Barbecue, barbeque or BBQ, all pronounced the same [bahr-bi-kyoo], but in the food and eating world this topic has many definitions that can spark heated debate. Pork or beef is probably the most highly contested, but sauce preference is pretty emotion-laden as well. In the US, barbecue is very regional, and each has its own specialties and preferences. Here’s a brief rundown:
In the “barbecue belt” of the South, which includes North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana, all barbecue is slow-cooked pork. Do not mention beef. The pig is usually chopped, pulled or sliced. North Carolina’s sauces are vinegary, while South Carolina and Georgia share a yellow, mustard-based sauce. A bit further west, in Tennessee, pulled pork is more common, served with a sweet tomato sauce flavored with pepper and molasses. Memphis is particularly well-known for pork ribs as well. These can either be sauced or dry-rubbed with tangy spices before they are pit-cooked. Alabama’s sauces are known to be a bit spicier than those of Tennessee, while Arkansas has some a variety, influenced by its bordering states.
In Texas, cattle ranchers traditionally focused on beef. The region is especially well-known for brisket (the lower chest. This meat on its own is tough, which is why it must be cooked for such a long time. Meat is slow-cooked over mesquite, oak or pecan wood, giving it a distinct, smoky flavor. Sauces tend to be thick, tomato based, and with some chiles. North Texas features honey and brown sugar, while central can have vinegar. Some sauces even contain coffee! Texas sauces are probably the least sweet of the US sauces.
Here you’ll find a variety of meats, but it’s really all about the sauce. KC sauces are sweet-tart and tomato-based. They also contain molasses or brown sugar with vinegar to balance things out. Burnt ends, also known as bark, are very important here. Those charred bits can even be found as their own sandwich, with lots of sauce, of course. Meats are mostly hickory-smoked.
In our travels around the US, we’ve been lucky enough to visit many famous and not-so-famous spots. This survey contains some of our highlights and a few of our favorite spots from around the country.
Arthur Bryant’s (Kansas City, Missouri)
A Kansas City landmark. This unassuming building has been cranking out some of the best Q around since the 1920’s. This is probably one of the most well-known barbecue restaurants in the country, and for good reason. The menu is pretty straight forward, several cuts of meat, ribs and sides. The man behind the counter with brush on sauce and then the work begins. The portions are . . . let’s just say “generous,” so keep that in mind. Framed on the walls are photos of the many presidents and celebrities who’ve enjoyed a meal here. Another cool thing was the style of the doggy bag. Basically, go over to a table near the back of the restaurant and pull a sheet of butcher paper from the roll to wrap up your sandwich. Done! They’ve probably had that table there since the restaurant opened!
Sonny Bryan’s (Dallas, Texas)
Legendary Texas BBQ in Dallas since 1910, Sonny Bryan’s does not disappoint. We’ve only visited the original location in the Oak Lawn neighborhood where the seating is a very long wood bench with old-fashioned school desk-tops to make individual tables (see below). The sauce containers are Coronita bottles that they refill constantly. You enjoy this wonderful meal in simple surroundings just like the men and women who made brisket into the BBQ delicacy that it is today. That’s the specialty here, so don’t miss it.
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous (Memphis, Tennessee)
A little hard to find in an alley in downtown Memphis, Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous is a true institution. When we finally found it and went down the stairs we could almost feel the history pulsing from the walls. The restaurant opened in 1948 when Mr Vergos cleaned out the basement under his diner. A coal chute was discovered that allowed him to properly vent his grill and the rest is history. The focal point of the restaurant has always been the open kitchen with its smoke-blackened pits. The ribs are cooked over charcoal, not wood, and at a high temperature. Once done, the ribs are splashed with a mix of vinegar, water, salt and barbecue spices, then coated (not rubbed!) with Rendezvous seasoning. This thick crust of secret seasoning needs no additional sauce. Here you certainly will learn to love dry rub, if you don’t already. Sadly, Mr Vergos passed in 2010 but the restaurant was left in the capable hands of his children.
State Line (El Paso, Texas)
We happened upon this gem on one of our many trips through El Paso, TX. As the name suggests, it is situated on the state line that creates the border between Texas and New Mexico. The building is interesting, an old Spanish-style structure with a nice courtyard that makes for a homey atmosphere. These guys cook a little something for everyone: beef, pork, chicken, sausage and turkey. They have some great sides as well as a few vegetarian options making all palates happy.
Gates (Kansas City, Missouri)
Just down the street from a well-known (above) Kansas City rival. Gates Bar-B-Q is a another no nonsense, all-about-the-food kind of place. When we visited there was a woman greeter who was there to help guide you through the menu and ordering process. Since we hadn’t had the pleasure yet she suggested we split the samplers which was more than enough for two. After weaving through the corral you grab your tray, get some sauce and enjoy. As a matter of fact, it was the sauce that was our favorite part of Gates, spicy and full of flavor.
Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q (Leon Springs, Texas)
New-ish to the Texas ‘que tradition, Rudy’s is a unique and fun addition. Starting as a convenience store selling gas and groceries, Rudy added barbecue to the list in 1989. They used to have the slogan “Worst Bar-B-Q in Texas” on the buildings but I haven’t seen that lately. These restaurants have been popping up around the state of Texas and beyond for a few years now. Next time you find yourself low on fuel and hungry stopping at Rudy’s is a no-brainer.
Old Brick Pit (Atlanta, Georgia)
A hometown Atlanta favorite! Pulled pork is the specialty, with a North Carolina-style vinegar based sauce. This place always really hits the spot. A small operation opened in 1976 consisting of a pit (of course), a chopping table, a counter with register and maybe 10 tables. You can’t walk inside this place and not smell like barbecue. They have recently made the front porch into seating which doubled the number of tables. Do yourself a favorite and order some Brunswick stew to go along with your pork sandwich. Also, if you notice something a bit special about the pork it’s because they don’t use shoulders or butts, only hams which the owners feel makes the best product.
Due South BBQ (Christiansburg, Virginia)
Another roadside diamond in the rough. Fortunately for us we stayed the night in Christiansburg, Virginia and arrived hungry! Just off I-81 you can find some wonderful barbecue that was clearly made with love. Transplanted in 2007 from South Carolina, the owners Jared and Marie March opened Due South. This place is an order at the counter and grab a table type joint, filled with fun decor with lots of pigs and southern heritage items. These guys know how to smoke pork, but they also know how to make some great sauces too! On our visit there was a local band playing some fun music with a couple of acoustic guitars that made the place hop. Special note about Due South that we really appreciate too: they’ve gone green! All of their packaging is now compostable including straws, lids, cups and napkins. Way to go guys!
Georgia Pig Barbecue (Davie, FL)
This is some traditional, Southern barbecue. They are known for their pulled pork sandwiches, and they do them well. The meat is moist and tender, and perhaps best of all contains plenty of burnt ends (the charred, super-flavorful bits). Try and sit at the counter and talk to the pitmaster as he tends the pit and chops the meat for your sandwich. The day we were there he mentioned that the wood they were burning had been a live tree the day before, which meant it was burning very slow. This made for an especially delicious pig. Their Brunswick Stew is noteworthy as well. The restaurant is no-frills, cash only and seating is limited.