Plus, at least one runner-up for every choice, because there's more good barbecue out there than ever before.
Good meat, good smoke. Nail those things, you don't need a whole lot else. Gimmicks, bells, whistles—how nice, no thanks. Sauce—if any—is an enhancement, not a flood in which to drown inadequacies. No too-clever-by-half litany of sides for distraction, no expensive design jobs, a minimum of carefully laid bric-a-brac, no purposefully distressed walls—really, you don't need walls at all. That's barbecue. That's barbecue at its most thrilling, anyway.
For the longest time, there was the America that got all, or most of this, and then there was the rest of the country, the part that—generally speaking—had absolutely no idea. One list was very short. The other was, unfortunately, quite long.
Things are different now, of course. Barbecue has gone wide. Way wide, in fact, to the point where, on a good day, you can get a decent piece of brisket, or a memorable pork sandwich, in pretty much every single one of the 50 states. Texas or Carolina good? Sometimes. The rest—well, they're working on it. There has never been a better time to eat traditional American barbecue, and there has never been a better time to get out there and appreciate a growing number of interpretations, fusions, and thrilling little tweaks, courtesy of an increasingly diverse group of players on the stage.
All of this is praiseworthy, absolutely. Still—a little learning is a dangerous thing, a wise man once said. Right now, you can barely move in this country for authentic, fill-in-the-blank-style barbecue. Suddenly, we're all championship winners. There are less-than-legal (and exceedingly popular) backyard operations, there are pop-ups to chase after, trucks, shacks, fast-casuals, chains both low and highbrow, there are full-blown restaurants. Places with giant menus, fully stocked bars, and all sorts of other things you do not necessarily find in the places everyone is furiously attempting to replicate, or at the very least evoke.
So—what's good, and what's bad? Beyond the extremely subjective, the who-wore-it-best arguments over regional hierarchies, here's the beautiful thing about barbecue—it speaks for itself, loudly and clearly, one hundred percent of the time. All of the fancy dress—the tricks, the fake-outs, all of the macaroni and cheese, the vats of sauce, the so-called unique concepts, obsessing over Instagram-readiness, the let me explain to you how our menu works—stalling tactics, all. Either the meat is good, or it's not, at which point the discussion is then over.
We can't all be Carolina, however, and we can't all be Central Texas—these days, barbecue is coming from all sides, it is being prepared by people from all walks of life, doing all sorts of interesting things. The baseline for what's acceptable keeps rising, to the comfortable place where what's authentic feels less important than what is actually just plain good. Still, as above-average barbecue (let's be honest, there are a great many states with plenty of room to grow) becomes more prevalent, as cities with no options at all are suddenly overflowing, now seems as good a time as any to stand up for what's real, in the most basic sense—to call back to humble beginnings, to advocate for the truly passionate ones, the ones who put all of their blood, sweat and tears into the work that they do, because they cannot or do not want to do anything else.
With so many of the genre's oldest and best retiring, or passing on—the ones we must never fail to bless for keeping American barbecue tradition alive, in order for it to be able to see this big, exhilarating moment—this almost feels like a matter of great urgency now, this digging back toward the roots of the genre, to celebrate the keepers of the flame in a business where tangible reward can be elusive. From the Mississippi Delta to Chicago's South Side, we are now losing too many of our brightest lights. They don't make them like they used to, generally speaking, and where we still find them, or their descendants, still doing good work, it is only right that they should be celebrated, while they're here.
This isn't to say that you have to be old, or that you have to be born into barbecue, to be good at what you do—barbecue culture is where it is now in large part due to a new generation of hard grafters, sometimes very young entrepreneurs who've bootstrapped themselves to where they are today, who have taught themselves to be excellent. In the end, old or new, it is passion, and the beautiful result passion so often delivers, that we wish to celebrate. Here, our selections for the best in every state, right now, in 2018. Together, hopefully, they paint an accurate portrait of American barbecue right now—a thing that should make us all very proud, indeed.
(You can't sit with us)
Alabama: Big Bob Gibson BBQ, Decatur
There are states and regions that are good at one thing, at one style, and then there is Alabama, always something of a wild child, never really interested in settling, or settling down, and so here, you get a little bit—actually, you get a lot—of everything. There are places that do ribs, places that do pork shoulder, or pork butt, there are Greek immigrant old-timers in post-industrial Birmingham, still doing things their way, there is even brisket. But then—and this is very important, mind you—there is the chicken. The chicken—smoky and delicious, typically a carrier for Alabama's once obscure (and now gone viral) white sauce—is where you must start, and it is at the classic Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur, two locations, around since the 1920's, that any tasting tour ought to begin. What is white sauce, you ask? Nothing like any other barbecue sauce you'll have tried, that's for sure—mayonnaise, vinegar, plenty of pepper, in some cases a touch of horseradish, all combine to create something simple but irresistible.
Also try: Need more of that chicken in your life? In Birmingham, go classic at Miss Myra's, or dabble in the new school with Saw's—this popular recent addition has spurred a handful of restaurants, each with their own personality, around the area.
Arkansas: Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, Marianna
From the cool pine forests of the Ozark highlands to the subtropical depths of the Delta, Arkansas contains multitudes, but when it comes to barbecue, there's a unifying theme among its top contenders, and that is utter simplicity—beauty as stark as the lowlands where you will find Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, considered to be the oldest surviving black-owned restaurant in the South, now in existence for over a century. Hickory and oak logs, a cinder block pit, lots of pork shoulder and some patience are the recipe for one of the most celebrated (and simplest) barbecue meals in the country, which is a sandwich of that tender pork, hacked into pieces, lightly bathed in a vinegar sauce, a bit of mustard-based slaw, and served up between two slices of white bread. They might do more, but they don't have to—people come from all over to eat this sandwich, and they often sell out before lunch. The Joneses have won award after award (including a James Beard Foundation America's Classics nod, in 2012) for the work they have done, are doing, and hopefully will continue to do, for some time to come.
Also try: Turn your pilgrimage into a crawl with a stop at another Delta institution, Craig Bar-B-Q in De Valls Bluff—this singular spot is perfectly situated near I-40, ideal for cross-country road trippers.
Georgia: B's Cracklin' Barbecue, Atlanta and Savannah
There was barbecue in Atlanta, long before South Carolina native Bryan Furman showed up a few years back, but then Furman fired up the pits at B's Cracklin' Barbecue, and now it feels like this modest roadhouse in the charmingly weedy, almost-countrified Riverside section of town is the only barbecue anyone around here wants to talk about. Follow the smoke and you'll find some of the South's better barbecue right now—in Atlanta, and in Savannah too, where Furman first bounded onto the scene. B's is one of those rare all-rounders where most everything is worth seeking out, but begin with the coarsely shredded and impeccably sourced heritage pork, along with the giant pork ribs. Furman's peach mustard sauce—a tribute to his adopted state—proves that rules about sauce are made to be broken. (Dab a little on the already stellar ribs—just beautiful.)
Also try Barbecue with elegant Korean side notes is the thing at Atlanta's outstanding Heirloom Market, while on the other side of the state, Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island takes a creative, modern approach, almost within walking distance from the beach. Traditionalists will thrill to Jackson's Fresh Air Barbecue, around since 1929—come here for chopped pork sandwiches and Georgia's own Brunswick stew.
Illinois: Beast Craft BBQ, Belleville
How good is Beast Craft BBQ, here's how good—enough to get people to drive the half hour or more from St. Louis, a town not currently short on barbecue, to say the least. In fact, there are those that will tell you that David Sandusky's American wagyu-style brisket, not to mention his regular brisket (prime), and his high-quality pork, represents some of the best barbecue you can get in St. Louis right now. Period. The small detail of the location in Illinois, in the nowhere-adjacent exurb of Belleville, doesn't bother Sandusky's growing number of fans at all—they're happy to make Texas-style pilgrimages to eat this barbecue, and we should all be following their lead. (The man can take a hint, apparently—a second location, right in St. Louis, will follow shortly.)
Also try: Long before smoked meats were a trend, Mike Mills' baby backs were the stuff of competition legend; you'll find him posted up at 17th Street BBQ in the Southern Illinois town of Murphysboro. And what of Chicago? The city's once magnificent barbecue situation, famous for those code-conforming aquarium pits, has taken a series of hits—a plate of good rib tips (automatically doused in the regionally preferred sauce, of course) is something many Chicagoans once took for granted, but they're getting harder to come by, at least done well. Still, Lem's, Uncle J's and Honey 1—all on the South Side—can be found doing their bit for tradition.
Kentucky: Old Hickory Bar-B-Q, Owensboro
Surely, other good things have come from Owensboro over the years, but for anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about barbecue, what comes to mind at the very mention of this relatively obscure Ohio River city, home of the modestly titled, annual International Bar-B-Q Festival, is mutton. Has it not been generations since eating the meat of mature sheep fell out of fashion, you ask? Yes, but don't tell Owensboro—you'll find this corner of Kentucky still mad for mutton, and a good many fanatics can be found at the century-old Old Hickory Bar-B-Q, chowing down, old-school style, on plates of the stuff, slow-smoked—ribs, sliced or chopped, lightly bathed in the preferred house condiment. (The main ingredient is Worcestershire sauce.) But first, burgoo, that other regional favorite, a traditional barbecue accompaniment perhaps best thought of as Kentucky answer to Georgia's Brunswick stew.
Also try: So you've come all this way—why not pay tribute to Owensboro's other temple to the regional style, the estimable Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn, roughly half the age of its competitor, but equally beloved, in no small part for their meat-centric buffets.
Kansas: Slap's BBQ, Kansas City
Forever in the shadow of a certain town of the same name, the Kansas side of Kansas City isn't much to look at—for the longest time, the downtown felt like the set of one of those post-apocalyptic movies, while some neighborhoods adopted an overgrown, almost rural quality. When it comes to barbecue, however, this city is far from asleep, having made contributions aplenty throughout the years, and certainly more recently. Back in the 1990's, there was this little joint that began operating out of a gas station, roughly ten blocks west of the Missouri line. That little joint—now called Joe's Kansas City—went on to become one of the most popular destinations in the region for Kansas City-style barbecue. Much more recently, brothers Mike and Joe Pearce once more pulled focus over to the Kansas side of the proverbial tracks with their no-frills Slap's BBQ, up in the historic KCK neighborhood of Strawberry Hill. Real burnt ends, smoked links from the old-school sausage maker down the street, very good ribs—even after expanding capabilities, you can't be sure they won't sell out. (It pays to go on the early side.)
Also try Sisters Deborah and Mary Jones Mosely have been professional pitmasters for roughly thirty years now—you'll currently find them running the show at Jones Bar-B-Q, a little red hut in an out-of-the-way industrial section of Kansas City. This is one of the area's more underrated stops—try the rib tips, smoked turkey, and sausage links.
Mississippi: Leatha's Bar-B-Que Inn, Hattiesburg
All too often, a loss of the face of a legendary barbecue destination leads to end of empire, and there was good reason to wonder if this wouldn't be the case with Leatha's in Hattiesburg, once Leatha Jackson left the stage. Jackson had been drawing people to herself, and to her barbecue, for decades, beginning her career in the tiny Pine Belt town of Foxworth, later setting up shop in Hattiesburg. Leatha's was, up until Jackson's departure, one of the finer destinations in the region for ribs (best baby backs around) and chopped pork, not to mention a great deal many other things, and while it could never be exactly the same place without her, thanks at first to her daughter Bonnie (now also passed on), and these days to other family members, including grandson Brian, Leatha's remains perhaps the most inspired on a declining roster of destination-worthy classics in the state.
Missouri: Big Baby Q and Smokehouse, Maryland Heights
The meaty St. Louis spare rib is a barbecue staple, but back in the day, St. Louis wasn't what you'd have called a barbecue capital; Kansas City's the one that saw most of the action, in these parts. That's over now—after a last decade or so of considerable growth, there is now much to talk about, but it seems only fitting that you start off with a big old rack of ribs. Choosing the best is difficult, but start at Big Baby Q and Smokehouse, out in Maryland Heights. Here, Ben Welch, in tandem with his artist dad, smokes a great St. Louis-style rib, along with some of the better brisket in town. Only in existence since 2016, this is one in a healthy crop of popular new spots that have livened up the regional barbecue scene. Welch already has his sights set on new projects, recently testing the waters for another restaurant idea with a series of pop-ups—all the more reason to be here now.
Also try: Besides ribs of all kinds, another thing you ought to try in St. Louis is snoots—that's pig snouts, crisped up (think chicharrón), typically doused in sauce. (St. Louis loves sauce.) Where to find? Smoki O's is always a good bet—Otis and Earline Walker's little North Side spot has been a destination since the 1990's, long before barbecue's current heyday. Not that the newer stuff can be overlooked—there's smoked prime rib at The Wood Shack, smoked salami sandwiches at Adam's Smokehouse, turkey tips at the Gobble House in Creve Coeur, Memphis ribs at Pappy's, burnt ends and rib tips at Dixon's Smoke Company, and pretty much anything at Salt + Smoke. And no, nobody's forgetting about Kansas City, where you should cancel all your other plans, go directly to L.C.'s Bar-B-Q, and order the burnt ends. Kansas City made them famous—well, Calvin Trillin did the heavy lifting for them—and L.C.'s has some of the best in town.
North Carolina: Skylight Inn, Ayden
Texas style is the very definition of so hot right now, but there was a time, however, and in the minds of some purists and history buffs, that time never ended, a time when the Carolinas were, well, everything. Pork's the thing here, has been forever, whole hog if you can—the only other discussion left to have, really, is which sauce, or seasoning methods, a decision typically made for you, depending on where you find yourself in this rather large state. The simple joys of a marriage between a pile of roast hog shreds—with just enough of the crackly bits to give texture—and the various house interpretations of the state's vinegar-forward sauces are well documented; this is an experience not unlike the first time someone in Texas slaps a fat slice of unadorned brisket down in front of you. Like you've finally figured out the meaning of life, or something. Begin your spiritual quest at Ayden's Skylight Inn, perhaps the most stopped-at place in Eastern North Carolina, and for good reason. Here, you get a pile of meat (whole hog), a healthy portion of slaw and a slab of cornbread, you eat it, you go away happy. Simple as that.
Also try: Piedmont style barbecue is often called Lexington style, after the small city of Lexington, which remains something of a hub of the genre. Here, it's still all about pork, but less whole hog, along with an emphasis on tomato (ketchup, actually, which they've been using for generations, don't @ them) in the sauce. Don't choose between Lexington's Barbecue Center or Lexington Barbecue—not when you can easily go to both.
South Carolina: Rodney Scott's BBQ, Charleston
Second-generation pitmaster Rodney Scott started young, around the age of 11 in fact, at his family's variety store, all but disappeared inside South Carolina's rural Pee Dee region, an hour or so from Myrtle Beach. Famous in the area for their whole hog barbecue, the Scott family had been a presence in the town of Hemingway since the 1970's, but it wasn't until a decade or so ago that a feature in the New York Times brought their deceptively humble operation a giant dose of well-deserved recognition. Today, you don't have to venture out into the woods to sample some of the country's finest whole hog barbecue (though you can, the family is still there), not when you have Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston. This particular genre may have been on the decline for some time, but the success of Scott's cityside venture—this year, Scott became the second pitmaster, after Aaron Franklin, to receive a Best New Chef nod at the James Beard Foundation Awards—feels like a massive win for Team Pork.
Also try: There's so much going on here, for such a small state—it helps to have some kind of focus, and let's gently suggest that you hone in on the hash. Don't call this classic dish a side—this isn't macaroni and cheese, this is history you can taste, nose-to-tail before all of that stuff became trendy again. The last of the scraps, the offal, and bits of fat get cooked down with spices and a sauce, sometimes tomato based, sometimes mustard, and the end result is typically served with rice. This is one of those things most people don't want to stop eating, once they've started—it's just that good, that comforting. Hash is not necessarily made the same way twice, which makes the stuff even more interesting; each place seems to have their own way of doing things. The hash at True BBQ in Columbia, for example, is going to be different than the version at Big T's, out in the sticks near Congaree National Park, which will be nothing like what you'll get at Melvin's, back in Charleston. Obviously, you'll need to try them all.
Tennessee: B.E. Scott's BBQ, Lexington
A good rack of Memphis-style ribs is some of the best barbecue you can get, anywhere, but these days, there's a depressing amount of complacency in actual Memphis—right now, it feels as if the real magic is not found in Tennessee's big cities, but rather in its small towns. The Carolinas are more widely celebrated for their whole hog barbecue tradition, but for a long time, the mostly rural region between Memphis and Nashville were right up there with their neighbors to the East. While the younger generation is now in charge, one of the last of the old-timer joints, the disarmingly modest B.E. Scott's BBQ in Lexington, is doing the most to keep tradition not only alive, but to help it thrive. One of their sandwiches, topped with slaw and sauce, will make you want to sign up for the cause.
Also try: While you're out here in the sticks, point the car toward Brownsville, and Helen Turner's Helen's Bar-B-Q, or Sam's Barbecue in Humboldt, or Ramey's in Parsons—this rather expansive area between Memphis and Nashville doesn't have quite the visibility other similarly productive barbecue regions enjoy, but it certainly deserves more attention.
Texas: Louie Mueller, Taylor
Just in case you haven't heard, barbecue in Texas is pretty much as good as it gets, and while you could certainly try, it is very difficult to go away disappointed. The best addresses in Central Texas are visited the way the faithful make pilgrimages to religious sites, and while this does not mean every single shack or trailer or market or even restaurant is good at absolutely everything, when they hit the jackpot, there's almost no equivalent—you know, in that moment, you are eating a meal to be remembered, most likely for as long as you live. Call us old-fashioned, but if you've only just drifted in with high hopes of drilling down to the very essence of the now world-famous Central Texas style, where you really want to begin is on the business end of a pound of no-screwing-around, stupidly barked, smokier-than-hell brisket, and it is at Louie Mueller's that you will quite easily find this. Wait in line under the hot Austin sun for half a day, drive further into the hinterlands—do whatever you feel, really—but know that you can simply hop in the car for the short drive to the town of Taylor, and that there are times where you can pretty much walk straight up to the counter here for some of the most beautiful brisket ever emerge from the pit—the kind that can, on a very good day, of which there are a great deal many, bring a tear to the eye, because of happiness. And to think, we haven't even talked about the beef ribs, yet. You probably couldn't handle it.
Also try: A committed junkie could spend weeks in Central Texas and still find themselves struggling to make it to all of the really good stuff, but just to pile on, there are two newer arrivals on the scene that you should know about, both somewhat off the beaten path. At Miguel Vidal's Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, a permanent trailer set-up on Austin's southern fringe, you can get beautifull sliced brisket, or smoked carnitas, or both, folded into warm tortillas; equally exciting is Esaul Ramos and Joe Melig's outstanding 2M Smokehouse, in a part of San Antonio that's far from the tourist trail. Ramos trained in Austin at the stellar La Barbecue; his sausage and brisket (served with pickled nopales, if you wish) are just wonderful.
Virginia: ZZQ, Richmond
Really, what isn't Richmond suddenly extremely good at? Add Texas-style barbecue to the list of musts in this food-mad town with the spring debut of ZZQ, in the excellence magnet otherwise known as the city's Scott's Addition neighborhood. Don't be fooled by the impressive venue—partners (in business and in life) Chris Fultz and Alex Graf might have had some help getting to where they are right now, but this isn't just some corporate joint, capitalizing on a trend, this is the real deal. Fultz and Graf started small, impressing first one small group of lucky folks and then another, with their backyard pop-ups—some time later, we're now here, and here is—well, it's delicious.
Also try: Virginia and barbecue go extremely far back, even if the scene has done less than it might to distinguish itself in modern times. In Fredericksburg, stop at the classic Allman's, while in Petersburg, you have King's, around since the 1940's, serving up oak-smoked top round, chicken, and pulled pork shoulder.
(Stars on the rise)
Arizona: Little Miss BBQ, Phoenix
Sometimes, all it takes is one. Sometimes, all you need is someone like Scott Holmes to come along and light a fire, like he did with Little Miss BBQ, which burst onto the scene back in 2014. You'll find the state's far and away favorite barbecue joint hiding in something of a no man's land near the Phoenix airport; one of the more passionate pitmasters in the business, the success of the place seems to have surprised Holmes and wife Bekke as much as anybody else. Follow the scent of burning local white oak and pecan wood and get in line (there's very often a line) as early as you can for some of the best brisket (get a mix) in the West, plus house-made sausages, pork ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, and when available, giant beef ribs. The restaurant that can get Phoenicians to wait in line as long as they do here on weekends is all too rare, but they've been doing it, often cheerfully; Holmes and wife Bekke are now working on a second location.
Also try: Just minutes from where Holmes set up shop, you'll find the heart of South Phoenix, historically a hub of black culture here in Arizona; James Lewis comes from a sharecropping family in Arkansas, and his JL Smokehouse is one of the most unusual barbecue joints in the Southwest, a crazy quilt hybrid of his own ideas and various regional traditions. There's smoked bologna, there are rib tips, hot links, brisket—it's a wild ride, and time well spent in a Phoenix most people wouldn't know to go looking for.
California: Smokin' Woods BBQ, Oakland
More in transition than most, California's a tough one to pin down—everywhere you find yourself, there will likely be a promising new operation to chase around town, most of them mobile or temporary or in some cases, fully underground, which is a polite way to say not entirely legal. There are moments of brilliance, but they can be fleeting; here today, nowhere to be found the next, and while there are certainly California-sized amounts of promise here, the truly dependable ones, the ones who show up, day after day, remain few and far between. Then there's Oakland, by many measures one of the most interesting places to eat in the country at the moment, a city that has been enjoying something of a barbecue revival, after years of decline. Of the current crop of talent, the easiest to track down is the family-owned Smokin' Woods BBQ, a refreshingly simple brick and mortar operation in a region where restaurants have become increasingly high-stakes. The beef ribs here are worth seeking out.
Also try: Los Angeles is currently doing its utmost to manifest a proper barbecue scene—for now, much of the true artistry is limited to pop-ups, or those aforementioned underground settings, though Ray Ramirez, one of the earliest habitués of the scene—before it was really even a scene, actually—now has his own spot, Ray's BBQ, out in Huntington Park. Of course, you cannot come to Los Angeles and not try the pit-smoked pastrami from Ugly Drum; this may never have been a big barbecue city, but you cannot say they didn't know how to smoke meat, not that kind, anyway. The work Erik Black has been doing—with just a Sunday-only presence at the weekly Smorgasburg LA event—is good enough to put him right up there with the masters.
Colorado: Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Q, Denver
As in so many other places, we find Denver at a tipping point of sorts, just now—lots about to happen, or just now happening. There are movings and shakings and new arrivals that will likely leave the landscape in much different shape by this time next year or the year after, but for all the shouting from the rooftops about brisket and the like, it's difficult for the visitor to not to be utterly charmed by the work being done at Coy and Rachel Webb's Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Q. Pulled Colorado lamb shoulder, bison short ribs, a bison green chile sausage, smoked wings, even sides that feel special—there's a wonderful sense of place, it feels like Colorado in here, even if Coy is from Texas. Come here first and get your bearings. (Make sure to eat a lot of the lamb.)
Also try: Originally some of the best Texas-style barbecue to come from a truck in Denver, Owlbear Barbecue's Karl Fellenius is working (and working through various setbacks) to get his RiNo brick and mortar up and functioning; also being closely watched is the launch of Smōk, Chef Bill Espiricueta's new spot inside the Source food hall. Not that you're stuck waiting, because there's plenty already here, to the point where Denver is starting to get the tiniest bit spoiled—championship vet Jason Ganahl's GQue, out in suburban Westminster, is stop-worthy, and so is Wayne's, halfway up the hill to Boulder in Superior, next door to Costco.
Connecticut: Bear's Smokehouse, Hartford
There are many reasons to like Bear's Smokehouse, before you even get around to the meat, which can be very good. Owner Jamie McDonald grew up in Kansas City, eating burnt ends at L.C.'s, and sandwiches at Gates'—in high school, he even worked at a local barbecue joint. McDonald, who also happens to be a rather distinguished competitive eater in his free time, now runs (along with wife Cheryl) one of Hartford's favorite restaurants, one that gives back to the community in ways many businesses do not, from their move to pay well above the minimum wage, to a concerted effort to employ both veterans and ex-offenders. (More than 75 percent of the workforce, to be precise.) McDonald's Kansas City years have a considerable influence over what you'll eat here, but his inclusive attitude to the craft means that pretty much anything can be good, from brisket to ribs, the latter finished off with a butter and brown sugar scrub, because really, don't all good ribs deserve a little pampering?
Also try: In Fairfield, make sure to stop by Hoodoo Brown's—from jars crammed full of smoky, thick cut bacon to smoked chicken, turkey, a provolone and parsley sausage, plus their smoked prime rib nights, this is a place that thinks on its feet and executes with passion, a place that's far more than just another dreary, regional style by the numbers barbecue joint.
Florida: 4 Rivers Smokehouse, Winter Park
Nobody has done more in recent years—on such a grand scale, anyway—to revive Florida's relatively anemic barbecue culture than Jacksonville native John Rivers; it is impossible to talk about the Sunshine State without tipping one's hat to Rivers' very successful 4 Rivers Smokehouse, which began not all that long ago in a garage, out in the affluent Orlando suburb of Winter Park. These days, the company—as you might expect from a guy who got into barbecue after years heading up a billion-dollar pharmaceutical concern—has grown into a multi-unit chain spanning multiple states, but once you shed your prejudices against this relatively slick operation, and drill down to what really matters, you'll find what's technically (using the term literally) the best barbecue you can readily find in Florida right now. That includes their aged brisket, which isn't surprising—Rivers spent enough time in Texas to know exactly how it's supposed to be done, and it has to be said that it's often pretty darned good.
Also try: Florida has always had options—there's Jenkins, with its famous mustard sauce, up in Jacksonville, there is Tom Jenkins in Fort Lauderdale, and the old-school Shiver's BBQ so far south (in Homestead) that they serve Key Lime pie for dessert, but for barbecue at its most interesting right now, look to the future, to unlikely spots like Ocala. Here, Food Network star Rashad Jones runs Big Lee's, a permanent truck churning out some pretty great meat.
Hawaii: Helena's Hawaiian Food, Honolulu
If you are Hawaii, you aren't really waiting around for people to turn up and talk to you about barbecue—not when you've had Kālua pig, since, well, since for a long time. Often the culinary highlight of a traditional luau, this is pig cooked underground in what's called an imu, or underground oven, wrapped in the leaves of the local Ti plant. These days, you'll find a lot of places offering Kālua pork, which will be close enough for most of us—when done well, any plate from any good Hawaiian barbecue joint is comfort food close to its finest. Still, there's no running from the fact that whole hog is the holy grail, the one you really want—for that, head for Helena's Hawaiian Food, an iconic, cash-only café where pork is still cooked in the traditional style. While you're here, get the pipikaula-style kalbi short ribs, too. (Who needs the mainland?)
Also try: Oahu's North Shore has long been famous for its shrimp trucks; suddenly, it's a hotbed of mainland-style barbecue. If you're up this way, try both HI-BBQ, over near the Turtle Bay Resort, as well as Sunset Q, over in Haleiwa town. Both currently operate as trucks—normal in these parts—and both are immensely popular for good reason.
Louisiana: Johnson's Boucaniere, Lafayette
Give us those cochon de lait po boys at Jazz Fest, or a link of smoked boudin, any day, over average barbecue cribbed from some other region—Louisiana is another state where there's so much already going on in the meat department, you have to wonder: Does this place actually need anyone-else's-style anything? Not that it hasn't been tried—New Orleans in particular is now all stocked up with barbecue, but as of yet, very little you'd be desperate to eat again. Over in Lafayette, what sets Johnson's Boucaniere apart is the way they cheerfully bridge the divide between Louisiana culture and the culture at large—there are smoky garlic sausages and a unique boneless rib, essentially just strips cut from slow-smoked shoulder, there's boudin, that classic Cajun comfort food, there's even brisket. (If you must.)
Also try Po-boys stuffed with smoked boudin, ribeye, plus a full compliment of the more expected barbecued meats make St. Francisville's The Francis Smokehouse & Specialty Meats worth seeking out.
Minnesota: Revival, St. Paul
When Revival opened in Minneapolis a couple of years back, their fried chicken was a lines-around-the-block hit; when they expanded to a second location in St. Paul, they switched things up, firing up a smoker, turfing out what quickly became recognized not only as some of the best barbecue in the Twin Cities, but also just really good barbecue, period. Two words: Butter ribs. Served at dinner only, chef-turned-pitmaster Thomas Boemer's signature is these smoky, nicely-rubbed ribs, dipped in butter and spice mix for a final, over-the-top flourish. If we're not being clear: Get the ribs. And if it's Monday, the pastrami, too. (If it's not Monday, wait patiently for the following Monday, when there will typically be pastrami again.)
Also try: Friday evenings, one very lucky block of Isabel Street in St. Paul becomes one of the hottest restaurants around, except Black Market BBQ isn't a restaurant, it's a mobile smoking operation churning out some very fine brisket.
New Mexico: Mad Jack's, Cloudcroft
James Jackson grew up in Lockhart, Texas, he worked at barbecue legend Black's when he was in high school, where Kreuz Market pitmaster Roy Perez was his classmate, but he spent much of his life working the family used car lot. Only much later would Jackson start tinkering with barbecue, which, it's safe to say, wasn't something that Lockhart was really looking for more of, but he did it anyway, calling his trailer Mad Jack's, which suited the whole concept pretty well. Here's the thing, though—it did great. Great enough that eventually, Jackson had to make a decision—spend the money to expand and get his little roadside spot up to code, or move on to something else. Life happened, serendipity struck in the form of him discovering his deceased father's life savings in the trunk of an old Ford Mercury, and that's how he ended up in New Mexico, at 9,000 feet up in the mountains in the rustic little town of Cloudcroft, running a proper barbecue joint that draws people from all over, including Texas. You approach Mad Jack's, happily, just as you would anywhere good in Central Texas—brisket and sausage, you're having it, maybe beef ribs, too, plus things like pork belly burnt ends, if available. Also like Texas: There's a line, and they do sell out. The rest of New Mexico is going to take a while catching up.
Also try: In tiny but famous Hatch, destination spot Sparky's will serve you one of the most delicious green chile cheeseburgers in existence—it's Hatch, so you figure—but they also do a full slate of smoked meats, too.
New York: Hometown Bar-B-Que, Brooklyn
Don't say New York City never had any barbecue, even if you couldn't legitimately call it that—countless New Yorkers will recall dates at Dallas BBQ, legendary enough in some quarters to simply be referred to simply as The BBQ, feasting on rotisserie chicken and most likely not-smoked ribs. Delicious, yes, particularly after one of their Texas-sized margaritas. The real thing? Not so much. Then there was Virgil's, where at least there was some serious smoke, and then, still later, the city was teeming with expensive, Texas-wannabe destinations—small wonder there wasn't a regional shortage of metal trays and butcher paper. These days, there's some really good work being done, but nobody quite matches up to Billy Durney, Brooklyn native, onetime bodyguard-to-the-stars, and now the city's most famous pitmaster. His Hometown Bar-B-Que, way down in Red Hook next to the Fairway and near the Ikea, is one of the most slobbered-over barbecue joints outside of Texas right now, and for good reason. This isn't Texas, don't get carried away, it's Brooklyn—the honky-tonk vibe is all clever programming, there's a bar and there are cocktails. But when it comes to lining up for your tray, and the meat that goes on it, well, it's damn close, right down to the typically cranky, no-time-for-pleasantries cutters. Don't assume the classics are the best—here, some of the most exciting stuff happens where the boundaries are being nudged. There's smoked lamb belly, which you can get by the half pound, or as a sandwich (banh mi style, with pickled accompaniments and sauce), there are Korean-accented sticky ribs, jerk baby backs, and thick slabs of pastrami-spiced bacon you eat with a fork and knife. Need brisket? That's cool, but don’t look past the sausage with roast peppers and aged provolone, a Brooklyn spin on a Texas staple.
Also try: Good brisket and sausage in the New York City suburbs? Thanks to Revenge BBQ, tucked neatly into the Westchester County river town of Irvington, that's no joke—corporate expat Jacob Styburski and wife Catherine have created a pilgrimage-worthy destination in one of the last places you'd have typically gone looking for barbecue.
Ohio: Ray Ray's Hog Pit, Columbus
Exciting times in Columbus these days, haven't you heard—the state capital has been on a tear, working its way up to become one of the Midwest's most dynamic cities. The food is better than ever, from Tibetan dumplings in suburban supermarkets, to some of the country's most talked about ice cream, to solid hot chicken, to San Francisco-worthy baked goods—and there's barbecue, too, very good barbecue, at Ray Ray's Hog Pit. Classics make up the bedrock at James Anderson's seriously popular operation, which consists of two stationary trucks, and a walk-up window. There are meaty spare ribs, baby backs, brisket, pulled pork; look out for jerk chicken, too, for mutton, for burnt ends, for grass-fed brisket—there is much to like here, not all of it offered every day, but chances are, you're going to like what you get. Assuming you get there before sell-out.
Also try: Cleveland's never been what you'd call a hotspot, but that's changing—Michael Symon's Mabel's BBQ gets a lot of the credit, but don't sleep on upstarts like the marvelously simple Barabicu Smokehouse in Parma. Daniel Cassano is at the helm of one of the more serious (and most no-frills) operations in the area right now.
Oklahoma: Burn Co. BBQ, Tusla
A small army of Tulsa's own Hasty-Bakes do most, if not all of the work at Burn Co. BBQ—everything from those nicely-charred racks of ribs to their famous grilled potato salad. Pitmaster and co-owner Adam Meyers started out selling the popular charcoal grills, hitting his stride as a salesman once he started offering cooking demonstrations; what began as a small operation has grown to two thriving locations with a meat market component, plus an outlet at Tulsa's legendary Cain's Ballroom, where they'll be feeding hungry concertgoers before shows. Purists might need a moment to come to terms with the whole setup—as one writer put it, this place isn't about low and slow, it's about hot and fast, but the beautifully-barked ribs and top class sausages crossing the counter here, day after day, have earned Burn Co. one of the most loyal followings in Oklahoma, though one suspects a great deal many of them are here for The Fatty, a unique loaf made from bratwurst, hot links and smoked sausages, wrapped up in ground sausage and bacon. Turns out, a fat slice of this hybrid meat monster makes for a pretty unforgettable sandwich.
Also try: There's a school of thought that says Oklahoma City's best barbecue isn't found in Oklahoma City at all—The Butcher BBQ Stand is a weekends-only draw to tiny Wellston, about a half an hour from town along Route 66 (and just off the highway to Tulsa, if you're in a rush) for ribs, brisket and top-notch burnt ends.
Oregon: Matt's BBQ, Portland
Matt Vicedomini is not from Texas, has never lived in Texas, and learned the trade while working at a barbecue joint in Australia (as you do). So why is his brisket, even the leanest bits of the stuff, even closer to the ideal than what you'll often find at least a couple of high-profile Central Texas places we won't embarrass by mentioning? Better still, the extent of Vicedomini's operation—Matt's BBQ—is a tiny trailer, as so many notable Portland concerns tend to be, stuffed into a bustling cart pod in North Portland, next door to a very popular German beer bar. There are other things to eat here, and some of them are quite good, particularly the sausages (go for the almost chorizo-like Jalapeno cheddar), but save as much room as you can for the brisket. You don't find it being done like this, at least not often enough, in this part of the world.
Also try: St. Louis ribs, pulled pork and beer sausage star in the impressive show over at Bark City BBQ, another noteworthy North Portland cart.
Pennsylvania: Mike's BBQ, Philadelphia
Slabs of ribs are a Dutch Country staple—most days, you'll find them piled high on the region's many all-you-can-eat buffets. But if these sauce-drenched clunkers ever saw smoke, there's a good chance it's because the oven they were likely baked in caught fire. Not that there's any shame in this version of the game, some of Chicago's best barbecue restaurants bake their ribs, after all; and even if there were, it's not like generations of home cooks in Lancaster County and environs are hanging around, waiting to be validated. Tradition—well, it's great, but what's also great is smoking your meat properly; Pennsylvania has long had plenty of actual barbecue restaurants, but it's in the last couple of years where things have really started to get interesting, with encouraging additions found everywhere from Erie, on down to Philadelphia. The latter is where you'll find Mike Strauss, local restaurant owner and now one of the city's most talked-about pitmasters—Mike's BBQ strips away the frippery and makes it all about the meat, and it is very good meat, indeed. Brisket, sausage, ribs, pork belly—try it all, but do also consider that very Philadelphia thing on the menu: the brisket cheesesteak.
Also try: Way up in Erie, Ryan and Autumn Atzert's Federal Hill Smokehouse is yet another exciting, rather recent entry—limited hours, limited offerings, but when you strike it right, some of the best meat for miles. Pittsburgh-bound? Keep your eyes peeled for the permanent (hopefully) location of the popular barbecue pop-up run by local restaurant Spork. Back in Philadelphia, Mike's is about to get some healthy competition from new-newcomer South Philly Smökhaus.
Things Are Looking Up
(We're getting there)
Alaska: Oak Smoke BBQ, Anchorage
Like so many Californians, Richard Hernandez recently decamped for greener pastures, ending up in Anchorage; most days, you'll find him selling some of the best brisket in the state, out of a parking lot at the southern end of town. (Look for the bright, orangish-yellow trailer marked Oak Smoke BBQ.) Hernandez is one of a small group of promising up-and-comers, infusing a healthy dose of passion into the state's somewhat paltry BBQ selection. The old guard might want to watch their backs.
Also try: Growing up in Southern Illinois, where they know a thing or two about barbecue, Chad Richey found himself surrounded by the stuff, but his path from those family gatherings to running his own shop inside an RV park near Anchorage (and just up the road from the state fairgrounds) was the typical long and winding one shared by many who've adopted Alaska as their home. Richey's Bear's Belly BBQ is all but brand new, but it already shows promise.
Delaware: Russell's Quality Food, Wilmington
Alphonso Russell is an easy man to track down—typically, you'll find him either in or slightly out of the cloud of smoke coming from a liquor store parking lot on Wilmington's western edge. For over a decade now, his Russell's Quality Food has been turning out the area's favorite pulled pork, made from pork butt smoked slow, using oak, hickory and cherry logs. He'll typically serve it on a hard roll with no sauce, unless you ask, because that's how good the meat is. (Try the stuff, however—it's Russell's own creation; Carolina-like, vinegar-based.) He's good at other stuff too—jerk chicken is popular, and at least one day a week, there's brisket.
Also try: Lalaine Balan hails from Cebu, the island in the Philippines known for its cooking, and most definitely for the country's best lechon, or whole roast pig—visitors to Philippine Smoked BBQ & Grill, a modest, mostly carryout joint she owns with pitmaster husband Romeo, will not only find good pork ribs, brisket and other traditional barbecue on the menu, but also a rotating selection of Lalaine's home cooking, along with all-day breakfasts of garlic rice and longanisa, or tocino, or tapa—whatever she felt like preparing that day, really. (You're usually in good hands, not to worry.)
Idaho: Famous Willies BBQ, Post Falls
Upping sticks and moving from East Texas to Northern Idaho would be excitement enough for most, but Willie and Debbe Spradley decided to make things even more interesting—they thought they might open a restaurant. A Cajun-influenced barbecue joint, to be precise, they wanted to open, in a part of the world where most people didn't know much about either of those things. The going, as one might guess, was tough, but on the strength of Willie's Cajun spiced spareribs and sausages, as well as Debbe's buttermilk pies, Famous Willies BBQ in Post Falls (just a short hop over the state line from Spokane) didn't just survive, it's thriving.
Also try: Pecan logs and a custom-built smoking setup leads to impressive results at Boise's BBQ4Life, that rare joint that eagerly caters to vegans as well as carnivores.
Indiana: Bombers BBQ, Munster
Beyond its sandy beaches, the ones far enough away from the smokestacks and the power plants to entice you on a summer afternoon, Northwest Indiana isn't known for its immense amounts of appeal; this is a place that the rest of the state is mostly only too content to overlook. Still, there's a certain subset that has no trouble finding its way to the town of Munster, and that's because one of the Midwest's most popular breweries—Three Floyds—is here. Well, add another stop to your next Munster sojourn—Bombers BBQ. Easily some of the best barbecue in Chicago's south suburbs (oh, right, Chicago's right next door, forgot to mention that), their baby backs, smoked over apple and cherry wood for a minimum of 15 hours, are a great case for finding yourself here.
Also try: Indianapolis has barbecue, but it took a couple of new arrivals to really liven things up—there's native Angeleno Adam Hoffman's Big Hoffa's Smokehouse, up in suburban Westfield, as well as Texpat Hank Fields' Hank's Smoked Brisket on King Drive, not far from downtown and next to a Dairy Queen (convenient). Hank's isn't even a restaurant, it's a carryout joint, while Big Hoffa's is a destination, with a long, rather unique menu. Both, however, have some of the state's better brisket.
Iowa: Kue'd Smokehouse, Waukee
Once upon a time, not very long ago, there was a barbecue joint in Des Moines that made a name for itself, far beyond Iowa, mostly because they were very good at what they did, very good indeed. While the very successful, multiple-location Smokey D's is still a star in a town that has a lot more barbecue than you might expect, when Shad and Angie Kirton sold their share of the business and got back to basics with Kue'd Smokehouse, a relatively simple setup out on the western fringe of this fast-growing region, that's when things got even more interesting. Open for a couple of years now, things have really been hitting their stride of late—the sausage and burnt ends are well worth looking up.
Also try: Iowa City has two essential stops, one classic—Jimmy Jack's Rib Shack, stick with the east side location—and the fresh new face, Mosley's Barbecue and Provisions.
Maine: Noble Barbecue, Portland
There's an infectious enthusiasm twin brothers Ryan and Richard Carey bring to the table at Portland's Noble Barbecue, but people aren't showing up at this one-time taco shop for the good vibes alone—that's just a happy add-on to a menu of some of the best smoked meat this town has most likely ever seen. They're big on sandwiches here, and the sandwiches are very interesting—besides the chopped pork and brisket, there's a smoked meatloaf cheeseburger on the menu, which begs for your attention and deserves same, but there's meat by the pound too—admirable sliced brisket, chopped pork, and maybe most exciting of all, smoky, hot pink pastrami.
Also try: The late, great Anthony Bourdain famously made the trek to Maine's interior for a meal at Spring Creek BBQ in Monson, and he's not the only one—this modest joint way out in the middle of nowhere has become something of a pilgrimage site.
Maryland: Pioneer Pit Beef, Catonsville
Maybe, if it were a fair fight, if exemplary barbecue existed here in large amounts, there'd be ground to stand on. But it doesn't, and there isn't, so let's have it out right now—if you come here and skip past the pit beef, which, yes, isn't one hundred percent barbecue, if you come here instead sniffing around for brisket and ribs and all of that, you didn't really experience Maryland, which would be a shame. Let the learning begin at Pioneer Pit Beef, a spartan spot just off of I-70, in Baltimore's western borderlands—look for the big pile of chopped wood in the yard. Cooked directly over the coals (hence the arguing), the roast is rubbed, roasted, shaved, stacked on a roll, and doused in what's known as tiger sauce. (Horseradish is what that gives the stuff that special grrr.)
Also try: Besides the big argument, then there's the argument within an argument, as to where the pit beef is best; if you're interested in figuring that out for yourself, your next stop might be Chaps Pit Beef, on the opposite side of the city, or Jake's Grill, way up on Falls Road, or even at Parts & Labor in a particularly hip section of Baltimore, where pit beef is at the heart of their over-the-top Dad Bod sandwich (we preferred it, honestly, when they were just doing straight pit beef, but most people probably won't mind having different kinds of meat in one bun). Or, you can just hang around Catonsville, where Pioneer is located, and keep eating meat—Wieland's BBQ started out as a food truck, but recently went permanent, and it's definitely one to watch.
Massachusetts: B.T.'s Smokehouse, Sturbridge
The town responsible for so many school trips—Sturbridge, home to New England's foremost living museum—is a rather unexpected place for one of the region's most exciting barbecue operations, but there it is, pretty as you please, B.T.'s Smokehouse, its parking lot at times half full of motorcycles (or so it seems), just a stone's throw from the candle makers and what have you, over at Old Sturbridge Village. Brian Treitman, a classically-trained chef who lists Julia Child and Jacques Pepin as two of his primary influences, started smoking out of a trailer by the side of the road over a decade ago; today, his permanent operation—already expanded once—draws people in the know all the way from Boston, roughly an hour away on the Mass Pike. They come for brisket, for ribs, for chicken, smoked over apple and hickory—they come for the whole package, really: The vibe here is casual barbecue joint, but don't let that fool you—this is a very good restaurant.
Also try: Back in the big city, Smoke Shop BBQ, which started out on Kendall Square in Cambridge back in 2016, has been such a hit with the Boston crowd, they've already expanded twice, most recently to a massive (and sparkling) new location in Somerville.
Michigan: Two Scotts BBQ, Grand Rapids
You could do worse than—and probably learn a thing or two from—a deep dive into Detroit's classic carryout scene, or from a Saturday hanging around the grills at Bert's in the city's Eastern Market neighborhood making new friends; you might even like to try some of the newer operations popping up in the inner-ring suburbs, or some of the more high profile sit-down restaurants both in and out of the city, which can be very good when you know how to navigate their considerable menus. But ultimately, there's something quietly satisfying about the barbecue that you'll find in the rest of the state, places that combine simplicity with attention to technique. Grand Rapids has one of these in the pleasing Two Scotts BBQ, inhabiting a decommissioned A&W stand, over on the city's west side, since 2015. With the owners' combined skill sets (one a Kansas City native, the other a classically-trained chef), along with plenty of West Michigan apple wood, they manage to turn out some great St. Louis ribs, as well as brisket, pulled pork, chicken, and not too much else. Which is just great.
Also try: In Lansing's Old Town, Meat BBQ has been open for a number of years now, but the locals aren't even close to ready to move on—not as long as they keep turning out that ribs and brisket.
Montana: The Notorious P.I.G, Missoula
Sometimes, you really do have to be the change—after attending the University of Montana, St. Louis native Burke Holmes stuck around, working as a fly-fishing guide—his Missoula barbecue joint, The Notorious P.I.G, came about after he realized he wasn't leaving Montana, which was a good thing, except that Montana didn't have the barbecue he found himself constantly looking for. After trips back home to glean knowledge from some of the most popular addresses for barbecue in St. Louis right now, Holmes went for broke back in 2015, and Missoula is better for his efforts. Look for ribs and for great sauces, as you would in St. Louis, but also keep eyes open for tri-tip, pastrami, turkey, and brisket.
Also try: A fixture for some time now, first in Sheridan, and later Billings, Blue's BBQ predates barbecue as a trend, and will likely outlive many a brash young upstart—for a humble storefront in a local gas station, they sure do some pretty tasty brisket.
Nebraska: Phat Jack's BBQ, Lincoln
Here's how much the locals in Lincoln love Matt and Jackie Burt's Phat Jack's BBQ. Since opening in 2008, the Burts have found it necessary to move no less than three times, a track record that might have killed off a lesser operation, but not here—their current space, more spacious than the last (and certainly the first, which was pretty much a shack) has only given Lincoln even more Phat Jack's to love. Kansas City is just three hours away by car, so it's not really surprising that this style is a primary influence—healthy portions of ribs and lots of burnt ends fly across the counter here, but the sliced brisket deserves attention as well.
Also try: In the Omaha area, you're looking for one of two locations of the deliciously low-key, mostly-about-the-meat Swine Dining, where the St. Louis ribs take center stage.
Nevada: Fox Smokehouse BBQ, Boulder City
There's no shortage of barbecue in Las Vegas these days, sure, and it's looking like there will certainly be plenty more to report in the coming years, but pardon us if, right now, it too often feels as if the most popular places are mostly famous for being famous, and not all that much more. Give us, any day, the thoroughly unpretentious, less touristed Fox Smokehouse BBQ out in Boulder City, where competition circuit regulars Dan and Kelly Fox turn out smoked brats, St. Louis ribs, brisket and chicken for purchase by the pound, plus a good tri-tip sandwich worth knowing about.
Also try: The debut of Steve Overlay's Sin City Smokers in Las Vegas-adjacent Henderson is one recent development that speaks to possibilities for the future of Nevada barbecue—go for the brisket.
New Hampshire: Smokeshow Barbeque, Concord
Well, here is something of a miracle—a straightforward, Texas-style smokehouse in little Concord, thousands of miles from actual Texas. Smokeshow Barbeque gets its well-deserved reputation thanks to Matt Gfroerer's years of experience both living in Austin and running (and opening) barbecue restaurants in Central Texas; slowly but surely, he found his way home, and now you have this, and this is good—ribs, brisket, frito pies, Texas caviar, the works, plus other things, like smoked turkey.
Also try: Milford's Phil's Old Fashioned is one of the best barbecue places in the state that doesn't actually have walls—you'll find them parked on an abandoned lot, across from a machine parts factory. In other words, the perfect setting for barbecue.
New Jersey: Henri's Hotts, Hammonton
One of the many wonderful mysteries of America is New Jersey, right at the heart of the action, and yet almost immune to the whims and fancies that drive the culture in so many other places. (Restaurant trends—what are they, anyway?) Of course, change comes, even to New Jersey, and things really have picked up of late, though one hopes not too, too much—we don't all have to be completely with it. (Sometimes, not knowing what "it" is, makes you even cooler.) Back in 2009, which in American food years is a long time ago (actually, it feels like a long time ago, period), Douglas Henri, retired from a career in law enforcement, got his hands on a craptacular pizza place in suburban South Jersey, turning it into the barbecue joint of his dreams. Henri's Hotts feels like it's been around forever, and it might as well have been, the way people down here talk about the place. They talk about the ribs, the jerk chicken, the brisket, they talk about the weekend buffet, expanded to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; the buffet is just about the most New Jersey thing, beautifully oblivious to the world beyond—besides meat and their famous fried chicken, we have seen sausage and peppers, Spanish rice, corn pudding, mac salad, and all sorts of other great stuff we'd never have gone looking for. (They're up to more than 30 items on the buffet, every weekend.) If they've got the desserts out, the desserts are great. This isn't Texas, or anywhere else but Henri's in New Jersey, and that's more than good enough.
Also try: Does churrasco, or Portuguese barbecue, count? No? There's so much of it here, starting in Newark's Ironbound district. What about Robert Cho's Kimchi Smoke BBQ in Westwood, fusing Korean American flavors with traditional barbecue technique? Over in Kearny, home of the late, lamented Satriale's of Sopranos fame, there's the surprising Red, White and Que, while way down in Lambertville, More Than Q is turning out some of the best Texas-style smoked meat the state has ever seen.
North Dakota: Taylor Made BBQ, Mandan
Kendra and Adam Taylor spent a good number of years tinkering around, before opening Taylor Made BBQ—their first restaurant—right at the start of winter, back in 2016. All of that experimentation clearly paid off, because they're still here, here being just a short drive over the Missouri River from Bismarck (North Dakota's state capital, as any geography nerd knows), opening up their simple storefront at 11 o'clock in the morning most days, and closing down whenever they sell out. Their menu tends towards the ambitious, and the tinkering around hasn't stopped, thank goodness—besides the brisket, house-made sausage, ribs and pulled pork, look for beef ribs, pastrami, and other occasional specials.
Also try: Lively Fargo is a lot of very good things—barbecue capital, not really. Still, the recent addition of the NoBull Smokehouse is definitely an upgrade.
Rhode Island: Gotta Q, Providence
With multiple trucks, two restaurants and an upcoming slot in a planned Providence food hall, Gotta Q pretty much owns the barbecue space in America's most diminutive state right now, and that's not just because this is Rhode Island, and there's not a vast amount of competition—their wood-smoked pulled pork, tri-tip sirloin, Texas hot links and occasional specials like beef ribs, or smoked prime rib, have turned them into something of a magnet for New England barbecue lovers (of which there are plenty).
Also try: Hungry in Providence? Make tracks for the Brown-adjacent Durk's BBQ on Thayer Street—this ambitious spot that just opened last year already feels a far cry closer to the ideal than you might have expected to find in this part of the country.
South Dakota: Dakota BBQ, Custer
The fact that you can walk into Custer's barebones Dakota BBQ, deep into South Dakota's stunning (but also rather remote) Black Hills, and walk out with a big, beautiful, beef rib, or even a pastrami beef rib, if you can get your hands on one, illustrates perfectly where we are at with American barbecue right now. This is South Dakota, for Pete's sake, nobody thinks of South Dakota as a place to get good barbecue, and yet, oh, look, what do you know, here it is. Elena and Mike Russell began their 'cue careers on the championship circuit, and they've been the first to admit that when they started out, about a decade ago, they weren't really sure what they were doing. They do now.
Also try: There are a couple of choices in Sioux Falls—the right one is Big Rig BBQ, particularly for their pulled pork. Look for it on the lunch buffet (because who doesn't love a buffet of meats), offered Tuesday-Friday.
Utah: R&R BBQ, Salt Lake City
Rod and Roger Livingston are twins, twins that grew up in Southern California, where they surfed and did all of the other things one imagines Southern Californians did almost effortlessly, back before half the planet moved in. After relocating to Utah and joining the corporate world, they started tinkering around with barbecue as a hobby, eventually entering competitions, soon becoming one of the most distinguished competition teams in the state, and you know where this is going. Utah's one of those states where the call—at least right now—isn't even close; the winner is R&R BBQ by a mile. There are already a handful of locations, including one in downtown Salt Lake City, and there will be more soon, now that the brothers have sold a majority stake to a local restaurant group. Don't let any of that get in your way—come by for the brisket, ribs and pulled pork.
Also try: Barbecue and Thai on the same menu? This is not a drill, this is happening, over at 565 Firehouse in Salt Lake's hip Sugarhouse neighborhood. (It's working out great, too.)
Vermont: Black Diamond Barbeque, Morristown
The beer here—only some of the best on the continent right now. The barbecue? Well, that's got some catching up to do. Not that nobody knows what they're doing here, it's just that there aren't a ton of brick-and-mortar operations to choose from yet—perhaps unsurprising, considering the state's modest population, a population not typically reared on the good stuff. There are happy surprises, though—Black Diamond Barbeque was a catering operation for over a decade before they settled down in Morristown; this modest, but comfortable spot (there's a bar, and yes, there's local beer) is just ten minutes or so by car from Stowe; their meats are smoked over maple and various fruit woods, and if they happen to be doing their Montreal smoked meat (that's Canadian for pastrami), do get yourself some.
Also try: Okay, so Prohibition Pig in Waterbury is an actual restaurant, not a traditional barbecue joint, but don't hold that against their pulled pork and brisket. Can't get out of Burlington? Stop by Bluebird and try the ribs, and the best of their sauces, the one zipped up with—so Vermont—maple syrup.
Washington: Jeff's Texas Style BBQ, Marysville
Stuck in the middle between Seattle and the sticks, exurban Marysville, roughly an hour from the Canadian border, is not a capital of much, let alone something as good as barbecue, but that's the beauty of the way things are now—Jeff Knoch is here, and that's all that matters. Jeff's Texas Style BBQ, open for just a couple of years now, is not only drawing people out of the big city to the south, he's even catered for the Seahawks, that's the kind of work he's doing here. Knoch's first encounter with Central Texas barbecue clearly left an impression—he's extremely serious about his brisket, and his sausages, which he makes in-house; everything's smoked over post oak wood, imported from—you guessed it—Texas. There are a lot of people confidently doing barbecue in this state; it's hard to think of anyone nailing it as consistently as Jeff Knoch.
Also try: Speaking of Texas style, Seattle's crowd-pleasing Jack's BBQ is typically a good time, but don't sleep on the homey, family-run Emma's BBQ in the Hillman City neighborhood—Emma's is one of a very few venues this far north able to transport you so effortlessly that far south.
West Virginia: Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill, Charleston
Adrian "Bay" Wright was a particularly bright light on the high school football scene in Charleston, back in the day, talented enough to land a career in the NFL. Once retired, family ties lured him back from Florida, where he'd played with Tampa Bay; one thing rolled into the next, and now there's Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill, one of the city's favorite restaurants, hanging out on what's been called "The Best-Smelling Corner in Charleston," over on the city's west side. Operating out of a defunct coffee shop, the atmosphere here is one of a backyard barbecue, in the best possible way—a little smoky, a lot relaxed, with plenty to eat. They're particularly proud of the ribs here, rubbed down with spices and brown sugar, then mopped rather liberally during the slow-smoking process. Good stuff.
Also try: There's a lot to like, but start with the smoked catfish at Morgantown's Woodburn Shanks BBQ; these guys, plus also recently-arrived Smokin' Bear BBQ in nearby Bridgeport, offer up a glimpse of where West Virginia barbecue is going. (Good places.
Wisconsin: LD's BBQ, East Troy
Germans, Germans, everywhere, just like Central Texas, but generations after settling in, this crowd is pretty much stuck on the sausage setting, not that there's anything wrong with that. Truly, the greatest contribution to modern American barbecue offered up by America's Dairyland—at least so far—has to be the one made by Dave Anderson, who opened up a restaurant near the town of Hayward, back in the 1990's, a restaurant that ended up spawning the now-everywhere Famous Dave's chain. (Anderson is now working on another barbecue concept—he's up to four locations, once again beginning in little Hayward.) A decade ago, there might not have been much else to report, but just like everywhere else, we find Wisconsin at a time of transition. Lots to talk about, for sure, but right now, the conversation should start over oak smoked, dry rubbed ribs at LD's BBQ, operating out of a gas station in the small town of East Troy, about a half-hour's drive from Milwaukee. Leon Davis—there's your LD—is something of a competition circuit whiz; his work is good enough to draw fans from a lot further than Milwaukee. You know how it goes with proper barbecue—people tend to find you.
Also try: Keep your eye on the ambitious Iron Grate BBQ, working hard to upend Milwaukee's somewhat lackluster scene, sourcing local, quality meats and doing crawfish on Fridays (a tribute to the local Fish Fry Friday tradition), as well as smoked hams on Sundays. Meanwhile, the city's classic Speed Queen BBQ draws loyalists for pork shoulder dinners—their sauces are a staple on regional grocery store shelves.
Wyoming: HQ Southern BBQ, Casper
Way deep into one of the country's most sparsely populated states, you'll find the small city of Casper—unless you're driving the interstate from Cheyenne to Billings, say, Casper is not really on the way to much of anything, but that hasn't stopped Doug and Heidi Nicol's HQ Southern BBQ from distinguishing itself as home to the best barbecue in the state. In a retired service station on the edge of town, the Tennessee-born Nicol has been putting out very popular ribs and brisket for some years now, but if you come by on the weekend, you can also try their sought-after hickory-smoked prime rib, which is exactly as good as it sounds.
Also try: Passing through Cheyenne? Mike and Razel Klemm's Tasty Bones BBQ & Bakery, serving up both traditional barbecue and Filipino specialties, proved popular enough to expand to a second location this summer.