The South's Best BBQ Joints 2011
Best Southern BBQ
The South is the most rewarding place in the world for food lovers to road trip: You can measure the distance you've traveled in the flavors you encounter. And no Southern food is more tenaciously regional than barbecue. Here, we dish up what we consider to be perfect plates of barbecue in four major regional styles.
Carolina Style BBQ
Carolina 'cue is pork barbecue, pulled from a shoulder or whole hog, sauced with either a vinegar-, mustard-, or tomato-based sauce, and served with a side of coleslaw. Wilber's, Lexington Barbecue No. 1, Skylight Inn, and Scott's Bar-B-Que are masters of the Carolina craft.
Wilber's, Goldsboro, NC
In true Carolina tradition, Wilber's has been turning out stellar whole-hog barbecue since 1962. You'll find an open fire out back producing the warmed charcoal that finishes the hogs on their 12-hour turn. The pork is then pulled by hand, chopped, moistened with apple cider vinegar, and seasoned with red chile flakes. The combination of chopped pork, a fried chicken thigh, creamy-tart slaw, potato salad, and hush puppies is the joint's perfect indulgence.
4172 Highway 70 East, Goldsboro, NC; 919/778-5218; wilbersbarbecue.com
Lexington Barbecue No.1, Lexington, NC
Pulled pork shoulders are the hero of this Piedmont ‘cue mecca. Ask for your sandwich with a good amount of "outside brown meat"—the flavorful browned bits that form on the surface of the shoulder—and the vinegary, relish-like slaw, on top of the meat.
10 Highway 29-70 South, Lexington, NC; 336/249-9814
Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC
Calling itself "The Capital of Barbecue" is a bold statement (to say nothing of the faux capitol-dome that sits atop the place!), but we think the whole hog here, finely chopped and with a generous amount of crispy bits of skin thrown into the mix, served with thin cornbread, is tops.
4617 Lee Street, Ayden, NC; 252/746-4113
Scott's Bar-B-Que, Hemingway, SC
Most barbecue restaurants order their wood by the tractor-trailer load. Rodney Scott sources, fells, and splits the hardwoods he uses to feed the pits at Scott's. His whole hog, ordered with a side of skins, is second to none in South Carolina.
2734 Hemingway Highway, Hemingway, SC; 843/558-0134; thescottsbbq.com
Sweatman's Bar-B-Que, Holly Hill, SC
Pulled whole hog is the king of the buffet line here—we recommend selecting from the more flavorful sauced dark-meat pan. Other items not to miss: the pork hash over rice, a South Carolina specialty, and the banana pudding.
1313 Gemini Drive, Holly Hill, SC; no phone; cash only
Texas Style BBQ
The emphasis in Texas-style 'cue is on the meat. Smoky-moist brisket and spicy beef sausage take center stage, while the sauce usually serves as a side dip. Smitty's Market, Black's Barbecue, City Market, Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, and Sonny Bryan's show how it's done.
Smitty's Market, Lockhart, TX
Smitty's Market, a drafty warehouse in historic downtown Lockhart is one-of-a-kind when it comes to involving customers. In this Texas-style joint, eager customers line up in a sooty corridor, and as you get closer to the cash register, you are in the smokehouse. You've got ringside seats to the choreography of the pitmasters as they traffic sausages, briskets, and ribs into and out of two brick pits. After you make it through the line, dive into the deliciousness of a perfect plate: ¼ pound smoked brisket (not the lean), 1 "hot link," ¼ pound pork ribs, white bread, pickle, piece of cheese, and crackers.
208 South Commerce Street, Lockhart, TX; 512/398-9344; smittysmarket.com
Black's Barbecue, Lockhart, TX
Just a few blocks from Smitty's Market, but a world away. There's a delicious spicy-sweet tomato-based sauce for slathering on brisket and pork ribs, and live music on a small performance stage. Specialties of the house are beef ribs the size of dinosaur bones, and more than 20 different down-home sides like cornbread, deviled eggs, and macaroni salad.
215 North Main Street, Lockhart, TX; 512/398-2712; blacksbbq.com
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin, TX
When the brisket's rubbed with coffee and brown sugar and the pork ribs are dusted with coriander and glazed with maple, we know we're in postmodern ‘cue territory. Still, we adore the contemporary, sophisticated interpretation of Texas-style barbecue here.
401 West Second Street, Austin, TX; 512/494-1500; lambertsaustin.com
City Market, Luling, TX
You place your order in a hot, smoky pit room, and get served on red butcher-paper. Sound familiar? City Market resembles Smitty's in its almost monastic seriousness about the meat, but there are key differences: principally, a mustard-based sauce that must confound leagues of South Carolinians.
633 East Davis Street, Luling, TX; 830/875-9019; lulingcitymarket.com
Sonny Bryan's, Dallas, TX
No Central Texas ‘cue hound will admit that Dallas has decent barbecue, but the brisket, sausage, and pork ribs found at the diminutive original location of a small chain establishment have a deep smoky flavor, and tell tale smoke-ring of correctly done barbecue. Note to groups: seating, in antique schoolhouse desks around the perimeter of the small room, can be antisocial.
2202 Inwood Road, Dallas, TX; 214/357-7120; sonnybryans.com
Memphis Style BBQ
The Memphis barbecue style is always pork with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The pulled pork sandwich is the top contender of the style, usually topped with coleslaw. We love Memphis masters A&R Bar-B-Que, Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Interstate Barbecue, Cozy Corner, and Payne's BBQ.
A&R Bar-B-Que, Memphis, TN
A&R Bar-B-Que, a storefront a couple miles from Graceland, is the polar opposite of the total pit-immersion in Central Texas–it may just be the most sparkling joint in America. All it takes is a bite of the rib tips–smoky-moist, dry-rubbed, slicked with a tangy sauce–to know you've arrived at the heart and soul of Memphis 'cue. The ribs are textbook with a peppery exterior, but meaty and tender on the inside. And the sandwich, in true Memphis style, has a scoop of coleslaw on top of the pork. If your mouth isn't already watering, the perfect plate of half slab pork ribs, rib tips, and a chopped pork sandwich is sure to do the trick.
1802 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis, TN; 901/774-7444; aandrbbq.com
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Memphis, TN
Since 1948, this basement space crammed with knick knackery has been serving pork ribs dry-rubbed with an oregano and paprika-laden spice crust. ‘Cue cops note that Rendezvous' ribs are not true barbecue, since they are grilled with direct heat over charcoal, but they've become a Memphis landmark and they are undeniably delicious. If you're feeling adventurous, with 24-hours notice, you can enjoy an iron skillet filled with 5-pounds of barbecue shrimp.
52 South Second Street, Memphis, TN; 901/523-2746; hogsfly.com
Interstate Barbecue, Memphis, TN
Rib dinners served with slices of white bread are a popular item at this pink-tiled ‘cue institution on the south side of town (where the Neely name first became associated with barbecue), but a large share of the folks who crowd the counter at lunch are after the "big as hell" smoked sausage, a super-bargain at $3. For something a little more out of the box, but equally delicious, try the Neely origina–Bar-B-Q spaghetti.
2265 South Third Street, Memphis, TN; 901/775-2304; interstatebarbecue.com
Cozy Corner, Memphis, TN
There may be a long wait, but a festive, anticipatory mood always prevails at Desiree Robinson's establishment. We love the Memphis classics here—the ribs and rib tips are finger-licking fantastic—but the house specialty, smoked Cornish hen, is the main attraction: smoky and moist throughout, its skin crispy and lightly glazed with a tangy sauce.
745 North Parkway, Memphis, TN; 901/527-9158; cozycornerbbq.com
Payne's BBQ, Memphis, TN
The dimly lit Paynes may give the impression of being three decades past its prime, but the barbecue is right up there with A&R for our current favorite pork sandwich. Chopped pork with crispy barky bits is topped with a drippy scoop of mustardy coleslaw on top. It's extravagantly messy—and scrumptious.
1762 Lamar Avenue, Memphis, TN; 901/272-1523
Kansas City Style BBQ
Kansas City barbecue is pork ribs and beef brisket served with fistfuls of piping-hot fries. The sauces are usually tomato-based with sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors. It perfectly compliments one of the style's most popular selections, burnt ends. Our favorite Kansas City joints are Arthur Bryant's BBQ, Gates Bar-B-Q, Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, and Woodyard Bar-B-Que.
Arthur Bryant's BBQ, Kansas City, MO
Arthur Bryant's BBQ in the 18th & Vine District is the place for K.C. 'cue. There's a seriousness of purpose to the pitmen and carvers, and their work is on display as they hustle between the pit and where you order. K.C. celebrates its sauce more than any other region, so if you don't want everything sluiced, specify each part of your order. The counterman assembles the meats on red butcher paper, slices of white bread on top, and rolls it into a bundle. By the time you leave, there won't be anything left except a swatch of butcher paper. Order the perfect plate: half slab (short end), burnt ends, ½ pound brisket, and fries.
1727 Brooklyn Avenue, Kansas City, MO; 816/231-1123; arthurbryantsbbq.com
Gates Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, MO
Don't be turned off by the fast-food trappings in this chain; the pits here are for real, and the stellar burnt ends and ribs, especially when spiked with spoonfuls of cumin-laced, almost marinara-like sauce, make it a must for anyone touring to the heart of K.C. ‘cue.
1221 Brooklyn Avenue, Kansas City, MO; 816/483-3880; gatesbbq.com
Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue, Kansas City, KS
This restaurant, opened by the members of a championship team on the barbecue circuit and housed in a gas-station convenience store, has some of K.C.'s best barbecue. Try the Z-Man Sandwich, with brisket, smoked provolone, and homemade onion rings on a kaiser bun. Take note: burnt ends aren't always available, and they're not to be missed, so call ahead.
3001 West 47th Avenue, Kansas City, KS; 912/722-3366; oklahomajoesbbq.com
Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, Kansas City, MO
A chef-friend in Kansas City tipped us off to the superb brisket and ribs at "Jack Stack," as well as to the extensive list of beers and wines. Because sometimes with your barbecue, you want a really good beer or…dare we say it…a nice glass of wine.
13441 Holmes Road, Kansas City, MO; 816/942-9141; jackstackbbq.com
Woodyard Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, KS
"The Woodyard" began as a purveyor of hardwoods for barbecue restaurants and backyard pitmasters, and its ribs and brisket are—as might be expected—superb. Daily specials will keep you coming back, but our first love on the menu is a Woodyard original: Burnt End Chili.
3001 Merriam Lane, Kansas City, KS; 913/362-8000; woodyardbbq.com