The South’s Top Barbecue Freebies
I’ve been on the road this month for another round of restaurant tours in preparation for the 2019 edition of The South’s Top 50 Barbecue Joints. What particularly caught my eye on my recent trips were the little extras that some joints give away for free along with each meal. It’s a very hospitable and welcome practice, and here are my seven favorites.
#7. Pickles and Onions
Sliced dill pickles and white onions are gratis at many barbecue joints, especially those down in Texas. Some throw pickled jalapenos into the mix, while others roll out entire pickle bars and let customers help themselves. And help themselves they should. The crisp crunch and acidic bite offer a fine counterpoint to rich, smoky barbecue, and unlike heartier side dishes like potato salad or beans, they don’t fill you up a bit.
Bread is another almost universal freebie, though it takes different forms in different places. A thick slice of garlic bread, soaked with melted butter and toasted golden brown, is a staple in Florida’s rib and chicken joints. Cornbread can be found all over, sometimes cut in squares, sometime baked into little muffins, and sometimes in distinctive regional forms. In eastern North Carolina, the batter is baked in long molds to create corn sticks, while further west in the state it’s piped into deep fryers to make hushpuppies.
But by far the simplest is plain white bread—the soft, pre-sliced, store-bought kind. At the barebones barbecue buffets that dot the lower half of South Carolina, operators often place an entire loaf—still in its plastic bag—on each table. On a rib plate at Cozy Corner in Memphis, two slices are propped vertically between the cups of slaw and beans. At the original Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, the waitress brings you a plate of white bread with a cup of warm barbecue sauce before she even takes your order.
Plain white bread does more than just fill you up: it’s perfect for creating an impromptu sandwich or for mopping up every last bit of sauce and scrap of smoked pork. You wouldn’t want to leave that behind, would you?
#5. Burnt Ends
Kansas City is the home of burnt ends, the thin, crisp edges of beef that get trimmed off the brisket, doused in thick sauce, and served atop slices of white bread. They used to be a freebie. In 1972, Calvin Trillin declared that his favorite thing to eat at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque was “something that is given away for free—the burned edges of the brisket. The counterman just pushes them over to the side and anyone who wants them helps themselves.”
Over time, the city’s restaurateurs discovered they could charge a pretty penny for the little delicacies. You’ll pay $15 a pound for burnt ends at Bryant’s today, and I am not aware of any Kansas City joint that still gives them away for free. (If anyone out there knows of one, please send up a smoke signal.) Fortunately, the tradition has been adopted down in Texas, where the meat cutters at Franklin Barbecue in Austin and Louie Mueller in Taylor are known to slip customers a sample slice or two while they are carving the brisket, and John Lewis Barbecue has taken that practice east to Charleston, South Carolina. What better way to whet an appetite?
#4. Deviled Egg at Germantown Commissary
In recent years, gussied up deviled eggs have become a staple on Southern-themed menus. Topped with fancy garnishes like aged country ham or trout roe, they can easily run you eight bucks for a plate of three (and that’s three halves, not three whole eggs.) The deviled eggs are simpler and more reasonably priced at Commissary in Germantown, Tennessee, where one is included free with every barbecue sandwich plate or combination platter, perched, curiously enough, atop the little plastic cup of coleslaw.
#3. Lone Star Beer at Tejas Chocolate
For a South Carolinian like me, waiting in line for even fifteen minutes to order barbecue seems strange and unpleasant. The prospect of a multi-hour wait, which is par for the course in Texas, is downright cruel. But just outside of Houston at Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue in Tomball [link: https://www.tejaschocolate.com/], a cooler of free Lone Star beer helps make the wait seem much shorter. Tejas isn’t alone in this hospitable practice: kegs of free beer have been known to pop up at Killen’s in Houston and La Barbecue in Austin, too.
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#2. Onion Ring at Bessinger’s and Melvin’s
Bessinger’s Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, is best known for its pulled pork dressed in tangy yellow mustard-based sauce, but you can also get a platter with turkey, chicken, ribs, or brisket and a choice of two sides. Whichever route you go, there’s one constant: a free onion ring nestled alongside.
Across the river in Mount Pleasant, Melvin’s Barbecue (founded by another Bessinger brother) offers freebie onion rings, too, but they come with any of the sandwich combos instead of the platters. A Bessinger onion ring isn’t an ordinary onion ring. It’s a two-inch slice coated in a thick, sweet batter than puffs up big and golden brown in the fryer—essentially, a giant vegetable donut. At either restaurant you can order more onion rings as a side dish, but why anyone would need to is beyond me. I can barely manage to finish the free one.
#1. The Beans at Snow’s
Of all the freebies in all the barbecue joints I’ve encountered, none is more satisfying that the beans doled out at Snow’s BBQ.
in Lexington,Texas. You’ll pay $1.50 for a four-ounce cup of potato salad or cole slaw, but the beans await free for all comers in a little steam tray right next to the sliced pickles, onions, and white bread (which are also free, of course.)
They may well be the best tasting barbecue beans in the country. The recipe is a simple as can be—just pinto beans with salt, bacon ends, and chili powder—but the result is tender beans enrobed in a smoky, savory broth with not a trace of unwanted sweetness. And that’s truly priceless.