Barbecue (BBQ) is one America's favorite foods and has been for centuries. Originating from the southern states in the 1800s, it has grown to be iconic cuisine, especially for certain areas including Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.
BBQ restaurants represent more than $3 billion of the US restaurant industry in recent years, with many more Americans (more than 75%, in fact) showing their love for the art, with home grilling. Here are some of the very best BBQ restaurants in the US, from coast to coast.
The Carolinas: using the whole pig
If you’re looking for a traditional BBQ pork dish, making your way to one of the Carolinas is a good start. Here, the meat is traditionally cooked over hickory wood, one of the most popular choices for barbecues worldwide. Some cooks prefer using a slightly lighter oak instead of hickory. The key to a great Carolina BBQ is that the meat’s flavor is retained, so a thick ketchup-based sauce is a rare occurrence. Instead, you may find a simple vinegar-based sauce with spices in Eastern North Carolina, a subtly tomato-based sauce in Western North Carolina, or a mustard-based “Carolina Gold” sauce in South Carolina.
For a classic North Carolina BBQ of the Western variety (using the dark meat of the pork shoulder), check out Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby. The winner of the USA Today Readers’ Choice Award in 2019, Red Bridges, slow-cooks its pork on hickory overnight, utilizing methods it first introduced over 60 years ago. If you prefer the Eastern approach (where the whole hog is used, not just the shoulder), High Cotton in the small town of Kitty Lake, is about as eastern as you can get! Famous for housing the first controlled flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, the town now boasts the highest-rated BBQ joint on TripAdvisor, despite being founded less than 20 years ago.
If you find yourself in South Carolina, the large coastal city of Charleston houses some of the best BBQ restaurants in the state. The Swig & Swine serves everything from pulled pork to juicy ribs, boasting a selection of more than 60 craft beers as the perfect accompaniment. At Poogan’s Smokehouse, the method of meat smoking combines traditional methods with modern touches to provide a unique taste experience. Finally, Lewis Barbecue introduces elements of Texas barbecue to the mix, with pit master John Lewis hailing from El Paso and learning his trade in Austin. There’s something for everyone in South Carolina!
Texas: beef brisket's spiritual home
Texas barbecue can refer to several beef-based BBQ techniques. Central Texas-style, also known as “meat market style”, is a relatively simple technique which involves rubbing the meat with salt and pepper only, maybe some spices, then cooking it over anything from pecan to mesquite wood. In East Texas-style, the meat is more commonly slow-cooked, marinated in a sweet sauce with tomato flavors. The less common West Texas “cowboy style” is cooked directly over heavy mesquite wood, while South Texas-style involves cooking the head of a cow with thicker sauces to keep the meat moist.
According to Texas Monthly, which publishes a list of the 50 best BBQ restaurants in Texas every four years, the absolute best choice in the state is Snow’s BBQ in the small northern town of Lexington. Founded in the early 2000s, Snow’s boasts the world-renowned talents of pit master Tootsie Tomanetz, only the second woman inducted in the Barbecue Hall of Fame. It was also voted the best Texas BBQ in the world by The New Yorker in 2008. Other top-five inclusions in the publication’s 2017 list include Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas, Bodacious Bar-B-Q in Tyler and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Plenty of choices if you find yourself in the Lone Star State!
Memphis: a spicy take on the pork BBQ
As the second-largest city in Tennessee, one of the most BBQ-crazed states of them all, Memphis has its own distinctive take on the cuisine. Like in North and South Carolina, the most common meat you’ll find in Memphis is pork, whether it be in the form of ribs or pork sandwiches. Usually, a Memphis-style BBQ will follow the Western North Carolina trend of using the shoulder as its main source of meat; however, “whole hog” dishes are not uncommon, and it remains a judged category in the world-famous Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC).
Opinions are well aligned on the best BBQ spots in Memphis. With three locations – in East Memphis, Downtown and Midtown – Central BBQ is one of the most frequently cited highlights of the city’s eating out scene. The restaurant’s website claims that it offers “the most tender, delicious piece of meat you’ve ever eaten”, which it does using a combination of slow smoking over hickory and pecan wood, a secret recipe of dry-rub spices and 24-hour marinating. And with such a large menu of pork and other meat products, you will find something to fall in love with at first taste.
There are plenty of other great BBQ restaurants in Memphis, however. Corky’s Ribs & BBQ gives you the true 1950s Americana feel with its decor, music and waiting styles, while its famous ribs are available in both dry and wet varieties with delicious spices and sauces. Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous is about as Memphis as it gets, offering dry-rub ribs to locals and tourists for more than 70 years. The restaurant has been praised by everyone from the New York Times to former President of the United States, Bill Clinton! For true innovation, check out The Bar-B-Q Shop in the center of Midtown, inventors of BBQ spaghetti and the delicious Dancing Pigs range of BBQ sauces and seasonings.
Kansas City: all the meats, all the sauce
Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri traces its origins to Memphis; however, the style and tastes are very different from those of its Tennessean brothers. As a city with a background in meatpacking, KC-style BBQ restaurants often serve a wide range of meats, including beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey and even sometimes fish. Typically, the meat is slow-cooked over hickory wood and rubbed with sweet spices, before being served with a thick sauce made from ingredients including tomato, molasses and brown sugar. If you’ve bought barbecue sauce from a grocery store, chances are it was made with a recipe that originated in Kansas City. Burnt Ends, another BBQ staple, also originate from KC.
A gas station is not typically where you might expect to find top-quality barbecue food, but that’s just where Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que can be found. Originally formed as a BBQ contest team, Joe’s has gained accolades and praise from everyone you could think of, with late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once naming it one of 13 places to eat before you die. Check out the famous Z-Man sandwich, which features smoked brisket, provolone cheese, onion rings and barbecue sauce, all served within a beautiful crusty Kaiser roll.
For a more traditional restaurant setting, you have no lack of choices in KC. Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue has been a stable of the BBQ scene since its foundation in the 1950s, serving some of the best food in some of the most beautiful surroundings in the state. Even more well-established in the city is Arthur Bryant’s BBQ, founded by the student of Henry Perry who brought barbecue to KC from Memphis. Known primarily for its legendary sauce, Arthur Bryant’s brings tradition into the 21st century with its classic techniques and flavors. One of the newest kids on the block is Q39, a Westport BBQ restaurant founded in 2014. Already, it has become known across the state for its great-tasting mains and sides.
Coast to coast: the best of the rest
We’ve talked about the four main regions of barbecue food in the United States, but what if you find yourself in a place where it’s slightly less popular? Here are a few more highlighted BBQ restaurants across the country:
Alabama: If you find yourself just south of Tennessee, check out Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a restaurant founded by the team who have won the Memphis in May WCBCC five times since 2000 – more than anyone else in the game!
Oklahoma: Another state slap-bang in the middle of barbecue territory, Oklahoma is home to Iron Star Urban Barbecue. Located in the heart of the capital city, Iron Star is a fine dining haven combining classic decor with true smokehouse flavor.
Florida: Due to its location, the Sunshine State is more commonly associated with seafood and Caribbean-influenced cuisine. However, it still has a few hidden gems of the BBQ scene, including Jenkins Quality Barbecue in Jacksonville.
California: Another state not typically associated with BBQ is California, although like most things it can be found in many of the state’s huge cities. Bludso’s Bar & Que offers Texas-style food from its home base in the region of Compton.
New York: The Big Apple boasts great foods in many groups, but barbecue is not traditionally one of them. However, Hometown Bar-B-Que is most definitely worth a visit, with delicious dishes inspired by Texas and North Carolina.
Dig in: upcoming barbecue festivals
Have we managed to whet your appetite? A barbecue festival is a great way to enjoy great barbecue and a fantastic atmosphere. Here are some upcoming barbecue festivals you’ll want to check out:
Pigs & Peaches BBQ Festival: Held on August 23–24, 2019, in Kennesaw, GA, this BBQ festival originally started as a blues concert and barbecue cook-off for amateur grillers. Now a 2 day event, Pigs & Peaches BBQ offers great barbecue from competitive cooking teams, non-stop music and a family friendly atmosphere.
Bedford Blues & BBQ: The 11th Annual Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival is held in Bedford, TX, from August 30 – Sept. 1st, 2019. This Labor Day weekend event combines grilling and music! Performers and pitmasters from across the US will be showcased during this BBQ festival.
The American Royal Series of Barbecue®: Held on September 12–15, 2019, in Kansas City, KS, the American Royal World Series of Barbecue® is a Kansas City tradition. This year marks the 40th year of the world’s largest barbecue competition. Featuring competitors from around the world, the event includes local food and delicious BBQ, live-music, an authentic Kansas City vendor fair, and more!
We’ve chosen three, but there are plenty of barbecue festivals coming up in 2019. Barbecue festivals are more than just the food. Live music, great entertainment and delicious food make them a fantastic way to spend a day out with friends and family.
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Want to visit one of the eateries mentioned here, check out their websites: