America's Best Barbecue from Coast to Coast
From traditional Carolina whole hog to Hill Country brisket to Memphis ribs, check out our guide to the regional 'cue styles of the United States.
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Eastern North Carolina
Whole hog is what you'll find in the eastern portion of the Tar Heel State. There, pitmasters like Sam Jones of Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville and Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden smoke whole hogs over a pit, then chop up the meat, mixing white and dark together like a porcine yin-yang, and douse it with a white vinegar sauce simply seasoned with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. There are lots of great places serving the specialty along the I-95 corridor, but over in Asheville, well beyond the North Carolina 'cue lines, James Beard nominee Elliott Moss is serving some of the best whole hog in the United States at Buxton Hall Barbecue. Set in one of the top tourist destinations in the state, it's a convenient place to sample whole-hog barbecue while soaking up the mountain views and ample craft brews in the Land of Sky.
Western North Carolina/Lexington
Once you get to Raleigh, the whole hog favored in the eastern part of the state transitions into pork shoulder, accentuated with a ketchup- and brown sugar-infused vinegar sauce. This style that extends out from the city of Lexington (hence the name) is found at places like Stamey's Barbecue. The fourth-generation-owned restaurant moved from Lexington to Greensboro in 1953, but it still prepares its meat with the same wood-only cooking method that Warner Stamey used when he opened the place in 1930. Pork is chopped (about 90 percent of the time) or sliced to order and served with the area's signature ketchup-scented vinegar slaw (also a standard topping for sandwiches), either nestled together in a soft white roll or plated with a side of hush puppies.
South Carolina Midlands
When those who don't fully grasp the intricacies of Carolina 'cue think of South Carolina, mustardy Carolina Gold sauce is the only thing that comes to mind. It's that iconic. Created in the 1930s, most likely by the Bessinger family, the sauce includes a mix of mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, pepper and spices. It's used to flavor whole hogs and pork shoulder, smoked over hardwood, at restaurants spread throughout the middle of the Palmetto State. At places like Melvin's Barbecue in Charleston, platters come with a traditional side of "hash and rice": pork simmered with potatoes and onions in a gravy-like stew and accompanied by rice.
Pee Dee, South Carolina
Close to what you'll find in eastern North Carolina, whole hog has seeped south of the border into the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. These whole beasts are slowly cooked over huge pits holding wood coals and topped with a spicy pepper-infused vinegar sauce. That's how the Scott family of Hemingway have been cooking their pigs for decades. But these days, 'cue lovers can stay in Charleston to enjoy Rodney Scott's Whole Hog Barbecue. The James Beard Award-winning pitmaster smokes his hogs belly down for 12 hours over a glowing mix of oak coals and hickory and pecan hardwood, then flips the beasts on their backs and liberally seasons the meat with his secret sauce. When it's sufficiently flavored, the meat is pulled and served on sandwiches and plates with sides like grits and cornbread.
South Carolina Mountains
The state-sponsored South Carolina BBQ Trail map refers to "The Mountains" as the third official barbecue region in the state. In the hilly area surrounding Greenville, at places like Henry's Smokehouse, pink-hued tomato- and vinegar-based sauces are a popular condiment for smoked pork shoulder. Barbecue Lover's the Carolinas author Robert Moss disagrees with the official designation, saying there's been so much mixing and mingling throughout the state that South Carolina-style tomato-based sauce shouldn't be assigned to one particular geographic area. "It's really just everywhere else," he says. "There's not so much definition."
South Carolina's Midlands influence jumped across the state line down into the Savannah and Statesboro section in the north of Georgia. At Lowcountry spots, like Smokin' Pig in Richmond Hill, oak wood-smoked pork shoulder is pulled and topped with a tangy mustard sauce. This accoutrement looks a lot like its northern sibling, with a vibrant golden hue, but without the acidic bite. The recipe that has been passed down through the Fabre family for generations doesn't contain vinegar like many of the mustard sauces found throughout the Southeast. Plates, which also feature chicken, ribs and brisket, are matched with a choice of two homey sides like potato salad, corn, green beans and a Georgia barbecue staple, Brunswick stew. That beloved state brew is a gravy-like mix of barbecue pork, corn, potatoes and, in some cases, lima beans.
A three-in-one, the barbecue sauce that's popular around Macon, in Middle Georgia, combines all of the main ingredients found throughout the United States: mustard, vinegar and a bit of ketchup. The acidic sauce is used to marinate the pulled and chopped pork once it's pulled out of the wood coal-fired masonry pits. Since the 1930s that sauce and method of cooking have been the backbone of Fincher's Bar-B-Q, the historic place where many believe the style was created. (Its out-of-this-world 'cue was taken into outer space on a NASA space mission!) There and at other local barbecue spots, the piquantly sauced meat is served alongside smoked pork- and tomato-scented Brunswick stew.
In the 1970s and 1980s, before cheffy barbecue arrived on the scene, Atlanta was all about heavily smoked chopped pork served with a sweet and vinegary tomato sauce. That's what still dominates the northwest of the state at places like Poole's in Ellijay and Two Brothers in Ball Ground. But you can find remnants of the old-school style even in new-school Atlanta joints like Heirloom Market, where high-quality meat is prepared in a range of styles (think sweet and spicy Korean sauce) that include the local classic tomato sauce.
Columbus West, Georgia
Guess what? Mustard sauce is still extremely popular around the Columbus section of the Georgia-Alabama border, too. Seriously, this part of the country has not one but two versions of yellowish condiment. The Gunther family, who own Smokey Pig in Columbus, created the thin and light orange-hued, mustard- and vinegar-infused version that has since spread throughout the western section of Columbus. It's served in a couple of different ways throughout the area: chopped (hunks of dry meat with sauce on the side) or chipped (finely chopped and slathered with sauce). A thick and dark brew of Brunswick stew comes on the side.
Named after the restaurant that brought it into the world, Chicken Comer is a unique condiment that's become a regional staple in the Columbus area. The intensely flavored mustard-based sauce is infused with a hearty dose of cayenne. If you can't take spice, you definitely want to use this stuff sparingly — or make sure to eat plenty of the white bread that's served with your barbecue. The scorching-hot liquid is used by heat-loving locals to enliven pulled pork and stew. To try this spicy specialty at its birthplace, these days you'll have to drive about six minutes across the Chattahoochee River into neighboring Phenix City, Alabama, where Chicken Comer's was founded by Anderson "Uncle Chicken" Comer during the Great Depression.
Just across the border from Georgia, Southeast Alabama shares some similarities with its neighbor. The dominant sauce is that mustard-based mix that's popular in nearby Columbus, and the meat is heavy on the smoke. At places like Byron's Smokehouse in Auburn, aromatic pork shoulder is served either chipped or chopped (Byron's does chipped or sliced) in platters or on sandwiches. Ribs are another local mainstay, served with a range of craveable sides that are worth a try even if you don't eat meat. The options usually include beans, slaw, mac 'n' cheese and different kinds of greens, followed by homemade pies for dessert.
Pork may be synonymous with barbecue throughout the Southeast, but in North Alabama, chicken is what's for barbecue dinner. (All right, fine — pulled pork is too.) While the state has an array of regional specialties, it's best known for its white sauce. That tangy mix of mayo, vinegar and spice was invented by Big Bob Gibson in 1925 as a flavor accentuator for locally sourced birds that are slowly cooked until tender and juicy in hickory-fired brick pits. That pairing is so good that it has since spread to neighboring restaurants in the northern part of the Cotton State.
There's something for all Alabama 'cue lovers in Birmingham — yes, white sauce, too — but the city's signature style features a sweet and slightly spicy tomato- and vinegar-based sauce slathered on pork shoulder, Boston butt, ribs, chicken and beef. Due to the large Greek influence, those sauces are often heavily spiced with things like black pepper, cayenne, brown sugar and dry mustard, and it's pretty common for meats to get treated with a rub. At mainstays like Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q, you'll find classic chopped or pulled pork sandwiches with red sauce and sliced pickles on a toasted bun along with ribs, platters and a whole bunch of other stuff.
There's a lot of mixing and mingling in Alabama barbecue, with many small pockets boasting their own unique styles. Tuscaloosa is one of those areas that don't have strict definitions for their smoked meat, but the city and its outlying neighborhoods do have an obsession with ribs. At places like Archibald & Woodrow's BBQ in Northport, slabs are coated in a thin and spicy, mustard-infused vinegar sauce and served between slices of plain white bread. This third-generation-owned place still uses hickory wood, just as George and Betty Archibald did when they opened the doors in 1961, which gives its slow-cooked slabs and sliced Boston butt that sweet flavor that only comes along with hardwood smoke.
The Nashville tradition of serving pulled pork atop a hoecake is what inspired Western Tennessee whole-hog lover and pitmaster Pat Martin to create the Redneck Taco at Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint. His version essentially features a cornbread pancake topped with slaw, sauce and choice of meat (whole hog, brisket, sausage, chicken, turkey or catfish). While Martin's acclaimed restaurants' riff on the classic with varying slow-smoked proteins and his signature whole hog, Nashville's traditional barbecue norm features smoked pork shoulder coated with a sweet vinegar-based sauce.
On the eastern side of the Volunteer State, toward the Appalachians, lies a barbecue specialty that upsets the evangelists of "low and slow." Whole hams are smoked for eight to 10 hours — nobody's arguing with that — then rubbed with spices and chilled overnight. The next morning those hunks of pork are shaved into thin slices, tossed onto a flat-top grill and roasted with a sweet tomato-based sauce. That's what you'll find at Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City. The East Tennessee institution has been serving this unique style of barbecue in plates and sandwiches since the late 1940s.
When most folks think Tennessee barbecue, they're probably thinking Memphis and, most likely, ribs. The Blues City's famous "dry" ribs, coated in a rub made of salt, garlic powder, oregano, paprika and other spices, were influenced by the city's large Greek population and were made famous by Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous before spreading around town. You'll also find "wet" ribs coated in the local vinegar-tomato-and-mustard sauce or "muddy" ribs with both wet and dry. There's a reason ribs and smaller cuts like slow-cooked Boston Butts are the favored proteins in this long-established city: The tight density of the urban environment forced pitmasters to move away from whole hogs that take up a lot of space and squirt out a lot of grease, a potential fire hazard with closely packed buildings.
This rural area has a heck of a lot more space than its urban-rib-capital neighbor, so its whole-hog 'cue is more reminiscent of what you find in eastern North Carolina than in Memphis. It's just as juicy and subtle as its coastal brethren, but there are some slight differences. The hogs are bigger, weighing in at around 190 to 200 pounds, and each one is basted with a sweet vinegar-and-tomato mop as it slow-cooks over an open pit for about an entire day. When it comes off the wood fire, the meat is pulled (as opposed to chopped, as it is in much of North Carolina) into chewy strands that are often cradled in white buns with slaw. Get it at Bill's Bar-B-Q in Henderson, a longtime favorite and inspiration of famed pitmaster Pat Martin of Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint.
Mutton has become synonymous with Kentucky barbecue. In and around Owensboro County, pitmasters break down whole sheep and slow-smoke 'em over old hickory-fired pits. When the meat is sufficiently tender and flavored, it's sliced or chopped, covered with an ebony, Worcestershire-infused sauce known as "dip" and served with a fragrant stew, mutton burgoo. While this particular dish is Kentucky's most-famous barbecue specialty, less than 10 percent of the barbecue restaurants in the entire Bluegrass State regularly serve mutton. The dozen or so places that do, including local favorite Old Hickory Bar-B-Que (pictured above), are located in the northwestern part of the state.
The seat of Kentucky's barbecue culture lies in the area west of I-65, the interstate that nearly cuts the state in half. Here, dry pork shoulder or Boston butt is cooked low and slow, 20 to 24 hours, in masonry pits elevated high over hickory coals. When it's done, the meat is pulled or chopped and served with some sort of vinegar sauce called "dip," just as it is in the rest of the state. "It's the most wonderful style," says Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book. Some places, like Marion Pit Bar-B-Q in Marion, smoke sugar-cured hams in the same pits as the rest of the pork, picking up the essence of the vinegary dips that are used to baste the meat.
Monroe County, Kentucky
Set just across the Kentucky border, a short drive north of Nashville, Monroe County (and some of the surrounding counties) is famous for a unique style of barbecue. At places like R & S Barbecue in Tompkinsville, pork steaks are sliced into oblong strips from a frozen Boston butt with a bandsaw. Each slice is grilled above a hickory coal-fired pit for about 30 to 45 minutes and coated in a thin and sweet peppery dip, then served with a side of vinegar slaw. The cook time is a heck of a lot shorter than the eight-hours-plus used for many other cuts of pork, but somehow these steaks still manage to pick up a heck of a lot of flavor from the coals.
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City, Missouri, doesn't discriminate when it comes to meat. Pitmasters deftly slow-cook everything from regular old pork, beef and chicken to lamb, mutton and fish. Even with all the meaty diversity, the town gets the most praise for its signature burnt ends and sauce. The former is cut from the fatty, marbled tip of the brisket and slow-cooked over wood until juicy and crisp. It, and everything else that comes out of a pit, is served with the city's namesake sauce. The thick and sweet liquid, made with a vinegar-and-tomato base, is fruity and slightly spicy, exactly what most Americans imagine when they think of barbecue sauce. Try it all at places like Arthur Bryant's, Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que and Q39 (pictured above).
St. Louisans love sweet, tomato-based sauces in varying degrees of viscosity. Per capita, they consume more barbecue sauce than any other city in the United States. Unlike its barbecue neighbor on the other end of Missouri, which slow-smokes just about everything, the Gateway City is all about that pork. It's best known for its namesake rib cut, but many barbecue spots also serve baby back ribs, rib tips, pig snoots (snouts and jowls) and pork shoulder. Some even serve pork steaks, which are shoulders cut on a meat saw into thin steaks, usually grilled, then stewed in a foil pan with a sweet tomato sauce. By far, the most-popular place to get a taste is Pappy's Smokehouse.
Arkansas does not have the national barbecue reputation of places like Texas and Kansas City, but the state boasts its own unique culture of 'cue, which is centered around the Arkansas Delta but moving out to the western side of the state. The pitmasters there are known for pork shoulders, pork ribs and beef — specifically, a cut called a gooseneck round, served with a spicy and vinegary tomato sauce. That specialty is found throughout the state, but two places really stand out: James Beard Award winner Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, arguably the oldest black-owned restaurant in the United States, and McClard's Bar-B-Q Restaurant in Hot Springs (pictured above). The latter's barbecue has been a favorite of President Bill Clinton since he was a kid, and during his presidency was served on Air Force One, at Camp David and at various state dinners.
Though it boasts one of the great culinary capitals of the western hemisphere — New Orleans — Louisiana isn't known as a barbecue state. But it has deep agricultural roots and an abundant supply of local cattle, poultry and pork, and it's to be expected that some of that meaty goodness would take a turn through some smoke. Johnson's Boucaniere — Acadian French for "smokehouse" — has been serving Cajun-style barbecue since 1937. Owner Lori Walls, the granddaughter of Johnson's Grocery founder Arnestor Johnson, reopened the place in 2008. She uses her forebears' recipes for the shop's house-smoked specialty meats, like garlic pork sausage, tasso and boudin, as well as simpler but just as flavorful slow-cooked brisket, pulled pork, chicken and country-style ribs.
You've seen it before: gleaming slabs of brisket, sliced on a cutting board, weighed by the pound and served on butcher paper. The barbecue spawned by Central Texas' meat market tradition is one of the most-iconic styles in the entire U.S. There's a reason it's so well known: It requires an immense amount of skill to be done right. Those hunks of beef are simply seasoned with black pepper, salt and sometimes cayenne, and indirectly smoked with post oak until they achieve a juicy center and a nice dark bark. Sauce is served on the table at most places, but chances are it's not necessary for the flavorful meat. While Franklin Barbecue in Austin is the most-famous barbecue restaurant in the area, there are plenty of other spots, like Louie Mueller in Taylor, that also do a darn fine job of slow-smoking their meat into tender submission.
East Texas is a mutt when it comes to 'cue. Right next to the Louisiana border, the region blends the Lone Star State's obsession with beef with the pork fanaticism found throughout the Southeast. Whatever the protein, chances are it's going to be cooked low and slow indirectly over hickory wood, chopped, then slathered with a thick, slightly sweet tomato-based sauce. Try it out at Joseph's Riverport Barbecue. The Jefferson restaurant offers three-meat plates, so you can taste the rainbow of its well-prepared smoked delicacies like juicy sliced brisket, sweet brown sugar-vinegar-and-mustard-infused ribs and snappy sausage from gourmet maker Kountry Boys.
Far Southeast Texas
In the corner of the Lone Star State where East Texas and South Texas meet, smoked beef links are found at barbecue spots all over the place. At places like Patillo's Bar-B-Que in Beaumont, these fatty sausages are assertively seasoned with garlic, chile powder, paprika and, in many cases, a zesty dose of cumin. These things are so juicy that you'll see a red halo of grease emanating out from where each link sits on the plate — that's how you'll know you got a good one, too. While you've got to try the links, most of the smoked-meat specialists in the area offer a little bit of everything, including excellent ribs and chicken.
South Texas Barbacoa
While barbacoa has been increasingly showing up at taco trucks and at places like Chipotle, it's often not the real deal. Real barbacoa isn't steamed in an oven, and traditionally it should consist of more than just small hunks of beef cheeks. Real barbacoa is made of whole cattle heads smoked with hot coals in underground pit filled with mesquite — that's the way it evolved in Texas, anyway. The style of cooking deeply is rooted in the state's multicultural ranching traditions, and there aren't many places that still do it the old way. You'll have to go to Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville to try it out. Second-generation owner Armando Vera smokes his heads for eight to 10 hours before separating the meat into cheeks, tongue, eyes and the leftovers mixta, and serving it all alongside fresh salsa and corn tortillas.
Found mostly in the Hill Country, the large area that makes up the center and southern part of the Lone Star State, West Texas barbecue got a somewhat inaccurate title — it's west of center but not really "West Texas." "Cowboy style" is the more appropriate designation, as the direct-heat cooking method closely resembles the cooking method used by ranchers back in the day. At places like Bill's Bar-B-Que in Kerrville, things like sausage, pork ribs, turkey and cabrito (goat) are cooked directly over the coals in open pits, while briskets are cooked slowly and indirectly, just as they are in the central part of the state. Farther west, around El Paso, the style of cooking transitions back to using mostly indirect heat.
Central Coast, California
The Central Coast of Santa Maria-style barbecue draws from California's rich Spanish heritage. In a cooking method rooted in Mexican vaquero culture, beef (mainly whole tri-tip of sirloin) is seasoned with just salt, pepper and garlic salt, then grilled on a grate that gets lowered and raised above a pit of red-oak embers. These cuts are traditionally served with salsa, grilled garlic bread, local pinquito beans, green salad and macaroni salad. One of the best places to try this style of barbecue is at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge during special occasions or at a Central Coast steak specialist like The Hitching Post II, a Buellton spot hailed for its local wine selections and famed for its appearance in the movie Sideways.
Long before Europeans arrived on the islands' dramatic shoreline, Hawaiians were cooking kalua pig in an underground pit known as an imu. The pit is layered with wood, which is ignited and then covered with weathered volcanic rock until scorching hot. Then layers of banana stumps, banana leaves and ti leaves are added to protect and flavor the food. The pile steams undercover for somewhere between six and 12 hours, imbuing the contents with the subtle flavor of smoke. Whole hogs are the most-common feature nowadays, but you can also find kalua pork shoulder, mutton, turkey and beef, all cooked alongside produce like breadfruit, taro or yams. Try them at James Beard Award-winning Helena's Hawaiian Food, which has been serving regional classics, including imu-cooked kalua pig, since 1946.