The South’s Top 50 Barbecue Joints 2018
The scions of a some of the South’s most notable barbecue families—like Rodney Scott of Scott’s Barbecue in Hemingway, South Carolina, and Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina—took bold leaps and opened impressive new restaurants of their own. A lot of eager young pitmasters have entered the game, too. Many come from backgrounds in fine dining or unrelated trades, and they got started in the flourishing food truck and trailer scene before stepping up to permanent brick-and-mortar establishments. These newcomers are serious about their barbecue. They insist on cooking over all wood, using top quality meats, and relentlessly honing their technique.
Whole hog barbecue, a time-worn but laborious, inefficient tradition that once seemed destined for extinction, has made a remarkable comeback, too. All the while, far from the Interstate highways and social media hype, plenty of outstanding old-school joints have kept plugging right along without the benefit of publicists or Instagram accounts or even credit card machines.
And that means that in 2018 it’s harder than ever to compile a list of the 50 best barbecue restaurants in the South. Many admirable places on the 2016 list didn’t make the cut this time around, and through no fault of their own. The competition just keeps getting stiffer.
As in prior years, the criteria for this list remains, first and foremost, the quality of the food itself. Nothing else matters if the barbecue isn’t delicious. But this isn’t some sterile competition where a single bite is judged blindly from a styrofoam box. The overall dining experience carries a lot of weight, too: the physical setting, the aroma from the pits, the sauces and dishes served alongside. As in past years, we’ve tried to cast as wide a net as possible, seeking out the restaurants that best embody the unique barbecue style of their particular region.
Ultimately, any such selection is highly personal and subjective. This time around we decided to take the doubly risky step of presenting the picks in ranked order, and we made this choice for several reasons.
For starters, in past years many readers failed to notice that the top 50 picks were listed in simple alphabetical order, not finding it curious, I suppose, that the best joints in the South just happened to start with “A”. It also increasingly felt like wimping out to say “here are the best 50” and not declare any one place to be better than another.
As it turns out, trying to rank barbecue restaurants is an onerous and perhaps even foolhardy task. How can you compare, for instance, a tray of slow-smoked brisket and juicy sausage from a central Texas-style meat market with the subtle elegance of a chopped pork tray with red slaw in Lexington, North Carolina? I spent hours copying and pasting, shifting one joint down a few spots, then back up again. It’s safe to say that if two restaurants are ranked within four or five spots of each other on this list, they effectively finished in a tie.
Ultimately, I turned to this question to settle the hard choices: if these two restaurants were located right next door to each other, at which would you choose to eat? The correct answer to that question, of course, is “both,” so I next asked, which one would you eat at first? The answer to that determined the sorting.
Note: This list should not be confused with Southern Living’s Best in the South, which last appeared in March. That selection is voted on by our readers, and it will be coming out again March 2019. You can think of that list as the “readers’ choice” and this one as the “editor’s picks.” Of course, there’s plenty of overlap between the two rankings, for as much as Southerners love to argue about barbecue, the cream tends to rise to the top.
These are our Barbecue Editor's Top 10 Barbecue Joints of 2018
50. Old Brick Pit Barbeque
49. Couch Barbecue
8307 Old Lee Highway, (423) 238-4801
Couch’s flies way under everyone’s radar when it comes to the national scene, but it makes this Top 50 list because of two items unique to its region, which they’ve been serving since 1946. The first is its distinctive barbecue sandwich, with pork sliced so thin that it’s almost shaved then piled on a flat toasted hamburger bun with sweet brown sauce. The second is the bright yellow “hot slaw,” a spicy, delicious concoction found only in a handful of places in eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama. Couch’s recipe is such a closely guarded secret that only the two people who know the formula are allowed in the building when it’s being made. Put that hot slaw on a barbecue sandwich and you’ll have a rare Tennessee treat.
48. Bar-B-Q Shop Restaurant
1782 Madison Avenue, thebar-b-qshop.com
From its stylish neon sign over the door to the punched tin ceiling and well-worn floors inside, the Bar-B-Q Shop is classic Memphis. The city’s barbecue aficionados debate whether ribs should be served “wet” or “dry,” but at the Bar-B-Q Shop you don’t have to decide. Just order a slab of half-n-half: one end is slathered with tangy, orangish brown sauce while the other has just a thick coating of spice. The Bar-B-Q Shop is also the best place to sample barbecue spaghetti, Memphis eccentric but classic side dish. It’s a plate of thick noodles tossed with a tangy, reddish-brown sauce and brimming with pork. Though you can now find it all over the city, the Bar-B-Q Shop’s version is perhaps the closest to the original, for owners Frank and Hazel Vernon learned the secret recipe directly from its inventor, Brady Vincent, when they purchased his restaurant in 1980.
47. Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Kansas City, KS
3002 West 47th Avenue, joeskc.com
This Kansas City favorite was launched under the name Oklahoma Joe’s in the back corner of a Shamrock gas station. Along the way, it switched to a locally-rooted name and opened two outposts in more traditional restaurant settings, but the original gas station spot is the still the big draw. These days it’s more accurate to call Joe’s a barbecue joint with gas pumps out front, for the people waiting in the long line snaking out the front door are about to fuel themselves with hickory-smoked ribs, brisket, pulled pork, and turkey. The tangy and sweet sauce-glazed ribs and thin-sliced brisket are the go-to order, and be sure to get a cup of BBQ beans on the side. Studded with shreds of meat in a savory brown sauce, they’re absolutely delicious.
46. Big T Bar-B-Q
2520 Congaree Road, bigtbbq.com
The are two satellite Big T locations in the suburbs of Columbia, but it's worth a trip out to Gadsden to check out "the mothership." That’s where Larry “Big T” Brown cooks the barbecue and hash for all three restaurants. This is old school South Carolina-style barbecue, with logs reduced to coals in a warped metal burn box and carried by shovel into the pit room, where they are scattered beneath the pork shoulders cooking on open metal pits. They make their hash the old school way, too, with liver adding wonderful dark, earthy notes to the thick, savory stew. In addition to the splendid mustard-based barbecue, there's a full slate of soul food options like fried pork chops and fried whiting, and a slate of delicious sides, too.
45. Peg Leg Porker
903 Gleaves St., peglegporker.com
In 2013 Carey Bringle opened Peg Leg Porker in The Gulch in Nashville, and the establishment has grown along with the neighborhood into a flourishing barbecue destination. Though raised in Nashville, Bringle fell in love with Memphis-style barbecue, and he honed his skills on the competitive circuit before doubling down and opening the kind of restaurant that he would want to patronize himself. Dry rubbed ribs and pulled pork are the specialties of the house, but the Yardbird—tender, juicy smoked chicken rubbed with the same secret blend as the ribs—is well worth notice, too. The side dishes—shells and cheese enrobed in a creamy sauce, smoked green beans studded with onion and pork—are all top notch. Recent renovations added a second floor with event space and a roof-top bar stocked with the restaurant’s own private-labeled Peg Leg Porker bourbon.
44. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
2830 West Parrish Ave., moonlite.com
Barbecued mutton is a delicacy found in only a few counties in northwest Kentucky, and no one serves more of it than Moonlite Inn in Owensboro. It's a big-time operation, cooking that famous mutton (for the record, that’s sheep at least one year old) along with beef, pork, and chicken on custom-designed metal smokers, which are in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sprawling dinings rooms seat some 350 hungry Kentuckians at a time, and that signature smoked mutton, which is pulled into long, tender strands with a subtle but delicious savory bite, is served from two long buffets brimming with mac n’ cheese, stewed apples, sweet corn muffins, and plenty more. Be sure to order a bowl of peppery burgoo. Tangy and filling with a rich mutton bite and peppery finish, it’s a star shining amid the moonlight.
43. The Ridgewood Barbecue
42. Gates Bar-B-Q
Kansas City, MO
3205 Main St., gatesbbq.com
George and Arzelia Gates opened their first restaurant in 1946, and their son Ollie grew Gates Bar-B-Q into a local barbecue empire, with a half dozen locations now dotting the city. At any of the six, you’ll be greeted by the cashiers’ insistent refrain of “Hi, may I help you?,” which means it’s time to shout out your order. Get a mixed plate of ribs, beef, and ham slathered in the city’s signature tangy brown sauce. (That’s right, ham. In Kansas City, they’ll put just about anything on a barbecue pit). Washed down by cold draft beer from a pitcher, it’s an iconic example of Kansas City’s signature barbecue style.
41. Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q
Vestavia Hills, AL
3278 Cahaba Heights Rd., missmyras.com
Miss Myra’s is an Alabama gem, featuring an array of meats—pork, beef, ribs—slow-cooked on custom-built pits with tall brick chimneys that rise above the small restaurant. At most barbecue joints, chicken is a bit player, but at Miss Myra’s it’s the star of the show. Enrobed in a mahogany jacket of smoke-bathed skin, the dark meat underneath is tender and juicy, and it’s complemented perfectly by a generous drizzle of thin, tangy white sauce. The sides—slow simmered greens, mac and cheese, potato salad, deviled eggs—are all delicious, and the sweet, gooey banana pudding is the perfect capper for a classic Alabama barbecue meal.
40. Jenkins Quality Barbecue
830 N Pearl St, jenkinsqualitybarbecue.com
Melton and Willie Mae Jenkins open their first barbecue restaurant in 1957, and their unique mustard-based sauce has been keeping Jacksonville’s tongues tingling ever since. There are now three outposts of this small family-run chain, and at all three they cook half-chickens and big slabs of ribs on oak-fired open brick pits. The finished meat is served over slices of white bread and smothered in that bright yellow mustard sauce. If you’re feeling brave, opt for the hot version of the sauce: it’ll put sweat on your brown and tears in your eyes, but, man, is it delicious.
39. Jackie Hite's
460 East Railroad Ave., (803) 532-3354
Jackie Hite, one of the legends of South Carolina barbecue, passed away in 2016, but his family has kept his restaurant right on going. The all-you-can eat buffet features whole-hog barbecue cooked over hickory coals on old-fashioned cinder block pits. The meat is hand-pulled into long strands and served with a tangy version of the Midlands’s unique yellow mustard sauce. Equally impressive is the family’s version of hash and rice, the region’s traditional barbecue side. It’s made the old school way, with cuts of pork stewed for hours 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.
38. City Market
633 East Davis Street, (830) 875-9019
At City Market in Luling, when you pass through the swinging wooden door into the dark, smoke-blackened pit room, you’re taking a step back into barbecue’s past. Inside, the countermen slice smoky brisket, juicy hot sausage rings, and pork ribs to order, wrapping them in brown butcher paper the same way they have since the place opened in 1958. The brisket is moist but still has a bit of chew to it, and the hot ring sausage has a perfectly taut bite to the casing and is juicy and flavorful inside. Served with with sliced onions and a half of sleeve of saltine crackers on the side, it’s an iconic example of the central Texas meat market style.
37. Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q
1238 DeKalb Avenue Northeast, foxbrosbbq.com
For more than a decade, Fox Brothers has been Atlanta’s barbecue hot spot. Juicy brisket and meaty ribs are the foundation of the menu, reflecting the Texas roots of owners Jonathan and Justin Fox, but there are plenty of other tempting options. The hickory-smoked chicken wings shouldn’t be missed, and you can get foxy with creative combinations that span the South’s regional barbecue styles. “Texas fries” are loaded up with chopped brisket, the chicken-fried ribs are served with Alabama white sauce, and the Tomminator is a platter of tater tots smothered with a layer of Brunswick stew and a blanket of melted cheese. No one leaves Fox Bros. hungry.
36. Home Team BBQ
126 Williman St, hometeambbq.com
In 2006, Aaron Siegel traded a career as a classically-trained chef for the smoke of the barbecue pit, and he has since built Home Team into an nascent barbecue empire, with three locations in the Charleston area and one way out in Aspen, Colorado. These days, lots of ambitious “nouveau ‘cue” joints blend traditional barbecue techniques with fine dining flourishes, but Home Team pulls it off better than most. They cook on Lang and Oyler pits fired with red oak, taking 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. From pit-cooked prime rib to ramen with smoked shrimp, Executive Chef Taylor Garrigan turns out a steady stream of inventive specials, too. Located in the heart of the Charleston peninsula with a large dining room and lots of outdoor tables, the Williman Street location is the ideal place to sample Home Team’s modern barbecue style.
35. Micklethwait Craft Meats
1309 Rosewood Ave., craftmeatsaustin.com
In a shady, semi-permanent encampment just east of downtown Austin, pitmaster Tom Micklethwait’s big offset smokers occupy an improvised pit room built atop an old flatbed trailer. Parked alongside is an tan camper that’s been converted into a take-out barbecue stand. This is Micklethwait Craft Meats, a splendid distillation of the vibrant, bohemian vibe that drives Austin’s barbecue scene.The menu blends tradition with novelty, and Texas mainstays like brisket, sausage, and ribs appear alongside like pulled lamb and strip loin of beef. It’s all accompanied by a delightful sides like jalapeno cheese grits and campfire chili beans with slices of fresh-baked homemade bread on the side.
34. Big Bob Gibson
1715 6th Ave SE (US Highway 31), bigbobgibson.com
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is the home of one of Alabama’s lasting contributions to the South’s rich barbecue heritage: white mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce. It was invented by Big Bob himself, who started cooking pork shoulders and chicken in his backyard in 1925. Over the years the operation grew through a succession of ever-larger restaurants. Almost a century later, pitmaster Chris Lilly, who married Big Bob’s great-granddaughter, carries on the family tradition, cooking pulled pork, St. Louis-cut ribs, beef brisket, and turkey on long brick pits fired with hickory coals. On the side, Lilly has published two books of recipes and won a parade of championship trophies on the competition circuit. The biggest winner, though, is that smooth, smoky barbecued chicken, a splendid stage on which Big Bob Gibson’s legendary white sauce can shine.
33. Bar-B-Q Center
900 N Main St., bbqcenter.net
Lexington, the epicenter of the Piedmont North Carolina style, is so barbecue-dense that you can eat at one Top 50 joint and drive just five minutes and eat at another. Among the town’s many contenders, Bar-B-Q Center stands near the top of the pack. 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. The restaurant offers an outstanding example the region’s signature “red slaw” (a.k.a. “barbecue slaw”)—finely chopped cabbage dressed with the same combination of vinegar and tomato that defines the barbecue sauce. Save a little 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.
32. LC’s Bar-B-Que
Kansas City, MO
5800 Blue Parkway, lcsbarbq.com
If you find yourself anywhere near Kansas City, Missouri, you owe it to yourself to stop off at LC’s for an order of burnt ends. Drenched in sauce and with chewy with a delightful salty, smoky bark on the outside, they’re hands down the best in town. Follow those up with a combo sandwich: tender beef and slightly salty ham piled between two slices of white bread. With each bite, the soft bread, smoky meat, and tangy sauce meld together into a delightful whole. LC’s is a small place with just a handful of tables crammed into the small dining area, but the big warming pit behind the counter, with tall metal doors blackened from years of smoke and grease, holds plenty of barbecue treasures.
31. Cannon's Barbecue
Little Mountain, SC
1903 Nursery Rd., (803) 945-1080
Cannon’s is pretty far off the beaten path in a little white building outside Little Mountain, South Carolina, about 30 miles west of Columbia, but it serves some of the best Midlands-style barbecue in the state. Open just three days a week (Thursday through Saturday,) they cook pork shoulders and hams, chickens, and ribs over hickory and oak coals on a big metal pit out behind the restaurant. The finely-chopped pork is pre-sauced with a golden yellow version region’s signature mustard-based sauce, and it’s tender and rich with a subtle touch of hickory smoke. Cannon’s hash is worthy of attention, too. It’s cooked the old-fashioned way in an iron pot over a wood fire right next to the barbecue pit, then finished with a generous dose of Cannon’s mustard sauce. The result is a thick yellow gravy flecked through with a generous dose of black pepper. Light and sweet but still quite filling, its savory juices merge perfectly with the plain white rice over which it’s served—a superior version of South Carolina’s distinctive barbecue side dish.
30. Corkscrew BBQ
26608 Keith St, corkscrewbbq.com
There is no shortage of places in Texas where you can line up to order fresh-sliced barbecue by the pound, but Corkscrew stands out from most because of the quality of its meats as well as its comfortable setting. Just north of Houston in Spring, you can enjoy a big platter of brisket and ribs at a picnic table out in the big grassy yard while freight trains rumble slowly past across the street. The brisket is prime grade, and it’s slow-smoked over red oak, as are the pork, turkey, sausage and ribs. The barbecue needs no further accompaniment than the complimentary tray of sliced onions, pickles, and jalapenos, but it wouldn’t hurt to sample the creamy mac-and-cheese and smoky BBQ beans while you’re at it.
29. B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque
Savannah and Atlanta, GA
12409 White Bluff Rd and 2061 Main St NW, bscracklinbbq.com
Ribs, the brisket, and cracklin’ cornbread are the stars at what may well be a fledgling Georgia barbecue empire. Bryan and Nikki Furman got off to a roller coaster start in 2014, earning early raves for their restaurant in Savannah only to see it destroyed by fire less than a year after opening. But they bounced back, moving into new digs on White Bluff Road and then launching a second outpost in Atlanta in 2016. Both locations serve traditional wood-cooked barbecue with few distinctive twists. Brian Furman cooks his heritage-breed hogs on metal offset pits, and—in a nod to his South Carolina roots—serves the meat with a tangy mustard-based sauce laced with peaches. The thick-sliced brisket has an impressive bark and a firm but juicy texture, while the standout ribs have a splendidly rich, smoky flavor that lingers after each bite. No visit would be complete without some crackling cornbread, which is cooked pancake-style on a griddle so that it’s crisp and golden brown on the outside with fresh corn flavor and chewy bits of pork skin inside.
2206 W. Gate City Blvd, stameys.com
Legendary barbecue mentor Warner Stamey taught the Lexington style to countless Piedmont cooks, and that means cooking pork shoulders on closed brick pits fired by all-hickory coals. His grandson Chip Stamey carries on the family tradition at this Greensboro institution, where they cook it slow but chop and serve it lightning fast thanks to a streamlined menu and a well-oiled operation. There’s no find ribs, chicken, or Brunswick stew here, just pork served chopped or sliced on plates and sandwiches with fries and baked beans for sides. But you can—and should—top off your meal with Stamey’s famous peach cobbler.
27. Hite’s Bar-B-Que
West Columbia, SC
240 Dreher Rd., hitesbbq.com
More meat market than restaurant, Hite’s in West Columbia is a take-out operation that’s open only on Fridays and Saturdays. 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.
26. A&R Bar-B-Que
1802 Elvis Presley Blvd., aandrbbq.com
A&R Barbecue serves the best barbecue sandwich in Memphis. It’s starts with chopped pork shoulder cooked on a pit fired with hickory briquettes. That juicy, smoke-tinged meat is piled on a toasted bun along with creamy coleslaw and a sweet, tangy sauce prickling with spice— a superlative example of the city’s signature barbecue style. Founders Andrew and Rose Pollard and their family have since added two more Memphis locations, but the low brick building on Elvis Presley Boulevard is the original. Try the rib tips, too, and—if you have room—one of A&R’s famous fried peach, apple, or sweet potato pies. They’re made by hand and cooked fresh each day.
25. Old Hickory Barbecue
338 Washington Ave., (270) 926-9000
Mutton is one of those things that you either have a taste for or you don’t. And if you do—or, at least, if you suspect you might—make your way straight to Old Hickory in downtown Owensboro. They serve the best barbecued mutton in all of Kentucky and therefore in all of the world. It’s a large family-style restaurant with two spacious dining rooms, and the Foreman family has been slow-cooking Owensboro’s signature style of mutton barbecue (along with pork, chicken, beef and turkey) since 1918. Start off with a bowl of bright, tangy burgoo—Kentucky’s signature barbecue stew—then tuck into a combination platter of pork and mutton. The thick-sliced pork has a splendid smoky bark around the edges, while the long, tender strands of smoked mutton, after good soaking in the thin Worcestershire-laced “dip”—is chewy, smoky, and sublimely delicious.
24. Buxton Hall Barbecue
32 Banks Ave, buxtonhall.com
Buxton Hall embodies the recent trend fine dining chefs turning to the barbecue pit, embracing and celebrating the old traditions of their regions but not feeling bound by them. Housed in a 1930s-era building that was once a roller skating club, the dining room still has the original maple floorboards from the rink. Most all-wood joints keep their fires in a pit house out back, but Elliott Moss, Buxton Hall’s co-owner and pitmaster, put his metal-lidded pits right behind the counter in the open kitchen. A blazing fire constantly renders oak down to coals, which Moss and team shovel under whole hogs as they cook. Moss’s “chef-driven, grandma-inspired” sides include tangy green beans cooked “below the pig” on sheet pans so they catch the drippings from the hogs. Equally impressive is the fried catfish, which is salt- and sugar-cured, lightly smoked, then battered and fried golden brown. Finish things off with a slice of pastry chef Ashley Capps’ banana pudding pie, a decadently sweet creation with a crust of homemade vanilla wafers and toasted meringue on top.
23. Sam Jones Barbecue
715 W Fire Tower Rd, samjonesbbq.com
In late 2015, Sam Jones, whose grandfather founded Ayden’s world-famous Skylight Inn, headed six miles up the road and opened his own restaurant in Winterville. The wood-cooked whole hog barbecue is a dead ringer for Skylight’s—chopped to fine bits on a huge wooden cutting board, dressed with vinegar and Texas Peter, bits of crisp skin chopped right in for added crunch. The slaw and square-cut cornbread adhere to the family's original recipes, but Jones offers much more at his upscale incarnation, including fried catfish, smoked chicken wings, and craft beer on tap. It’s all served in a large-format, family-style restaurant with a high-vaulted ceiling and plenty of booths and long tables. They even take credit cards.
22. Southern Soul Barbeque
Saint Simons Island, GA
2020 Demere Road, southernsoulbbq.com
Harrison Sapp and Griffin Buffkin have transformed an old gas station on St. Simons Island into a beloved barbecue destination—so beloved, in fact, that Southern Living’s readers have named it Best of the South for two years running. Just a mile off the beach, it has a laid-back coastal vibe, with long picnic tables outside under a tall metal awning, and some seriously good barbecue. It’s cooked oak on big Oyler and Lang pits, and the offering blends traditional Georgia barbecue staples—tender pulled pork, superlative smoky ribs, and a bright, tangy Brunswick stew—with a few imports like brisket and burnt ends. The slow-smoked meat finds its way into an impressive slate of inventive fusion sandwiches, too, like a “Philly Soul” cheesesteak stuffed with sliced brisket. And if that’s not enough, daily specials highlight local seafood—smoked sea trout, fish stew, blue crab gumbo—along with Caribbean-inspired fusions like jerked baby back ribs.
21. Helen's Bar-B-Q
1016 N Washington Ave., (731) 779-3255
An hour east of Memphis in the small town of Brownsville is the modest gray building with red trim that houses Helen’s Bar BQ. Pull into the parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and you’re likely to see big tongues of orange flame dancing inside the screened-in pit room behind the restaurant, 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—shoveling coals, mixing coleslaw, and chatting up customers at the order window that separates the red-painted dining room from the kitchen. She pulls a pork shoulder off the warming pit 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, making Helen’s a must-visit destination for serious barbecue fans.
20. Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S 2nd St, hogsfly.com
Memphis is known for its dry-rub ribs, and Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous is the place that made them famous. You can smell the smoke from charcoal pits clear clear around the corner on Monroe Street. Just follow your nose down the narrow alley, then descend the narrow stairs under the old green and red awning into the cool basement dining room. Beneath their thick, red jacket of spice, the charcoaled ribs have a chewy roasted pork texture and great pops of pit-charred flavor around the edges. Throw in a starter platter of ham, cheese, and salami and and a pitcher of cold draft beer for a barbecue experience you’ll find only in Memphis.
19. Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
200 E. Dixon Blvd., bridgesbbq.com
The decor at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge isn’t retro by design. It just hasn’t changed much since the restaurant was built in 1953. 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.
18. Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ
17. Kreuz Market
619 North Colorado St., kreuzmarket.com
On my last visit to Kreuz Market, I was shocked to find two items never before seen in this legendary Lockhart meat market: plastic forks and clear squeeze bottles of thick brown sauce. For years the restaurant’s menu board had proudly declared “No Barbecue Sauce, No Forks, No Kidding,” but last fall owner Keith Schmidt finally caved to the demands of indignant out-of-towners. No one is required to use these things, of course, and no one really needs to. The rich, smoky beef and the juicy hot link sausages have more than enough flavor on their own, and it’s proper etiquette to eat barbecue with your fingers when it comes wrapped in brown butcher paper. Ordering amid the heat and smoke of Kreuz’s massive pit room, where the countermen pull giant hunks of beef brisket and shoulder clod from the brick pits and slice them on a round wooden carving tables, remains an essential Texas barbecue experience. The surprise sleeper, though, is Kreuz’s pork chop. Carved from a fresh-smoked bone-in loin, the pork is so tender, smoky, and delicious you might just forget that in Texas barbecue is supposed to be beef.
16. Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog Barbecue
1011 King St, rodneyscottsbbq.com
2018 was a big year for Rodney Scott. In May, he won the coveted Best Chef Southeast prize from the James Beard Foundation. Not longer after he announced plans to open a second location of his much-lauded restaurant—and in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places. It’s only been two years since Scott headed south from Hemingway, where his family runs the acclaimed Scott’s Barbecue, to open his own place in Charleston. He had to alter a few things to accommodate his new urban digs, like using enclosed chimneys instead of a big burn barrel and installing lidded metal pits instead of open cinderblock ones. The fundamentals, though, remain the same: burn oak down to coals, fire the pits, and cook whole hogs for 12 hours before finishing them with a fiery vinegar-pepper mop. Scott added a few menu items to please the city folks, including tasty fried catfish and a truly remarkable ribeye sandwich. It’s made from marinated steak slow-smoked on the pit then sliced thin and piled high on a soft roll—a sloppy, smoky, and utterly delicious creation that by itself is reason enough to pay Rodney Scott’s a visit.
15. Scott's-Parker Barbeque
10880 Highway 412 West, (731) 968-0420
It’s a little hard to decide what to call this classic west Tennessee barbecue joint, for the two tall signs out front say “B.E. Scott Barbeque” and “Scott Bar-B-Q,” while the sauce bottles are labeled “Scott’s-Parker Bar B Q.” The names reflect the restaurant’s lineage, for back in the 1960s Early Scott traded two school buses for a barbecue shack. His protege Ricky Parker took over the business in 1989, and Ricky’s son Zach carries on the tradition today. It’s one of the few restaurants left in Tennessee that still cook whole hog, and it’s a plain, straightforward operation. You order at a small counter, choosing from slaw-topped sandwiches or barbecue by the pound, plus chips and canned sodas. The finely-chopped pork is superbly 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 laced through with red pepper. It may be a simple combination, but when that smoky meat and spicy sauce come together, you have a barbecue meal fit for a king.
14. Grady's Barbecue
3096 Arrington Bridge Rd., (919) 735-7243
Housed in a modest white-painted building in the narrow fork where two country roads meet, Grady’s is one of the last of the old-time whole hog barbecue joints that once dotted rural North Carolina. Owners Stephen and Gerri Grady don’t cut any corners. A huge pile of split oak and hickory logs sits under a tin-roofed shed behind the pit room, where Stephen Grady—now in his early 80s—cooks whole hogs and chickens overnight on open brick pits. Geri Grady still makes all the sides from scratch, too, including steamed 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.
13. Cattleack Barbeque
13628 Gamma Rd, cattleackbbq.com
In 2013, Todd and Misty David opened Cattleack Barbeque as a semi-retirement project in a small storefront on the north side of Dallas. Though open only limited hours (lunchtime on Thursdays and Fridays) their barbecue proved so popular that in 2016 they took over the space next door and added an extra dining room with 13 big wooden picnic tables. Cattleack’s brisket, with its tangy, pepper bark and superb texture, is as good as any in Texas. You can order it by the pound along with ribs, sausage, pork, and turkey, or pile it on with a “Toddfather” sandwich—sliced brisket, pork, and hot link sausage on a soft warm bun. Todd David has become something of a barbecue ambassador for other regions, too, opening up the first Saturday of each month to cook Carolina-style whole hog alongside his superlative brisket.
12. Arthur Bryant's Barbeque
Kansas City, MO
1727 Brooklyn Avenue, arthurbryantsbbq.com
Arthur Bryant’s is a Kansas City institution, and not much has changed since Mr. Bryant himself was running the show. (He passed away in 1982.) The counter men carve tender folds of smoked beef on stainless steel slicers, and they pile it on brown butcher paper and slather it with sauce before slapping three or four slices of white bread down on top and wrapping it all into a big, delicious parcel. The hand-cut french fries are splendid, and Bryant’s original sauce is unique among Kansas City joints, more orange than brown, mildly hot with a bit of a gritty texture from the spices. It gives the perfect boost to a giant open-faced beef sandwich and is one of the many reasons that Arthur Bryant’s remains the premier practitioner of the Kansas City barbecue style.
11. Tejas Chocolate Craftory
200 N. Elm St, tejaschocolate.com
Artisan chocolate, wood-cooked Texas barbecue, and local craft beers come together at this unusual "craftory" in Old Town Tomball, way up in the northern reaches of Houston. The combination came about when partners Scott Moore and Michelle Holland needed a little extra revenue to keep their bean-to-bar chocolate shop going, so they invited Scott’s brother Greg to cook a little barbecue a few days week. In just a few short years, the shop has been transformed into a serious barbecue destination, with a gigantic custom smoker in a shed out back and hungry diners lining up on the small front porch and out into the yard. Shady trees and a cooler of free Lone Star beer help make the wait seem shorter, and once you step up to the counter you know it’s all been worthwhile. There are ribs, chicken, pulled pork, and turkey, plus regular specials like pastrami on Thursdays. The first bite of prime brisket explodes with flavor and only gets better from there, but the most irresistible treats are the rotating selection of sausages, like barbacoa boudin and a chili relleno link, which packs fire roasted poblanos and queso blanco inside a snappy beef link that’s crackling with flavor. And there’s plenty of chocolate for dessert, of course.
10. Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
7238 Nolensville Rd., martinsbbqjoint.com
Pat Martin is on a mission not just to preserve the traditional west Tennessee style of wood-cooked barbecue cooking but to take the whole hog gospel to entirely new parts. He opened his first restaurant on Nolensville Road, just east of Nashville, in 2006, and now has five Tennessee locations and two in Louisville, Kentucky. They also just announced that their Birmingham, Alabama location will be coming soon. At all six they cook whole hogs on open brick pits, and the pork pulled from those hogs is among the best in the South. All the sides are made from scratch, and the barbecue is cooked fresh each day. You can get that fine pulled pork on a sandwich topped with coleslaw (the proper West Tennessee way) or as part of a big barbecue tray, but for my money it’s worth going for Martin’s signature “redneck taco.” Long strands of juicy, smoky pulled pork are piled atop a rich cornmeal hoe-cake and loaded up with coleslaw and a sweet, tangy sauce—a modern homage to the old West Tennessee style.
9. Lewis Barbecue
464 N Nassau St., lewisbarbecue.com
Back in 2016, the acclaimed Texas brisket master John Lewis created plenty of buzz when he pulled up stakes and headed east to open a barbecue restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. Lewis honed his skills at Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue in Austin, and his Charleston menu stays true to the central Texas-style — brisket, ribs, turkey, and house-made “hot guts” sausage, all sliced fresh to order and served on butcher paper-lined trays, sliced onions and pickles on the side. But there’s one element of Texas barbecue that you won’t find in Lewis’s Charleston incarnation: long lines. Folks in South Carolina won’t stand for such foolishness, and Lewis has calibrated his operation so the line moves fast and they don’t sell out before closing time.
8. Lexington Barbecue
100 Smokehouse Lane, lexbbq.com
The town of Lexington is world-famous for its barbecue, and no place better represents the Piedmont North Carolina style than Lexington Barbecue. Perched atop a hill just outside of downtown proper, the white barn-like building has been added on to numerous times since founder Wayne Monk opened in 1962, but little has changed on the barbecue front. They cook pork shoulders for 10 hours on closed brick pits, firing them with oak and hickory coals that are rendered down from logs in separate fire boxes. The coals are scattered with a shovel under the cooking meat, and this direct heat method imbues the pork with the deliciously tender, subtle smoky flavor that is the hallmark of the Lexington style. The finished barbecue is served chopped, sliced, or “coarse chopped” (that is, cut into chunks) and dressed with what the locals call “dip”—the region’s signature sauce. Vinegar-based and tinged red with ketchup, it adds the perfect accent to a tray of chopped pork with slaw and hushpuppies on the side.
7. Franklin Barbecue
900 East 11th St., franklinbbq.com
Aaron Franklin is an outright barbecue celebrity—author of a best-selling cookbook, the first pitmaster to a win James Beard Award for Best Chef in his region, and star of a PBS television show. Waiting in line three hours at Franklin is now just something people do when they visit Austin, even if they aren’t barbecue fans. There’s a reason why Aaron Franklin achieved such fame, and he remains among the very best practitioners of the modern Texas barbecue style. The prime grade brisket is consistently flawless, as are the smoky pork ribs and rich, meaty sausage, which have just the right snap to the casing. Be sure to arrive early, and bring a cooler of beer and a comfy folding chair. It’s a long wait, but once you get inside you’ll taste what all the fuss is about.
6. Fresh Air Barbecue
Jackson and Macon, GA
1164 Highway 42 South and 3076 Riverside Drive, freshairbarbecue.com
Anyone who asserts that the state of Georgia doesn’t have a distinctive barbecue style needs to pay a visit to Fresh Air, the quintessential example of the state’s traditional fare. The original location in Jackson was founded in 1929, and they don’t mess around with brisket or ribs or even chicken. Barbecue here means chopped pork dressed in a thin, spicy red sauce, which you can get on a sandwich or on a BBQ plate with Brunswick stew and saltine crackers. The pork—all hams, not shoulders—is cooked right in the center of the restaurant in a big L-shaped brick pit, filling the spartan dining room with the tempting aroma of oak and hickory smoke. Fresh Air’s Brunswick stew consists of fine shreds of beef and corn kernels enrobed in a thick tomato-laced broth, and it’s as good a version of the classic Georgia barbecue side as I’ve had anywhere.
5. Allen & Son Barbeque
Chapel Hill, NC
6203 Millhouse Road, (919) 942-7576
Located on a shady country highway just north of Chapel Hill, Allen & Son straddles the boundary between North Carolina’s two famous regional styles. And that means barbecue fans can get the best of both. Owner Keith Allen insists on doing everything the old-fashioned way. He cooks pork shoulders over hickory coals in closed brick pits following the Piedmont North Carolina method, but he accompanies it with a spicy, tomato-free vinegar sauce and the white mayo-based slaw that are hallmarks of the Eastern North Carolina style. It’s all served in a homey setting with wood paneled walls and green-and-white checkered tablecloths. Don’t miss the whiteboard listing the daily selection of made-from-scratch pies, cakes and cobblers. They’re the perfect closer for a classic North Carolina barbecue meal.
4. Snow’s BBQ
3. Skylight Inn
4618 South Lee Street, skylightinnbbq.com
Back in the 1980s, the Jones family declared that Skylight Inn, which had been in operation since 1947, was the “barbecue capital of the world” To prove it, they erected a silver-painted wooden dome right on top of the restaurant. Not much else has changed since. They still cook whole hogs all night on open brick pits fired with shovelfuls of oak coals. The finished meat is seasoned with salt, cider vinegar, and Texas Pete as it’s chopped into shreds on a giant wooden block. Bits of skin, crisp from the hours on the pit, are chopped right in, adding a delightful little extra crunch to each tender, smoky bite. It’s a cash-only, order-at-the-counter operation, and the only accompaniments to the phenomenal chopped pork are coleslaw and a square of cornbread. But, really, what else could one possibly need?
2. Louie Mueller Barbecue
206 W 2nd St., louiemuellerbarbecue.com
Central Texas is famous for its old-school meat markets selling succulent smoked meats, and no place is better represents that iconic style than Louie Mueller. You step inside a screen door into a century-old building with worn wooden floors, mismatched tables and chairs, and a haze of post oak smoke hanging thick in the air: The meats are pulled from the warming pit and sliced to order. In a fine touch of Texas hospitality, each customer gets a sample of tender brisket to tide them over till their big tray arrives. Now operated by Louie’s grandson Wayne, Mueller’s has long been heralded for its succulent brisket, made from lushly marbled prime-grade beef and encrusted in black pepper. But the real prize are the beef ribs. Massive slabs of silky, smoky beef with built-in bone handles, they’re an exercise in luxurious excess that puts Louie Mueller in the very top ranks of Southern barbecue.
1. Scott's Bar-B-Que
2734 Hemingway Hwy., (843) 558-0134
Since the early 1970s, the Scott family has been cooking classic Pee Dee-style whole hog barbecue and selling it for take out at their small country store just west of Hemingway, South Carolina. No one in the South does it better. Roosevelt and Ella Scott’s son Rodney, who rose to national prominence for his mastery of the pit, recently decamped southward to Charleston to open his own restaurant (see the entry for Rodney Scott Barbecue), but his parents, with the help of Rodney’s son, Dominic, have kept things right on going in Hemingway. A vertically integrated operation, it starts with wood they cut down themselves—mostly white oak with a little pecan—which is seasoned and then reduced to embers in a giant burn barrel out behind the metal-walled pithouse. The coals are carried by the shovelful into the pit room and scattered beneath whole hogs cooking skin-up on cinder block pits. After about 12 hours, they’re flipped over and mopped with a pepper-laced vinegar sauce. Pulled into long, tender shreds, no other barbecue—whole hog or otherwise—tastes quite the same as Scott’s. Fiery and tongue-tingling on the front end, it has a subtle smoky essence that sings right through as the spice abates. Is it the big burn barrels, the old school pits, or maybe just something in the air in Hemingway? Who knows. But that pulled pork from Scott’s is absolutely magical.