An Essential Guide to American Barbecue Traditions

From the Carolinas to Kansas City, Memphis to Texas, meat plus smoke equals barbecue bliss. Here's what each region offers — and the best places to eat each kind.

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Photo By: Courtesy of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

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Photo By: Courtesy of Sam Jones BBQ/Baxter Miller

Photo By: Courtesy of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

Photo By: Courtesy of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

Photo By: Courtesy of Jones Bar-B-Q

Photo By: Courtesy of Jones Bar-B-Q

Photo By: Courtesy of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

Photo By: Courtesy of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

Photo By: Courtesy of Pappy's Smokehouse/Amy Schromm

Photo By: Courtesy of Pappy's Smokehouse/Amy Schromm

Photo By: Courtesy of Lewis Barbecue/Andrew Cebulka

Photo By: Courtesy of Lewis Barbecue

Let's Take a Barbecue Road Trip

At its core, barbecue is a simple food: meat plus fire plus time. Cooking meat over fire is a tradition that’s found in virtually every culture, and the U.S. is no exception. Simple as that may be, there are several variables that create distinct styles of regional barbecue, including the preferred protein, types of wood or charcoal, rubs and sauces, and techniques and timings. Plus, there are regional twists on side dishes and regional barbecue specialties.

The good news is, as pit masters set up shop in states outside their hometowns, you can find great barbecue everywhere, from Memphis-style ribs in St. Louis to top-notch Texas brisket in Charleston. And with immigrants adding their barbecue traditions to the mix, other regional styles of barbecue are emerging, too, like barbacoa in California and Tex-Mex barbecue in Texas.

Barbecue is a celebration food, an economic way to feed a crowd and an undeniably delicious way to bring people together at the table. Whether you’re eating barbecue at a mom-and-pop roadside stand or a pilgrimage-worthy destination, good barbecue never goes out of style. Here, we explore some of the defining characteristics of American regional barbecue traditions, plus where you can eat it and what to order.

North Carolina

North Carolina is known for two styles of barbecue delineated by geography — Eastern and Western — and defined by two things: pork and sauce.

Sam Jones, the self-styled barbecue man of Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville and Raleigh, and author of Whole Hog BBQ, sums it up thusly: "The Eastern part cooks whole hogs with a thin, vinegar-based sauce, the Western part cooks pork shoulders, and their sauce is a tad sweeter because of the introduction of sugar and ketchup."

The type of wood used is often a reflection of what’s available in that part of the state. "Eastern has more oak than hickory, even if there’s hickory mixed in. The further you go west, the more hickory there is," Jones says.

In North Carolina, barbecued pork is either chopped or pulled, and served on a sandwich or as part of a barbecue plate. In the whole hog barbecue tradition of the East, the pork is chopped, then dressed in a vinegar-pepper sauce. In the West, the pork shoulder is either chopped or pulled, dressed with a ketchup-based barbecue sauce, and often served on a roll as a sandwich (Jones advises ordering it "with outside brown on it" if you want some of the bark — the meat’s exterior that received the first heat and smoke.)

Jones, who learned the art of whole hog barbecue from his grandfather, Pete Jones, of the legendary Skylight Inn, says that the beauty of whole hog barbecue is that chopping the different cuts together creates a blend of distinct textures. "It makes a flavor explosion when you eat it: there’s crunch, changes in texture and flavor, and little concentration of salt on the skin," he says.

Traditional North Carolina sides include collard greens, macaroni and cheese and coleslaw. Though even the coleslaw varies from east to west: Eastern-style 'slaw is made typically mayo-based (though sometimes you’ll find it made with vinegar), whereas Western-style 'slaw is made with a sweet, tomato-based sauce. Another regional specialty, Brunswick Stew, features smoked meats in a tomato-based broth, is found on menus across both North and South Carolina.

Where to Eat North Carolina Barbecue

Sam Jones BBQ, Winterville, NC and Raleigh, NC: get a barbecue plate with chopped pork plus collard greens, which are cooked in smoked pork stock and sluiced with a peppery, vinegary sauce. Save room for warm banana pudding (it’s Sam’s mom’s recipe).

Skylight Inn BBQ, Ayden, NC: get a barbecue pork sandwich with slaw at this old-school, cash-only, whole-hog BBQ joint.

Grady’s Bar-B-Q, Dudley, NC: this whole-hog barbecue establishment is run by Steve and Gerri Grady. It’s known for its hickory-and-oak-smoked 'cue and scratch-made sides such as black-eyed peas and collard greens.

Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, NC: at The Monk (named for founder Wayne Monk), you’ll find smoked pork shoulder dressed in a Western-style, ketchup-based sauce. Get a plate of chopped pork which comes with 'slaw (dressed in the same sauce) and French fries.

Buxton Hall BBQ, Asheville, NC: the barbecue and hash combo plate is a must: wood-fired whole hog 'cue dressed in a vinegar-pepper sauce, a cup of hash rice (a nod to pit master Elliot Moss' S.C. roots), two sides (don’t miss the smoky green beans) and hushpuppies adds up to "a big ol' plate of food."

Southern Smoke BBQ, Garland, NC: destination for whole hog 'cue and pit master Matthew Register’s scene-stealing sides, including the coveted mac 'n' cheese and squash-and-rice pudding.

Wilber’s BBQ, Goldsboro, NC: family-owned spot slinging whole hog 'cue that’s been slow-smoked over oak. Opt for a sandwich or get a combo plate teamed with fried chicken.

Picnic, Durham, NC: start with fried Saltines and pimento cheese, then move on to the NC whole hog barbecue sandwich, which comes with a sweet-tangy sauce that blends Eastern and Western styles, dubbed the "Great Carolina Compromise" by owner Wyatt Dickson.

Backyard BBQ Pit, Durham, NC: hickory-smoked, pit-cooked pork shoulder is chopped and pulled, then doused in a vinegary sauce. Get it in a sandwich or as part of a plate with two sides (owner Melvin Simmon’s go-to’s are green beans and creamy potato salad).

Lawrence Barbecue, Durham, NC: this new-school outfit from chef Jake Wood slings classic Carolina pork and Texas-style brisket, plus creative riffs like pork belly burnt ends and a thick-cut, smoked bologna sandwich with mustard and blackberry jam.

South Carolina

South Carolina is primarily defined by whole hog barbecue, says Rodney Scott, owner of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ and author of Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ. Despite often being associated with a mustard-based barbecue sauce, South Carolina’s barbecue sauces vary geographically. Scott hails from Hemingway, in the central Eastern part of the state, which is known for vinegar-pepper sauce. "In the Midlands, there’s a tradition of mustard-based barbecue sauces [aka Carolina Gold]. The Northwest part of the state tends toward a sweeter, tomato-based sauce," Scott says.

For his style of whole hog cooking, Scott burns down hard woods such as oak, hickory, pecan or cherrywood, then loads the hog meat side down, cooking it low and slow for about 12 hours, before flipping it and rubbing it with his signature rub and mopping it with Rodney’s Sauce. "It’s a half day of committing to cooking a whole hog," he says. Different cuts such as hams, shoulders and belly are pulled and mixed, which creates texture and a "difference you can taste."

South Carolina barbecue sides include macaroni and cheese, green beans, coleslaw, and hash and rice, a regional specialty of pork bits and pork gravy mixed with rice.

Where to Eat South Carolina Barbecue

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, SC & Birmingham, AL: Opt for a "taste plate" to sample a little bit of everything or Rod’s Original Sandwich for a taste of Scott’s pulled pork. Wash it down with sweet tea.

Sweatman’s Bar-b-q, Holly Hill, SC: at this family run institution, order a large plate to sample pulled pork that’s been basted with mustard-based barbecue sauce.

Home Team BBQ, Charleston, SC, Columbia, SC & Aspen, CO: pulled pork and pulled chicken are stand-out smoked meats here. Order 'em on sandwiches, tacos or nachos.

Swig & Swine, Charleston, SC: start with an order of pork rinds and pimento cheese, then build a plate with pulled pork or brisket and sides such as Brunswick stew and mac 'n' cheese.

Shuler’s BBQ, Charleston, SC: a meat plate with two sides will give you a taste of Shuler’s signature pulled pork and home-style sides such as sweet potato souffle. If you packed an appetite, go for the buffet.

Melvin’s BBQ, Charleston, SC & Mount Pleasant, SC: local go-to spot for mustard-based barbecue. Opt for the chopped pork sandwich with sides of mac 'n' cheese and fried okra.

Poogan’s Smokehouse, Charleston, SC: you’ll find classic pulled pork sharing top billing with pulled chicken and St. Louis-style ribs, plus sides such as charred broccoli and 'slaw.

City Limits Barbecue, Columbia, SC: track down this food truck for Carolina 'cue and Texas-style brisket; go early to avoid sell-out.

Kansas City

Kansas City is synonymous with barbecue, but compared to other barbecue regions, Kansas City doesn’t focus on a single protein. It melds traditions from the Carolinas, Memphis and Texas, and whether or not the barbecue is sauced depends on where you’re eating it. You’ll find pork, beef, chicken and fish on barbecue menus city-wide. Even beans and sides sometimes get the pit treatment here. Kansas City is also known for its tomato-based barbecue sauce, made thick and sweet with molasses. The sauce was developed by Arthur Bryant in the 1920’s but places across town turn out their own versions.

Kansas City is, however, the birthplace of one special barbecue dish. "Kansas City is known for its creation of the burnt ends, and man, are people crazy about those little crispy, flavorful chunks of meat!" says Deborah Jones, who co-owns Jones Bar-B-Q with her sister, Mary. Burnt ends are the point ends of the brisket that have been double smoked, yielding a caramelized crisp exterior and richly flavored interior that’s earned them the nickname "meat candy."

Is there a difference between Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS barbecue? Jones says, "They are pretty much the same, although Kansas City, KS may have just a little more of the classic feel to it compared to Kansas City, MO."

Where to Eat Kansas City Barbecue

Jones Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, KS: Ribs and the burnt ends plate are sure-bets, but don’t miss sampling the sisters’ signature sweet-tangy sauce and locally famous homemade sausage.

Arthur Bryant’s BBQ, Kansas City, MO: Arthur Bryant is known as the "King of Ribs," so order accordingly and get a slab of the hickory-and-oak-smoked ribs; don’t forget the sauce.

Gate’s BarB-Q, Kansas City, MO, Independence, MO, Leawood, KS & Kansas City, KS: opt for the smoky burnt ends piled on a hoagie paired with a side of BBQ beans.

Slap’s BBQ, Kansas City, KS: the move here is a rib plate, which includes three ribs and burnt ends plus sides such as cheesy corn and coleslaw.

Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, KS, Leawood, KS & Olathe, KS: order a slab of ribs or the Z-Man, a brisket sandwich crowned with fried onion rings, smoked Provolone and barbecue sauce (do as locals do and dunk bites into a side of sauce)

Jack Stack Barbecue, Kansas City, MO, Lee’s Summit, MO & Overland Park, KS: get the beef back or lamb ribs if available, and don’t miss the pulled pork mac 'n' cheese.

Woodyard Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, KS: baby back or spareribs are a sure-bet; from the specialty sandwiches, get the Burnt Ends Buster topped with creamy 'slaw.

Q39, Kansas City, MO & Overland Park, KS: for a more sit-down BBQ experience, head here for a combo plate of hickory-and oak-smoked ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken and jalapeno sausage, and pair with a side of baked beans studded with burnt ends.

Plowboys BBQ, Kansas City, MO, Blue Springs, MO & Overland Park: barbecue nachos are the move here, topped with your choice of smoked meat and scratch-made cheese sauce.

Memphis

In Memphis, barbecue primarily means pork. Memphis is known for its ribs, though the city is split between "dry" and "wet" versions. Dry-rubbed ribs are covered with a blend of spices and herbs, smoked and served with sauce on the side. Wet ribs are basted with a tomato-based barbecue sauce before, during and after cooking. Another Memphis signature is pulled pork shoulder paired with a tomato-based barbecue sauce, often served as sandwich topped with coleslaw.

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous lays claim to being the first restaurant in Memphis to serve ribs as a main menu item, and it is justly famous for its dry ribs. The same recipe is cooked today, which includes rubbing loin back ribs with a Greek-meets-Cajun-inspired blend, then grilling the ribs bone side down and basting it with a vinegary solution as they’re cooking. "It gives it a biting flavor and it keeps the fire down and generates some steam to keep the meat juicy," says owner John Vergos. Once the ribs have browned, they’re flipped and cooked on the meat side, and smoked for about an hour and a half. A dedicated pit staff, many of whom have worked here an average of 30 years, tend the grill.

Memphis is a barbecue-specific town," Vergos says. "You say 'I'm gonna go get some Top’s, or I’m going to go to Leonard’s'—it’s a specific barbecue type to go get that night." That could mean classics like ribs or pulled pork, or regional barbecue specialties such as barbecue spaghetti, a dish of pulled pork mixed with barbecue sauce and spaghetti, or barbecue bologna sandwiches, featuring a thick slab of barbecued bologna topped with sauce and 'slaw.

Where to Eat Memphis Barbecue

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, Memphis, TN: at The Rendezvous, start with the cheese and sausage appetizer plate, then move on to the ribs. Pair with a side of mustard-vinegar-based slaw, made according to a 100-year-old family recipe.

Commissary BBQ, Memphis, TN: the original Germantown version is a BBQ destination for "wet" (i.e. sauced) hickory-smoked ribs. It’s also lays claim to being the birthplace of barbecue nachos.

The Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis, TN: opt for the barbecue spaghetti (even the sauce is smoked), excellent ribs or the pulled pork sandwich on Texas toast.

Payne’s BBQ, Memphis, TN: this is a go-to for chopped pork barbecue sandwiches sluiced in sweet-and-tangy sauces as well as barbecue bologna sandwiches.

Top’s Bar-B-Q, multiple locations in Memphis, TN: charcoal-cooked pork shoulder takes a starring turn on barbecue sandwiches, nachos, cheese fries and even as a burger topping.

Leonard’s Pit Barbecue, Memphis, TN: local institution founded in 1922 that’s known for its ribs and pulled pork shoulder. Get the Big Leonard, a pulled pork sandwich topped with mild BBQ sauce and 'slaw.

Cozy Corner, Memphis, TN: the specialty here are good-and-messy barbecue Cornish hens, though ribs are popular too. Double down with sides of BBQ beans and BBQ spaghetti.

Central BBQ, Memphis, TN & Nashville, TN: popular picks include slow-smoked ribs and barbecue nachos topped with two cheeses, sauce and meat (try it with pulled pork).

St. Louis

St. Louis is primarily known for its ribs and pulled pork. Although Pappy’s Smokehouse bills itself as serving Memphis-style ribs, it has become synonymous with St. Louis barbecue. Owner John Matthews shares that loin back ribs, which are slightly larger than baby back ribs (and not the same thing as spareribs), are rubbed with spice and brown sugar and smoked low and slow over applewood. They’re served dry, though on the table you’ll find different barbecue sauces, including the local tomato-based version (fashioned after a company called Maull’s)—but Matthews says the ribs shine on their own.

St. Louis is also known for pork steaks. "The quintessential cut is a pork steak that comes off the shoulder of the hog. It’s a very localized cut of meat," Matthews says. At Beast Graft BBQ you’ll find hickory-smoked Duroc pork steaks, which exemplify the charred, caramelized pork barbecue that’s become synonymous with St. Louis 'cue.

Where to Eat St. Louis Barbecue

Pappy’s Smokehouse, St. Louis, MO & St. Peters, MO: get a half-slab of ribs plus a quarter pound of burnt ends, sauced in a balsamic BBQ glaze.

Beast Graft BBQ Co., St. Louis, MO: bring an appetite (or a friend) and get the 30-ounce pork steak, spareribs and sides such as creamy slaw, bacon mac and candied bacon.

Salt+Smoke, St. Louis, MO: don’t miss the ribs and smoked chicken wings, but inventive apps like burnt end toasted ravs and trashed ribs are local favorites too.

Sugarfire Smoke House, St. Louis, MO: opt for a pulled pork sandwich or the locally famous Big Muddy, piled with brisket, smoked sausage, horseradish sauce, BBQ sauce, lettuce and pickles. Save room for a smoked chocolate chip cookie.

Bogart’s Smokehouse, St. Louis, MO: local institution known for its thick, apricot-glazed ribs (it’s also part of the Pappy’s Smokehouse group).

Supersmokers, Eureka, MO: there’s something for everyone here, including ribs, brisket, burnt-ends-topped mac 'n' cheese and a vegetarian BBQ jackfruit sandwich.

Smokee Mo's BBQ, St. Louis, MO: traditional barbecue such as pulled pork and brisket anchor the menu, but the Mostrami STL steals the show. Shaved, smoked brisket is piled onto garlic bread with Swiss, 'slaw and mustard. Vegan options include pulled jackfruit and barbecue sloppy Joe’s.

Dalie’s Smokehouse, Valley Park, MO: dry-rubbed ribs slow smoked over apple and cherry wood are the specialty; pair with pit baked beans and fried pickles. Don’t miss the brisket chili special.

Texas

When it comes to Texas barbecue, beef is king. It’s why Texas-bred pit master John Lewis has an outdoor wall mural of cattle with the slogan "all hail the king" at his Charleston, South Carolina restaurant, Lewis Barbecue. Lewis describes Texas barbecue’s technique as low-and-slow and with a hands-off approach to sauce. "For us, it’s about letting the protein shine and using sauce as a condiment rather than slathering it all over," Lewis says. Lewis prefers using post oak wood, though you’ll find some places in Texas that utilize mesquite, which gives the meat a distinct flavor.

Brisket is Texas’ main claim to barbecue fame. "A truly great brisket is melt-in-your-mouth, without being too fatty," Lewis says. "If cooked properly, the fat from the brisket should be evenly distributed and the bark should have a little bit, but not distract from the juiciness inside. In Texas, we slice it thickly and present it as a whole brisket."

The capital of Texas barbecue is in Lockhart, Texas, where you’ll find several old-school establishments serving up brisket and sausages, and specialty items such as beef clod, a lean brisket. Austin is a barbecue destination unto itself, where you’ll find a mix of newcomers putting their spin on classic Texas barbecue, incorporating Mexican heritage, or creating a new-school brand of barbecue utilizing off-cuts or putting unexpected twists on sides.

Other Texas barbecue specialties to keep an eye out for are beef ribs and "hot guts," a beef sausage that utilizes all the brisket- and beef-rib-scraps and are customized with different spices and seasonings.

Where to Eat Texas Barbecue

Lewis Barbecue, Charleston, SC: get a little of everything, including brisket, hot guts, pork spareribs, pulled pork, sauce and Lewis' favorite side, hatch green chile corn pudding.

Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX: this third-generation "temple of smoke" in the heart of Texas is lauded for its brisket and colossal "dino" beef ribs.

La Barbecue, Austin, TX: At owners’ LeAnn Mueller and Alison Clem’s East Austin BBQ spot, sample brisket, house made sausage sandwich (hot guts on a Martin potato bun) plus pinto beans, potato salad and pickles on the side.

Franklin Barbecue, Austin, TX: Aaron Franklin’s perennially popular spot features worth-the-wait brisket and a chopped beef sandwich sauced with espresso BBQ sauce piled onto a Martin’s potato roll with pickles and onions.

Kreuz Market, Lockhart, TX: located in the barbecue capital of Texas, this landmark spot is known for its sausages and beef clod, which eats like a lean brisket.

Snow’s BBQ, Lexington, TX: this Saturday’s-only spot is known as much for its brisket and jalapeno sausages as it is its octogenarian pit master, Tootsie Tomanetz. You can also find pork steak here, a cut traditionally associated with St. Louis barbecue. Go early before they sell out.

Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, Austin, TX: pitmaster Miguel Vidal’s brisket can be served Mex-style, in homemade tortillas topped with guacamole and tomato-serrano salsa, or Tex-style, piled on a roll with tangy slaw and mesquite-smoked BBQ sauce. Pair with a side of soupy charro beans.

LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue, Austin, TX: a food truck serving "new school BBQ, old school service." The weekend-only Aukashi brisket is sure-bet, but the creativity really shines in off-cuts, like beef cheeks, and sides like cauliflower burnt ends and BBQ beets.

Hometown BBQ, Brooklyn, NY & Miami, FL: Billy Durney turns out top-notch Texas specialties such as brisket, oversize beef ribs and a burnt-ends-topped Frito Pie, plus signature smoked meats including Korean sticky ribs, Jamaican jerk baby back ribs and lamb belly (served as a bahn mi).

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