While this year has been devastating for restaurants, American barbecue remains as resilient and exciting as ever. We're celebrating the people and places that are hanging on, spectacularly.

By David Landsel
September 03, 2020
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A fully loaded tray at Lewis BBQ
| Credit: Andrew Cebulka

Looking back, like you do upon reaching a certain age, I am beginning to suspect that barbecue has been one of my most successful relationships to date.

There was me, Chicago in the mid-1990s, a wayward teen, slacking off from my delivery and pickup job, where I got to drive a silver Lincoln Continental to eat barbecue. My work took me everywhere—north, south, west—and, in the course of a given week, to as many of the city’s rib tip parlors as my non-existent budget would allow. Raised in the rural nowhere north of New York City, I knew nothing about the country’s rich barbecue heritage. Chicago was, to put it mildly, a revelation. My newfound habit proved difficult to temper. A quarter of a century later, I’m in deeper than I ever thought I would be. I am assuming, at this point, that my barbecue research will remain ongoing, until one of us gives out. (Spoiler alert: It’s going to be me.)

After decades of research, I feel confident enough to draw up a rough sketch of what the best barbecue in America looks like. With rare exceptions, it will not be found in places with host stands and cocktail menus. It will not be found in establishments owned by people who refer to their restaurants as concepts. There won’t be appetizers, and there probably won’t be table service, or anyone asking if you have dined with them before and are you familiar with how the menu works. The decor, ideally, should be accidental.

Barbecue can be defined quite well by what it is not, just as easily as the other way around. It is most definitely about the meat, and whoever is patiently working the pit. They will not feel compelled to feed thousands, sticking rather to what can be comfortably prepared each day at the highest level of quality. When it’s gone, it is gone, and that’s absolutely fine—there’s always another day.

My experience is that the best barbecue tends to happen before the lunch hour. If there’s much left after that, you might not be at the right place. The peak experiences, the ones I will never forget, always seem to involve some kind of a wait, in lines that will form before the place even opens.

Sausage links at Heritage Barbecue
| Credit: John Troxell

Or they did, anyway, until this year, when everything changed. By now, we’re all well aware of the crisis facing the restaurant industry. And while running any kind of small business right now is heavy going, I have been heartened to see so many of my favorite barbecue spots pivoting at almost lightning speed. The very nature of the work is conducive to solitude, and even some of the biggest names run the show with a relatively small staff. Across the country, gone were the lines, and in came advance ordering, curbside pickups, and even delivery.

There are aspects of this job that have become difficult to impossible in 2020—eating barbecue was not one of them. In fact, it got easier. (When you don’t have to stand around waiting, you can hit so many more places in a day.) This has been a year of appreciating the little things, and for me, barbecue was one of the biggest little things. I miss the human contact. I miss shooting the breeze through clouds of oak smoke. But when this bizarre year finally bites the dust, I won’t be able to say I wasn’t well fed. 

When I first cobbled together a barbecue survey for Food & Wine in 2018, I had so much catching up to do. I jumped feet first in pursuit of perfection, looking in many cases for the experiences that most closely matched the exceedingly popular Central Texas style of barbecue. I know one thing now, and I won’t ever forget it: barbecue is so much more than what a small group of watchers and scribblers and fanatics have decided is best.

This year, quite simply, I threw out notions of erasure and replaced them with respect—respect for local traditions, however dated they might be. Barbecue belongs to all of us, and it was wonderful long before it became a trend. This idea that the work being done in a state thousands of miles away somehow gets to climb over the pre-existing culture seems ridiculous. This is never to say that we’re not hungry for more whole hog, for more brisket; I celebrate these things when they are done well, wherever I find them, and nowadays, that could be anywhere. I think it’s time, however, to stop letting so many unproven new arrivals stand on the shoulders of the work that has already been done.

Archibald's BBQ
| Credit: Alabama Tourism Department / Art Meripol

So this year, a time for reflection if there ever were, I added so many more qualifications to my definition of "best," beginning with sense of place—did this belong, did it matter to the community? I loved to see families working together, generation after generation, committed to the craft. The technical side of barbecue isn't exactly what appealed to me in the first place, and it certainly wouldn't have kept me around, if that’s all there was. Let me at the food, let me meet the people behind the food. If there’s passion, heart, and anything like love and commitment, it will shine through immediately, and I will be back again and again. Pitmasters are like photographers—the very best equipment will only take you so far.

I've been heartened to discover a return to the old ways, which includes a heightened appreciation of committed and talented Black practitioners, working in a wide variety of regional styles. Barbecue is becoming increasingly diverse, particularly in Texas and California. There’s more room at the table now than ever, it seems—even if that table must remain imaginary, or virtual, for the time being.

Accentuating the positive can be something of a chore right now. At times, it seems almost insensitive when you do it out loud. But I have no trouble saying that barbecue is one of 2020’s success stories, or at least a great example of how we’re surviving. In many cases, it is thriving. Good barbecue can happen anywhere, and, increasingly, it does. In an era of fear, closed-mindedness, struggle, sacrifice, brisket price spikes, and so many other challenges, I choose to celebrate one of our best ideas, and so should we all.

ALABAMA

Shortly before my first visit to Archibald’s Bar-B-Q in Northport, there was a fire in the barbecue pit, a fairly dramatic one, spitting flames 20 feet high. I remember one of the owners not making very much of the incident at the time, shrugging off a concerned local media, informing them that this sort of thing does happen, and that they expected to be open in time for dinner, possibly that very evening. Though only around since 1961, when George and Betty Archibald started selling pork barbecue from the utilitarian outbuilding behind their home in 1961, the place feels older.

The honking-huge pit opens directly to the front counter, where you’ll find the cashier pulling double duty with the basting mop, ensuring racks of giant spare ribs come to you dripping with orange-red sauce. The ribs here do not win beauty prizes, scraggly and wet and guaranteed to leave a mark all over your front, but they are some of the most memorable in the country. They’d have to be, to survive all these years, just over the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa and Dreamland BBQ, which blazed onto the regional scene a few years prior. The handiwork of John “Big Daddy” Bishop has for years made Dreamland one of Alabama’s best-loved destinations for barbecue, specifically, once again, ribs. 

One of the state’s finest qualities is versatility—name it, and somebody’s smoking it, somewhere. In recent years, pit-smoked chicken has all but become the face of regional barbecue, which I suspect has something to do with that most unique of sauces, the Alabama white, made with mayonnaise, vinegar, and plenty of pepper. Robert Lee Gibson invented the stuff back in the 1920s. Today, Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur is something of a pilgrimage site, and you’ll count me among the faithful, even if I am also content with the fine renditions found in Birmingham.

Big Bob Gibson's chicken in Alabama white sauce
| Credit: Alabama Tourism Department / Art Meripol

On the classic side, there’s Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q. New school-wise, there’s Saw’s, in Homewood and elsewhere around town. Following in the footsteps of Civil Rights Era legends is yet another reason to find yourself in Alabama; two notable restaurants that fed the revolution, both physically and spiritually, remain with us today, and are well worth your time—Brenda’s Bar-B-Q Pit in Montgomery, and Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot in Selma.

ALASKA

Anchorage has seen a number of incarnations of Roscoe’s since Roscoe Wyche Jr. first opened up shop on the doorstep of Elmendorf Air Force Base, back in the 1980s. The proper rib joint, located thousands of miles from where you might have expected to find such a thing, became an essential gathering place for the local Black community, a moment in time that ended in a 1997 fire. A few moves around town and one extended period of R&R in Hawaii later, Roscoe Wyche III and son (he’s #4) have opened up a catfish and barbecue place, right behind David Chipperfield’s strikingly modern Anchorage Museum. On its best days, the ribs hit exactly the right spot.

Roscoe Wyche III standing in Roscoe's
| Credit: Courtesy of Visit Anchorage / Jovell Rennie

During an extended visit last summer, I found myself drawn to the much newer Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ, in part due to the restaurant’s stellar location over the road from one of America’s most accessible fjords. Right now, this is probably the state’s best barbecue, smoked over local alderwood. Nothing tops that view, but the pork—pulled, spare ribs, baby backs—puts in quite the effort. 

ARIZONA

Bounding onto the scene with an extraordinary enthusiasm in 2014, Scott and Bekke Holmes’ Little Miss BBQ in Phoenix has by now cemented its status as one of Arizona’s essential restaurants, even if, until very recently, fans would have to line up in the dastardly desert heat—in a haze of beautiful local oak smoke—to get a taste of the best brisket on I-10 between Los Angeles and the Texas Hill Country. Intense demand led to a second location, which offers air conditioning while you wait, for house made hot links, and when they’ve got them, quivering, Flintstonian beef ribs. (Note: The original location is temporarily closed.) I also enjoy Duaine Burden’s imaginative menu at Jalapeño Bucks, a sort of overgrown shack tucked into one of the state’s oldest orange groves. Burden calls what he does Arizona-style barbecue, selling rather unusual brisket sandwiches and burritos, exceptionally slow-cooked pork shoulder, red chile, green chile, and ribs on the weekends.

ARKANSAS

Some day we’ll have a National Museum of American Barbecue, and in it there will be a careful reconstruction of the magical Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna, a Mississippi Delta legend often called the country’s oldest Black-owned restaurant, having been around at least since the very beginning of the 20th century. (By my watch, this would make it one of the country’s oldest surviving barbecue restaurants, period.) James Jones, now easily near or past retirement age, took the place over from his father, long before many of us were born.

The recipe for wild success—the kind that has the place selling out of hickory and oak-smoked pork shoulder, sometimes just an hour or so after opening—has remained simple: a cinder block pit, piles of wood, and plenty of patience. This is where you come for one of America’s finest pork sandwiches, all smoke and vinegar and flecks of fat, topped with a mustard-tinged slaw and served on basic white bread. Plan a trip around this place—you’re an easy drive from both Memphis and Little Rock, here—and then come back and do it all over again, because once is never enough.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner owner James Jones
| Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

While in the neighborhood, Craig’s in De Valls Bluff is also a must. Here, Robert Craig is carrying on a family tradition dating back to the end of World War II, and your choices are pork or beef. Arkansas’ most visible name in barbecue may have changed hands this year, but McClard’s in Hot Springs, open since 1928, doesn’t seem to be in any danger of becoming irrelevant. Go for ribs, and the famous tamale spread.

CALIFORNIA

One of my favorite barbecue moments of 2019 happened in Los Angeles on a cold and wet morning, shortly after tumbling off a flight from San Antonio. I’d heard about long waits for Moo’s Craft Barbecue, but I didn’t expect to find people standing for an hour, possibly more, in the rain, in February. This was a scene like many I’d just witnessed back in Austin and Lexington and the like—these were serious smokehounds, here for the long haul.

The exciting thing about my first brush with the considerable talents possessed by Andrew and Michelle Muñoz wasn’t just about the brisket, the ribs, the hot links, and the beef ribs being just as good as Texas. This was chills-down-your-spine, exacting art, fueled by a palpable passion for the work, something not so easily spotted in the barbecue heartlands as you might imagine. Moo’s is not like Texas, it is Texas. The fact that this is happening in Los Angeles is, to me anyway, a minor detail.

A tray of Moo's Craft Barbecue
| Credit: John Troxell

There are so many good things happening here. New wave pioneer Burt Bakman’s lurid pastrami beef rib at Slab in the Fairfax District was easily one of the most luxurious bites of barbecue I’ve ever tasted. I’d make a pilgrimage anytime to Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano, in order to tap into Daniel Castillo’s seemingly boundless creativity. One of the happiest weeks of the springtime lockdown was the one where our little thrown-together household managed to procure a fridge full of Castillo’s textbook-perfect brisket. The talent pool out here is so incredibly deep—and diverse—right now. One aspiring pitmaster after another emerging is from their backyard, firing up an Instagram account, and taking their chances on a hungry and supportive public. I’ll say it loudly, for the people in the back: Southern California will be our next great barbecue region.

Up north, the biggest news of 2020 looks to be what I had very much hoped might be the biggest news of last year, when I was living just a few BART stations away. In a matter of days, the era of catching Matt Horn’s sell-out-situation pop-ups finally ends, with Horn BBQ making its brick and mortar debut—at long last!—in West Oakland.

COLORADO

Somebody really didn’t want Telluride native Karl Fallenius to get Owlbear BBQ up and running in Denver, or so it seemed. The city’s brightest young pitmaster, who trained in Austin and had been teasing the locals since 2015 with pop-ups and a truck, arrived at his under-construction forever home one day, only to find that the doors, apparently not worth much on the scrap metal market, had been surgically removed from his very expensive smokers. Too bad for whoever thought they could keep a good talent down. Roughly a year before the pandemic tore the restaurant world (and all other worlds) apart, Fallenius made his long-awaited RiNo debut. You’ll start with the carefully-sourced (like all the meats) brisket, but there’s so much more to the creative menu. It's short, but still making room for everything from pork belly and tenderloin to—bring your vegetarian friends—smoked jackfruit and mushrooms. There’s really no getting around this: if you’re looking for the real thing in Colorado right now, this has to be your first stop, and not just because the good stuff sells out fast.

The Front Range has quite the scene going these days, however, make sure to poke around—don’t forget a stop at the always good times Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Q, known (rightfully) for smoked bison, lamb, and other unexpected options.

CONNECTICUT

Show up at Hoodoo Brown’s in Ridgefield on a summer weekend—sun shining, smoke wafting out into the narrow valley funneling Route 7 between Danbury and Norwalk. You’ll get that sense, rather immediately, that you’re in the presence of something just a little bit special. Even in the middle of a pandemic, this place is buzzing with energy you don’t often find at a New England barbecue restaurant. You’ll sometimes find me among the happy crowd, and on days when things are really switched on, you’re in capable hands. Go for the beautifully barked, cherry red spare ribs, crispy pork belly, pastrami, and a fistful of bacon as an appetizer, just because. Brisket and sausages often show great potential, too. New England has a growing number of options lately, but there’s still very little of what I’d consider destination barbecue up this way. Hoodoo Brown’s comes close. 

DELAWARE

By now, even Wilmington, Delaware, has its share of modern barbecue come-ons, but wrestling the crown from Alphonso Russell will likely take some doing. The charmer behind Russell’s Quality Foods on Centerville Road is one the region’s most capable, most personable pitmasters.

Service at Russell's Spot
| Credit: Joseph Rago Photography

Minutes from I-95, in a liquor store parking lot by another highway, some train tracks, and a rather unkempt brickyard, Russell’s bright red cart, next to the smokers billowing oak and hickory, has been one of the finest pit stops on the New York-Washington run for nearly fifteen years now. The specialty is pork—juicy chunks of chopped shoulder, scraggly, barked-to-the-max spare ribs—but also chicken, from standard smoked yardbird to an excellent jerk situation. When Russell reminds you to remember to come early, he’s not just making one of his sales pitches—the good stuff often sells out. If you show up too-too early in the day, never mind, because he’ll be here, slinging scrapple sandwiches for your breakfast. Honestly, this place is a Mid-Atlantic dream.

FLORIDA

Rashad and Patrice Jones were running a mighty fine barbecue trailer in Ocala back in 2014, producing the sort of brisket you drive an hour for, perhaps longer, when the Food Network came calling in the form of Guy Fieri, Patron Saint of the Mom and Pop, which made Rashad and Big Lee’s BBQ nationally famous. Six years from those humble beginnings, the hubbub may have died down, but the lines most certainly have not. The Joneses now have a handful of trucks making the rounds in Central Florida, like planets orbiting their humble-seeming headquarters. The offerings here are pleasingly simple, with relatively few distractions from the meat, as they are not needed. These sausages would be welcome on most any chopping block in Texas, from jalapeño cheese to a recent Margherita, which is exactly what it sounds like. Think of this as a tribute to the Jones’ birthplace—New Jersey.

Credit: Courtesy of Big Lee's BBQ

Florida is not short on barbecue, but lately I feel drawn back to a dwindling number of old-time greats. Up in Jacksonville, Jenkins’ Quality Barbecue has been a local essential for nigh half a century, and to this day tempts with smoked chicken dripping with vivid yellow mustard sauce, similar (but different) to the stuff reeling in fans way down south in Davie, where the Georgia Pig has been smoking pork over oak in a massive open pit since the 1950s. 

GEORGIA

When Texas-born Cody Taylor and 1980s K-pop teen idol Jiyeon Lee opened Heirloom Market BBQ a decade ago, the plan was to delve into their wildly different backgrounds to create something Atlanta couldn’t help but fall in love with. Early on, the couple essentially stumbled into creating their Spicy Korean Pork Sandwich, initially made with leftovers, that became one of the city’s most iconic sandwiches. Pork is rubbed down with gochujang, gochugaru, smoked over hickory and oak, then served with crunchy kimchi pickles and slaw on a perfect, just-absorbent-enough potato bun. How you’re supposed to pick yourself up off the floor for the rest of the barbecue in Atlanta, I’m not sure. Save space for the brisket, often better here than other places in town that have made their reputation on the stuff.

An Heirloom Market barbecue platter
| Credit: Jang Choe

For a proper glimpse of Georgia’s considerable barbecue heritage, you’ll need to leave town. The star of the show will nearly always be Brunswick stew, Georgia barbecue’s slow-cooked pride and joy—a melange of meat and veg cooked down, often for so long, you could nearly stand your spoon in the stuff and walk away. Your first taste ought to be at Fresh Air BBQ in Jackson, now and hopefully for a long time to come the poster child for classic Georgia barbecue. One of the state’s new wave stars, welder-turned-pitmaster Bryan Furman was making quite the name for himself in Atlanta, and far beyond, when he lost his restaurant to a fire. For the time being, the predecessor, B’s Cracklin’ in Savannah, is the best place to sample Furman’s heritage whole hog pork. 

HAWAI’I

Texpat James Kim took O’ahu by surprise when he fired up his smoker back in 2016, turning out real-deal brisket and great spare ribs. A few years later, Kim's Sunset Smokehouse in Wahiawā has proved to be one of the more enthusiastic practitioners of the Central Texas style west of the Rockies—in this case, way, way west. Kim’s Creekstone Farms beef ribs are worth splashing out for, if you can even get your hands on one.

Not that Hawaii was sitting around waiting for a primer on how to slow-cook meat; the traditional preparation for kalūa pig is quite literally pit cooking, wherein an underground oven is lined with leaves of the local Ti plant. You’ll find excellent pork served with cabbage at Helena’s Hawaiian Food, a Honolulu essential since the World Wars. Mostly, the rest of what we refer to as Hawaiian BBQ isn’t barbecue at all, though I could go on all day about plate lunches. I will, however, make all the time in the world, given the opportunity, for one more plate of the liliko’i basted ribs at Honolulu’s vintage Side Street Inn. It turns out tart Hawaiian passionfruit pairs exceptionally well with pork.

IDAHO

Little Arco, Idaho—“First City in The World to be Lit by Atomic Power!”—is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, even by Idaho standards, but life takes people strange places. Kentucky native Lloyd Westbrook ended up getting a job here, back in the 1980s, hanging around and opening Grandpa’s Southern BBQ a number of years later. He wasn’t sure who would find him, or if they’d last, but a quarter of a century later, the restaurant is thriving in Idaho Falls, drawing transplanted Southerners and curious natives from across the state. Attached to a modest motel, the truck stop-like dining room feels almost homey with the Westbrook family—that’s Grandma Loretta in the kitchen—running the show. Cherry-red baby backs here come plain, as they ought to. These are some mighty fine ribs, with little or nothing to hide.

Over in the Boise area, things can be a little bit here today, gone tomorrow. For the moment, keep an eye on the work being done at Mister BBQ, currently operating out of a truck in Nampa. Any place that sticks up for smoked prime rib is a friend of ours.

ILLINOIS

When you think rib tips, the slaughterhouse castoff that has been Chicago’s primary contribution to American barbecue for the better part of a century, you think of Lem’s Bar-B-Q, of charred tips dripping deep red sauce, served with white bread to mop the whole mess up. I first encountered the place back in the 1990s, and can pluck the experience from memory in a split second: huddling in the narrow holding area between the windows and the bulletproof divider, every sense bombarded, each messy bite consumed off the hood of my car, spitting bone and cartilage, because nobody ever said eating rib tips was going to be pretty.

After countless dates with modern barbecue, I continue to treasure the whole of the Lem’s experience. I treasure those slabs of hickory-smoked, orange-red spare ribs, those unfussed hot links coming out of the city’s largest aquarium smoker, yet another only-in-Chicago oddity. James Lemons is gone now, but I’m happy to see the family keeping on. We’d be poorer without Lem’s on the landscape.

Essential to any Chicago tip crawl is the much newer Honey 1 BBQ. In a relatively short amount of time, Arkansas-born Robert Adams has created a new South Side classic. A tailgate lunch at David Sandusky’s BEAST Craft BBQ in Belleville was one of my favorite moments of 2019. Boundlessly flavorful wagyu brisket offered a potent reminder that meat quality really matters, and I wish I’d ordered so much more. (Already close enough to the Gateway Arch to be considered some of the best barbecue in St. Louis, Sandusky really went for it last year, opening a second location right in town.)

Not much farther to the east, Murphysboro is home to the famous 17th Street Barbecue, an early adopter on the modern barbecue scene. The dry-rubbed baby backs remain an Illinois essential.

INDIANA

Right around the turn of the century, before everyone and their uncle was out there trying to bring a taste of Texas to fill-in-the-blank, Hank Fields had an idea. An East Texan by birth, Fields had been living in Indianapolis for the longest time, for decades, actually, and mostly he liked it fine, but there was one thing he missed, and that was brisket. In 2004, he opened up Hank’s Smoked Briskets, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where he began smoking brisket over mesquite wood, procured on his semi-annual road trips back to the mother state, that has brought a great deal of joy to Indianapolis barbecue lovers. There isn’t much to the place, save a spartan waiting room with all the charm of a plasma donor center, but just you try to get people to stop coming. After Fields decided to shut down for a time last spring, TV news crews were there to cover the joyous reopening.

Other than Hanks, my Indiana barbecue interests lie mostly in the state’s oft-overlooked Northwest, geographically a hair’s breadth from Chicago, specifically its South Side rib tip heartland. My advice is never to pass near Gary without stopping for a plate at Big Daddy’s BBQ.

IOWA

Facing outward into the cornfields on the fringes of tiny Luther, where the star attraction prior to 2017 was the grain co-op, Whatcha’ Smokin’ comes off a bit slick at first, but has quickly become one of the closest things Iowa has to a proper, rural barbecue pit stop. It comes down, very quickly, to the meat, beginning with shreds of bark-flecked pulled pork, stacked simply on a bun with no sauce, which, for this part of the world, is kind of a big deal.

There is confidence behind this sandwich, the product of roughly 16 hours of work, for every batch, every time. It shows. (Ask if they have pork steaks on special, and if not, sliced Iowa pork loin is a tasty consolation prize.) You have to guess that if business partners Steve Perlowski and Tanya Doyle were going to do it all over again, they might not have opened in such a sleepy town. The first couple of years, things were a bit dramatic; in the end, they had to buy the neighbor’s property, just to keep the peace, with all of the crazy traffic they suddenly had beating a path to their door.

KANSAS

The pint-sized brick hut down in the industrial lowlands of Kansas City, doing business since the late 1980s as Jones Bar-B-Q, was always pretty easy to overlook. Deborah “Little” Jones and Mary “Shorty” Jones Mosley grew up with this place, long the domain of their father, Leavy, who taught them how to stoke the pits, how to stuff a hot link, and everything else you need to know to run a good barbecue joint. For a long time, they were the mostly unsung heroes of the sprawling Kansas City barbecue scene, firmly committed to wood-only at a time when the region was, quite frankly, getting a bit lazy about the process. Then the Queer Eye crew came calling, gave the place a makeover (the episode aired a year or so ago), and now the sisters are barbecue celebrities, drawing, in normal times, adoring fans from around the world.

Last fall, lines were often Texas-sized, for sausages (with a secret spice blend), for smoky burnt ends dripping in the house sauce (which you can now order online), and for rib tips. A temperature-controlled, 24/7 vending machine stuffed with brisket sandwiches has proved exceptionally popular this year, too.

Elsewhere in the city, brothers Mike and Joe Pearce may not have become television stars, but their no-frills Slap’s BBQ, opened in 2014, continues to speak for itself. The place may not be much to look at, but the meats are everything.

KENTUCKY

After inventing two of the most unique dishes to grace American barbecue culture, I suppose one is permitted to kick back and relax for a spell. Mutton, otherwise known as lamb once it grows up, is the currency in Owensboro, where the Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q have been cooking over hickory for generations, meat made tender with lashings of Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, vinegar, and an array of seasonings. The result is smoky, funky, and like no other. And that’s not all. Kentucky also, quite proudly, gave America burgoo, a slow-cooked, typically mutton-based stew, which America for the most part appears to have tasted politely, passed the pot to their neighbor, and gone in for seconds of flaccid macaroni and cheese. Their loss.

Continue your journey through Kentucky barbecue heritage with a stop for basted pork steaks—another unusual contribution to the culture—at R&S Barbecue in Tompkinsville, barely two hours of country road from Nashville, and worth the trip.

LOUISIANA

What exactly is Louisiana barbecue, you ask—a perfectly rational question, considering this near-ancient settlement of cocktail enthusiasts is mostly surrounded by states widely known for their prowess at the pit. Conventional wisdom will dictate that Louisiana, setting aside her many other talents, doesn’t really have much to contribute to barbecue. However, I raise anyone who wants to go down that cowardly road the mighty smoked boudin link, the ones you can get at the likes of the One Stop in Scott: plump links stuffed with expertly spiced pork and rice, especially transcendent after a trip to the smokehouse.

I offer, too, the garlicky hot links plucked straight from the smoker at Johnson’s Boucaniere in Lafayette, or the selection of smoky andouille you will find at little local markets like Russell’s Food Center in Arnaudville—really, any kind of smoked sausage you can locate, and there is so much of it. Alligator, anyone? So things sort of grind to a halt, historically, after that, but these people invented the Sazerac—I think we can let it slide. That's not to erase the existence of the state’s small selection of barbecue places, which definitely do exist. I particularly enjoy the ones that lean into their Louisiana roots, like Cou-yon’s Cajun BBQ in Port Allen, just over the Mississippi from Baton Rouge. If life ever goes back to normal, I’d very much like to sit here in peace and eat a smoked meatloaf po-boy on Gambino’s French bread, served with a side of brown gravy. You’re welcome to join me.

MAINE

One of the first valuable lessons learned over the lifetime of this project was to be skeptical. Skeptical of the places that used all the right words. Skeptical of places, often born yesterday, that appeared to have the greatest grasp of which way barbecue was trending. In this new age where everybody suddenly seems to know just enough about the craft to be dangerous, I have spent more money than I care to think about testing their often outlandish claims, when I ought to have been embracing the barbecue that was there to begin with, the places that were already blending in beautifully with the landscape. There is no rule that says barbecue must hew to the standards of an often far away region, and anyone who says so is no fun, and cannot sit with us. Unless you’re an actual Texan with a ton of experience, is it not better to lean into your surroundings, to ask yourself—what is, for instance, Maine barbecue?

I’m not saying that’s how things went at Spring Creek Bar-B-Q, way up in the interior town of Monson, but after something like two decades in existence, Mike and Kim Witham’s quirky pit stop for rough and tumble baby backs, beef ribs, cherry-red slow-smoked prime rib, and all sorts of interesting specials, strong sides, and homemade desserts, everything sourced locally where possible, is one of those places that tells you exactly where you are. This isn’t trying to be someone else’s barbecue—this belongs wholly to Maine. Most of us drive for hours on end to get here. I’m not sure what else you’d be looking for.

MARYLAND

Nothing will quite prepare you for your first visit to Jake’s Grill. You go down a bucolic stretch of the Falls Road north of Baltimore, with all these handsome old properties, some of them downright beautiful, and then, there's a grubby vinyl-sided shack, those absolute clouds of smoke, and a parking lot overflowing with cars at high noon. The rustic interior is an unfamiliar maze. There are unwritten rules the first-timer must navigate on the fly—order here, wait there, pay here—and because this is not a large establishment, by any stretch of the imagination, you will have an audience.

Technically, Jake’s is not a barbecue joint, though it has the soul of a very good one. This is one of the finest pit beef joints in one of the greatest cities in America, a city I once happily called home. Reflecting back, I realize that searching for great barbecue in Maryland is not the best use of anyone’s time—not when the preferred local alternative is staring you right in the face. Cooked over charcoal, this is essentially the roast beef sandwich of your dreams, smoke-kissed, pretty in pink, thinly sliced, piled on a roll and crowned with a wallop of tiger sauce, which is basically horseradish and mayonnaise. Pit beef is just as important to Baltimore as the crab cake, or anything crab-related.

Jake’s is my personal favorite, but I like others, and so will you. Go to Pioneer Pit Beef in Catonsville, with its comfortingly worn interior that ought to be landmarked by now, make time for go-getter Chaps Pit Beef out on the Pulaski Highway, which lately has been spawning locations elsewhere. I’m already off-piste here, so we might as well talk about the other thing I love about Maryland, loosely referred to as "Amish BBQ," which may be neither Amish nor BBQ, it’s hard to keep up, but the whole experience is so damn Mid-Atlantic. I never tire of the stuff. You’ll find these operations in what are referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch markets, or Dutch markets, or Amish markets, scattered about the most populated areas of the state, mostly south of Baltimore. These are not full-blown, photogenic public markets in the regional style, but seek them out anyway. They’re typically a great source of simple, affordable, and delicious food.

Inevitably, there seems to be a barbecue component—E&S at the cavernous Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Annapolis, King’s BBQ in Germantown at the Lancaster County Dutch Market, Yoder’s at the Dutch Village Markets in Laurel and Upper Marlboro. I’ve yet to be able to figure out just how much smoke the ribs and chicken have seen. Ask me how much I care.

Looking for genuine, proper barbecue in the state of Maryland? I’d head straight for Prince George’s County and The Rolling Rib, once a truck but now stationary. They still keep limited hours, and they sell out far too quickly for some people’s tastes, but the effort is more than worthwhile.

MASSACHUSETTS

This claim of first-class barbecue existing across the street from Old Sturbridge Village, New England’s premier living museum, dedicated to the glorification of a culture that to this day still buys brown bread in a can from the supermarket, was too bold not to put to the test. Back in the summer of 2017, B.T.’s Smokehouse was one of the stops that convinced me it might be time to start thinking more globally. Those first samplings of Brian Treitman’s sliced brisket were the best I’d ever had in New England. I didn’t think that sort of thing was allowed to happen, way up here, but Treitman, with his chef’s background and more than a decade of dogged commitment, keeps proving, over and over again, that I was wrong. The beef ribs—not quite the monsters being hawked for upward of $20 a pound all over the country just now, but still, more than generous enough—are one of the best barbecue values on this entire list, at just over $10 apiece, smoked over apple and hickory and good to the last shred. This is the perfect summer evening mini-adventure from Boston, or from anywhere within an hour or two, really—a messy, joyful expression of Northeast barbecue.

There are two more stops that I wasn’t expecting to find in Massachusetts, but am now fairly stuck on. One is Kinfolks BBQ in Taunton, where southern transplant Sylvester English oversees the execution of some of the Bay State’s finest ribs. The other is Smokey Divas in Pittsfield, a can-do neighborhood spot where owner Lorraine Jones descends from California barbecue royalty. Her grandmother, Dorothy Turner, opened one of Oakland’s longest-running Black-owned restaurants, Everett & Jones Barbecue, back in the early 1970s. Just ten minutes or so from Tanglewood, this is the kind of Berkshires I like. 

MICHIGAN

Winding up my research in the middle of a pandemic was not without challenges, but I’ll say this—in the places I was able to get to, the process became more efficient than I ever expected it could be. Goodbye to waiting in long lines, hello to online ordering and timed pickups, and also to eating a lot of barbecue in your kitchen. Let’s just say, this was the year I finally learned how to reheat brisket properly, and I also finally had the opportunity to eat brisket in one of the best ways I now believe brisket should be eaten, which is over a bowl of chewy short-grain rice, the high-quality kind they grow in Northern California. (You can find it in most supermarkets nowadays, and easily make at home yourself.) Throw in a splash of whatever kind of condiment, from Red Boat to Sriracha to a few dashes of Kikkoman, and then some chopped scallions so you can say you ate a vegetable, and tell me that wasn’t the best leftover lunch you’ve had in ages. My inspiration, I’ll happily cop to, came by way of Frank Ferejan’s Chamorro-style Ricewood in Ann Arbor, one of the Midwest’s most welcomed, most unexpected contributions to the culture in recent years. At first a seasonal thing operating out of a local wine bar, Ferejan now has his own place. Michigan’s best brisket, over two scoops rice? All day, every day, can’t get enough of the stuff.

The other thing I dream of, from this part of the world, is one more carry-out tray from any or all of Detroit’s surviving classics—smoky spare ribs from Vicki’s on one of many lonely stretches of West Warren Avenue, messy sandwiches and peach cobbler from Parks Old Style's half-century-old pit, and a plate of lean tips and fries from Nunn’s, way up off of Seven Mile, where they also sell pigs feet sandwiches and smoked turkey chops.

MINNESOTA

Sitting out in the sunshine with a tray from Jon Wipfli’s Animales Barbecue was a summer highlight, and not just because perfect summer days in Minneapolis are as rare as truly great brisket. Wipfli, with an impressive restaurant background and a truck parked in a brewery courtyard, manages to leave a serious impression from the word go, picking a few things and doing them extraordinarily well. Minnesota oak-smoked, red-ringed beef cheeks, dry-rubbed racks of ribs where the meat quality leaps out at you, juicy slabs of brown sugar pork belly rendered so expertly, you barely remember not to overdo it.

Credit: Courtesy of Animales

The accompaniments, too, reach levels most do not, from freshly baked biscuits, to a unique mustard butter sauce, and sugar-cured jalapeños. This is one of those places where you’ll probably feel like trying everything, and you probably should.

Wipfli arrived—two years ago now—on a scene that had already begun to show considerable promise. The alluring selection at early adopter Revival BBQ can be difficult to pass up, while the beef situation at the well-pedigreed and promising new Minnesota BBQ Co. (smoked aged ribeye, definitely down with that) begs further scrutiny.

MISSISSIPPI

Just making it through 2020 in one piece might be a lofty goal for any restaurant, or any person, but Hattiesburg classic Leatha’s Bar-B-Que appears to be held together with stronger stuff than most, successfully executing a move earlier this summer to the nearby town of Petal. Landing in a defunct Dickey’s was just the latest plot point in the colorful story of one of Mississippi’s most iconic BBQ joints. Founded in the mid-1970s by Leatha Jackson, who they used to call the barbecue queen of Mississippi, the restaurant had thrived under daughter Bonnie when Miss Leatha decided to retire, back in 2009. Both have passed, and grandson Brian Jackson is now at the helm, along with two other family members, and—here’s the really important part—they still have some of the best ribs (not only pork, but beef, too) in the state. Pandemic-era bonus: There’s now a drive-thru.

Up in the Delta, Abe’s in Clarksdale—right at the actual crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil—is trucking along as well, as it has done since the 1920s. Here, sandwiches of pecan-smoked pork with slaw and plenty of tomato-based sauce are the go-to, along with Delta-style tamales. 

MISSOURI

Back in the 1970s, Calvin Trillin famously wrote about the burnt edges of the brisket handed over the counter for free at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, a restaurant he considered to be the best in the world. My first experience of Bryant’s burnt ends was long ago, but I still remember sitting there, mopping up what had been pitched as a burnt ends sandwich, an unholy mess of bark and meat and sauce, getting into everywhere and on everything. I was barely out of my teens, and I felt like a real hotshot, going to Arthur Bryant’s by myself. That so-called sandwich was like a whole bank of lights had been switched on in my head, like I’d finally figured out what barbecue was supposed to be.

In these modern times, an already freewheeling Kansas City’s attentions have been pulled in all sorts of directions, but speaking personally, there’s still Bryant’s, dating back to 1908, there are the ribs at Gates Bar-B-Q, particularly the original location, and there is the entire experience at LC’s Bar-B-Q. The burnt ends at LC's are more the modern variety, cleanly cubed second-cut brisket, but they’re damn delicious.

None of this is to discount the contributions of the newer arrivals. Missouri is very much on that short list of states where you want to pay attention to more recent developments. We can begin right in Kansas City with Tyler Harp, an avid student of the modern school, who sells the top brisket in town right now, if you can catch it—Harp Barbecue is a very popular, Saturdays-only affair at a brewery in Raytown. Harp isn’t the only one that has Missourians falling in love with a new kind of barbecue. At Springfield’s City Butcher and BBQ, the energy (and the meat) practically shout Central Texas, even though you’re barely an hour from Branson.

MONTANA

Montana’s Paradise Valley is A River Runs Through It country, a gorgeous part of the world barely 45 minutes from Yellowstone National Park. I don’t know if it’s the rush from a day exploring, or the never-ending mountain views from the patio, or the good-natured hospitality, but there’s something about those ribs—like all the meats, Montana-sourced—at the kitschy and friendly Follow Yer’ Nose BBQ, one hell of a roadside stop in the small town of Emigrant, not far from Chico Hot Springs if you’re up for a post-soak meal. Taylor Henson started small, very small, back in 2012, slowly building his experimental operation into the full-blown destination you’ll find here today.

NEBRASKA

Back in the early 1980s, when a much younger Terry Rupert first opened Grandpa’s, his modest rib joint—which he ran as a side project—was one of a handful of Black-owned businesses in Lincoln. It was the beginning of an impressive, decades-long adventure for the serial entrepreneur, who named his establishment after an acquaintance in the neighborhood. By now a grandfather himself and close to retirement age, Rupert has gone back to his roots, firing up the smoker at his gas station on O Street. If you can catch him in action (cryptic messages on the Grandpa’s Ribs Facebook page provide the clues), you’re in for a treat.

Easier to track down are the brisket, ribs, and sausages at the Smokin’ Barrel in suburban Omaha, barely an hour away. If you’re way, way up north, so far that you can see South Dakota across the Missouri River, you might be near Backroad Bar-B-Q in St. Helena, in which case you should count yourself lucky—they do a mighty fine smoked prime rib.

NEVADA

Chuck Frommer was born and raised on a ranch—complete with abattoir—not far from Downtown Las Vegas, back before development sought to tamp down every dusty square mile of the valley. Everything has changed now, of course, but you will find Frommer right where he’s always been. Today, he’s the third-generation owner of the family property, well-hidden inside one of those appealing old neighborhoods where people still keep horses on oversized lots, where the homes aren’t all from the same stucco-blasted insta-kit. You can still drop off your bagged game to be dressed, any time of day or night during hunting season, but in recent years at John Mull’s Meats, the busiest side of things seems to be the butcher shop and barbecue business. Local regulars and visiting fans who’ve seen Frommer and crew on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives will wait much longer in the desert heat than you or I might like to, for well-priced beef rib dinners, fine tri-tip (something you just don’t find enough of anymore), homemade hot links (a house specialty), and burnt ends.

This isn’t a slick operation—just an old ranch property/ex-slaughterhouse turned butcher shop turned wildly popular barbecue counter. In an increasingly paved-over Las Vegas, Mull’s offers a not-so-secret portal to the past, plus you’re getting ribs, too. Everybody wins.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Not to single the Granite State out for too much excoriation, because quite honestly, after this summer, with a couple of exceptions noted within this year’s survey, I’m not really looking to eat any more New England brisket, but four visits in 2020 alone left me feeling more uncertain than I was in 2018. If pressed, and that is the point of the project, after all, I’d most likely soft-pedal on the classics for a change, directing you instead toward two relatively new, fairly simple, meat-centric experiences—Smokeshow in Concord, which can do some fine work when firing on all cylinders, particularly on the turkey and pork loin front, and the even more recent Smokehaus in Amherst, where pulled pork—classic shreds of shoulder, with plenty of nicely-seasoned bark in the mix—was a recent star on a hefty combo plate.

NEW JERSEY

The meat candy they call ribs at Henri’s Hotts, way down in that part of rural South Jersey that starts to feel like the actual South (maybe that’s just the mind playing tricks) is one of the things I crave the most from a too-short list of great Northeast barbecue. Back in 2009, on the heels of a career in law enforcement, Douglas Henri acquired an old pizza place along a rural stretch of Black Horse Pike near Hammonton, turning it into a very unusual kind of barbecue joint, one featuring a pre-Covid-19 times weekend buffet of what we might call New Jersey soul cooking. The joint has quietly become one of the best places for barbecue anywhere near Philadelphia, mostly because of those ribs, smoked out back over oak and hickory, generously lacquered with Henri’s own nicely balanced but relatively sweet sauce. Nothing fancy, just well-prepared, classic ribs, an ideal stop on your way down the Shore.

From here, it’s worth making the scenic drive to Christine’s House of Kingfish Barbecue in Shamong, past the picturesque bogs and blueberry patches of the Pine Barrens. This time, the sauce is more like a bright, savory tomato gravy, unlike anything I’ve ever had on ribs, and I’m still making up my mind how to feel about it. Clearly, I’ll need to go back for seconds. On my way down, I’ll be sure to stop at the Trenton Farmers' Market, where Jeff McKay has been turning out as close to great brisket as I think can be located in New Jersey, smoked over local cherry wood, since 2013. His no-frills operation, Hambone Opera, is also responsible for some fine baby backs—no sauce, it’s not needed.

NEW MEXICO

Before there was so much more to distract us, any talk of a Central Texas pilgrimage centered around Lockhart, which happens to be the town where James Jackson grew up, pitching in at local barbecue legend Black’s while still attending high school, where classmates included Kreuz Market pitmaster Roy Perez. There are so many options now, but Lockhart remains a must for any serious student of the craft, even if you won’t find Jackson there. He’s now living over the state line and up at about 8,700 feet in Cloudcroft, which is where people from West Texas go skiing on the weekends, or at least they do when they’re not standing in line at Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue, which Jackson opened a few years ago to nearly immediate success, after spending a considerable amount of time learning the ropes back in Lockhart.

The rule here is, if it’s good in Central Texas, it’s equally good here, and I don’t think that’s the altitude hitting my flatlander brain, though the brisk air, scented with post oak (in the smoker) and pine (not in the smoker) does wonders for the appetite. Salt and pepper brisket, classic hot links, beautiful beef ribs, too—just like in Texas, you come early, or you take your chances.

This isn’t the first time a Lone Star stater has successfully charmed the neighbors with their prowess at the pit. Roughly half a century earlier, Pete Powdrell left East Texas for Albuquerque, and to this day, Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House remains one of the city’s only Black-owned businesses. It's still in the family, and still serving up platters of hickory-smoked pork, sauced liberally with the sweet, sharp house blend.

NEW YORK

Coming home from Chicago in the 1990s, I remember walking into Virgil’s in Times Square, which was, at the time, New York City’s most notable contribution to barbecue, pumping actual, honest-to-God smoke out into the Crossroads of the World. I remember being led upstairs to a table, sitting down among the crowd, and thinking that while there wasn’t anything particularly wrong, this vast, corporate construct was never going to replace my corner rib tip joint back in Chicago, the one that also also sold a decent thin-crust pizza, a place I spent far too much money during the four years I was fortunate enough to live down the block.

This would be the first of many reminders that New York and barbecue have long been, for the most part, a hopeless mismatch. Everything that is demanded—strict oversight, commitment to craft, quality over quantity—is wrong for New York, where there are always more bills to pay, investors to pacify, and, understandably, growth opportunities to be seized. There have been so many bright spots in the last decade and change, but then comes the inevitable scaling up, the additional locations here, there, everywhere, and like clockwork, the decline in quality, because the original, passionate team is now spread so awfully thin.

At this challenging moment, New York is left with one address that so far has weathered it all, including a branching out of their own. Brooklyn native Billy Durney’s Hometown Bar-B-Que, way down in Red Hook, is easily one of the most famous barbecue places north of the Mason-Dixon Line for one simple reason: even in the middle of a pandemic, the meat here is just that good. There’s no better brisket to be had this deep into the Northeast, but don’t brush past the more unique offerings, smoky lamb belly, and racks of jerk ribs. They’re part of the greatness, too.

Long before we had barbecue in Midtown Manhattan, Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q in Oneonta was one of the state’s better-known addresses. Dating back to the early 1960s, they’re still hard at it, still filling up that giant indoor charcoal pit most days, and turning out some excellent chicken. If you’re hiding out in the Catskills indefinitely, add this to your list of dinner pickup spots.

NORTH CAROLINA

Before artfully arranged brisket trays became an Instagram holy grail, there was that little paper boat stack at Ayden’s Skylight Inn, a thing of simple beauty, almost unparalleled in American barbecue—a nest of finely chopped, lightly seasoned whole hog, cooked over oak for 18 hours, that coleslaw, that minimalist slab of cornbread, looking like an ancient snack. Forget, for a moment, the rest. Whole hog, as expressed in this part of the world, remains perhaps our closest link to early American barbecue, Skylight being the oldest surviving practitioner, dating back to 1947, when a teenaged Pete Jones set up shop on a piece of family property.

A spread at Skylight Inn
| Credit: Baxter Miller

Today, this is one of three essential Eastern Carolina stops—there’s Sam Jones BBQ, closer to Greenville, that’s Pete’s grandson, and you’ve also got Grady’s in Dudley, where Steve and Gerri Grady have been doing things the right way since the 1980s. There’s more than one way to chop up a pig, of course. Serious students of the North Carolina way will next make the drive west to Lexington, where for more than a century, pork shoulders have been the currency, with a sauce tinged red with tomato.

Lexington continues to support an impressive number of barbecue joints per capita, and you’ll begin the inevitable crawl at Lexington Barbecue, an institution since 1962, founded by late local celebrity Wayne Monk. Touch North Carolina’s Civil Rights era history with a stop at Hop’s Bar-B-Que in Asheboro. More than just a cute 1950s relic, this was famously the site of a student sit-in, back in 1964.

A spread at Sam Jones BBQ
| Credit: Denny Culbert

NORTH DAKOTA

With all the back and forth that goes on between oil patches, it seemed as if North Dakota’s would eventually give rise to some proper barbecue. Back in 2017, this most remote (and most underserved) of states found salvation in the form of Monty’s BBQ, operated out of a vintage camping trailer on a vacant lot in Minot. For the best brisket and burnt ends (and sausage, too) the town had most likely ever seen, they had Daniel Montgomery, a Texas native, to thank. Once stationed at the nearby air force base, he’d developed a fondness for the place, moving his family back here years later.

OHIO

Back in olden times, when you could catch a virus in the dead of winter and shake it off with a few days rest, a very insistent local contact in Columbus managed to roust me from my hotel sick bed for what I was told would be the best barbecue in Ohio. This felt like a wild claim for a place that often feels as if it were invented yesterday, but like always, she was right. Three years on, very little has changed, except there are now four locations of Ray Ray’s Hog Pit scattered about greater Columbus, the latest opened to meet growing demand, right in the middle of the pandemic.

There is so much barbecue in Ohio, but when you finally land here, you kind of know the search is over. (The original in Clintonville, a ramshackle setup evoking the East Side of Austin more than a bar parking lot near Ohio State, is my favorite.) You’ll have a rack of taut, dry-rubbed baby backs to stay, no sauce, the better to taste every bite of that very fine pork. Owner James Anderson is one of those rare types serious enough about meat quality to start raising his own heritage breed pigs, on a 15-acre farm he owns east of town. He’s not raising cattle yet, as far as I know, but no matter—his grass-fed brisket, which comes out on Sundays, is exceptional.

Ray Ray's Hog Pit owner James Anderson
| Credit: Courtesy of Ray Ray's Hog Pit

An hour and a half is all it takes to go at least a few decades back in time, and I say that mostly as a joke, and with a lot of love for Cincinnati. Here, Eli’s BBQ, which also boasts a variety of locations, one of them at the excellent old Findlay Market, has one of those rare pulled pork sandwiches I crave: gauzy strands of hickory-smoked shoulder on a bun, topped with a classic, sweeter sauce. Nicely crisp coleslaw comes on the side, but mine goes directly into the sandwich. 

OKLAHOMA

Keeping up with the neighbors can be a difficult task, particularly when the neighbor is Texas. I’ve learned over time that the joy of Oklahoma is not to be found in comparing the barbecue to what you will find one state over, but rather in embracing the way they do things here, and I think we can all agree that what Oklahoma does best is bologna. That’s right, smoked bologna, thick slabs of the stuff, like a poor man’s brisket, and you will find some of the best at one of Tulsa’s most unique restaurants, a Lebanese steakhouse (a marvelous Oklahoma thing) called Jamil’s, named for the founder Jamil Elias, who opened the place back in 1946. Here, you can have bologna as an appetizer, along with hummus and cabbage rolls. There’s another, owned by one of the founder’s nephews, in Oklahoma City, where the bologna sandwich, served with a side of tabbouleh, is said to be the most popular lunch item.

There’s bologna everywhere. It's sold any way you like it at the family-owned Leo’s BBQ, also in Oklahoma City, while the simple $5 sandwich at Tulsa's Burn Co. BBQ, where the heavy lifting is done using Hasty Bake grills, is a cheap little thrill worth going for. Looking for the more serious meats? Follow the plumes of pecan smoke to Leon’s Smoke Shack in Tulsa. Leon Thompson’s retirement project—it beats, he will tell you, sitting around watching Judge Judy reruns—has become one of the city’s best stops for pork ribs, though there’s bologna here, too.

OREGON

Let’s just jump in and say this, straight up—there are two places for world-class barbecue west of the Rocky Mountains right now. One of them is Southern California, and the other is Portland, where a talented group, mostly operating from carts, as one famously does in Portland, have managed to create a scene that is worth traveling for.

The first time I tried the perfectly rendered spare ribs, peppery brisket, and classic, Lockhart-style links at Holy Trinity Barbecue, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. Texas native Kyle Rensmeyer is doing the finest work of the group right now, and this is the meat I will always come back to town looking for.

A tray at Holy Trinity Barbecue
| Credit: Courtesy of Holy Trinity Barbecue

Not that I don’t have all the time in the world for the rest of it. Michael Keskin has been ably demonstrating a talent for lean brisket you can’t get enough of at Bark City BBQ, while the Thai ribs and smoky barbecue fried rice at Eem—a delicious collaboration between Bangkok-born restaurateur Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and local early-adopter barbecue star Matt Vicedomini—is one of my favorite Portland sit-down meals from the Before Times.   

PENNSYLVANIA

Pennsylvania loves to eat, and seems to love barbecue well enough, so I'm not certain, after spending months at a time in the state since 2018, why I’ve been able to turn up so little to get excited about. Some promising places have popped up in recent years, but they don’t seem to last very long, either closing or slowly sinking into the mire of complacency. At the time of my 2018 survey, Ryan and Autumn Atzert had just opened Federal Hill Smokehouse, way up in Erie, which was already demonstrating a great deal of promise. On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer that you have to drive all the way to Erie for their honking beef ribs, when they have them, for deep-fried pulled pork cakes served with chipotle cream, for sliced smoked turkey, sausages, and, of course, brisket. In the end, it doesn’t really matter where it happened. I only wish it were closer to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the better to influence the culture.

In Philly, you can't really go wrong with the ribs at Mike’s BBQ, some of the finest in the state, and there are all kinds of reasons to root for the brand new, well-pedigreed Zig Zag BBQ, which has every chance of becoming the state’s top dog. (I’ll be only too happy to keep tabs.)

RHODE ISLAND

Mortgage banker turned barbecue hobbyist turned restaurateur turned proud owner of a 1930s diner, John Hanaway is one of those people appearing to possess a boundless energy for reinvention. Alongside wife, Rhonda, Johnny’s Victory Diner has become exactly the sort of thing you would hope to find in a place like Rhode Island. First of all, it’s still an actual, honest-to-goodness New England counter joint, with creative breakfast specials and a loyal following. Now, however, it is a diner that is also a barbecue joint, with a massive, custom-built barrel smoker sitting right outside, burning through local oak and apple wood for the Friday barbecue nights, where pulled pork, brisket, and ribs are stars of the show. In Providence, Durk’s sought to move Rhode Island barbecue to the next level when it opened up on College Hill, back in 2017. They’re currently in the process of moving downtown—here’s hoping a change of scenery breathes new life into the mission.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Each time I am presented with my favorite plate of South Carolina barbecue, which can come from any number of places in the Midlands region of the state, I am not picky; I get a little laugh out of the presentation, and try to imagine the reaction of a first-timer, who will have been given no warning, because where’s the fun in that? There will be shards of pulled pork, tossed in a sort of burnt yellow mustard sauce. There will be hash, South Carolina’s famous slow-cooked, somewhat yellow pork stew, ladled over mounds of white rice, and whatever else I feel like eating—maybe hush puppies, or stewed greens, leave me alone, I’ll decide when I get there. You’ve heard of brown food, now say hello to yellow food. Appetizing, no? Welcome to one of the most distinctive regional styles of barbecue, one you won’t typically see on menus in Los Angeles or New York or Mexico City or Paris, like you will Central Texas, or even Eastern Carolina whole hog. To this day, Midlands style still belongs mostly to the place of its birth, and it can be hard to find, even here. I get it, aesthetics matter, but once you taste the stuff ... How are we not all in love, by now? Particularly with hash, which some people see as a side dish, but not me, I could eat this as a meal over rice, and have done.

A fully loaded tray at Lewis BBQ
| Credit: Andrew Cebulka

This is history you can taste, nose-to-tail cooking before that became a trend. Historically, hash was to South Carolina cooks what scrapple was to Pennsylvania farmers. You took the scraps, the bits, the last of the pig, and you cooked it down, so far as to be unrecognizable, seasoning well and adding tomato or mustard, cooking it some more, and serving it over rice, a staple of the South Carolina plate. Hash, you will find, is never the same thing twice, not completely. It is popular enough in the places still around to serve it that you’ll find them using lots of pork shoulder, or even ham. Whatever the process, the end result is the same—hearty, soulful comfort cooking, a window to the past.

Back in his time, Jack O’Dell was known as the Hash King. Today, Midway BBQ in Buffalo, which dates back to the 1940s, is still operated by his daughter. At Big T Bar-B-Q in Gadsden, they’ll do a hash and rice dinner with two sides for less than $8. (This is a great stop on the way to Congaree National Park.)

West Columbia, just over the Congaree River from the state capital, is home to two essential hash stops, True BBQ and Hite’s BBQ, while Sweatman’s Barbecue, another classic, offers an all-you-can-eat-style setup. It also happens to be located halfway to Charleston, so you may as well keep going. Here, second generation pitmaster and whole hog evangelist Rodney Scott, whose family still practices the Pee Dee regional style of barbecue up in Hemingway (go at least once, it’s a trip), opened up Rodney Scott BBQ to much fanfare in 2017.

Flipping at hog at Rodney Scott BBQ
| Credit: Angie Mosier

From here, you’re just over half a mile, you can walk even, to Lewis Barbecue, opened a year earlier and easily the finest Central Texas-style establishment in the Southeast. John Lewis was an early player on the New Austin scene. Bet you never thought you’d see brisket and beef ribs this good in South Carolina.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Each time I travel through the Black Hills, I wonder why I don’t do it more often, and then I remember how long it took me to get there, and how long the winters can be. Besides, the place is crowded enough during the warmer months—any closer to so-called civilization, and I don’t know that being up here, surrounded by all this natural beauty, would feel quite so special. For whatever reason, and this is something to be grateful for, the region’s remoteness hasn't stopped it from becoming one of the more interesting little barbecue clusters to be found outside of traditional barbecue country.

The most fully-formed of the bunch is JR’s BBQ Pit in Summerset, just outside of Rapid City, where Justin Rhodes has been showing off his considerable talents for the better part of a decade. If I were anywhere within striking distance, I’d have to seriously think about a drive for the Friday night beef rib special, a pound or so of well-seasoned, properly smoked love at an extremely reasonable price. Brisket, check, ribs, check, sausages, check—sandwiches, for an extra dollar, come out absolutely dripping with queso.

Two other stops, if you’re in the neighborhood—Bunky’s for ribs (and brisket if it ever comes back on the menu) over in Spearfish, and Dakota BBQ in Custer, run by championship circuit vets who know their stuff.

TENNESSEE

There are more than a few states with competing regional styles of barbecue, and Tennessee is one of them. In Memphis, you can practically break it down by neighborhood, or even by which of the iconic barbecue places you are currently standing in line for. I don’t really play favorites, because I am a hungry man who likes it all, but I do tend to define the Memphis experience in terms of the people behind the pit. There’s Flora Payne, matriarch of Payne’s Bar-B-Q, founded in 1972 by her late husband, Horton. Today, Flora still runs the place with her children, Ron and Candace, and her chopped pork sandwich, stacked with freshly made coleslaw and doused in two sauces—one sweet, one tangy and mustard-based—is a messy, beautiful spectacle. This isn’t dry-rub ribs at the Rendezvous, but it’s as essential as Memphis comes.

There is also Desiree Robinson, owner of the Cozy Corner, another '70s-era institution. Robinson took over when her husband, Raymond, died in 2001, and the place is run by multiple generations of Robinsons. They do a smoked Cornish hen that just might lure you away from ordering a mess of saucy ribs—don’t let this happen, because you need to order both.

Cozy Corner BBQ chicken wings
| Credit: Craig Thompson

One could eat barbecue in Memphis for a week, probably more, and still not have doubled back, but there’s more to the state, beginning next door in rural West Tennessee. There, the whole hog tradition had in recent years been on the wane, not that you’d know, hanging around B.E. Scott’s BBQ in Lexington, where Zach Parker, not even 30 years old, has been ably filling his late father’s shoes, mastering the art of the 24-hour cook. On your way, detour to Brownsville and Helen’s BBQ. Helen Turner’s pork shoulder sandwiches are worth the extra miles.

TEXAS

With every thing, place, and person you will ever fall in love with, there is the honeymoon phase, and then there is the aftermath, where things get real, and you learn, very quickly sometimes, whether or not this is a relationship built to last. I remember the time the smoke first cleared for me in Texas, I didn’t even blink. There I was, at one of the most celebrated addresses in the entire state, staring down a pound of brisket I could barely bring myself to touch. It was dry as a bone, and some of the least impressive I’d tried on a cross-country road trip. But that’s not nearly what I’ll remember most about that chilly morning, rising before dawn and driving for two hours out into the fog, lining up, waiting forever, watching one of the country’s most decorated pit geniuses at work, finally making it to the front of the line. So I ordered it all, and I do mean all, and most of it was very good. By the time I tried the brisket, I didn’t even mind. This was one of the best mornings of my life. I’d go back and do it all over again, any time. Next time, I’d just skip the brisket.

Perfection is an elusive thing anywhere, and even if it’s slightly less elusive here, what makes Texas truly special, nearly peerless, is the quality of the experiences that you will have, over and over and over again until you are spoiled rotten. Brisket has good days and it has bad days, even in Austin. But you’re here, you’re soaking it all in, and making memories that will last so much longer than you can imagine. Don’t be the sad sack who can’t see the forest for the trees—the forest is just that beautiful.

Credit: Louie Mueller Barbecue

Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor is right at the top of the list of places that could never really disappoint me. It's a national treasure. I don’t see how you could walk in here and not leave forever impressed, even if these treacherous times have ended one of the finest traditions in the industry—a wriggling cube of peppered brisket handed over the counter, before you place your order. Third-generation owner Wayne Mueller’s lion-level status in the industry leaves plenty of room to stretch out and get comfortable, but I’ve always found the place running like a tight ship—simple, honest, classic, and, to my mind, essentially perfect.

Not that you have to be old to be great. The talent pool in Texas barbecue is so very deep these days, and more diverse than you can imagine, too. Another moment I run over, again and again in my mind, is the frigid November morning I chose for my first visit to Esaul Ramos and Joe Melig’s 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio—the sense memory of biting into a slice of brisket, some of the best I’ve ever tried, wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla. It was unforgettable. Practically born yesterday, this is one of those places that felt essential from the beginning—as stripped-down as any of the old timers, dripping with character. Not to be overly romantic about old stuff. I’m still recovering from one of the best meals of late 2018, an entire Akaushi beef rib from the relatively new Cattleack BBQ in suburban Dallas. It was well marbled and well rendered as to resemble the texture of a custard. I ate this thing over a period of four days and mourned its passing once it was done.

More and more, I find myself gravitating away from the center of the state, towards the less universally adored Texas barbecue. Give me an opening and I will proselytize with the enthusiasm of a Times Square preacher for the exploding, garlicky juice dripping everywhere, all-beef links found in Beaumont. Thousands are cranked out each week at the classic Patillo’s BBQ, a family-owned institution since 1912.

UTAH

There I was, thinking that the experience at Torrey Grill & BBQ, at the doorstep of Capitol Reef, one of the more underrated national parks in the Southwest, was the end of my search for a barbecue joint that felt essential to Utah, one of the most un-barbecued states remaining in the country. There was the whole dinner around the fire pit spiel, the spare ribs and pulled chicken and tri tip, inventive sides, plus cobbler for dessert. This was it, this was the spot.

Turns out, the restaurant has only been open for a couple of summers now, and that owner/proprietors Peter Cole (a CIA grad) and Abeer Aljbour (a travel industry vet) had visited the region from New York on vacation, fell in love with the place, and decided to move here, settle down, and open their own place. In an RV park. In the middle of Utah, the part that's hours away from Salt Lake. Fast-forward to 2020, and what already seemed like a pretty cool idea now sounds like some genius-level, ahead of the curve thinking. Hold your horses, cowperson—the restaurant is shuttered until next spring.

VERMONT

Finding good barbecue in the second most sparsely populated state can be a frustrating exercise. I knew the search was finally over the first time I dove into the whole hog tray at Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, located along what is perhaps the state’s busiest food and drink tourism corridors. Great barbecue draws you in, like a story. With that first, vinegar-tinged bite, I was far, far away from north-central Vermont. The last time I’d sampled whole hog this good, chopped but not to oblivion, with those little bits of bark that add so much pleasing texture, was well down South. The brisket—a nice fat slab of the stuff, doused in the house bacon barbecue sauce—brings you straight back to Vermont. I’d eat it again. 

VIRGINIA

The casual disinterest in the specifics of American barbecue’s origins is perhaps one of the most American things about barbecue culture. Who cares, you’re thinking—where’s the beef? Joe Haynes’ 2016 book Virginia Barbecue: A History makes the fact-based case, rather ardently, for the cradle of modern American civilization (you know, Jamestown, 1634, and all that) as the birthplace of Southern barbecue, back before it splintered, like so many Baptist denominations, into an array of regional styles. What fascinates me most about Virginia’s barbecue heritage is how little it is spotlighted. North Carolina’s traditions were essentially Virginia’s traditions, once upon a time—and who do we hear doing most, if not all, of the talking? No wonder Georgia was able to convince everyone that they invented Brunswick stew. As best I can tell, they wanted it more.

A tray of ZZW barbecue
| Credit: Courtesy of ZZQ

Whether it’s confidence or ambivalence, who knows, but this casual relationship with tradition has left classic Virginia barbecue (pork, pork, and more pork) to fade into the background somewhat, leaving newer arrivals to the state with plenty of room to create a new kind of barbecue culture altogether. This explains how Richmond fell in love with Chris Fultz and Alex Graf, the husband and wife team behind ZZQ, which began as a backyard pop-up in 2011, growing up to become a pinch-me-am-I-dreaming temple to the Central Texas style, open for just over two years now, and already an absolute Virginia essential. All the standards are well up to speed, starting with some of the finest brisket on the Eastern Seaboard, but Austin native Fultz, using local oak, smokes up some transcendent beef ribs, and prime rib, as well.

Virginia is full of corporate barbecue nowadays, particularly in the northern region, but I find the remaining classics far more compelling. Start with the sliced and minced pork at Allman’s in Fredericksburg, then move on to King’s Barbecue in Petersburg for oak-smoked top sirloin and great pork, of course, straight from Smithfield.

WASHINGTON

Surely to the great annoyance of anyone who’s ever been within earshot, I like to joke that teriyaki is as close as Seattle will probably ever come to having its own style of barbecue—a situation that does not trouble me in the slightest. The Japanese essential, adapted for regional tastes in the 1970s by Toshi Kasahara and to this day a Western Washington staple, remains as ubiquitous as Chinese takeout in New York City. The simplicity of the experience is one of the things that makes it so pleasurable: flame-charred chicken and beef, generously marinated in soy sauce, rice wine (or vinegar), and sugar and garlic and ginger, artfully served atop massive quenelles of texture-perfect California Delta short grain rice. It's the Northwest’s greatest gift to American takeout culture.

Pity you still have to come all the way up here to eat it, for the most part, but you ought to. Any day of the week he’s open, I’ll gorge on Kasahara’s cooking at Toshi’s in Mill Creek. In Seattle, I want that absolutely gleaming chicken from the Choice Deli in Ballard, but I also love trekking to furthest Puyallup to Happy Teriyaki #11, which has a koi pond in the middle of the dining room. While I may not find it quite as essential as a teriyaki crawl, there is actual barbecue here. When in the mood, I’ll head directly to Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, to the original Jack’s BBQ. If I’m in the market for a beef rib, Texpat Jack Timmons is the man for the job. While in the neighborhood, I’ll toddle over to the Pecos Pit, which has been around since 1980, and like Jack’s, now has additional locations. For me, it’s the original, where in normal times you would find Starbucks HQ employees, truckers, miscreants—the whole Seattle shebang—waiting for what I’ll argue is the closest thing Seattle has to an essential hometown barbecue joint. (I would snarf a rack of their baby backs, any old time.)

WEST VIRGINIA

The explorer is rewarded with a number of little surprises in Charleston, West Virginia’s historic and architecturally appealing capital city, which over the years elbowed its way onto a relatively small patch of flat-ish land at the confluence of the Kanahwa and Elk Rivers. On the city’s West Side, a part of town that has suffered dramatic population loss over the years but still retains a sleepy appeal, Dem 2 Brothers & A Grill is perhaps the last thing you’re expecting to find—a vibrant establishment drawing the sort of people who like a half rack of ribs for their lunch, from all over the region.

Owner Adrian Wright ended his NFL career as a running back for Tampa Bay, came back to his hometown, and became famous all over again for barbecue. He’ll tell you the pandemic hasn’t done them any favors, but it was terrific, this summer, to see them adapting, selling pulled pork sandwiches at city-sponsored drive-in movies, and pulling the food truck out for the local Juneteenth celebration. When here, the first thing I want are those ribs, which Wright makes wholly his own with a sweet-spicy rub and a mustard-based glaze. Up in Wheeling, make time for the meat at Country Roads BBQ. The Phair family has thrown everything into growing their business, and their hospitality is half of the experience. The other half is the brisket, about as good as you’ll find in the state. 

WISCONSIN

The shooting of a Kenosha man by police that shocked the nation all over again was merely the latest expression of the reality faced by Wisconsin’s relatively small Black population that is historically and in large part still clustered around Milwaukee’s north side. This part of the city has been scarred by generations worth of communal trauma, with so many of its traditional gathering places either lost—or very nearly—to the history books. Since the 1950s, a few minutes’ walk out of the redeveloping downtown on a windswept corner that feels much further away, Speed Queen Bar-B-Q has been an unflappable presence on the visible boundary line between two worlds, drawing much of the city to itself for racks of ribs and shards of pork shoulder, pulled from the one-ton smoker.

For roughly half a century, Mississippi-born Betty Jean Gillespie was rather visibly at the helm here. Since her death in 2000, her family has remained in charge. You’ll find the pit team pretty much throwing the kitchen sink at the meat, wood-wise—hickory, oak, apple, what have you—and the end result is Wisconsin’s finest, most important barbecue. We’re still in Chicago’s orbit here, so definitely expect the rib tips bathed in peppery-sweet hose sauce, but also mountains of pulled pork, where the bark hasn’t been beaten into submission (the best kind of pulled pork, quite frankly). You can even ask for more outside meat, as they call it, if you want, and you do want. 

WYOMING

Old hand Texans like to talk a great deal about all of the people moving there, and if you spend much time in places like Southern California, and Austin, or certain parts of suburban Dallas, there are moments when the line begins to blur to the point of erasure. The statistics don’t lie: Texas is drawing in an extraordinary number of people, and it’s changing everything. Travel around the country looking for barbecue, however, and you’ll find a significant number of people who’ve gone in the opposite direction. This survey is more than lightly influenced by the contributions of native or one-time Texans who have moved everywhere from New England to the Pacific Northwest. Mike Mitchell is one of these people, carting his mobile operation from Dallas-adjacent Denton all the way up to Cody, where Fat Rack’s BBQ became a seasonal favorite with the locals and in-the-know travelers he managed to catch on their visit to Yellowstone National Park, just about an hour away.

These days, the Mitchell family—and Mike’s barbecue—are pretty much a year-round thing at the heart of downtown Cody, steps from the staged gunfights that take place in the street all summer long, in front of the historic Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill himself in 1902. Stop for dry-rubbed baby backs and generous chunks of pulled pork, and a pound of thickly-sliced smoked turkey for sandwiches later on.