Few topics get travelers more heated, more protective, more spittin' mad than barbecue. Countrywide, arguments break out over which barbecue joint is best and how it is best served. Is it burnt ends in Kansas City? Brisket in Texas? Sauce? Rub? On a bun? From a food truck? The possibilities are endless. The lists meticulous. The awards filled with more controversy than you can shake a pair of tongs at.
To bring you the best, we've broken down the U.S. by region and then by barbecue style, selecting a few famous examples, top performers on TripAdvisor, and restaurants that make the "best of" lists year in and year out. Hunger-inducing? Absolutely. Complete? Couldn't even begin to try. So if you don't see your favorite, sound off in the comments. Until then, grab a bib and start making your travel plans, because these are some of the best barbecue joints in America.
When it comes to barbecue, we're starting big. Whether it's bittersweet with mesquite smoke in West Texas, long-smoked with hickory in East Texas, or served barbacoa-style in that ribbon of land where the south of Texas meets Mexico, the Lone Star State earns its reputation as a barbecue mecca.
Where to Get It: Consistently claiming the top spot on "best of" lists, Franklin Barbecue in Austin has been called "barbecue nirvana" by Serious Eats for its famously tender brisket piled high on wax paper. Lines commonly wrap around the bright-blue¬-painted building by 9 a.m., so get there early and bring reading material--or a lawn chair. Overall, the Texas capital has become something of a barbecue destination, and insiders say John Mueller Meat Co. and Stubb's, with its live indie music, are well worth visits, too. A half hour away in Lockhart, Kreuz Market, serving up sauceless barbecue, has been a favorite for some 75 years, while in Driftwood, locals and tourists crowd The Salt Lick's communal tables under glowing strings of festive lights for brisket and snappy sausages from a circular stone pit.
Elsewhere in the state, Dallas brings us legendarily no-frills Pecan Lodge, where a brisket-and-fried-chicken lunch is best capped off with creamy banana pudding (and a nap). Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler is known for $3 breakfast burritos that make eating barbecue twice in one day a completely reasonable undertaking. And starting at 4:30 every morning way down south in Brownsville, Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Q slings traditional barbacoa wrapped in corn tortillas and topped with mini mountains of fresh salsa. The takeout joint has no website and its location is more than a bit remote, but it comes with a Texas-sized cult following.
Every few years, Texas Monthly rounds up a list of its 50 best barbecue joints (and agrees with us that Franklin is tops). Take a gander and start planning a cross-Texas road trip.
Zippy vinegar-based sauces abound in the Tarheel State, where pork is customarily cooked low and slow--for 16 hours or more--then chopped, plopped onto a bun, and topped with coleslaw (or not, say purists). A battle between Lexington- and Eastern-style barbecues has raged on for years: the former adding ketchup to its signature sauce, the latter turning up its nose at anything resembling a tomato. Still, the result is tangy hog heaven, best eaten with hot hushpuppies and washed down with the syrupy sweet tea for which the state is famous.
Where to Get It: Our resident North Carolinian editor says Allen & Son in Chapel Hill is quintessential, with large brick pits out back and telltale checkered oilcloth on the tables inside. Skylight Inn in Ayden earns Southern Living's high praises for its whole-hog approach. Locals laud Lexington Barbecue's wood-smoked, ketchup-laced pork shoulder; a roll to heap it on will cost you $0.17 extra, and some Cheerwine (a super-carbonated cherry soda native to the area) is the only proper accompaniment.
Welcome to the Mustard Belt. In central South Carolina, mustard-based barbecue sauces reign supreme in all their kicky, tangy, sunshine-yellow glory. On the state's eastern and western fronts, however, pitmasters forgo the yellow stuff in favor of tomato and vinegar. In fact, the mustard-versus-ketchup debate is so great that the tourism department publishes a primer on all things barbecue sauce.
Where to Get It: For the mustard heads among us, Hite's Bar-B-Que, in its little white shack, will entice, while others say that the two outposts of Melvin's are best, brandishing their famous Original Golden Secret sauce (a recipe more closely guarded than the Mona Lisa). Yet others maintain that Bub and Margie at Sweatman's, where an all-you-can-eat buffet promotes all-out hedonism, serve the best 'cue in South Carolina. Like a charming Southern grandma, a sign at the homey little spot admonishes, "Please take all that you can eat but please eat all that you take."
Georgia's barbecue traditions are a delicious mishmash of different regional culinary styles, borrowing sauces from here, spices from there. What is constant is pit cooking, possibly influenced by Native American traditions but given a uniquely Georgian twist by the use of pecan fruitwood in the prep. Here, barbecue is the centerpiece of tailgate parties, political rallies, cook-offs, and contests.
Where to Get It: Wiley's Championship BBQ in Savannah continually ranks among the state's best for its award-winning ribs. Pro tip: Expect a full house, and save room for bread pudding with praline-bourbon sauce. In Atlanta, Heirloom Market BBQ fuses Chef Jiyeon Lee's Korean culinary heritage with Chef Cody Taylor's Southern background, churning out kimchi coleslaw and gochujang-glazed pork to an adoring crowd. Insiders also say that Community Q BBQ and Dave Poe's are worth stops (and a napkin or five). And far away from the city crowds, nestled among the mountains and forest trails of Blue Ridge in northern Georgia, Joe's BBQ is a draw for cabin owners who drop by for hickory-smoked pork and ribs between languorous days on the lake.
A friend and Kansas City expat recently reminisced of his homeland that "the people are nice, the land is flat, and the air smells like barbecue." If that's not the official state motto, perhaps it ought to be. The city is known for the thick, sweet sauce that many of us associate with barbecue, richly redolent of molasses and mahogany in hue.
Where to Get It: There are countless options and there is little consensus. The New Yorker's Calvin Trillin famously declared Arthur Bryant's the "single best restaurant in the world," with its unflattering fluorescents, Formica-topped tables, and crisp burnt ends stacked on (what else?) Wonder Bread. A second location near the Kansas Speedway is slightly more upscale, but only the original features a smoker blackened with the flavor of briskets past. Dim and cozy Jack Stack Barbecue is another magnet for burnt-end devotees, movie stars, and presidents. Yet others are all about St. Louis, where the barbecue is similar in flavor but different in cut from that of Kansas City. Bogart's Smokehouse's apricot-bruleed ribs and Pappy's Smokehouse's Memphis-style meats smoked over applewood and cherrywood have been named as favorites.
In Memphis, ribs come two ways: "wet," sopping with sweet sauce that's brushed before, during, and after cooking, or "dry," simply seasoned with a spicy salt rub. But Memphis' moniker as "The BBQ Capital of the World" is truly the result of not what it puts on the barbecue but rather what it puts the barbecue on: salads, nachos, pizza, really, anything with available space. Of course, Memphians have a challenger in their midst: Nashville, which was recently--and controversially--named America's best city for barbecue by Travel + Leisure. The city makes beautiful music out of its diverse barbecue tradition, mixing Memphis-style smoked meats with regional flair and Southern sides like fried okra.
Where to Get It: Food Network-fave Central BBQ's nachos feature sauceless pork smoked over pecan and hickory in its environmentally friendly, Project Green Fork-certified space (and on its hip outdoor deck, popular with the college crowd). The Rendezvous boasts, "Not since Adam has a rib been this famous." Its world-renowned slabs are served in an alleyway basement filled to the brim with bric-a-brac. At Hog Heaven in the heart of Nashville, the scent of hickory smoke entices visitors to Centennial Park, and the "redneck tacos" at the city's favorite Martin's BBQ Joint are served on a griddled corn-bread hoecake.
Some sniff that Florida is a barbecue desert, but those in the know disagree. In fact, three Florida spots rounded out TripAdvisor's 2014 reader survey of the best barbecue restaurants in the U.S.
Where to Get It: Captain's BBQ in Palm Coast resides in a waterfront smoke shack, where classic barbecue fare like St. Louis-style ribs share menu space with a suitably tropical lemon-coconut cheesecake. In Clearwater, Poppa's BBQ makes the meanest Memphis-style dry-rubbed baby back ribs along the Gulf of Mexico, in a simple space where a Styrofoam tip cup on the counter and some trophies make the only decor. And Madd Jack's Grillin' Shack brings a barbecue-on-the-beach vibe to Canaveral with its self-professed West Coast-style 'cue, taught to the owner by pitmasters-turned-technicians at the nearby Kennedy Space Center (of course). The tiki-and-surf-gear-filled shack feels like a beach hut but churns out some award-worthy meats smoked over white oak.
With its past as a meatpacking capital and legacy as the endpoint of many a Great Migration, it's no surprise that in recent years, Chicago has seen something of a barbecue boom. It doesn't have the cache of Southern states that draw countless tourists on the basis of barbecue alone, but a few joints in Chicago make worthy competitors from afar.
Where to Get It: At Honky Tonk, diners nibble bacon candy before digging into soft, yeasty pretzel rolls and ribs cooked over a wood-burning fire, all to the tune of live music on its Saloon Stage. Neighborhood joint Smoque BBQ is known for its sliced brisket, St. Louis-style spareribs, and peach cobbler; for maximum cred, it sources its peppery sausages from Taylor, Texas. And on the South Side, under an old-fashioned neon sign, find Lem's, Bruce and Myles Lemons' no-frills barbecue joint. It's the city's oldest and has been serving a slim menu of smoky spareribs and rib tips since the midcentury. A renewed barbecue craze has brought droves of patrons to its drive-in lot, where, without seats, they tuck into their 'cue from their cars.
New England is known for clam chowder and lobster rolls, so in place of a native barbecue style of its own, a spate of expats lends the states some cross-country flavor.
Where to Get It: At Sweet Cheeks, Top Chef's Tiffany Faison dishes out Texas-inspired barbecue with a decidedly Boston spirit. She uses Berkshire pork and local-farm-raised poultry in her seriously smoky dishes that are enjoyed atop tables made from recycled bowling lanes. Northward, in Portland, Maine, Salvage BBQ fuses North Carolina- and Texas-style barbecue, smoked over Maine red oak. Sit at one of the '50s dinette tables and wash down your brisket with an offering from the smart bourbon list. And in Putney, Vermont, among a swath of berry brambles and apple orchards, whitewashed churches and maple sugarhouses, native Southerner Curtis Tuff grills tasty open-pit barbecue on two cut-down 275-gallon oil drums. Find racks of ribs and Southern baked beans topped with melting Vermont cheddar, best enjoyed with a bottle of birch beer.
Among its high-priced sushi bars and high-concept food counters, New York dishes out some seriously good nouveau barbecue.
Where to Get It: In Williamsburg, diners at Fette Sau ("fat pig") chow down on hipster proteins like Berkshire pork belly, house-cured pastrami, and beef cheeks, all dry rubbed in-house (vegetarians can happily nosh on the yummy sides, including half-sour pickles, German potato salad, and Martin's potato rolls). Mable's gets its chops from its owners' Kentucky and Oklahoma heritages, but brunch here is 100 percent Brooklyn, with tender brisket sandwiches, Frito pies, and pickletinis to chase away last night. In Manhattan, Blue Smoke, helmed by Eleven Madison Park's Danny Meyer, puts out a reliably pan-Southern menu of barbecue favorites, including fry bread and a rib sampler.
Its many Michelin-recognized restaurants aren't the only shining stars of California's food scene. We tipped our hats to Santa Maria last year, noting that its rich cattle-ranching history has led to its singular barbecue traditions today: cowboy-style slow cooking on an open fire.
Where to Get It: Spots like The Hitching Post toss quail and lobster tail onto the grill, in addition to the usual array of proteins. But many of the Golden State's best barbecue traditions are adopted from elsewhere. At Bludso's BBQ, Kevin Bludso brings his Lone Star roots to SoCal to much acclaim from L.A.'s tough squadron of food bloggers, who rave about his sauceless, smoky beef brisket. And, like many other eateries along the California coastline, Asian flavors infuse American traditions. At The Hungry Pig, Thai standbys like chicken satay share menu space with pulled-pork sandwiches served with curry potatoes and kimchi, and diners squirt on sambal oelek (a bright-red Indonesian chili sauce with a lot of bite). It's entirely fitting that in a diverse city where so many cultures collide, global flavors and American traditions meld so seamlessly.
So there you have it, readers: a roundup of some of the best spots for barbecue all across the country. Chime in with your favorites below.
--By Dara Continenza