ed Mitchell’s pit palace, filled with down-home flavor and Southern hospitality. Mitchell’s approach to ‘cue is “whole hog,” meaning that authentic barbecue can begin only by cooking the entire animal. He’s so dedicated to his craft that he designed his own smokers and raises his own hogs. Bobby Flay knew Mitchell had the serious skills for a throwdown, so it was grill master versus pitmaster in a barbecued ribs and beans showdown. Mitchell trades in the standard “low and slow” barbecue style for his trademark “fast and hot” method for ribs with a spice rub that makes your taste buds stand up straight. He also prefers a thick-cut Carolina-style “man rib” for ultimate pork perfection. Partnered with his ribs are barbecued beans that feature a distinct Southern spirit — moonshine — as their secret ingredient for a high-proof kick. Mitchell means serious barbecue business, so it’s no wonder that his sweet-sauced ribs and boozy beans won the crowd in the hog hotbed of the Tar Heel state.

Photo by Scott LeVoyer

Austin

Green is the name of the game at this Texas joint, where the meat is flavored by green, seasoned mesquite wood. This means that the wood was cut less than a year ago, so it retains moisture and gives a bold taste to owner Tom Davis’ ribs. Davis smokes everything from pork to chicken to turkey, but he also serves his personal favorites, like chicken-fried steak and gravy, Texas jambalaya, brisket and pulled pork tacos, and smoked wings. As Guy Fieri says, Davis has “a love affair with food,” and it shows in his special technique for chicken-fried steak, in which he uses dried bell peppers in the seasoning and double dips his chicken in batter for an extra-thick and crunchy crust. Just one step in this place and it’s clear you’re in barbecue country, where you can build a platter of one, two, three or four meaty options all on one plate. If beef isn’t your bag, don't worry. Davis' menu has a fix for every food craving.

Chicago

Considering this joint’s location in Chi-Town, you wouldn’t expect it to sling Arkansas-style wood-smoked barbecue, but the menu makes it clear that the smoke is no joke. Using a clear aquarium-style smoker that customers can peek into, pitmaster Robert Adams smokes specialties like pork ribs and whole chickens over a wood fire for hours. While Adams minds the meat, his wife holds the secret to the house sauce, and, as Jeff Mauro claimed when he visited on $24 in 24, “Chicago barbecue is all about the sauce.” Jeff was happy to partake in another Chicago innovation as well: rib tips. These short, flavorful nuggets found at the end of spare ribs are served over fries at Honey 1.

Syracuse, N.Y.

This Syracuse staple brings back the Jurassic era with barbecue so good it made Adam Gertler want to grunt with grinning satisfaction on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Chicken isn’t the first meat that springs to mind when thinking about barbecue, but the half barbecued chicken plate at Dinosaur serves up outrageously juicy, brined white meat with an aroma of toasted hickory. The skin is glazed with a specialty secret sauce that Adam boldly dubbed “the best barbecue sauce I’ve ever had.” Beyond the barbecued chicken, Dinosaur also celebrates Midwest tradition with St. Louis-style pork ribs and beef brisket. The pork ribs are swathed in a spice rub for a full day before they’re slow-smoked in the pit and hit with sauce. For a “dino-mite” duo, order the pulled pork and sliced brisket plate, and slip into barbecue bliss.

New Orleans

This Big Easy barbecue haven combines Kansas City and North Carolina barbecue styles with its own personal touch. Everything here comes out of the smoker, from racks of ribs, pork butt and brisket sandwiches to Cajun sausage and even salad dressing! This twist on dressing uses smoked tomatoes and onions for a rich, unexpected flavor that keeps customers eating their greens, even at a barbecue joint. Owner Pete Breen shared his two special sauces with Guy on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: One is tomato-based with root beer and hot sauce, and the North Carolina-style sauce boasts a real bite from apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, pepper and cayenne. Guy described the latter as “an orchestra of flavor” and couldn’t decide which sauce he liked better.

Biloxi, Miss.

Down by the Mississippi, you’ll find a sizable “shed” built from a collection of tin roofing, two-by-fours and other miscellaneous junk. You might not know it by first appearance, but this shed, built by the enthusiastic Orrison family, houses a loyal community of barbecue lovers and live blues music. The eldest son, Brad, built the shed himself and turned it into a successful chain of joints serving sweet Southern barbecue. The house specialty is the rack of baby back ribs, which Guy called “as tender as you can get,” from the pecan wood-burning smoker. But they also serve up some righteous chicken “wangs” and brisket in massive quantities. The sought-after sauces have gone into retail; customers who can't get enough can buy The Shed's signature ShedSpred barbecue sauce, mac sauce, bean sauce and slaw sauce online and in stores.

Las Vegas

What began as a third-generation butcher shop turned into a backyard barbecue pit for Las Vegas meat lovers. At this rustic desert dive, you’ll find what Guy called “competition-level meat,” where they make their own rub, sauce and jerky, and they grind the house hot links with a mix of hickory smoke powder, paprika, coriander, nutmeg and caraway. What makes their ‘cue stand out is the way they prepare their St. Louis-style ribs, which are tumbled in a marinade for 16 hours and then boiled. While traditionalists might call boiling ribs blasphemous, the ribs at John Mull’s turn out so perfectly tender that the meat falls right off the bone — no smoker required. The flavor doesn’t falter, either, as the marinade of tomato powder, garlic, onion, Worcestershire, red pepper and hickory smoke lingers in the meat long after the boil, meaning this unusual cooking method produces one real-deal rib.

Pecan Lodge (Dallas)

In the middle of the Dallas Farmers Market you’ll find beef burnt ends, pork butt and “bomb brisket” that Guy just couldn’t stop eating on Triple D. The dry-rubbed brisket is smoked over mesquite for nearly 20 hours and served with a savory sauce of garlic, onion, guajillo pepper, chipotle, brown sugar and soy. The equally dynamite pork butt is pulled to order and served sandwich-style with simple pickled onion and extra dry rub for a flavorful finish. While they’ve got their smoked meat in spades, don’t miss the Hot Mess, a giant salt-crusted sweet potato stuffed with housemade adobo-seasoned barbacoa, cheese, bacon and chipotle cream. As Guy said, this salty, tangy tater is “a complete meal” and one of the most-popular items on the menu. Just be sure to plan your visit carefully, as Pecan Lodge is open 24 hours a day, but only Thursday through Sunday.

Brooklyn

Two buddies started this barbecue shack in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, where traditional methods and varying regional styles combine to form big city flavor. The Smoke Joint has all your main meats, from beef to pork to chicken, but it’s the monster-size Colorado beef ribs that really bring in the bacon. Guy suspects these giant ribs might descend from a brontosaurus, and there’s no denying they’re the “biggest, most-bodacious thing on the menu,” Guys says. With a serious spice rub and hickory flavor, they’re tender, rich and flaky, with a thick sauce to match. This place has poultry power, too, serving Buffalo wings in a smooth “hollapeno” sauce of fiery chipotle, sambal, molasses and a veritable spice market of seasonings that’ll make you “holla” out loud. The hickory-smoked wings are deep-fried and come with a side of blue cheese, proving that Brooklyn can do barbecue every which way.

Cowgirl BBQ (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Head down to cowgirl country for some blue-plate specials and blazing-hot barbecue, served up by gals in Western wear. This Santa Fe spot brings a bargain to the table with its blue-plate special of half a barbecued chicken and Southwestern sides for just $5. If chicken’s not your choice, opt for the woodsy game burger, made with a blend of bison, elk and venison meat, served bunless and smeared with green chile sauce and melted cheese. Or spike up the spice factor like Roger Mooking and Aarón Sánchez did on Heat Seekers with the smoking-hot pulled pork sandwich. The guys needed a serious side of milk to soothe the burn after devouring this barbecued pork smothered in chipotle adobo sauce and salsa diablo. The sandwich is so hot that it’s listed on the menu with double flames to indicate its fiery force. Don’t face these flames unprepared: Saddle up your milk jug on the side, just in case.

Danny Edward’s BBQ (Kansas City, Mo.)

You’ll recognize this popular barbecue pit by the bright pink pig out front, but the porker can rest easy, as this spot’s famous for its beef brisket, especially the burnt ends sandwich. Otherwise known as Ol’ Smoky, this beefy bomb features the dark and flavorful edges of the brisket, slow-smoked with hickory and served with sweet barbecue sauce and sides. As featured on Meat and Potatoes, the brisket gets its smoke in the giant 72-foot smoker building on the premises. The barbecue here is legendary for its 75 years of family experience, and one bite of Ol’ Smoky will prove that point. They also serve beef, turkey and pork by the pound, succulent ribs and a “low-carb” three-meat special for those on a carnivorous streak.

Blue Smoke (New York)

This urban barbecue oasis is no stranger to regional styles, with its wide array of meaty menu items hailing from the Carolina coast to the great plains of Texas. Blue Smoke offers Kansas City spareribs, North Carolina pulled pork, Memphis baby backs, Texas beef brisket and beyond. Or if you’re fired up for a full-on nationwide fix, order the Rhapsody in ‘Cue for a sampling of them all on one massive plate. Even with all these addictive options, it’s the finger food that kept Susan Feniger coming back for more on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. Blue Smoke’s homemade barbecued chips with blue cheese and bacon dip are, as Susan said, finger-lickin' good. Order the warm chips to start, and embark on an edible tour of the country’s best barbecue styles, conveniently corralled in the Big Apple.

Tom's Bar-B-Q (Memphis)

Tom’s is perfect for those in need of speed during their lunch break, as it’s situated in the middle of an industrial park filled with hordes of hungry hard-working customers. Tom’s draws in the crowds with a special Mediterranean twist on barbecue. A Greek-inspired spice rub features thyme, oregano, pickling spice, celery salt and more, and it is slathered on everything from brisket to turkey, including the signature rib tips. Tom’s has the tips specially butchered into long, tender strips for a super little snack that Guy called “some of the best barbecue” around, and that’s saying something. And if you’ve never heard of “Tennessee round steak,” prepare for an introduction with the bologna barbecue sandwich. Extra-thick bologna is marinated with a Greek spice rub and house barbecue sauce overnight, then served with slaw in smooth and smoky sandwich style.

Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt (Atlanta)

The secret’s in the sauce at Daddy D’z, as Aarón explained on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. While he says the ribs are “bad to the bone,” Aarón went right for the rib tips paired with the “traditional kick-butt barbecue sauce” for a meaty match made in heaven. The spectacular tomato-based sauce is rife with paprika, vinegar, garlic and honey, and it's simmered until it's rich and thick. Its sweetness melds like magic with the smoky rib tips for a “down and dirty” eating extravaganza. If you’re not riled up for rib tips, queue up for the famous ‘cue wraps, which feature barbecued pork bites wrapped in dough and fried until golden. Or start spooning some homemade Brunswick stew with tender bits of chicken and pork served in a sauce so thick you can eat it with a fork.

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