Barbecue is the stuff of life, the food on top of the food pyramid. And naturally it comes from the South, the home of foods that are both delicious and enemy to a healthy pancreas.
But when you move past the spice-crusted brisket and crackling pigskin and look at barbecue more conceptually, it’s complex stuff! There are about as many schools of barbecue as there are states, so we kept our list to the top seven places in the south to take a barbecue-focused vacation, complete with some of the top Bar-B-Q joints where you can partake.
Here are the highlights; hope you’re hungry.
Alabama: Forever mayo
White sauce meshes perfectly with sweet, smoky chicken that’s been cooked slowly over hickory wood.
The South loves to cook with mayonnaise. We can make all sorts of guesses as to why, but keep in mind there’s a football bowl game in North Carolina called the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and the winning coach gets a mayonnaise bath – enough said.
Alabama rides the mayo train too, and has for generations, which makes its twist on barbecue a little easier to swallow.
You may have guessed it already, but Alabama puts mayo on barbecue – chicken mostly, and not straight but in a concoction called “white sauce.”
This is not your mama’s bechamel. In the hands of the inventors at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q it’s a tangy mélange that meshes perfectly with the sweet, smoky chicken that’s been cooked slowly over hickory wood.
Beyond white sauce Alabama barbecue combines the region’s best traditions, meaning you can find everything from Memphis-style wet ribs to South Carolina-style mustard-sauced whole hog to even Texas-style brisket. And that’s not a bad thing by any means.
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Kentucky: Don’t be sheepish
Mutton cooked slow and low pairs amazingly with the Worcestershire-based sauce unique to Kentucky.
From the “don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it” department, there’s mutton – sheep meat. You don’t find a lot of mutton on menus, but you do in Kentucky, particularly around the Ohio River town of Owensboro, where they not only barbecue sheep (ewes, actually) but serve the meat with a Worcestershire-based sauce unique to the region.
Mutton has the reputation of being a fairly sweet, rich meat, tending toward toughness, which makes it perfect to be smoked low and slow. However, if you’re not particularly mutton-curious, Owensboro hangouts like Old Hickory Bar-B-Q and Moonlite Bar-B-Q offer beef, pork, and chicken as well.
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Missouri: St. Louie to KC
Home of burnt ends -- the greatest things to happen to meat since the woolly mammoth steak.
Kansas City and St. Louis fight over all sorts of things – especially barbecue. But on the surface this contest would seem to be no contest.
Everyone’s heard of St. Louis-style ribs, but can you define St. Louis barbecue? It actually combines the vinegary traditions of the east with the tomato-based sauces of the west, often served on pork steak. Sort of out there, like St. Louis-style pizza.
On the other hand, Kansas City barbecue places like Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q are world-famous. And KC invented the tomato-and-molasses-based sauce the masses think of as barbecue sauce, as well as burnt ends (the double-smoked ends of beef brisket), which are the greatest things to happen to meat since the woolly mammoth steak.
Finally, Kansas City’s long reign as the slaughterhouse for the world has ensured a steady stream of meats of all kinds running through the smoker, which is why you can get everything from barbecued brisket to fish in Kansas City.
In the end, St. Louis wins on quality – Pappy’s Smokehouse is regarded as the state’s best – but KC wins on quantity of great places. You choose, but you can’t lose.
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North Carolina: Choose a side
Smoked whole hog basted with a vinegar-and-pepper sauce, then chopped and served with pieces of the cracklin’ -- a spiritual retreat with pork.
As you may have realized, barbecue is divisive. Every place has a style, everyone has a favorite, and people get really passionate about it.
This is particularly true in North Carolina, where the choices are Duke or UNC – sorry, Eastern style or Piedmont. Eastern style is southern barbecue at its most elemental: smoked whole hog basted with a vinegar-and-pepper sauce, then chopped and served with pieces of the cracklin’, or pig skin. Piedmont style adds tomato to the sauce, and that’s about the only difference, except for coleslaw with ketchup in it.
Eastern style is epitomized by the sandwiches at Skylight Inn (in the countryside) and Sam Jones BBQ (in the cities), with sides like collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
Piedmont style is centered around Lexington, and the places to check out it are Lexington Barbecue (a/k/a/ “The Monk”) and The Barbecue Center, which sounds like a spiritual retreat with pork … which it kind of is.
South Carolina: Mellow yellow
South Carolina cooks the whole-hog, pulled and served with a mustard-based sauce called “Carolina Gold.”
In South Carolina the choices are once again plain, but here one style clearly predominates.
That style is whole-hog, pulled and served with a mustard-based sauce called “Carolina Gold.” You’ll find other types of barbecue in South Carolina – ketchup-based sauces in the southwest and vinegar-based sauces in the northeast – but the mustard sauce is the one to try at places like Sweatman’s.
Don’t forget a side of “hash” – a gravy-like mixture of pork, sauce and vegetables served over rice.
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Tennessee: Wet or dry?
You can get ribs covered in a dry mix of spices or “wet” ribs that have been basted and finished with a tomato-based sauce.
We’re not talking about the weather, since anyone who says “it’s a dry heat” about Tennessee has not spent much time there. We’re talking about what’s put on the meat before it’s smoked – and the good news is that Tennessee swings both ways. Most Tennessee barbecue emanates eastward from Memphis, where you can get ribs covered in a dry mix of spices or “wet” ribs that have been basted and finished with a tomato-based sauce.
Tennessee barbecue can get pretty eclectic, though, thanks in part to spillover of vinegar-and-pepper-sauced whole-hog barbecue from the Carolinas and the cultural and culinary melting pot that is Nashville.
Authentic Memphis barbecue can be found at small, simple places like Payne’s Bar-B-Q or Central BBQ in Memphis, though you can find the good stuff throughout the state – even at multi-location outfits like Jack’s Bar-B-Que and Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint.
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Texas: All about the beef
Texas barbecue is food at its simplest: Beef, spices, and smoke, raised to an art form.
Like real Texas chili, real Texas barbecue is food at its simplest: Just beef, spices, and smoke, raised to an art form.
The modern artists work at Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, where the slow-moving wraparound line is testament to the quality of the brisket and fixin’s. You can get lots of things besides brisket at Franklin, and if you have the time it’s recommended, but if you have only one day and one time through the line, get the brisket sandwich. No question.
The old masters work at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, about a half-hour outside of Austin. The Mueller family has been doing barbecue for almost 75 years, and you can taste the tradition.
Salt Lick, a BBQ chain that can be found across Texas, will even ship their BBQ right to your door. But, then you wouldn't get their side of Texas Hill Country hospitality that they are famous for. This joint features old family recipes withroots back to the wagon trains in the mid-1800’s.
The argument over best Texas barbecue generally involves these two places, and with good reason: They’re phenomenally good and have been for years. And they’re ready for you if you’re up for them.
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"Burnt Ends (beef brisket) sandwich" by Sarah Stierch, used under CC BY / Cropped from original
"Grilled chicken with Alabama white BBQ sauce" by Dana L. Brown, used under CC BY / Cropped from original
Allen Freeman, used under CC BY / Cropped from original
"Porkfest" by Sheryl Long, used under CC BY
"Memphis Minnie's St Louis Smoked Pork Ribs & sauces" by Willis Lam, used under CC BY
"Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint" by Jeremy Thompson, used under CC BY
"Franklin Barbecue" by Dale Cruse, used under CC BY