Best BBQ Cities
Central Texas: Austin & Surrounding Hill Country
Here, it’s all about the supremacy of the meat, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and smoked over oak wood. Sauce is discouraged for slow-cooked beef brisket, black and crackled like bark on top and pink-tender within; spicy hand-cranked sausages (known locally as “hot guts”); and hulking slabs of pork ribs, heaped onto plastic trays with pickles and white bread. In Austin, buzzy Franklin BBQ’s Aaron Franklin spends 14 hours smoking his salt-and-pepper-rubbed brisket, which usually sells out in less than three. A classic institution built in 1924, Smitty’s Market in Lockhart is cavernous and dark, with smoke pits turning out remarkable fatty brisket and leaner shoulder clod, all served sans silverware.
East Texas: Dallas & Around
Lesser-known than Central Texas ’cue but equally delicious, East Texas BBQ uses sweet-tangy sauces. Both beef and pork are slowly smoked over hickory wood, roughly chopped rather than sliced and served on a bun with thick tomato-based sauce. Tender, fatty pork shoulder, glazed pork ribs, smoke-kissed brisket and spicy sausages are popular in these parts. In Dallas, Smokey John’s BBQ & Home Cooking makes excellent hotlinks, while Mike Anderson’s BBQ House specializes in brisket; two hours west in Tyler, there are award-winning pork ribs—and a line to match—at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q.
South Texas: Brownsville
South Texas barbecue takes its lead from Mexico, incorporating flavors and techniques from south of the border. The defining dish in this area is beef barbacoa, traditionally whole cow head wrapped in maguey leaves or foil and cooked overnight in an underground pit filled with hot coals. The fall-apart tender meat is then served in tortillas or simply on a plate, covered in cilantro, onions and salsa. Real pit cooking is rare these days due to Health Department regulations, but tiny, family-run Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que is one of the few establishments whose pits were grandfathered in. There, customers find tender mesquite-smoked barbacoa by the pound, along with homemade salsa and tortillas, but plan ahead—Vera’s is only open on weekends.
Kansas City, Missouri
This beloved BBQ capital is famous for its sweet tomato-and-molasses-based sauce, poured on everything from pulled pork sandwiches and beef and pork ribs to smoked chicken and turkey. Restaurants here will smoke just about everything, usually over hickory wood. Burnt ends, flavor-packed nuggets cut from the end of smoked brisket and slathered in the tangy sauce, are a local favorite, and no platter is complete without a side of spicy-sweet baked beans. Key stops include century-old Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin once declared “the best restaurant in the world,” and Oklahoma Joe’s, situated, uniquely, inside of a gas station.
St. Louis, Missouri
The opposite side of Missouri favors grilled meats, lavished with a tomato-based, sticky-sweet barbecue sauce. The city’s namesake dish, St. Louis–style ribs, are pork spareribs trimmed into neat, easy-to-eat rectangles. Another local specialty is the barbecued pork steak, a thick slice of shoulder meat that’s seared and then slow-cooked in a tomato-vinegar sauce. Perhaps the oddest St. Louis BBQ dish is the crispy snoot, a deeply smoked pig snout that’s either served as a starter or piled onto a sandwich. Family-run Roper’s Ribs has been doling out slow-hickory-wood-smoked ribs, rib tips and crispy snoots since 1976; C&K, a perpetually crowded takeout joint, started serving pig ears and ribs doused in a thin, spicy sauce back in 1963.
Western North Carolina: Lexington & Around
Western Carolina BBQ, also known as Lexington-style after the city that popularized it, is squarely focused on wood-smoked pork shoulder, chopped or sliced. It’s kept juicy and sweet with heavy applications of a ketchup-and-vinegar-based sauce, and often served in sandwiches topped with a finely minced cabbage slaw. Make sure to ask for some outside brown—the crunchy, caramelized bits from the outside of the shoulder—on your plate. In Lexington proper, off Highway 29-70, no-frills Lexington Barbecue has pitmasters who expertly smoke pork shoulder and little else; in Greensboro, Stamey’s Old Fashioned Barbecue makes the best sandwich in town, topped with a pleasantly vinegary slaw and served on paper plates.
Eastern North Carolina: Raleigh, North Carolina & Around
Eastern Carolina BBQ makes judicious use of the whole hog, quite literally—the entire pig is slowly smoked over hardwood coals, its tender meat finely chopped and mixed with bits of crispy cracklings. The unadorned pork is the star, and it’s served with a thin, astringent vinegar-and-pepper dressing. Eastern Carolina BBQ is nearly always served with a mayo-based coleslaw, fried cornmeal hush puppies and a tall glass of supersweet iced tea. The Pit in Raleigh is a touch more refined than many ’cue restaurants, but their pork is soulful and smoky, while Skylight Inn in Ayden, known locally as Pete Jones’ Barbecue, has been serving whole hog BBQ in a landmark building for over 50 years.
Central South Carolina: Columbia & Around
The stretch of South Carolina from roughly Columbia to Charleston is known as “the Mustard Belt.” The region’s distinctive mustard-based sauce originated with German settlers in the 18th century, and it’s applied liberally to whole hog ’cue smoked over open wood pits. All-you-can-eat buffets are popular in these parts, with many trays full of chopped pork and dozens of Southern sides. Columbia’s Little Pigs BBQ smokes a juicy combo of shoulders and hams, while Shealy’s BBQ in Batesburg offers an enormous buffet with smoked pork, fried chicken and side dishes galore.
Pork is king in Memphis, in rib form or chopped. The city is known for its dry ribs, rubbed with a tongue-tingling combination of garlic, onion, paprika and black and cayenne pepper, slow-smoked over hickory wood. Other specialties include chopped pork sandwiches topped with a bright, mustard-based slaw, and oddities like barbecued bologna and barbecue spaghetti. When sauce is used, it’s tomato-and-vinegar-based, slightly runny and sometimes quite spicy, too. The ribs come dry or wet at ramshackle smokehouse A&R Bar-B-Que. Central BBQ serves BBQ platters (with a side of homemade potato chips) in a laid-back, comfortable space.
Nashville’s ’cue is less dogmatic than other cities’. With no strict style to adhere to, Music City’s offerings are more varied. Like Memphis, pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches are popular, but so is Texas-influenced brisket and even smoked chicken and turkey. Tomato-based sauces run the gamut from XXX hot to tangy and mild, so there really is something for everyone in this town. Jack’s Bar-B-Que has everything from St. Louis ribs to Texas brisket, with half a dozen different kinds of sauces, while Jefferson Street fixture Mary’s Old Fashioned Pit BBQ is renowned for its chopped pork sandwich and extra-long hours, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays (it’s closed on Sundays).
Western Kentucky is the capital for unsung mutton barbecue. The naturally tough meat, which comes from a sheep older than a year, is tamed by low and slow wood-smoking and regular applications of a vinegar-and-pepper basting liquid. Once tender, it’s served sliced or pulled, with a Worcestershire-based “black” dipping sauce, or as burgoo, a thick mutton stew fortified with chicken, pork and vegetables. Local classic Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn has seating for 350 and a 40-foot buffet table with multiple mutton dishes. Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, a nearly 100-year-old family-run restaurant, lets customers order “off the pit,” meaning they’ll slice your preferred portion straight from the piping-hot whole cut.
Alabama is home to nearly every style of Southern BBQ, but the state does add at least one touch that’s all its own. Decatur is the place to taste white BBQ sauce, a thin mayo-and-vinegar condiment that’s swiped on chicken, both as a marinade and a table sauce. The founders at local legend Big Bob Gibson’s, whose pitmaster Chris Lilly is widely renowned on the competitive ’cue circuit, claim to have invented the white sauce, though takeout-only Whitt’s is a good alternative if the crowds at Big Bob’s are too much.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Arkansas ’cue doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, but the state has its own rich style, with influences from nearby Tennessee and Texas. The ’cue in spa town Hot Springs is very much about the sauce, the local choice being a thin, tomato-based version spiced with a zippy array of hot peppers and chiles. It’s fantastic on pork shoulder sandwiches and beef and pork ribs, slow-smoked in open pits over hickory wood. The signature dish at McClard’s, built at an old trailer park, is a platter of spicy ribs buried beneath a mountain of French fries, while cafeteria-style Stubby’s Hik-Ry Pit Bar-B-Que has been serving hickory-smoked pork, beef, potatoes and beans with a garlicky sauce since 1952.
The Windy City’s preferred barbecue style is messy and delicious. Many restaurants are outfitted with custom-made, rectangular glass-encased smokers known as “aquariums” because of their resemblance to fish tanks. Local favorites include rib tips, irregularly shaped hunks of meaty, cartilage-heavy spareribs thoroughly submerged in a thick, tangy tomato-based sauce, and giant, saucy hot links, coarsely ground pork sausages with a thick casing. Most plates are served with thick-cut fries and white bread to sop up excess sauce, though you’ll want to pack extra Wet-Naps, too. For the classics, head to 70-year-old Leon’s for a no-frills cardboard platter of rib tips covered in fries, or see an aquarium smoker in action at casual smokehouse Honey 1 BBQ.
The barbecue in southern Illinois draws, unsurprisingly, from neighboring Missouri and Tennessee, so visitors can expect a mix of saucy pork sandwiches and expertly prepared, dry-rubbed pork ribs smoked over cherry wood. You’ll often find Chicago-style beef hot links in Murphsyboro, as well as Texas-style brisket, making this small town the perfect ’cue crossroads. Mike Mills, the pitmaster at 17th St Bar & Grill, is a three-time Grand World champion of the major ’cue competition in Memphis in May, with the affectionate (and accurate) nickname “The Legend.” Though locals might head to Pat’s BBQ when they’re open on Fridays and Saturdays for similar fare with less of a crowd.
Santa Maria, California & Around
The Central Coast of California has a barbecue style rooted in the rugged traditions of Spanish cowboys. Meat is cooked directly over coals of red oak wood on giant open grates and served alongside small, pinkish pinquito beans and fresh salsa. Tri-tip beef and top sirloin steak are the cuts of choice, seasoned simply with salt, pepper and garlic salt. The 92-year-old Hitching Post in Casmalia, housed in an old hotel and boasting a list of great local wines, is a Santa Barbara County historical landmark, while the newer, more casual Rancho Nipomo in Nipomo serves Cal-Mex slow-smoked pork sandwiches and traditional oak-smoked tri-tip burritos on handmade tortillas.
While Atlanta may not have a distinct barbecue style of its own, the city still takes its smoked meat seriously, with hundreds of ’cue joints, both old-school and new, offering tomato-based sauce-slathered ribs, pulled pork sandwiches and brisket. Keep an eye out for the local specialty Brunswick stew, a thick, tomato-based concoction loaded with bits of smoked pork, beef and vegetables. Try the Texas-style grub at the cultishly loved Fox Brothers BBQ, which began as a once-a-week pop-up at a local bar in 2004 before expanding to a brick-and-mortar location a few years ago.
Hawaiians have their two notable styles of barbecue: One involves slow-cooking whole suckling pigs, traditionally for a luau celebration, in an underground pit called an imu; the other is huli-huli, rotisserie-style chicken roasted over kaiwe wood coals and glazed with shoyu-pineapple-ginger sauce. Local luaus are hard to find, so many hotels and resorts host entertaining reproductions, while huli-huli chicken is often sold at roadside stands. Visitors can buy tickets for a luau at Paradise Cove, where there’s a musical performance and buffet, or stop off at no-frills Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken, which sells fresh, piping-hot poultry out of a food truck and two brick-and-mortar locations.
New York City
New York is truly the melting pot of barbecue, with little space for open pits but boundless imagination for styles and sauces. Some restaurants keep it traditional, emulating styles from Texas or Tennessee, while others take a fusion approach, mixing regional specialties from across the country. A few have even invented their own style, like Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Fette Sau, which smokes their dry-rubbed pork belly in-house. Danny Meyer’s jazzy Blue Smoke has smokers imported from Missouri and a menu of regional ’cue from across the country.