The Best U.S. Barbecue Cities

Best BBQ: Blue Smoke
Photo: Photo courtesy of Blue Smoke

Few topics inspire as much fiery passion as barbecue. The style may vary across the country, but two ingredients remain the same throughout: smoke and meat, a powerful combination that's enticed eaters since ancient times. Today, barbecue is a deeply rooted part of American culture, with regional 'cue preferences speaking to a destination's history, geography, and taste. — Jamie Feldmar

01 of 19

Central Texas: Austin & Surrounding Hill Country

Best BBQ: Franklin BBQ
Photo courtesy of Franklin BBQ

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.

02 of 19

East Texas: Dallas & Around

Best BBQ: Stanley's Bar-B-Q Pit
Photo courtesy of Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q

Lesser-known than Central Texas 'cue but equally delicious, East Texas barbecue 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.

03 of 19

South Texas: Brownsville

Best BBQ: Brownsville
Photo © Ian Dagnall / Alamy

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.

04 of 19

Kansas City, Missouri

Best BBQ: Oklahoma Joe's
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Joe's

This beloved barbecue 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.

05 of 19

St. Louis, Missouri

Best BBQ: Roper's Ribs
Photo courtesy of Roper's Ribs

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.

06 of 19

Western North Carolina: Lexington & Around

Best BBQ: Lexington Barbecue
Photo © Marcus Nilsson

Western Carolina barbecue, 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.

07 of 19

Eastern North Carolina: Raleigh, North Carolina & Around

Best BBQ: The Pit
Photo © Marcus Nilsson

Eastern Carolina barbecue 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 barbecue is nearly always served with a mayo-based coleslaw, fried cornmeal hush puppies, and a tall glass of super-sweet 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 barbecue in a landmark building for over 50 years.

08 of 19

Central South Carolina: Columbia & Around

Best BBQ: Central South Carolina
Photo © Philip Scalia / Alamy

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.

09 of 19


Best BBQ: Central BBQ
Photo courtesy of Central BBQ

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 barbecue platters (with a side of homemade potato chips) in a laid-back, comfortable space.

10 of 19


Best BBQ: Jack's Bar-B-Que
Photo courtesy of Jack's Bar-B-Que

Nashville's barbecue 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 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).

  • Nashville Travel Guide
11 of 19

Owensboro, Kentucky

Best BBQ: Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn
Photo © Richard Powers

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.

12 of 19

Decatur, Alabama

Best BBQ: Big Bob Gibson's
Photo courtesy of Big Bob Gibson's

Alabama is home to nearly every style of Southern barbecue, but the state does add at least one touch that's all its own. Decatur is the place to taste white barbecue 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.

13 of 19

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Best BBQ: McClard's
Photo courtesy of McClard's

Arkansas barbecue 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.

14 of 19


Best BBQ: Honey 1 BBQ
Photo of Honey 1 BBQ © roboppy

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 more-than-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.

15 of 19

Murphysboro, Illinois

Best BBQ: 17th St Bar & Grill
Photo © David Grunfeld

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.

16 of 19

Santa Maria, California & Around

Best BBQ: Hitching Post
The Hitching Post. Photo © Lisa Thompson Photography

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. Opened more than 90 years ago, Hitching Post in Casmalia, housed in an old hotel and boasting a list of great local wines, is a Santa Barbara County historical landmark. 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.

17 of 19


Best BBQ: Fox Brothers
Photo courtesy of Green Olive Media

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.

18 of 19

Oahu, Hawaii

Best BBQ: Paradise Cove
Photo courtesy of Paradise Cove

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.

19 of 19

New York City

Best BBQ: Blue Smoke
Photo courtesy of Blue Smoke

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.

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