The Best New Barbecue Joints in the South
The past eighteen months have been tumultuous for Southern restaurateurs, but amid pandemic lockdowns and supply chain shortages there have been a few rays of sunshine, particularly on the barbecue front.
Many of the South's most beloved joints adapted their operations to add curbside pick-up and expand outdoor dining, formats for which barbecue is well-suited. We even witnessed a crop of new restaurants open their doors for the first time.
Some of these were additional locations of existing restaurants. (Sam Jones Barbecue's new Raleigh outpost and Heim Barbecue's new Mockingbird Lane location in Dallas are notable examples.) Many, however, came from entrepreneurs opening their very first brick-and-mortar spots.
Over the summer, I had a chance to visit many of the promising new contenders on the Southern barbecue scene, and a half dozen stand out head and shoulders above the rest.
The criteria for making the list are simple. A restaurant must have opened for business after January 1, 2020, and it must be a brand new operation, not a new location of an existing business. And, of course, the barbecue has to be outstanding.
Each of these six new restaurants has its own style and character, derived in large part from the life experience and family background of its owners. As different as each restaurant is, though, they do share a few common characteristics.
For starters, none offer table service. Guests order at the counter, and they often wait in long lines up to do so. Reflecting a pandemic-era adaptation that seems likely to become permanent, most of these restaurants offer online pre-ordering that lets diners skip the line. All provide ample outdoor seating, too, at picnic tables beneath umbrellas, shady trees, or broad metal-roofed canopies.
All six of these top new joints can be characterized as "neotraditionalist," inspired by the practices of the past and cooking their meats solely on wood-fired pits. But they don't necessarily adhere to old boundaries of regional styles and technique.
Texas-style brisket has been in vogue for more than a decade now, and that trend shows no sign of letting up. Even in formerly pork-centric places like North Carolina and Virginia, the most notable new restaurants all feature brisket prominently. Another common theme is the fusion of American-style slow-smoked meats with the flavors of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.
Roll it all together, and the future of Southern barbecue looks very bright indeed. Here, presented in alphabetical (not ranked) order, are my picks for the best new barbecue joints in the South.
2Fifty Texas BBQ
Riverdale Park, Maryland
Fernando González and Debby Portillo made a big splash in metro D.C. when they opened 2Fifty Texas BBQ in suburban Riverdale Park. González launched his barbecue career in his native El Salvador, where he ran a home delivery operation called 265bbq, and he made frequent trips to Texas to study its legendary barbecue restaurants. His wife, Debby Portillo, is from the third generation of a restaurant family in San Salvador.
The couple arrived in Maryland in 2018, and after a year of selling slow-smoked meats at the local farmers market, they moved into the building that formerly housed Dumm's Corner Market on the tree lined streets of Riverdale Park. Opening just a month into the pandemic in April 2020, they initially sold vacuum-sealed meats via contactless pick-up for customers to reheat at home. Diners can now have that barbecue sliced fresh to order and eat it onsite in the small dining room or outside at one of the umbrella-shaded tables that line the sidewalk.
All the meats are cooked over oak on a custom 1,000-gallon offset smoker from Primitive Pits, and the results are remarkable. The juicy, thick-sliced brisket has a tangy, smoky bark, while half racks of St. Louis-cut ribs offer perfectly firm, meaty bites. The casing of the jalapeño-infused sausage has the proper Texas-style snap when you bite it, but what really puts 2Fifty's offering over the top are the things that come alongside the meats.
Many of these dishes reflect González's and Portillo's Central American roots. Cool chunks of watermelon are drizzled with fruity red Chamoy sauce, and tender fried plantains are meltingly sweet on the tongue. The barbecue beans are made with Central American-style red kidney beans and laced with brisket trimmings, while tender green beans get a tangy kick from Tajin seasoning, a blend of chili and dehydrated lime juice.
2Fifty's offering has proven such a hit that the couple has already opened a second location, bringing their outstanding capital 'cue to a stall in Union Market in downtown Washington, D.C.
Jon Gs Barbecue
Peachland, North Carolina
Husband-and-wife team Garren and Kelly Kirkman won a loyal following with their Jon G's barbecue truck, and they had just signed the lease on a brick-and-mortar location in Peachland (some 40 miles east of Charlotte) when the pandemic struck. They forged ahead, opening for service in June 2020, and haven't looked back since.
Though located smack in the middle of the Carolinas, Jon G's is unapologetically Texas-style, complete with a Texas-sized line. Eager diners begin queuing up on the small front porch a little after 9 a.m., and by the time the doors open at 11 the line stretches beyond the gravel parking lot and down the shoulder of the road. A few strategically-placed canopy tents and a cooler of free beer help take the edge off the summer heat.
It's barbecue worth waiting for. Garren Kirkman cooks brisket, ribs, sausage, turkey, and pork shoulders on a big J&R Oyler rotisserie, and the meats are all sliced to order at the counter and piled high onto paper-lined trays. With a tangy, peppery bark and a juicy jacket of fat, the brisket is as good as any in the Carolinas and would certainly hold its own in Texas. Even better are the spareribs—smoky, meaty, and chewy beneath a touch of sweet glaze.
Kirkman grinds and stuffs his own sausages, and they're tasty Texas/Carolina mashups. Cheese from a local dairy melts into creamy white morsels inside the cheddar-jalapeno links, while a generous dose of Cheerwine—the beloved cherry soda made in nearby Salisbury—imparts a mild, fruity sweetness and vivid red hue to Cheerwine hot links.
Jon G's is a Saturday-only operation, and the Kirkmans don't foresee changing that any time soon. (They still do a brisk catering and food truck business during the week.) They do, however, plan on expanding the restaurant soon and hope to add another pit on which they'll cook North Carolina-style whole hog.
So don't expect those lines to get shorter any time soon.
Fort Worth, Texas
In an era when fusion and experimentation are all the rage in barbecue, Goldee's aims straight down the middle with a traditional Central Texas offering.
It's the handiwork of five young but accomplished pitmasters, and they came together to open Goldee's in the early months of 2020. Though it's the first restaurant they've owned, the crew collectively has an impressive barbecue pedigree, having worked in some of the most acclaimed barbecue joints in the state, including Terry Black's, La Barbecue, Freedman's, Micklethwait Craft Meats, and Valentina's Tex-Mex Barbecue in Austin as well as Truth BBQ in Brenham.
They brought that experience back home to Fort Worth and distilled it into a superb slate of Texas standards: moist, peppery brisket and tender pork ribs along with juicy turkey and sausage links. The sides hew to tradition, too, with the original menu offering just brisket-accented beans, slaw, and potato salad. (Collard greens and cheesy grits are recent additions.)
It may not be a radical offering, but it's executed with flawless precision. Goldee's even bakes its own loaves of white bread to slice and serve alongside each tray, and those little touches help it stand out even in the crowded Dallas-Ft. Worth market.
In 2018, Brandon Hurtado bought an offset smoker and started cooking barbecue for pop-ups at local breweries. The events were a hit, and he quickly upgraded to a food truck then signed a lease on a former biker bar on East Front Street in downtown Arlington.
Hurtado Barbecue opened its doors on February 22nd, 2020, and closed them just three weeks later when Texas shuttered all indoor dining. Hurtado kept the business running as a takeout-only operation, scouring local grocery stores for briskets after his suppliers ran out amid pandemic era beef shortages. Within a few months, though, he was back to running full-steam and even added a weekend brunch menu.
Calling his offering "Mexicue," Hurtado proudly blends Texas-style barbecue with flavors inspired by his Hispanic heritage. A pair of Primitive Pits offset smokers turn out thousands of pounds of brisket, pork ribs, and turkey each day along with more uncommon offerings like smoked quail and "Texas twinkies" — jalapeños stuffed with pimento cheese, wrapped in applewood bacon, and crisped on the smoker.
Hurtado's barbecue fundamentals are solid. The prime-grade brisket has a peppery bark and a thin, slick fat cap, and the ribs are downright phenomenal. Beneath a tangy, peppery glaze, the tender meat is tinged pink with smoke straight down to the bone.
Hurtado's more creative Mexicue dishes are outstanding, too. For breakfast there are smoked barbacoa tostadas—fresh-fried tortillas layered with refried beans and smoked beef cheeks and finished with salsa verde, Valentina hot sauce, and cotija cheese. A tray of elotes offers firm yellow corn kernels topped with squiggles of bright orange hot sauce and a dusting of cotija cheese. Squirt a little lime juice over the top and you have a perfect sweet, tangy bite.
Hurtado gets creative with his sausages-of-the-month, too, and past selections have included brisket boudin sausage made with Mexican rice and an al pastor sausage with ground pork, cilantro, pineapple, and onions. What appear at first to be grains of rice in the novel and delicious fideo con pollo sausage turns out to be bits of tender vermicelli ground right in with the meat and spices, a combination inspired by the Mexican version of chicken noodle soup,
Hurtado Barbecue begins serving at 11:00am and closes when the meats sell out, but those who can't get there early enough will soon have a backup plan. Brandon Hurtado has leased the building on the opposite side of the broad outdoor patio and will soon open a bar and taco lounge called Hayter's that will sell street tacos until midnight.
Durham, North Carolina
Jake Wood pivoted to barbecue after years of working in seafood and fine dining restaurants—shucking oysters, rolling sushi, and serving as executive chef for a raw food then a farm-to-table restaurant. A series of successful barbecue pop-ups led to his opening Lawrence Barbecue in Boxyard RTP, a new food and retail development in the heart of the Research Triangle Park.
In some ways Wood is simply getting back to his roots, for he's a native North Carolinian, and he grew up cooking whole hogs at family reunions. Stylistically, though, he takes plenty of cues from Texas, and the menu at Lawrence Barbecue features pulled pork shoulder, beef brisket, and smoked turkey as the main headliners. (Due to limited pit space at the BoxyardRTP site, Wood had to abandon his original plan of cooking North Carolina-style whole hog.)
That Tarheel cooks some pretty impressive brisket, with a juicy fat cap and a salty, tangy bark. Also notable are the "BBQ oysters"—six fresh North Carolina beauties topped with a sweet, brown sugar-laced butter and crumbles of cotija cheese and grilled till slightly charred.
The restaurant's Instagram feed announces a steady parade of daily specials that incorporate smoked meats into an array of inventive combinations, like blueberry glazed buffalo wings, brisket birria tacos, and head-turning footlong pork belly corndogs. Those dogs are made with long strips of pork belly that are smoked on the pit, rolled in corn meal batter, and fried golden brown. Topped with tangy sorghum mustard, jalapeño relish, and long strips of crunchy pork skin, it's a hefty, smoky treat perfect for sharing with friends before diving into platters of brisket and oysters.
Knightdale, North Carolina
Ten miles east of Raleigh in Knightdale, Christopher Prieto's gleaming new Prime Barbecue is a haven for smoked meat fans. Following a long stint as a caterer and teaching barbecue classes (and authoring Southern Living's Ultimate Book of BBQ), Prieto finally decided to open a restaurant, and he was determined not to cut any corners.
The result is a prime setting for serious barbecue. Prieto's attention to detail shows in the gleaming white tiles with black and orange accents and the sleek signage guiding guests to the order counter. The huge screened-in pit room holds a trio of J&R Oyler pits, and those big rotisseries aren't used for Carolina-style whole hog but for slow smoking Texas-style brisket, ribs, turkey, and sausage.
The menu reflects Prieto's roots, for he was born and raised in Bryan, Texas, to parents originally from Puerto Rico. His brisket has a perfect peppery bark, and the meat underneath is splendidly juicy while still having a nice chew to it. There's a great firm texture on the pork ribs, too, and they're infused with smoke and have delightful bits of black pepper and caramelized sugar speckling the exterior.
The real sleeper, though, is Prieto's barbecue rice, which he makes using his mother's Puerto Rican method. He starts out by browning dry rice with onions in bacon fat then pours in beef stock and slivers of sausage. The finished rice is moist and tender and has a beguiling savory flavor steeped into the grains—a side so good that you might just finish it before the brisket.
Prime Barbecue opened for take-out in May 2020, and indoor dining followed in the summer. Hungry North Carolinians have been lining up ever since.