One thing you quickly discover as you travel around the South eating pulled pork and brisket is how much diversity and variety there is in the region's flourishing barbecue culture. That variety goes far beyond how the meat is cooked or the sauce that it's dressed with. From the signs and slogans that adorn the walls to the beverages served alongside, there's much to celebrate in Southern barbecue.

Here's our first round of the "Best of Southern BBQ" awards recognizing the outstanding people, places, and flavors that make Southern barbecue such a delight.

Best Barbecue in a Bar Freedmen's Bar, Austin TX

Plenty of watering holes have pulled pork sliders on the menu these days, but in too many places the pork arrives fully-cooked in shrink wrapped packages to be reheated in the kitchen. At Freedmen's Bar in downtown Austin, they've got a big barrel smoker right out back, and they use it to turn out mouth-watering brisket, ribs, and house-made sausage. They're serious about their bar offering, too, with a slate of classic cocktails and a wall of over a hundred different whiskeys.


Best Counter Greeting "Hi, May I Help You", Gates Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, MO

First-timers at Gates Bar-B-Q can be a little taken aback by the insistent refrain of "Hi, may I help you?" that greets patrons as they line up to order. (One reviewer aptly termed it "aggressive hospitality.") You might still be a couple of people back from the counter, but that's OK. Just shout out your order over the head of the guest in front of you. The counter-person will relay it back to the kitchen, and a big platter of classic Kansas City-style barbecue will soon be heading your way.


Most Stylish Pigs (Tie) Hill's Lexington Barbecue, Winston-Salem, NC and Leonard's Pit Barbecue, Memphis TN

Countless barbecue joints have signs featuring cartoon pigs doing all sorts un-piglike things, like wearing a straw hat and overalls, plucking a banjo, or twirling a lasso. At Hill's Lexington Barbecue in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Leonard's Pit Barbecue in Memphis the mascots are downright genteel. Each is decked out in a top hat and tails and sports a walking cane for good measure. That's taking the pig uptown.


Best Barbecue-Inspired Beer Hogwash Hickory-Smoked Brown Porter, Fullsteam Brewery, Durham NC

At Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, founder Sean Lilly Wilson and his team created a beer specifically to pair with North Carolina-style barbecue. It's made from a variety of grains including six-row barley that's been smoked over hickory wood on a double-barrel smoker. The result is a crisp brown porter that's slightly sweet with a pleasing dose of rich smokiness. It's a fine accompaniment for a chopped pork sandwich. And that's no hogwash.


Best Regional Break-Out Northern Alabama White Sauce

There was a time when mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce was a regional curiosity found only in northern Alabama. Invented at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, the tangy white concoction has long struck barbecue fans in other parts as downright weird—provided they had heard of it at all. Over time, white sauce made its way southward to Birmingham, where restaurants like Miss Myra's and Saw's added it to their repertoires. Now it's going nationwide. You can slather white sauce on the smoked chicken wings at Home Team BBQ in Charleston, SC, and on the smoked turkey at Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville, TN. You can even get it in Chicago at Sweet Baby Ray's or in New York City at Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue. White sauce's moment to shine has arrived.

Photo by Laurey W. Glenn

A bottle of white sauce at Big Bob Gibson (left) and pulled chicken with white sauce at Saw's.

This is the first installment in our "Best of Southern BBQ" Awards. We'll be announcing another round of winners next week. Got a favorite joint, side dish, or slogan that deserves recognition? Let us know about it!