The South's Top 50 Barbecue Joints 2016
Since signing on as the Southern Living Contributing Barbecue Editor back in 2014, I’ve been traveling the South in search of the best barbecue that the region has to offer. Last summer we published our initial list of the South’s Top 50 Barbecue Joints, and now, with another year’s worth of eating under my belt, it’s time to go back and revisit the selection. | Story by Robert Moss
Compiling the original list was challenging enough; refining it is even harder, for there is so much delicious barbecue to be found in the South. We seem to getting even more of it with each passing month as new restaurants open their doors. And, when you get off the Interstate highways and out onto the lonely two-lane country roads, you find that there are many more superlative barbecue joints operating quietly off the beaten path, far away from the media buzz and publicist hype.
The criteria for making this list include, first and foremost, the flavor of the barbecue itself, but the quality of the overall experience matters, too—the setting, the aroma, the sauces and dishes on the side. We’ve tried to cast as wide a net as possible, selecting the restaurants that best embody the unique barbecue style of their particular region. Ultimately, any such selection is highly personal and subjective, but when I look across the broad array of barbecue restaurants operating in the South today, these are the ones that bubble to the top.
Now, as to the order of the entries. The South’s best barbecue restaurants are so different in style and technique that it’s impossible to declare that any single one is the absolute best—how, after all, could one compare a slice of brisket from Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, Texas, with a chopped pork sandwich at Grady’s in Dudley, North Carolina? For that reason, the entries are presented in alphabetical order. Taken together, they constitute Southern Living’s current picks for the 50 Best Barbecue Joints in the South.
As with any such endeavor, this list can never be final. New players will enter the scene and some older ones may start to lose their game or close their doors altogether. Despite thousands of miles logged on the odometer, there are always new hidden gems out there waiting to be found. Which ones have we missed? We’d love to hear from you.
The chopped shoulder sandwich at A&R Bar-B-Que has the distinctively juicy, smoke-tinged flavor that comes only from a real open pit. The shoulders and ribs are cooked over a blend of oak and hickory charcoal, and the sauce is sweet, tangy, and prickly with spice. Founders Andrew and Rose Pollard and their family have since added two more Memphis locations, but the one on Elvis Presley Boulevard is the original. Finish things off with one of their famous fried peach, apple, or sweet potato pies—they’re made by hand and cooked fresh each day.
A&R Bar-B-Que: 1802 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis, TN; (901) 774-7444; aandrbbq.com
Allen & Son Barbeque
Allen & Son bridges the contentious divide between Eastern and Piedmont styles of North Carolina barbecue. Owner Keith Allen cooks pork shoulders Piedmont-style over hickory coals in closed brick pits, but the white mayo-based slaw and spicy, tomato-free vinegar sauce are pure Eastern in nature. North Carolinians from both camps can agree this, though: the made-from-scratch pies, cobblers, and even the ice cream are the perfect way to finish off the meal.
Allen & Son Barbeque: 6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill, NC, 27516; (919) 942-7576
B’s Cracklin Barbeque
Bryan and Nikki Furman made a quick splash on the Georgia barbecue scene when they opened B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in the fall 2014, only to have their restaurant burn to the ground the following June. But B’s bounced back, and while their location on White Bluff Road is brand new, they still do things the old fashioned way. That means cooking whole heritage-breed hogs over hickory and cherry coals and serving it with tangy mustard-based sauce and savory hash and rice on the side. The coarsely-chopped pork and slow-smoked chicken are both excellent, but best of all are the ribs, which have superb wood-smoke flavor in each perfectly-textured bite. Order some cracklin cornbread to go alongside: round like a thick pancake with fresh corn flavor, it has great chewy bits of cracklins (pork skin) mixed right in.
B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque: 12409 White Bluff Rd., Savannah, GA; (912) 330-692; bscracklinbbq.com
Lexington is the capital of Piedmont-style North Carolina barbecue, and amid the town’s many top-notch restaurants, the Barbecue Center stands out as one of the best. Their pit-cooked pork shoulder comes chopped, coarse chopped, or sliced, and you can order it on a sandwich, in a cardboard tray with red slaw and hushpuppies or rolls, or on a plate with French fries. Be sure to save room for the famous banana split, a towering concoction big enough for an entire family. It’s a nod to the restaurant’s roots, since it opened in 1955 as the Dairy Center before hickory-cooked pork stole the show.
Barbecue Center: 900 N Main St., Lexington, NC; (336) 248-4633
Bar-B-Q Shop Restaurant
Barbecue connoisseurs in Memphis passionately debate whether ribs should be served “wet” or “dry.” At the Bar-B-Q Shop, you don’t have to decide. Just order a slab of half-n-half, and you’ll get one end dressed with sauce, the other with just dry rub. The Bar-B-Q Shop is also the place to sample barbecue spaghetti, an eccentric but classic Memphis side dish. A plate of spaghetti noodles tossed with chopped pork and tangy, reddish-brown sauce, it’s now served all over the city. The Bar-B-Q Shop’s version, though, is perhaps the closest to the original, for Frank and Hazel Vernon learned the secret recipe directly from its inventor, Brady Vincent, when they purchased his restaurant in 1980.
Bar-B-Q Shop Restaurant: 1782 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN 38104; (901) 272-1277; dancingpigs.com
Big Bob Gibson
There’s no better place to sample Alabama-style white sauce than at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, for that’s where it was invented. Gibson started cooking pork shoulders and chicken in his backyard in 1925 and over the years migrated through a succession of ever-larger restaurants. Pitmaster Chris Lilly carries on the family tradition today, cooking pulled pork, St. Louis-cut ribs, beef brisket, and turkey on long brick pits fired with hickory coals. He’s also pulled off a rare feat in the barbecue world: running a famous old-school restaurant while also winning a parade of championship trophies on the competition circuit. But the biggest trophy remains that smooth, smoky barbecued chicken, a splendid stage on which Big Bob Gibson’s legendary white sauce can shine.
Big Bob Gibson: 1715 6th Ave SE (US Highway 31), Decatur, AL; (256) 350-0404; bigbobgibson.com
The pork ribs at Black’s are meaty and smoky, and there’s a big hit of smoke to the sausage rings, too. Perhaps best of all is the salty, fat-rich smoke-blackened crust on the brisket. All the meat is cut fresh off the pit as you order, and you eat it on brown butcher paper on long communal tables in the big dining room accompanied by old country tunes. They still finish the brisket on a brick pit built by Edgar Black back in 1949, keeping this Lockhart institution among the top tier of the central Texas markets.
Black's Barbecue: 215 North Main St., Lockhart, Texas 78644; (512) 398-2712; blacksbbq.com
Cannon’s is pretty far off the beaten path in the Midlands of South Carolina, and they don’t even have a sign in front of the battered white building that houses the restaurant, just the name “Cannon’s” painted in blue over the front door. But this old-school burn-barrel operation is well worth seeking out. They cook pork shoulders and hams, chickens, and ribs over hickory and oak and topping it with a golden mustard-based sauce. They make their hash the old-fashioned way, too, in an iron pot over a wood fire right next to the barbecue pit, and it’s tinged yellow with their signature mustard sauce.
Cannon's Barbecue: 1903 Nursery Rd., Little Mountain, SC 29075; (803) 945-1080
Carolina Bar-B-Que is a bit of a sleeper, my favorite of the many outposts connected with South Carolina’s famous Dukes barbecue family. It was founded back in 1960 and has undergone a number of renovations over the years, but there is still plenty of real smoke rolling out of the pithouse in the back, where they cook shoulders and hams on charcoal fired pits. The tender shreds of pork have plenty of smoky outer bits mixed in, and it’s served with bottles of the orangish-red ‘rust gravy’ sauce—a blend of mustard and ketchup—that’s the signature of the Dukes clan.
Carolina Bar-B-Que: 109 Main St., New Ellenton, SC 29809; (803) 652-2919
Cattleack Barbeque is a small stripmall joint with very limited hours (lunchtime on Thursdays and Fridays only) and brisket as good as anywhere in Texas. You can order that hand-slice beef by the pound along with ribs, sausage, pork, and turkey, or go the simple route with the Toddfather sandwich, which piles sliced brisket, pork, and hot link sausage on a soft warm bun. Cattleack starts selling barbecue at 10:30 and closes their doors when it’s all sold out, which loyal Dallas fans ensure is sometime in the early afternoon.
Cattleack Barbeque: 13628 Gamma Rd., Dallas, TX; (972) 805-0999; cattleackbbq.com
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
You can smell the smoke from the Rendezvous pits clear around the corner on 3rd Street, and if you follow your nose you’ll discover the birthplace of the now-famous Memphis style dry rubbed ribs. Cooked hot and fast over charcoal, they have a chewy roasted pork texture beneath a thick red layer of spices with great pops of pit-charred flavor around the edges. With red-checkered tablecloths and photograph-lined walls, the atmosphere of the basement restaurant is cool, dark, and classic. Start things off with a platter of ham, cheese, and salami and wash it all down with a cold draft beer for an essential Memphis barbecue experience.
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous: 52 S 2nd St., Memphis, TN 38103; (901) 523-2746; hogsfly.com
If you’re driving from San Antonio to Houston, all it takes is a short detour off Interstate 10 to experience the classic pit room at City Market in Luling (population 5,659). You wait in line, pass through the swinging wooden door, and enter the dark, smoke-blackened room, where the countermen cut smoky brisket, juicy hot ring sausage, and pork ribs to order and wrap them in brown butcher paper. The brisket has just the right texture—moist but with still a bit of chew to it—and the hot ring sauce has a perfectly taut bite to the casing and is juicy and flavorful inside. Served up with sliced onions and a half of sleeve of saltine crackers on the side, it’s a splendid example of the central Texas meat market style.
City Market: 633 East Davis St., Luling, TX; (830) 875-9019
There are a few better ways to spend a sunny Houston afternoon than eating brisket and ribs on outdoor picnic tables while big freight trains rumble past across the street. At CorkScrew BBQ, prime-grade brisket, pulled pork, turkey, sausage, and ribs are all slow-smoked over red oak, and they feature a superlative version and East Texas staple, the barbecue baked potato—a massive spud topped with smoked brisket or pork and a mound of cheese, sour cream, and green onions.
CorkScrew BBQ: 26608 Keith St., Spring, TX; (832) 592-1184; corkscrewbbq.com
Couch’s has been serving its distinctive style of east Tennessee barbecue sandwich since 1946. It starts with a hamburger bun filled with pork sliced so thin that it’s almost shaved. Next comes sauce and slaw, then the whole thing is given a squeeze in a sandwich press till the bun is flat and toasty. The sauce inside is brown and sweet, and the bright yellow “hot slaw” is spicy and delicious. The slaw recipe is such a closely guarded secret that the only people allowed in the building when they are making it are the two people who know the formula.
Couch Barbecue: 8307 Old Lee Highway, Ooltewah, TN 37363; (423) 238-4801; couchsbbq.org
In 2007, identical twins Jonathan and Justin Fox brought the barbecue style of their native Texas to the capital city of Georgia, and Atlantans have been lining up for it ever since. The juicy brisket and meaty ribs are solid classics, but the Foxes’ broad menu has plenty of edgier novelties, too, like the Tomminator—tater tots loaded down with Brunswick stew—and chicken-fried ribs served with Alabama white sauce.
Fox Bros: 1238 DeKalb Avenue Northeast, Atlanta, GA; (404) 577-4030; foxbrosbbq.com
In just a few short years, Aaron Franklin rocketed from operating a small barbecue trailer to full-on celebrity chef status, including publishing a best-selling cookbook and winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2015, an unprecedented honor for a barbecue pitmaster. People now line up for hours at Franklin Barbecue because it’s the trendy thing to do, but there’s a reason that big line got started in the first place. Franklin and his crew consistently deliver flawless brisket, smoky pork ribs, and rich, meaty sausage with just the right snap to the casing, and they turn the whole process of waiting, ordering, and eating into an engaging community experience.
Franklin Barbecue: 900 East 11th St., Austin, TX 78702; (512) 653-1187; franklinbarbecue.com
Fresh Air Barbecue
Founded in 1929, Fresh Air is the quintessential Georgia barbecue joint. As soon as you step inside the spartan dining room you smell the tempting aroma of oak and hickory smoke. It comes from the big L-shaped brick pit in the center of the kitchen, where the Caston family cooks uncured hams all night long, 365 days per year. The compact menu offers finely-chopped pork on a sandwich or by the pound, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, and potato chips. The tangy red sauce is thin and quite spicy, and the stew—fine shreds of beef and corn kernels enrobed in a thick tomato-laced broth—is an iconic version of this classic Georgia dish.
Fresh Air Barbecue: 1164 Highway 42 South, Jackson, GA; freshairbarbecue.com
Ollie Gates took the original barbecue restaurant founded in 1946 by his parents, George and Arzelia, and grew it into a small barbecue empire. Its six locations are memorable examples of the Kansas City-style joint—the cashiers’ insistent refrain of “Hi, may I help you?”, platters full of ribs and chicken coated in tangy brown sauce, pitchers of cold draft beer to wash it down. For a classic Kansas City treat, try some burnt ends—the crisp, smoky trimmings from the tips of the brisket—generously mopped with Gates’s signature sauce.
Gates Bar-B-Q: 3205 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64110; (816) 753-0828; gatesbbq.com
Grady’s Barbecue occupies a modest white-painted building in the narrow fork where Sleepy Creek and Arrington Bridge Roads meet out in rural Wayne County, North Carolina. A huge pile of split oak and hickory logs sits under a tin-roofed shed behind Stephen Grady’s pit room, where he cooks whole hogs and chickens overnight on open brick pits. His wife, Geri, makes all the sides from scratch, including cabbage, collards, and black-eyed peas. A tender, smoky chopped pork sandwich with coleslaw is the way to go—and don’t forget to order a slice of Geri’s fresh-baked sweet potato pie.
Grady's Barbecue: 3096 Arrington Bridge Rd., Dudley, NC 28333; (919) 735-7243
Helen's Bar BQ
Pull into Helen’s Bar BQ in the middle of the afternoon and you’re likely to see big tongues of flame dancing inside the screened-in pit room, where oak and hickory logs are burned down to embers and spread beneath the meat on an open pit. Helen Turner runs the show at this barebones operation, handling everything from shoveling coals and mixing slaw to chatting up customers at the order window. She pulls pork straight off the shoulder and chops it to order, piling it high on a bun and dousing it with a fiery red sauce to create a magnificently juicy, smoky sandwich. The thick, smoke-kissed ribs are top-notch, too.
Helen's Bar BQ: 1016 N Washington Ave., Brownsville, TN 38012; (731) 779-3255
Since 1991, Henry’s Smokehouse has been keeping the Upstate of South Carolina supplied with top notch pulled pork, ribs, and chicken. They cook Boston butts over hickory coals in a big metal-doored pit then pull it by hand into long shreds. Tender, juicy, and quite smoky, it’s perfect when piled on a sandwich. Henry’s hand-cut French fries may well the best fries in any Southern barbecue joint, too.
Henry's Smokehouse: 240 Wade Hampton Blvd., Greenville, SC 29607; (864) 232-7774
More meat market than restaurant, Hite’s in West Columbia is a take-out, weekend-only operation. Each day, Jerry Hite and his son, David, burn two cords of oak and hickory wood in the pit room behind the main building, and you can taste that wood in every smoky bite of chopped pork and ribs. Load up on the mustard sauce and grab a bag of skins if they have any left (they go fast). They’re crisp and intensely smoky from hours on the pit.
Hite’s Bar-B-Que: 240 Dreher Rd., West Columbia, SC 29169; (803) 794-4120; hitesbbq.com
Home Team BBQ
Of the many “nouveau ‘cue” joints that opened their doors in recent years, Charleston’s Home Team BBQ is among the top of the class. Owner and pitmaster Aaron Siegel traded a career as a classically-trained chef for the lure of the pits, and he and his team blend traditional barbecue with plenty of fine dining twists. Cooked on red oak-fired Lang and Oyler pits, the fare takes stylistic cues from all over the South—tender pulled pork with red Georgia-style sauce, a Texas-style salt-and-pepper brisket, smoky chicken wings with Alabama white sauce. Home Team’s recently opened a third location on the Charleston peninsula that is the biggest yet, and it packs them in from lunch till closing time.
Home Team BBQ: 126 Williman St., Charleston, SC; (843) 225-7427; hometeambbq.com
Jackie Hite's Bar-B-Que
Jackie Hite’s is a perfect place to sample Midlands South Carolina-style hash and rice: pork stewed slowly in a giant iron pot, pulled by hand into long strands, then simmered with plenty of mustard until it dissolves into a succulent, gravy-like concoction. The all-you-can eat buffet features barbecue hand-pulled from whole hogs cooked over hickory on cinderblock pits, and it’s served with a tangy version of the Midlands’ distinctive yellow mustard sauce.
Jackie Hite's: 460 East Railroad Ave., Leesville, SC 29070; (803) 532-3354
Jenkins Quality Barbecue
At Jenkins Quality Barbecue, the hot mustard sauce has been tingling tongues since 1957. Three outposts of this small family-run chain now serve Jackonsville’s barbecue fans. Half-chickens and slabs of ribs are smothered in that bright yellow sauce and served over slices of white bread, and sliced or chopped pork is tucked inside seeded buns and wrapped in butcher paper. It’s all cooked over oak wood on a big open brick pit.
Jenkins Quality Barbecue: 830 N Pearl St., Jacksonville, FL, (904) 353-6388; jenkinsqualitybarbecue.com
Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q
Jim Neely founded this Memphis institution back in 1978, and it quickly became famous for its ribs and big chopped pork sandwiches topped with its distinctively tangy, ruddy orange sauce. Don’t forget to sample a little barbecue spaghetti alongside.
Jim Neely's Interstate BBQ: 2265 S 3rd St., Memphis, TN 38109; (901) 775-2304; interstatebarbecue.com
Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Until just recently this Kansas City institution bore the decidedly non-Kansas City name of Oklahoma Joe’s, but they’ve been serving an admirable version of the local style since they first opened their doors inside a modest gas station in the mid-1990s. That means hickory-smoked ribs, brisket, pulled pork, and turkey along with beans, slaw, and fries. If you happen to stop in when they’re serving burnt ends (the crispy ends trimmed off the briskets), be sure to snatch them up: they’re my favorite version of this unique Kansas City delicacy.
Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que: 3002 West 47th Ave., Kansas City, Kansas 66103; (913) 722-3366; joeskc.com
“No beans, no slaw!” say the t-shirts worn by the staff at Knoth's, a firm declaration of the restaurant’s minimalist style. The slim menu includes burgers, dogs, and beef brisket, but chopped pork is the main draw. Whole fresh shoulders cook for twelve hours straight in Knoth’s cinder block pits, which are fired by hickory slabs burned down to coals. The chopped meat is served on a bun or a plate with a unique sweet and tangy vinegar-based sauce, and it’s got a great juicy texture and rich smoky flavor. Knoth’s is located just below Barkley Dam in the heart of the Kentucky Lake Region, and they close down for the slow season each winter. The rest of the year they delight vacationers and locals alike with their top-notch barbecue, as they’ve been doing for a full half-century.
Knoth's Bar-B-Que: 728 U.S. 62, Grand Rivers, KY; (270) 362-8580
There’s no barbecue sauce at Kreuz Market, and no forks, either, but you won’t need them, for at Kreuz you eat the rich, smoky beef and sausage straight out of brown butcher paper with your fingers. An iconic central Texas meat market, Kreuz serves wonderful thin-sliced brisket and smoked sausage, and equally notable is the shoulder clod—a cut dating back to the old days when butchers carved up whole forequarters of beef and transformed the less desired cuts into something marvelous through the magic of smoke and time.
Kreuz Market: 619 North Colorado St., Lockhart, TX 78644; (512) 398-2361; kreuzmarket.com
In 2012, John Lewis, who apprenticed with Aaron Franklin at Franklin Barbecue, teamed up with LeAnn Mueller, granddaughter of legendary pitmaster Louie Mueller of Taylor, Texas, to open La Barbecue, which quickly became one of the top destinations in the crowded Austin barbecue scene. Fans line up for hours to get their hands on prime brisket, beef ribs, and sausage, which is slow-smoked on massive custom-built offset smokers fashioned from old propane tanks. After toying with moving into a brick-and-mortar location, La Barbecue recently shifted its trailers a few blocks down the street to the Aztec Food Park, maintaining its unique al fresco, communal picnic table vibe.
La Barbecue: 1906 E Cesar Chavez, Austin, TX 78702; (512) 605-9696; labarbecue.com
If you eat at enough barbecue joints in and around Lexington, you’ll come to love the sight of big red brick chimneys like the ones that rise above the pit room behind Lexington Barbecue. Since 1962, Wayne Monk has been a master of the town’s signature style, cooking pork shoulders directly over glowing oak coals inside enclosed brick pits. The meat is chopped and dressed at serving time in the classic Piedmont vinegar-and-ketchup sauce. Try it on a sandwich or in a tray with red slaw, and you’ll experience the unmistakably delicious flavor of Lexington-style wood-cooked barbecue.
Lexington Barbecue: 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, NC 27295; (336) 249-9814; lexbbq.com
Louie Mueller Barbecue
A screen door, old wooden floors, post oak smoke hanging thick in the air: Louie Mueller has just about everything you could want in a central Texas barbecue joint. Now operated by Louie’s grandson Wayne, it’s famous for the succulence of the brisket, which is made from lushly marbled prime-grade beef, and the luxurious excess of the beef ribs—massive slabs of silky, smoky beef with built-in bone handles. All the meats are pulled from the warming pit and sliced to order, and in a fine touch of Texas hospitality, each customer gets a sample of tender brisket to tie them over till their big tray arrives.
Louie Mueller Barbecue: 206 W 2nd St., Taylor, TX 76574; (512) 352-6206; louiemuellerbarbecue.com
Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
Pat Martin is devoted to the old west Tennessee style of all-wood whole-hog cooking, and his pork is among the best I’ve ever tasted. A big brick pit anchors the Nolensville restaurant, located front and center on the outdoor patio. The sides are made from scratch, and the barbecue is cooked fresh each day. Order a big pulled pork sandwich, and be sure to have it topped with coleslaw the proper Tennessee way. One bite of that succulent, juicy pulled pork is all it takes to understand why Martin sticks to his traditionalist principles.
Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint: 7238 Nolensville Rd., Nolensville, TN 37315; (615) 766-1856; martinsbbqjoint.com
The all-you-can-eat barbecue buffets is a fixture of the Midlands and Pee Dee regions of South Carolina, and none can match the consistent high-quality of McCabe’s in Manning. Everything on the small steamtable—the pulled pork steeped in peppery vinegar sauce, the fried chicken, the sweet potatoes, greens, hushpuppies, and coleslaw—is top-notch. Like many South Carolina joints, McCabe’s is only open Thursdays through Saturdays, but that’s plenty of time to enjoy an excellent barbecue lunch.
McCabe's Bar-B-Que: 480 N Brooks St., Manning, SC 29102; (803) 435-2833
Micklethwait Craft Meats
Micklethwait Craft Meats distills the vibrant, bohemian vibe of the Austin barbecue scene. It’s housed in an old tan camper that’s been converted into a take-out barbecue stand, and the menu offers Texas mainstays like brisket, sausage, and ribs along with novelties like pulled goat and strip loin of beef. Pitmaster Tom Micklethwait gave up a career as a baker in favor of the barbecue pit, and it shows through in the fresh-baked white bread that is served alongside the splendid slow-smoked meats.
Micklethwait Craft Meats: 1309 Rosewood Ave., Austin, TX 78702; (512) 791-5961; craftmeatsaustin.com
Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q
Miss Myra’s flew under the radar for a long while, but recently it’s started to get noticed by more and more barbecue lovers outside of Alabama. An array of meats are slow-cooked on custom-built brick pits, including pork, ribs, beef, and sausage. The real prize, though, is Miss Myra’s chicken. Eminently smoky beneath pit-blackened skin, it’s complemented by a thin, tangy white sauce laced with black pepper. The sides—slow simmered greens, mac and cheese, baked beans, potato salad, deviled eggs—are all delicious, and the sweet, gooey banana pudding is the perfect capper for a classic Alabama barbecue meal.
Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q: 3278 Cahaba Heights Rd., Vestavia Hills, AL 35243; (205) 967-6004
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
Moonlight is easily the most famous restaurant in all of Kentucky, and for good reason. Its pits turn out an incredible volume of Owensboro’s signature dish—hickory-smoked mutton—plus smoked beef, pork, and chicken, all of which are served from two long buffets brimming with mac n’ cheese, stewed apples, sweet corn muffins, and much more. The pulled mutton is tender and flavorful, but for me the peppery burgoo—tangy and soothing with a rich mutton bite and peppery finish—is the real star of the show.
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn: 2830 West Parrish Ave., Owensboro, KY 42301; (270) 684-8143; moonlite.com
Old Brick Pit Barbeque
Atlanta is awash in imported barbecue styles, but you can still find traditional Georgia fare inside the I-285 Perimeter at Old Brick Pit Barbeque. Since 1976, they’ve been cooking hams, ribs, and chicken in the hickory-fired pit that gives this restaurant its name. The juicy chopped pork is dressed with a peppery tomato-and-vinegar sauce, and the tangy, smoky ribs have a spot-on tender but chewy texture. Try a combo plate with creamy white coleslaw and plain white bread wrapped in waxed paper, and be sure to sample the Brunswick stew. Thick, rich, and dotted with kernels of shoepeg corn, it’s a standout version of a Georgia classic.
Old Brick Pit Barbeque: 4805 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta, GA; (770) 986-7727
Old Hickory Barbecue
Old Hickory is a big family-style restaurant with two huge dining rooms, and since 1918 the Foreman family has been slow-cooking Owensboro’s signature mutton barbecue—both sliced mutton and ribs—along with pork, chicken, beef and turkey. Start with a bowl of the tangy burgoo—Kentucky’s signature barbecue stew—and finish it off with a heaping platter of smoked mutton dressed with thin Worcestershire-laced “dip”, sliced rye bread, and pickles and onions. It’s Kentucky barbecue at it’s best.
Old Hickory Barbecue: 338 Washington Ave., Owensboro, KY 42301; (270) 926-9000
Peg Leg Porker
Of all the new barbecue joints that have opened in and around Nashville in recent years, Peg Leg Porker stands out at the head of the class. Though raised in Nashville, Carey Bringle fell in love with Memphis-style barbecue and, after honing his skills on the competitive circuit, he finally opened a restaurant in The Gulch neighborhood downtown. Bringle’s dry rubbed ribs and pulled pork are the house specialties, but the tender, juicy chicken—rubbed with the same secret blend as the ribs—is well worth notice, too. And, Peg Leg Porker’s is the only barbecue joint I know that stocks its own private labeled brand of bourbon.
Peg Leg Porker: 903 Gleaves St., Nashville, TN 37203; (615) 829-6023; peglegporker.com
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
The decor at Red Bridge’s Barbecue Lodge isn’t retro by design. It just hasn’t changed much since the restaurant was built in 1953. Beautiful inlaid-wood ceilings and turquoise-backed booths set a stylish stage for a sliced pork tray with red slaw and hushpuppies. Even better is the chopped pork sandwich with plenty of “outside brown” (the smoky, outer bits of the shoulder) on a warm bun toasted in a sandwich press. Wash it all down with a glass of sweet tea, and you’ve experienced classic Piedmont North Carolina-style barbecue.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge: 200 E. Dixon Blvd., Shelby, NC 28152; (704) 482-8567; bridgesbbq.com
The Ridgewood Barbecue
The Ridgewood has a style all its own, from tiny brown bean pots to hefty bowls of tangy blue cheese dressing served with saltines. The main attraction is a platter of thin-sliced pork mounded high with thick, delicious hand-cut fries. That pork is from hams, not shoulders, and it’s cooked over all hickory wood. Nestled along the side of a narrow highway just south of Bluff City, Tennessee, the Ridgewood is a true mountain classic.
The Ridgewood Barbecue: 900 Elizabethton Hwy, Bluff City, TN 37618; (423) 538-7543
Few west Tennessee barbecue joints can be described as fancy, but Sam’s Bar-B-Q (a.k.a. See’s or Sam See’s) is even more unassuming than most—white cinderblock walls outside, bare concrete floor and open rafters in the spartan dining room. But you don’t go to Sam’s for the atmosphere nor for a broad slate of sides (potato chips and canned sodas are the only options). What you go for are whole and half chickens, slabs of pork ribs, and—best of all—a sandwich piled high with tender, juicy shreds of pork infused with subtle wood smoke.
Sam's Barbecue: 500 W Main St., Humboldt, TN 38343; (731) 784-9850
At his family’s country store outside Hemingway, Rodney Scott cooks classic Pee Dee-style whole hog barbecue. He reduces white oak and pecan to embers in a giant burn barrel and uses them to fire open cinder block pits, where the whole pig roast slowly, skin-side-up, for 12 hours before being flipped and mopped with a pepper-laced vinegar sauce. Pulled into long shreds, the tender, smoky pork is so spicy it will leave your lips tingling. Be sure to grab a bag of crisp “off-the-hog” skins to go with it.
Scott's Bar-B-Que: 2734 Hemingway Hwy., Hemingway, SC 29554; (843) 558-0134; thescottsbbq.com
Scott’s-Parker’s is one of the few remaining west Tennessee barbecue joints that still cook whole hog. Early Scott taught Ricky Parker to do it, and Ricky Scott taught his sons, who run this Lexington legend today. It’s a simple place: you order at counter, choosing from slaw-topped sandwiches or barbecue by the pound, plus chips and canned sodas, and even if you decide to eat in the dining room off to the side, the food still comes packed to go in a white paper sack. The finely-minced pork is super juicy with a rich blanket of wood smoke underneath it, and the thin, bright orange sauce that awaits in squeeze bottles in the dining room is simmering with red pepper. When they come together, you have a barbecue meal fit for a king.
Scott's-Parker's Barbeque: 10880 Highway 412 West, Lexington, TN 38351; (731) 968-0420
The self-proclaimed “barbecue capital of the world” is run by the Jones family, whose minimalist method hasn’t changed since 1947: whole hogs cooked all night in open brick pits fired with shovelfuls of oak coals. The finished meat is seasoned with salt, cider vinegar, and Texas Pete hot sauce on the chopping block, and the skin is chopped right in for a little extra crunch. The only accompaniments are white slaw and a square of cornbread, and that’s all you need.
Skylight Inn: 4618 South Lee St., Ayden, NC 28513; (252) 746-4113; skylightinnbbq.com