The Best Barbecue in Every State
American barbecue remains as resilient and exciting as ever. Here are the places you can’t miss.
ill not be found in places with host stands and cocktail menus. It will not be found in establishments owned by people who refer to their restaurants as concepts. There won’t be appetizers, and there probably won’t be table service, or anyone asking if you have dined with them before and are you familiar with how the menu works. The decor, ideally, should be accidental.
Barbecue can be defined quite well by what it is not, just as easily as the other way around. It is most definitely about the meat, and whoever is patiently working the pit. They will not feel compelled to feed thousands, sticking rather to what can be comfortably prepared each day at the highest level of quality. When it’s gone, it is gone, and that’s absolutely fine—there’s always another day. Some of the very finest of the species tends to sell out before the lunch hour. The peak experiences often seem to involve some kind of a wait, in lines that will form before the place even opens. Pitmasters are like photographers—the very best equipment will only take you so far. If there’s passion, heart, and anything like love and commitment, it will shine through immediately.
The best barbecue is so much more than what a small group of watchers and scribblers and fanatics have decided is best. Barbecue belongs to all of us, and it was wonderful long before it became a trend; nowadays, it can crop up anywhere, and the cast of characters responsible for this is more diverse than ever. Texas is not the first and last word on the matter, neither the Carolinas; this was never the case, and these days, is less true than ever. We celebrate the very best brisket and whole hog wherever we find them, but this list also has a great deal of affection for the pre-existing culture in so many of the other states.
By now, we’re all well aware of the struggles faced by the restaurant industry, one after the other, like some horrid game of whack-a-mole that only the strongest, or most foolish will survive; from the outright closures in 2020 to labor shortages to brisket price hikes to full-blown inflation, being the best barbecue in America is more of a challenge than ever. And yet, would it surprise you to know just how few of our picks from this list of more than one hundred, initially released in the summer of 2020, has closed since? (You can count them on one hand.) It has been inspirational to see so many of Food & Wine’s long-running favorites pivot to facing each new challenge at sometimes lightening speed. In an era where resilience so often feels like the new wealth, barbecue is not only surviving, but in many cases, it is thriving. Let’s eat.
Though only around since 1961, when George and Betty Archibald started selling pork barbecue from the utilitarian outbuilding behind their home in 1961, Archibald’s Bar-B-Q in Northport feels older. The honking-huge pit opens directly to the front counter, where you’ll find the cashier pulling double duty with the basting mop, ensuring racks of giant spare ribs come to you dripping with orange-red sauce. The ribs here do not win beauty prizes, scraggly and wet and guaranteed to leave a mark all over your front, but they are some of the most memorable in the country. They’d have to be, to survive all these years, just over the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa and Dreamland BBQ, which blazed onto the regional scene a few years prior. The handiwork of John “Big Daddy” Bishop has for years made Dreamland one of Alabama’s best-loved destinations for barbecue, specifically, once again, ribs.
One of the state’s finest qualities is versatility—name it, and somebody’s smoking it, somewhere. In recent years, pit-smoked chicken has all but become the face of regional barbecue, which likely has something to do with that most unique of sauces, the Alabama white, made with mayonnaise, vinegar, and plenty of pepper. Robert Lee Gibson invented the stuff back in the 1920s. Today, Big Bob Gibson‘s in Decatur is something of a pilgrimage site.
Following in the footsteps of Civil Rights Era legends is yet another reason to find yourself in Alabama; two notable restaurants that fed the revolution, both physically and spiritually, remain with us today, and are well worth your time—Brenda’s Bar-B-Q Pit in Montgomery, and Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot in Selma.
Anchorage has seen a number of incarnations of Roscoe’s since Roscoe Wyche Jr. first opened up shop on the doorstep of Elmendorf Air Force Base, back in the 1980s. The proper rib joint, located thousands of miles from where you might have expected to find such a thing, became an essential gathering place for the local Black community, a moment in time that ended in a 1997 fire. A few moves around town and one extended period of R&R in Hawaii later, Roscoe Wyche III and son (he’s #4) opened up a catfish and barbecue place, right behind David Chipperfield’s strikingly modern Anchorage Museum — only to see the dream go up in smoke once again, after a 2021 fire. Something this good, however, is not all that easy to get rid of; on their best days, Roscoe’s ribs are the most essential for many a mile. They are not the only ribs, however; just south of town in one of the most scenic settings for a barbecue restaurant in any of the fifty states, directly across the highway from one of America’s most accessible fjords, Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ has, in recent years, consistently turned out some of the finest barbecue in Alaska, all smoked over local alderwood. Nothing tops the locale, but the pork — pulled, spare ribs, baby backs — put in quite the effort.
Bounding onto the scene with an extraordinary enthusiasm in 2014, Scott and Bekke Holmes’ Little Miss BBQ in Phoenix has by now cemented its status as one of Arizona’s essential restaurants, even if, until very recently, fans would have to line up in the dastardly desert heat — in a haze of beautiful local oak smoke — to get a taste of the best brisket on I-10 between Los Angeles and the Texas Hill Country. Intense demand led to a second location, which offers air conditioning while you wait, for house made hot links, and when they’ve got them, quivering, Flintstonian beef ribs.
Some day we’ll have a National Museum of American Barbecue, and in it there will be a careful reconstruction of the magical Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna, a Mississippi Delta legend often called the country’s oldest Black-owned restaurant, having been around at least since the very beginning of the 20th century, which would make it one of the country’s oldest surviving barbecue restaurants, period. James Jones, now easily near or past retirement age, took the place over from his father, long before many of us were born, and spent five months last year getting things back up and running again after a particularly rough fire.
The unstoppable recipe for wild success — the kind that has the place selling out of hickory and oak-smoked pork shoulder, sometimes just an hour or so after opening — has remained simple: a cinder block pit, piles of wood, and plenty of patience. This is where you come for one of America’s finest pork sandwiches, all smoke and vinegar and flecks of fat, topped with a mustard-tinged slaw and served on basic white bread. Plan a trip around this place — you’re an easy drive from both Memphis and Little Rock, here — and then come back and do it all over again, because once is never enough.
While in the neighborhood, Craig’s in De Valls Bluff is also a must. Here, Robert Craig is carrying on a family tradition dating back to the end of World War II, and your choices are pork or beef. Arkansas’ most visible name in barbecue may have changed hands this year, but McClard’s in Hot Springs, open since 1928, doesn’t seem to be in any danger of becoming irrelevant. Go for ribs, and the famous tamale spread.
Here’s the funny thing about all those Southern Californians moving to Texas, a trend that is very real and not likely to slow anytime soon — one of the greatest barbecue success stories in recent years has been Southern California’s deepening appreciation for the classic Texas style; some of the finest practitioners in the country nowadays can be found in places not all that far from the Pacific coastline. From pop-up to Smorgasburg staple to brick and mortar success story, the search these days begins at Moo’s Craft Barbecue in Los Angeles, where the brisket, the ribs, the hot links, and the beef ribs aren’t so much as good as Texas, very often they’re better. Andrew and Michelle Muñoz practice a kind of chills-down-your-spine, exacting art, fueled by a palpable passion for their work, something not so easily spotted in the barbecue heartlands as you might imagine. Moo’s is not like Texas, it is Texas. The fact that this is happening on the fringes of Downtown Los Angeles is a minor detail. Same goes for Heritage Barbecue in San Juan Capistrano, always worth a drive in order to tap into Daniel Castillo’s seemingly boundless creativity — the brisket here is textbook perfect.
Up north in the Bay Area, great barbecue finally has a (hopefully) forever home at Horn BBQ in West Oakland. Matt Horn has come a long way from his sell-out-situation pop-ups before the pandemic; you still need to get here pretty early if you intend to try everything, and you should.
For a region that rarely comes up in conversations about American barbecue, past, present or future, the Front Range sure has an awful lot of the stuff. As in Southern California, the cross-pollination between here and places traditionally associated with the craft has been nothing short of striking in recent years, very often with the Texans leading the way. Nick Prince, the owner of Post Oak Barbecue in Denver, hails from Fort Worth and imports his own wood from back home; open since 2019, this has emerged as one of the most serious practitioners of the Texas style in the state.
Of course, there are other styles. Arkansas natives Stacy and Colleen Van Tuyl have been representing their state just a few blocks away for nearly a decade now at Ragin’ Hog BBQ, while regional institution Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Q brings us about as close as you can get to a local style, offering up smoked bison, lamb, and other unexpected options.
Show up at Hoodoo Brown’s in Ridgefield on a summer weekend — sun shining, smoke wafting out into the narrow valley funneling Route 7 between Danbury and Norwalk. You’ll get that sense, rather immediately, that you’re in the presence of something just a little bit special. Even in the middle of the pandemic, this place was buzzing with energy you don’t often find at a New England barbecue restaurant. On days when things are really switched on, you’re in immensely capable hands; go for the beautifully barked, cherry red spare ribs, crispy pork belly, pastrami, and a fistful of bacon as an appetizer, just because. Brisket and sausages often show great potential, too. New England has a growing number of options lately, but there’s still very little destination barbecue. Hoodoo Brown’s comes close.
By now, even Wilmington, Delaware, has its share of modern barbecue come-ons, but wrestling the crown from Alphonso Russell will likely take some doing. The charmer behind Russell’s Quality Foods on Centerville Road is one the region’s most capable, most personable pitmasters.
Minutes from I-95, in a liquor store parking lot by another highway, some train tracks, and a rather unkempt brickyard, Russell’s bright red cart, next to the smokers billowing oak and hickory, has been one of the finest pit stops on the New York-Washington run for nearly fifteen years now. The specialty is pork — juicy chunks of chopped shoulder, scraggly, barked-to-the-max spare ribs — but also chicken, from standard smoked yardbird to an excellent jerk situation. When Russell reminds you to remember to come early, he’s not just making one of his sales pitches — the good stuff often sells out. If you show up too-too early in the day, never mind, because he’ll be here, slinging scrapple sandwiches for your breakfast. Honestly, this place is a Mid-Atlantic dream.
Rashad and Patrice Jones were running a mighty fine barbecue trailer in Ocala back in 2014, producing the sort of brisket you drive an hour for, perhaps longer, when the Food Network came calling in the form of Guy Fieri, Patron Saint of the Mom and Pop, which made Rashad and Big Lee’s BBQ nationally famous. Six years from those humble beginnings, the hubbub may have died down, but the lines most certainly have not. The Joneses now have a handful of trucks making the rounds in Central Florida, like planets orbiting their humble-seeming headquarters. The offerings here are pleasingly simple, with relatively few distractions from the meat, as they are not needed. These sausages would be welcome on most any chopping block in Texas, from jalapeño cheese to a recent Margherita, which is exactly what it sounds like. Think of this as a tribute to the Jones’ birthplace — New Jersey.
Up in Jacksonville, Jenkins’ Quality Barbecue has been a local essential for nigh half a century, and to this day tempts with smoked chicken dripping with vivid yellow mustard sauce, similar (but different) to the stuff reeling in fans way down south in Davie, where the Georgia Pig has been smoking pork over oak in a massive open pit since the 1950s. Headed to the Keys? Grab a plate of ribs first at Shiver’s BBQ, a staple in furthest Homestead for over half a century.
When Texas-born Cody Taylor and 1980s K-pop teen idol Jiyeon Lee opened Heirloom Market BBQ a decade ago, the plan was to delve into their wildly different backgrounds to create something Atlanta couldn’t help but fall in love with. Early on, the couple essentially stumbled into creating their Spicy Korean Pork Sandwich, initially made with leftovers, that became one of the city’s most iconic sandwiches. Pork is rubbed down with gochujang, gochugaru, smoked over hickory and oak, then served with crunchy kimchi pickles and slaw on a perfect, just-absorbent-enough potato bun. How you’re supposed to pick yourself up off the floor for the rest of the barbecue in Atlanta, who knows. Save space for the brisket, often better here than other places in town that have made their reputation on the stuff.
For a proper glimpse of Georgia’s considerable barbecue heritage, you’ll need to leave town. The star of the show will nearly always be Brunswick stew, Georgia barbecue’s slow-cooked pride and joy — a melange of meat and veg cooked down, often for so long, you could nearly stand your spoon in the stuff and walk away. Your first taste ought to be at Fresh Air BBQ in Jackson, now and hopefully for a long time to come the poster child for classic Georgia barbecue.
Texpat James Kim took O’ahu by surprise when he fired up his smoker back in 2016, turning out real-deal brisket and great spare ribs. A few years later, Kim’s Sunset Texas BBQ in Honolulu, practically walking distance from Waikiki, has proved to be one of the more enthusiastic practitioners of the Central Texas style west of the Rockies — in this case, way, way west. Kim’s Creekstone Farms beef ribs are worth splashing out for, if you can even get your hands on one.
Not that Hawaii was sitting around waiting for a primer on how to slow-cook meat. The traditional preparation for kalūa pig is quite literally pit cooking, wherein an underground oven is lined with leaves of the local Ti plant. You’ll find excellent pork served with cabbage at Helena’s Hawaiian Food, a Honolulu essential since the World Wars. Mostly, the rest of what we refer to as Hawaiian BBQ isn’t true barbecue at all, though you’d be a fool to skip a plate of the liliko’i basted ribs at Honolulu’s vintage Side Street Inn. It turns out tart Hawaiian passionfruit pairs exceptionally well with pork.
Little Arco, Idaho — “First City in The World to be Lit by Atomic Power!” — is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, even by Idaho standards, but life takes people strange places. Kentucky native Lloyd Westbrook ended up getting a job here, back in the 1980s, hanging around and opening Grandpa’s Southern BBQ a number of years later. He wasn’t sure who would find him, or if they’d last, but a quarter of a century later, the restaurant is thriving in Idaho Falls, drawing transplanted Southerners and curious natives from across the state. Attached to a modest motel, the truck stop-like dining room feels almost homey with the Westbrook family — that’s Grandma Loretta in the kitchen — running the show. Cherry-red baby backs here come plain, as they ought to. These are some mighty fine ribs, with little or nothing to hide.
When you think rib tips, the slaughterhouse castoff that has been Chicago’s primary contribution to American barbecue for the better part of a century, think of Lem’s Bar-B-Q, of charred tips dripping deep red sauce, served with white bread to mop the whole mess up. Come to this South Side institution on a brutal winter day, huddle up with the masses in the narrow holding area between the exterior windows and the bulletproof divider, and you’re already feeling warmer, or at least you will when you get out of the cold and into a Lem’s plate, which ought to include some of those hickory-smoked, orange-red spare ribs, not to mention the unfussed hot links, all coming out of the city’s largest aquarium smoker, yet another only-in-Chicago oddity. James Lemons is gone now, but thankfully the family is keeping on. We’d be poorer without a place like Lem’s on the landscape. Essential to any Chicago tip crawl: the much newer Honey 1 BBQ. In a relatively short amount of time, Arkansas-born Robert Adams has created a new South Side classic.
Way south, don’t miss David Sandusky’s BEAST Craft BBQ in Belleville, where the boundlessly flavorful wagyu brisket offers a delicious reminder that meat quality really matters; not much farther to the east, Murphysboro is home to the famous 17th Street Barbecue, an early adopter on the modern barbecue scene. The dry-rubbed baby backs remain an Illinois essential.
Right around the turn of the century, before everyone and their uncle was out there trying to bring a taste of Texas to fill-in-the-blank, Hank Fields had an idea. An East Texan by birth, Fields had been living in Indianapolis for the longest time, for decades, actually, and mostly he liked it fine, but there was one thing he missed, and that was brisket. In 2004, he opened up Hank’s Smoked Briskets, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where he began smoking brisket over mesquite wood, procured on his semi-annual road trips back to the mother state, that has brought a great deal of joy to Indianapolis barbecue lovers. There isn’t much to the place, save a spartan waiting room with all the charm of a plasma donor center, but just you try to get people to stop coming.
Not that there aren’t other options in Indy these days; there has, much more recently, been a push into the more modern Texas style, fronted by Old Gold BBQ, a truck that parks at a local brewery from Thursday through Sunday every week. Brittany Kobayashi and Alex George spent years in Austin before opening up here.
Facing outward into the cornfields on the fringes of tiny Luther, where the star attraction prior to 2017 was the grain co-op, Whatcha’ Smokin’ comes off a bit slick at first, but has quickly become one of the closest things Iowa has to a proper, rural barbecue pit stop. It comes down, very quickly, to the meat, beginning with shreds of bark-flecked pulled pork, stacked simply on a bun with no sauce, which, for this part of the world, is kind of a big deal.
There is confidence behind this sandwich, the product of roughly 16 hours of work, for every batch, every time. It shows. (Ask if they have pork steaks on special, and if not, sliced Iowa pork loin is a tasty consolation prize.) You have to guess that if business partners Steve Perlowski and Tanya Doyle were going to do it all over again, they might not have opened in such a sleepy town. The first couple of years, things were a bit dramatic; in the end, they had to buy the neighbor’s property, just to keep the peace, with all of the eager traffic they suddenly had beating a path to their door.
The pint-sized brick hut down in the industrial lowlands of Kansas City, doing business since the late 1980s as Jones Bar-B-Q, was always pretty easy to overlook. Deborah “Little” Jones and Mary “Shorty” Jones Mosley grew up with this place, long the domain of their father, Leavy, who taught them how to stoke the pits, how to stuff a hot link, and everything else you need to know to run a good barbecue joint. For a long time, they were the mostly unsung heroes of the sprawling Kansas City barbecue scene, firmly committed to wood-only at a time when the region was, quite frankly, getting a bit lazy about the process. Then the Queer Eye crew came calling, gave the place a makeover (the episode aired a year or so ago), and now the sisters are barbecue celebrities, drawing, in normal times, adoring fans from around the world.
Last fall, lines were often Texas-sized, for sausages (with a secret spice blend), for smoky burnt ends dripping in the house sauce (which you can now order online), and for rib tips. A temperature-controlled, 24/7 vending machine stuffed with brisket sandwiches has proved exceptionally popular this year, too.
Elsewhere in the city, brothers Mike and Joe Pearce may not have become television stars, but their no-frills Slap’s BBQ, opened in 2014, continues to speak for itself. The place may not be much to look at, but the meats are everything.
After inventing two of the most unique dishes to grace American barbecue culture, one is permitted to kick back and relax for a spell. Mutton, otherwise known as lamb once it grows up, is the currency in Owensboro, where the Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q have been cooking over hickory for generations, meat made tender with lashings of Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, vinegar, and an array of seasonings. The result is smoky, funky, and like no other. And that’s not all. Kentucky also, quite proudly, gave America burgoo, a slow-cooked, typically mutton-based stew, which America for the most part appears to have tasted politely, passed the pot to their neighbor, and gone in for seconds of flaccid macaroni and cheese. Their loss.
Continue your journey through Kentucky barbecue heritage with a stop for basted pork steaks — another unusual contribution to the culture — at R&S Barbecue in Tompkinsville, barely two hours of country road from Nashville, and worth the trip.
Where is all the barbecue in Louisiana? A perfectly reasonable question, considering this near-ancient settlement of cocktail enthusiasts is surrounded by states known well for their prowess at the pit. Conventional wisdom will dictate that Louisiana, setting aside her many other talents, doesn’t really have much to contribute to this particular conversation. However, anyone who wants to go down that cowardly road will find one, highly crave able roadblock in their way: the mighty smoked boudin link, the ones you can get at the likes of the legendary One Stop in Scott, at the heart of Cajun country. Think plump sausages stuffed with expertly spiced pork and rice, especially transcendent after a trip to the smokehouse. Think sausages in general, really, like the the garlicky hot links plucked straight from the smoker at Johnson’s Boucaniere in Lafayette, or the selection of smoky andouille you will find at little local markets like Russell’s Food Center in Arnaudville —really, any kind of smoked sausage you can locate, and there is so much of it.
So things sort of grind to a halt, historically, after that, but these people invented the Sazerac — we can let it slide.Not to erase the existence of the state’s small selection of barbecue places, or anything, because some good ones definitely do exist; look for those that lean into their Louisiana roots, like Cou-yon’s Cajun BBQ in Port Allen, just over the Mississippi from Baton Rouge. Get the smoked meatloaf po-boy on Gambino’s French bread, served with a side of brown gravy.
One of the first valuable lessons learned over the lifetime of this project? Be more skeptical. Skeptical of the places that used all the right words. Skeptical of places, often born yesterday, that appeared to have the greatest grasp of which way barbecue was trending. In this new age where everybody suddenly seems to know just enough about the craft to be dangerous, it is easy to get distracted by the new and the bright and the shiny, when what you really ought to be doing is embracing the barbecue that was there to begin with, the places that were already blending in beautifully with the landscape. There is no rule that says barbecue must hew to the standards of an often far away region, and anyone who says so is no fun, and cannot sit with us. Unless you’re an actual Texan with a ton of experience, is it not better to lean into your surroundings, to ask yourself— what is, for instance, Maine barbecue?
Chances are, it looks something like Spring Creek Bar-B-Q, way up in the interior town of Monson; after something like two decades in existence, Mike and Kim Witham’s quirky pit stop for rough and tumble baby backs, beef ribs, cherry-red slow-smoked prime rib, and all sorts of interesting specials, strong sides, and homemade desserts, everything sourced locally where possible, is one of those places that tells you exactly where you are. This isn’t trying to be someone else’s barbecue. This belongs wholly to Maine. You probably spent hours driving to get here — what else, besides Maine, would you be looking for?
Nothing will quite prepare you for your first visit to Jake’s Grill. You go down a bucolic stretch of the Falls Road, north of Baltimore where city turns into county turns into nearly-rural idyll, and then, there’s a grubby vinyl-sided shack, those absolute clouds of smoke, and a parking lot most likely overflowing with cars, if we’re anywhere close to lunch time. The rustic interior is an unfamiliar maze. There are unwritten rules the first-timer must navigate on the fly — order here, wait there, pay here — and because this is not a large establishment, by any stretch of the imagination, you will have an audience, casually evaluating your performance.
Technically, Jake’s is not a barbecue joint, though it has the soul of a very good one. This is one of the finest pit beef joints, in one of the country’s finest cities. Searching for great barbecue in Maryland is not the best use of anyone’s time — not when the preferred local alternative is staring you right in the face. Cooked over charcoal, this is essentially the roast beef sandwich of your dreams, smoke-kissed, pretty in pink, thinly sliced, piled on a roll and crowned with a wallop of tiger sauce, which is basically horseradish and mayonnaise. Pit beef is just as important to Baltimore as the crab cake, or anything crab-related.
Jake’s may be the most memorable, but it is far from the last word on the topic; you must also go to Pioneer Pit Beef in Catonsville, with its comfortingly worn interior that ought to be landmarked by now, and definitely make time for go-getter Chaps Pit Beef out on the Pulaski Highway, which lately has been spawning locations elsewhere.
While we’re way off-piste, we might as well talk about another Mid-Atlantic tradition, loosely referred to as “Amish BBQ,” which may be neither Amish nor BBQ, which hardly matters when you’ve got a whole chicken in front of you. You’ll find these operations in what are referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch markets, or Dutch markets, or Amish markets, scattered about the most populated areas of the state, mostly south of Baltimore. These are not full-blown, photogenic public markets in the regional style, but seek them out anyway. They’re typically a great source of simple, affordable, and delicious food.
Inevitably, each market will feature a barbecue component — E&S at the cavernous Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Annapolis, King’s BBQ in Germantown at the Lancaster County Dutch Market, Yoder’s at the Dutch Village Markets in Laurel and Upper Marlboro. How much smoke have the ribs and chicken seen? Who knows. One thing’s for certain — the meat is nearly always very good.
A claim of first-class barbecue existing across the street from Old Sturbridge Village, New England’s premier living museum, dedicated to the glorification of a culture that to this day still buys brown bread in a can from the supermarket, was too bold not to put to the test back in the summer of 2017, when this list was still in the plotting stages. B.T.’s Smokehouse was one of those early signals that the future of American barbecue would be relatively borderless. Brian Treitman’s sliced brisket was, and remains some of the best you’ll try in New England. With his chef’s background and more than a decade of dogged commitment, he keeps proving, over and over again, that Texas, or being Texan, isn’t a requirement. The beef ribs — not quite the monsters being hawked all over the country just now, but still, more than generous enough — are smoked over apple and hickory and good to the last shred. This is the perfect summer evening mini-adventure from Boston, or from anywhere within an hour or two, really — a messy, joyful expression of Northeast barbecue. Note: There’s a new location in Worcester.
At Kinfolks BBQ in Taunton, southern transplant Sylvester English oversees the execution of some of the Bay State’s finest ribs; Smokey Divas in Pittsfield is a can-do neighborhood spot where owner Lorraine Jones descends from California barbecue royalty. Her grandmother, Dorothy Turner, opened one of Oakland’s longest-running Black-owned restaurants, Everett & Jones Barbecue, back in the early 1970s. Just ten minutes or so from Tanglewood, and a world away.
Researching any kind of list involving restaurants in the middle of a pandemic was not without challenges, but when it came to barbecue, the process was often more efficient than ever. Goodbye to waiting in long lines, hello to online ordering and timed pickups, and also to eating a lot of barbecue in your own kitchen. Once you learn how to reheat brisket properly, there’s almost nothing lost in translation. Eating at home also gives you the opportunity to try new things, for example eating brisket over a bowl of chewy short-grain rice, the high-quality kind they grow in Northern California — you can find it in most supermarkets nowadays, and easily make at home yourself. Throw in a splash of whatever kind of condiment, from Red Boat to Sriracha to a few dashes of Kikkoman, and then some chopped scallions so you can say you ate a vegetable, and there you have it — one of the best leftover lunches of all time. The inspiration for this dish, we’ll happily cop to, came after a visit to Frank Ferejan’s Chamorro-style Ricewood in Ann Arbor, one of the Midwest’s most welcomed, most unexpected contributions to the culture in recent years. At first a seasonal thing operating out of a local wine bar, Ferejan now has his own place. Michigan’s best brisket, over two scoops rice? All day, every day.
Leave room in your heart, always, however, for a carry-out tray from any or all of Detroit’s surviving classics — smoky spare ribs from Vicki’s on one of many lonely stretches of West Warren Avenue, messy sandwiches and peach cobbler from Parks Old Style’s half-century-old pit, and a plate of lean tips and fries from Nunn’s, way up off of Seven Mile, where they also sell pigs feet sandwiches and smoked turkey chops.
Sitting out in the sunshine with a tray from Jon Wipfli’s Animales Barbecue was a summer highlight, and not just because perfect summer days in Minneapolis are as rare as truly great brisket. Wipfli, with an impressive restaurant background and a truck parked in a brewery courtyard, manages to leave a serious impression from the word go, picking a few things and doing them extraordinarily well. Minnesota oak-smoked, red-ringed beef cheeks, dry-rubbed racks of ribs where the meat quality leaps out at you, juicy slabs of brown sugar pork belly rendered so expertly, you barely remember not to overdo it.
The accompaniments, too, reach levels most do not, from freshly baked biscuits, to a unique mustard butter sauce, and sugar-cured jalapeños. This is one of those places where you’ll probably feel like trying everything, and you probably should.
Wipfli arrived on a scene that had already begun to show considerable promise. The alluring selection at early adopter Revival BBQ can be difficult to pass up, while the beef situation at the well-pedigreed and promising new Minnesota BBQ Co. (smoked aged ribeye, definitely down with that) begs further scrutiny.
Just making it through 2020 in one piece might be a lofty goal for any restaurant, or any person, but Hattiesburg classic Leatha’s Bar-B-Que appears to be held together with stronger stuff than most, successfully executing a move earlier this summer to the nearby town of Petal. Landing in a defunct Dickey’s was just the latest plot point in the colorful story of one of Mississippi’s most iconic BBQ joints. Founded in the mid-1970s by Leatha Jackson, who they used to call the barbecue queen of Mississippi, the restaurant had thrived under daughter Bonnie when Miss Leatha decided to retire, back in 2009. Both have passed, and grandson Brian Jackson is now at the helm, along with two other family members, and — here’s the really important part — they still have some of the best ribs (not only pork, but beef, too) in the state. Pandemic-era bonus: There’s now a drive-thru.
Up in the Delta, Abe’s in Clarksdale — right at the actual crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil — is trucking along as well, as it has done since the 1920s. Here, sandwiches of pecan-smoked pork with slaw and plenty of tomato-based sauce are the go-to, along with Delta-style tamales.
Back in the 1970s, Calvin Trillin famously wrote about the burnt edges of the brisket handed over the counter for free at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, a restaurant he considered to be the best in the world. For many barbecue lovers of a certain age, their first Bryant’s burnt ends sandwich, an unholy mess of bark and meat and sauce, getting into everywhere and on everything, remains a benchmark, even if barbecue culture has come a long way since. In these modern times, an already freewheeling Kansas City’s attentions have been pulled in all sorts of directions, Bryant’s remains an essential, much like the ribs at Gates Bar-B-Q, particularly the original location, alongside the entire experience at LC’s Bar-B-Q. The burnt ends at LC’s are more the modern variety, cleanly cubed second-cut brisket, but they’re damn good.
None of this is to discount the contributions of the newer arrivals. Missouri is very much on that short list of states where you want to pay attention to more recent developments. We can begin right in Kansas City with Tyler Harp, an avid student of the modern school, who sells the top brisket in town right now, if you can catch it. Harp Barbecue is a very popular, Friday and Saturday affair at a brewery in Raytown. Harp isn’t the only one that has Missourians falling in love with a new kind of barbecue. At Springfield’s City Butcher and BBQ, the energy (and the meat) practically shout Central Texas, even though you’re barely an hour from Branson.
Montana’s Paradise Valley is A River Runs Through It country, a gorgeous part of the world barely 45 minutes from Yellowstone National Park, and maybe it’s the rush after a day of exploring, or the never-ending mountain views from the patio, or the good-natured hospitality, but there’s something about those ribs — like all the meats, Montana-sourced — at the kitschy and friendly Follow Yer’ Nose BBQ, one hell of a roadside stop in the small town of Emigrant. Taylor Henson started small, very small, back in 2012, slowly building his experimental operation into the full-blown destination you’ll find here today.
Back in the early 1980s, when a much younger Terry Rupert first opened Grandpa’s, his modest rib joint — which he ran as a side project — was one of a handful of Black-owned businesses in Lincoln. It was the beginning of an impressive, decades-long adventure for the serial entrepreneur, who named his establishment after an acquaintance in the neighborhood. By now a grandfather himself and close to retirement age, Rupert has gone back to his roots, firing up the smoker at his gas station on O Street. If you can catch him in action (cryptic messages on the Grandpa’s Ribs Facebook page provide the clues), you’re in for a treat.
Easier to track down are the brisket, ribs, and sausages at the Smokin’ Barrel in suburban Omaha, barely an hour away. If you’re way, way up north, so far that you can see South Dakota across the Missouri River, you might be near Backroad Bar-B-Q in St. Helena, in which case you should count yourself lucky — they do a mighty fine smoked prime rib.
Chuck Frommer was born and raised on a ranch — complete with abattoir — not far from Downtown Las Vegas, back before development sought to tamp down every dusty square mile of the valley. Everything has changed now, of course, but you will find Frommer right where he’s always been. Today, he’s the third-generation owner of the family property, well-hidden inside one of those appealing old neighborhoods where people still keep horses on oversized lots, where the homes aren’t all from the same stucco-blasted insta-kit. You can still drop off your bagged game to be dressed, any time of day or night during hunting season, but in recent years at John Mull’s Meats, the busiest side of things seems to be the butcher shop and barbecue business. Local regulars and visiting fans who’ve seen Frommer and crew on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives will wait much longer in the desert heat than you might like to, for well-priced beef rib dinners, fine tri-tip (something you just don’t find enough of anymore), homemade hot links (a house specialty), and burnt ends. This isn’t a slick operation — just an old ranch property/ex-slaughterhouse turned butcher shop turned wildly popular barbecue counter. In an increasingly paved-over Las Vegas, Mull’s offers a not-so-secret portal to the past, plus you’re getting ribs, too. Everybody wins.
The valley is crawling with barbecue these days, most of it passable to good; the closest to the ideal is Top Chef grad Bruce Kalman’s Soulbelly BBQ in the Arts District. Go early for the best of everything.
There relative insularity of the Granite State and its barbecue scene, which is not as small as you might think, tends to hold things back time and again. From classics to newcomers, there is a vast difference between the local definition of excellence and what is now routine in other, luckier places. You won’t ever go really wrong with a rack of ribs from Goody Cole’s Smokehouse in Brentwood, for example, and there’s nothing wrong with Smokeshow in Concord, which can do some fine work when firing on all cylinders, particularly on the turkey and pork loin front, or even the even more recent Smokehaus in Amherst, where pulled pork — classic shreds of shoulder, with plenty of nicely-seasoned bark in the mix — was a recent star on a hefty combo plate. Overall, however this is one of those states just aching for a little innovation. That, or a few Texans who really know their stuff.
The meat candy they call ribs at Henri’s Hotts, way down in that part of rural South Jersey that starts to feel like the actual South (maybe that’s just the mind playing tricks) is one of the more likable examples of Northeast barbecue; back in 2009, on the heels of a career in law enforcement, Douglas Henri acquired an old pizza place along a rural stretch of Black Horse Pike near Hammonton, turning it into a very unusual kind of barbecue joint, one featuring a pre-Covid-19 times weekend buffet of what we might call New Jersey soul cooking. The joint has quietly become one of the best places for barbecue anywhere near Philadelphia, mostly because of those ribs, smoked out back over oak and hickory, generously lacquered with Henri’s own nicely balanced but relatively sweet sauce. Nothing fancy, but entirely memorable; an ideal stop on your way down the Shore.
From here, it’s worth making the scenic drive to Christine’s House of Kingfish Barbecue in Shamong, past the picturesque bogs and blueberry patches of the Pine Barrens. This time, the sauce is more like a bright, savory tomato gravy, unlike anything you’ve probably ever had on ribs; back in so-called civilization, be sure to stop at the Trenton Farmers’ Market, where Jeff McKay has been turning out as close to great brisket as can be found in New Jersey, smoked over local cherry wood, since 2013. His no-frills operation, Hambone Opera, is also responsible for some fine baby backs — no sauce, it’s not needed.
Before there was so much more to distract us, any talk of a Central Texas pilgrimage centered around Lockhart, which happens to be the town where James Jackson grew up, pitching in at local barbecue legend Black’s while still attending high school, where classmates included Kreuz Market pitmaster Roy Perez. There are so many options now, but Lockhart remains a must for any serious student of the craft, even if you won’t find Jackson there. He’s now living over the state line and up at about 8,700 feet in Cloudcroft, which is where people from West Texas go skiing on the weekends, or at least they do when they’re not standing in line at Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue, which Jackson opened a few years ago to nearly immediate success, after spending a considerable amount of time learning the ropes back in Lockhart.
The rule here seems to be, if it’s good in Central Texas, it’s equally good here, though the brisk air, scented with post oak (in the smoker) and pine (not in the smoker) does wonders for one’s appetite. Salt and pepper brisket, classic hot links, beautiful beef ribs, too. Just like in Texas, you come early, or you take your chances.
This isn’t the first time a Lone Star stater has successfully charmed the neighbors with their prowess at the pit. Roughly half a century earlier, Pete Powdrell left East Texas for Albuquerque, and to this day, Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House remains one of the city’s only Black-owned businesses. It’s still in the family, and still serving up platters of hickory-smoked pork, sauced liberally with the sweet, sharp house blend.
New York City and barbecue have long been, for the most part, a hopeless mismatch. Everything that is demanded — strict oversight, commitment to craft, quality over quantity — is wrong for New York, where there are always more bills to pay, investors to pacify, and, understandably, growth opportunities to be seized. There have been so many bright spots in the last decade and change, but then comes the inevitable scaling up, the additional locations here, there, everywhere, and like clockwork, the decline in quality, because the original, passionate team is now spread so awfully thin.
Right now, New York is left with one address that so far has weathered it all, including a branching out of their own; Brooklyn native Billy Durney’s Hometown Bar-B-Que, way down in Red Hook, is easily one of the most famous barbecue places north of the Mason-Dixon Line for one simple reason: even in the middle of a pandemic, the meat here is just that good. There’s no better brisket to be had this deep into the Northeast, but don’t brush past the more unique offerings, smoky lamb belly, and racks of jerk ribs. They’re part of the greatness, too.
Long before barbecue became a genuine thing in New York City, Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q in Oneonta was one of the state’s better-known addresses. Dating back to the early 1960s, they’re still hard at it, still filling up that giant indoor charcoal pit most days, and turning out some excellent chicken.
Before artfully arranged brisket trays became an Instagram holy grail, there was that little paper boat stack at Ayden’s Skylight Inn, a thing of simple beauty, almost unparalleled in American barbecue — a nest of finely chopped, lightly seasoned whole hog, cooked over oak for 18 hours, that coleslaw, that minimalist slab of cornbread, looking like an ancient snack. Forget, for a moment, the rest. Whole hog, as expressed in this part of the world, remains perhaps our closest link to early American barbecue, Skylight being the oldest surviving practitioner, dating back to 1947, when a teenaged Pete Jones set up shop on a piece of family property.
Today, this is one of three essential Eastern Carolina stops. There’s Sam Jones BBQ, closer to Greenville, that’s Pete’s grandson, and you’ve also got Grady’s in Dudley, where Steve and Gerri Grady have been doing things the right way since the 1980s. There’s more than one way to chop up a pig, of course. Serious students of the North Carolina way will next make the drive west to Lexington, where for more than a century, pork shoulders have been the currency, with a sauce tinged red with tomato.
Lexington continues to support an impressive number of barbecue joints per capita, and you’ll begin the inevitable crawl at Lexington Barbecue, an institution since 1962, founded by late local celebrity Wayne Monk. Touch North Carolina’s Civil Rights era history with a stop at Hop’s Bar-B-Que in Asheboro. More than just a cute 1950s relic, this was famously the site of a student sit-in, back in 1964.
With all the back and forth that goes on between oil patches, it seemed as if North Dakota’s would eventually give rise to some proper barbecue. Back in 2017, this most remote (and most underserved) of states found salvation in the form of Monty’s BBQ, operated out of a vintage camping trailer on a vacant lot in Minot. For the best brisket and burnt ends (and sausage, too) the town had most likely ever seen, they had Daniel Montgomery, a Texas native, to thank. Once stationed at the nearby air force base, he’d developed a fondness for the place, moving his family back here years later.
There is so much barbecue in Ohio, but when you finally land at Ray Ray’s Hog Pit, with locations in and around Columbus, you kind of know the search is over; the original in Clintonville, a ramshackle setup evoking the East Side of Austin more than a bar parking lot near Ohio State, is top notch, though you can never really go wrong anywhere, as long as you start with a rack of taut, dry-rubbed baby backs, no sauce please, the better to taste every bite of that very fine pork. Owner James Anderson is one of those rare types serious enough about meat quality to start raising his own heritage breed pigs, on a 15-acre farm he owns east of town. The grass-fed brisket, when you can catch it, is exceptional.
An hour and a half is all it takes to go at least a few decades back in time, and we say that with a lot of love for Cincinnati, where Eli’s BBQ, which also boasts a variety of locations, one of them at the excellent old Findlay Market, does a fine, classic pulled pork sandwich. Think gauzy strands of hickory-smoked shoulder on a bun, topped with a classic, sweeter sauce. Nicely crisp coleslaw comes on the side; best to add it directly to your sandwich.
Keeping up with the neighbors can be a difficult task, particularly when your neighbor is Texas. The key with Oklahoma is not to compare the barbecue to what you will find one state over; rather, embrace the way they do things here, and one of the things Oklahoma does best is bologna. That’s right, smoked bologna, thick slabs of the stuff, like a poor man’s brisket, and you will find some of the best at one of Tulsa’s most unique restaurants, a Lebanese steakhouse (a marvelous Oklahoma thing) called Jamil’s, named for the founder Jamil Elias, who opened the place back in 1946. Here, you can have bologna as an appetizer, along with hummus and cabbage rolls. There’s another, owned by one of the founder’s nephews, in Oklahoma City, where the bologna sandwich, served with a side of tabbouleh, is said to be the most popular lunch item.
There’s bologna everywhere, once you start looking for it. They sell the stuff any way you like it at the family-owned Leo’s BBQ, also in Oklahoma City, while the simple $5 sandwich at Tulsa’s Burn Co. BBQ, where the heavy lifting is done using Hasty Bake grills, is a cheap little thrill worth going for. Looking for the more serious meats? Follow the plumes of pecan smoke to Leon’s Smoke Shack in Tulsa. Leon Thompson’s retirement project — it beats, he will tell you, sitting around watching Judge Judy reruns — has become one of the city’s best stops for pork ribs, though there’s bologna here, too.
Let’s just jump in and say this, straight up. There are two places for world-class barbecue west of the Rocky Mountains right now. One of them is Southern California, and the other is Portland, where a talented group, mostly operating from carts, as one famously does in Portland, have managed to create a scene that is worth traveling for.
Unfortunately, the last couple of years have been rough on that same scene. To try the perfectly rendered spare ribs, peppery brisket, and classic, Lockhart-style links that made Holy Trinity Barbecue one of the best practitioners in the entire Pacific Northwest, you’ll have to hustle a little harder than you did back when Texas native Kyle Rensmeyer had his cart up and running; these days, you’ll have to follow his schedule of events and pop-ups on Instagram, but try enough barbecue around town and you’ll know — it’s always worth the effort. Not that you shouldn’t make time for the rest of it. Michael Keskin has been ably demonstrating a talent for lean brisket you can’t get enough of at Bark City BBQ, while the Thai ribs and smoky barbecue fried rice at Eem — a delicious collaboration between Bangkok-born restaurateur Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and local early-adopter barbecue star Matt Vicedomini — is one of Portland’s more memorable meals.
Pennsylvania loves to eat, and seems to love barbecue well enough, so why is there still so little to get excited about? Some promising places have popped up in recent years, but they don’t seem to last very long, either closing or slowly sinking into the mire of complacency. Not that there aren’t bright spots, like Ryan and Autumn Atzert’s Federal Hill Smokehouse, way up in Erie. On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer that you have to drive all the way to Erie for their honking beef ribs, when they have them, for deep-fried pulled pork cakes served with chipotle cream, for sliced smoked turkey, sausages, and, of course, brisket. In the end, what’s important is that a place this good exists — if only it were closer to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the better to influence the culture.
In Philly, you can’t really go wrong with the ribs at Mike’s BBQ, some of the finest in the state, and there are all kinds of reasons to root for the more recent, well-pedigreed Zig Zag BBQ, which feels a lot like the future of barbecue in Pennsylvania — we’re definitely keeping tabs.
Mortgage banker turned barbecue hobbyist turned restaurateur turned proud owner of a 1930s diner, John Hanaway is one of those people appearing to possess a boundless energy for reinvention. Alongside wife, Rhonda, Johnny’s Victory Diner has become exactly the sort of thing you would hope to find in a place like Rhode Island. First of all, it’s still an actual, honest-to-goodness New England counter joint, with creative breakfast specials and a loyal following. Now, however, it is a diner that is also a barbecue joint, with a massive, custom-built barrel smoker sitting right outside, burning through local oak and apple wood for the Friday barbecue nights, where pulled pork, brisket, and ribs are stars of the show.
Try not to laugh at your first plate of barbecue from the Midlands region of South Carolina, on which there will typically be shards of pulled pork, tossed in a sort of burnt yellow mustard sauce, along with a healthy portion of hash, South Carolina’s famous slow-cooked, somewhat yellow pork stew, ladled over mounds of white rice. You’ve heard of brown food, right? Say hello to yellow food. Welcome to one of the most distinctive regional styles on this list, one you won’t typically see on menus in Los Angeles or New York or Mexico City or Paris, like you will Central Texas, or even Eastern Carolina whole hog. To this day, the Midlands style still belongs mostly to the place of its birth, and can be hard to find, even here.
This is history you can taste, nose-to-tail cooking before that became a trend. Historically, hash was to South Carolina cooks what scrapple was to Pennsylvania farmers; you took the scraps, the bits, the last of the pig, and you cooked it down, so far as to be unrecognizable, seasoning well and adding tomato or mustard, cooking it some more, and serving it over rice, a staple of the South Carolina plate.
Hash, you will find, is never the same thing twice, not completely. It is popular enough in the places still around to serve it that you’ll find them using lots of pork shoulder, or even ham. Whatever the process, the end result is the same — hearty, soulful comfort cooking, a window to the past. Back in his time, Jack O’Dell was known as the Hash King. Today, Midway BBQ in Buffalo, which dates back to the 1940s, is still operated by his daughter. At Big T Bar-B-Q in Gadsden, they’ll do a hash and rice dinner with two sides for less than $8. (This is a great stop on the way to Congaree National Park.) West Columbia, just over the Congaree River from the state capital, is home to two essential hash stops, True BBQ and Hite’s BBQ, while Sweatman’s Barbecue in nearby Holly Hill, another classic, offers an all-you-can-eat-style setup.
It also happens to be located halfway to Charleston, so you may as well keep going. Here, second generation pitmaster and whole hog evangelist Rodney Scott, whose family still practices the Pee Dee regional style of barbecue up in Hemingway (go at least once, it’s a trip), opened up Rodney Scott BBQ to much fanfare in 2017. From here, you’re just over half a mile, you can walk even, to Lewis Barbecue, opened a year earlier and easily the finest Central Texas-style establishment in the Southeast. John Lewis was an early player on the New Austin scene. Bet you never thought you’d see brisket and beef ribs this good in South Carolina. Great news for Upstaters — there’s a location about to open in Greenville.
The remoteness of the beautiful Black Hills region hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the more interesting little barbecue clusters to be found outside of traditional barbecue country; the most fully-formed of the bunch is JR’s BBQ Pit in Summerset, just outside of Rapid City, where Justin Rhodes has been showing off his considerable talents for the better part of a decade. When you find yourself anywhere within striking distance, think seriously about a drive for the Friday night beef rib special, a pound or so of well-seasoned, properly smoked love at an extremely reasonable price. One more stop, if you’re in the neighborhood — Bunky’s for ribs and the Friday brisket special, over in Spearfish.
There are more than a few states with competing regional styles of barbecue; Tennessee is one of them. In Memphis, for example, you can practically break it down by neighborhood, or even by which of the iconic barbecue places you are currently standing in line for.
Here more than most places, and for whatever reason, the greats are very often defined by the people responsible for them; there’s Flora Payne, matriarch of Payne’s Bar-B-Q, founded in 1972 by her late husband, Horton. Today, Flora still runs the place with her children, Ron and Candace, and her chopped pork sandwich, stacked with freshly made coleslaw and doused in two sauces — one sweet, one tangy and mustard-based — is a messy, beautiful spectacle. This isn’t dry-rub ribs at the Rendezvous, but it’s as essential as Memphis comes. There is also Desiree Robinson, owner of the Cozy Corner, another ’70s-era institution. Robinson took over when her husband, Raymond, died in 2001, and the place is run by multiple generations of Robinsons. They do a smoked Cornish hen that just might lure you away from ordering a mess of saucy ribs. Don’t let this happen, because you need to order both.
One could eat barbecue in Memphis for a week, probably more, and still not have doubled back, but there’s more to the state, beginning next door in rural West Tennessee. There, the whole hog tradition had in recent years been on the wane, not that you’d know, hanging around B.E. Scott’s BBQ in Lexington, where Zach Parker, not even 30 years old, has been ably filling his late father’s shoes, mastering the art of the 24-hour cook. On your way, detour to Brownsville and Helen’s BBQ — Helen Turner’s pork shoulder sandwiches are worth the extra miles.
Perfection is an elusive thing anywhere, and even if it’s less elusive here, what makes Texas truly special, nearly peerless, is the quality of the experiences that you will have, over and over and over again until you are spoiled rotten. Brisket has good days and it has bad days, even in Austin. But you’re here, you’re soaking it all in, and making memories that will last so much longer than you might imagine; in that sense, nearly every barbecue joint in this state is a winner. Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor ought to be right at the top of your list; how you could ever walk into this barely-converted gymnasium and not leave forever impressed is a mystery. Third-generation owner Wayne Mueller’s lion-level status in the industry leaves plenty of room to stretch out and get comfortable, but you’ll nearly always find one of the country’s great brisket palaces running like a tight ship —simple, honest, classic, essentially perfect.
Not that you have to be at it forever to be great; the talent pool in Texas barbecue is so very deep these days, and more diverse than you can imagine, too — from Laotian sausages at Goldee’s in Fort Worth to slices of brisket wrapped in fresh flour tortillas served with house made salsa at Esaul Ramos and Joe Melig’s 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio, Texas barbecue tradition is being redefined before our very eyes — tremendously exciting stuff.
There we were, thinking that the experience at Torrey Grill & BBQ, at the doorstep of Capitol Reef, one of the more underrated national parks in the Southwest, was the end of a years-long search for a barbecue joint that felt essential to Utah, one of the most un-barbecued states remaining in the country. There was the whole dinner around the fire pit spiel, the spare ribs and pulled chicken and tri tip, inventive sides, plus cobbler for dessert. This was it, this was the spot.
Turns out, the restaurant has only been open for a couple of summers now, and that owner/proprietors Peter Cole (a CIA grad) and Abeer Aljbour (a travel industry vet) had visited the region from New York on vacation, fell in love with the place, and decided to move here, settle down, and open their own place. In an RV park. In the middle of Utah, the part that’s hours away from Salt Lake. Catch them while you can — the restaurant closes in the off-season.
Finding good barbecue in the second most sparsely populated state can be a frustrating exercise; the first time you dive into the whole hog tray at Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, however, you’ll feel like you’re home. Great barbecue draws you in, like a story. That first, vinegar-tinged bite will take you far away from north-central Vermont. The last time we’d sampled whole hog this good, chopped but not to oblivion, with those little bits of bark that add so much pleasing texture, was well down South. The brisket — a fat slab of the stuff, doused in the house bacon barbecue sauce— brings you straight back to Vermont.
The casual disinterest in the specifics of American barbecue’s origins is perhaps one of the most American things about barbecue culture. Who cares, you’re thinking—where’s the beef? Joe Haynes’ 2016 book Virginia Barbecue: A History makes the fact-based case, rather ardently, for the cradle of modern American civilization (you know, Jamestown, 1634, and all that) as the birthplace of Southern barbecue, back before it splintered, like so many Baptist denominations, into an array of regional styles. What’s interesting about Virginia’s barbecue heritage is how little it is spotlighted. North Carolina’s traditions were essentially Virginia’s traditions, once upon a time—and who do we hear doing most, if not all, of the talking? No wonder Georgia was able to convince everyone that they invented Brunswick stew. They wanted it more.
Whether it’s confidence or ambivalence, who knows, but this casual relationship with tradition has left classic Virginia barbecue (pork, pork, and more pork) to fade into the background somewhat, leaving newer arrivals to the state with plenty of room to create a new kind of barbecue culture altogether. This explains how Richmond fell in love with Chris Fultz and Alex Graf, the husband and wife team behind ZZQ, which began as a backyard pop-up in 2011, growing up to become a pinch-me-am-I-dreaming temple to the Central Texas style, open for just over two years now, and already an absolute Virginia essential. All the standards are well up to speed, starting with some of the finest brisket on the Eastern Seaboard, but Austin native Fultz, using local oak, smokes up some transcendent beef ribs, and prime rib, as well.
Virginia is full of corporate barbecue nowadays, particularly in the northern region, but the classics far more compelling. Start with the sliced and minced pork at Allman’s in Fredericksburg, then move on to King’s Barbecue in Petersburg for oak-smoked top sirloin and great pork, of course, straight from Smithfield.
Teriyaki is as close as Seattle will probably ever come to having its own style of barbecue — a situation that does not trouble us in the slightest. The Japanese essential, adapted for regional tastes in the 1970s by Toshi Kasahara and to this day a Western Washington staple, has become roughly as ubiquitous as pizza in New York City. The simplicity of the experience is one of the things that makes it so pleasurable: flame-charred chicken and beef, generously marinated in soy sauce, rice wine (or vinegar), and sugar and garlic and ginger, artfully served atop massive quenelles of texture-perfect California Delta short grain rice. It’s the Northwest’s greatest gift to American takeout culture.
Pity you still have to come all the way up here to eat it, for the most part, but you ought to. Any day of the week he’s open, gorge on Kasahara’s cooking at Toshi’s in Mill Creek; in Seattle, seek out the absolutely gleaming chicken from the Choice Deli in Ballard, while down near Tacoma, it’s furthest Puyallup for Happy Teriyaki #11, which has a koi pond in the middle of the dining room.
While not quite so essential as a teriyaki crawl, there is actual barbecue in the region; when in the mood, head directly to Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, to the original Jack’s BBQ — if you’re in the market for a real beef rib, Texpat Jack Timmons is the man for the job. While in the neighborhood, toddle over to the Pecos Pit, which has been around since 1980, and like Jack’s, now has additional locations.
The explorer is rewarded with a number of little surprises in Charleston, West Virginia’s historic and architecturally appealing capital city, which over the years elbowed its way onto a relatively small patch of flat-ish land at the confluence of the Kanahwa and Elk Rivers. On the city’s West Side, a part of town that has suffered dramatic population loss over the years but still retains a sleepy appeal, Dem 2 Brothers & A Grill is perhaps the last thing you’re expecting to find — a vibrant establishment drawing the sort of people who like a half rack of ribs for their lunch, from all over the region.
Owner Adrian Wright ended his NFL career as a running back for Tampa Bay, came back to his hometown, and became famous all over again for barbecue. When here, the first thing you want are those ribs, which Wright makes wholly his own with a sweet-spicy rub and a mustard-based glaze. Up in Wheeling, make time for the meat at Country Roads BBQ. The Phair family has thrown everything into growing their business, and their hospitality is half of the experience. The other half is the brisket, about as good as you’ll find in the state.
Wisconsin’s relatively small Black population was historically clustered around Milwaukee’s north side, a section of the city scarred by generations worth of communal trauma, with so many of its traditional gathering places either lost — or very nearly — to the history books. Since the 1950s, on a windswept corner not all that far from downtown, Speed Queen Bar-B-Q has been an unflappable presence on the visible boundary line between two worlds, drawing much of the city to itself for racks of ribs and shards of pork shoulder, pulled from the one-ton smoker.
For roughly half a century, Mississippi-born Betty Jean Gillespie was rather visibly at the helm here. Since her death in 2000, her family has remained in charge. You’ll find the pit team pretty much throwing the kitchen sink at the meat, wood-wise — hickory, oak, apple, what have you — and the end result is Wisconsin’s finest, most important barbecue. We’re still in Chicago’s orbit here, so definitely expect the rib tips bathed in peppery-sweet hose sauce, but also mountains of pulled pork, where the bark hasn’t been beaten into submission (the best kind of pulled pork, quite frankly). You can even ask for more outside meat, as they call it, if you want, and you do want.
Old hand Texans like to talk a great deal about all of the people moving there, and if you spend much time in places like Southern California, and Austin, or certain parts of suburban Dallas, there are moments when the line begins to blur to the point of erasure. The statistics don’t lie: Texas is drawing in an extraordinary number of people, and it’s changing everything. Travel around the country looking for barbecue, however, and you’ll find a significant number of people who’ve gone in the opposite direction. This survey is more than lightly influenced by the contributions of native or one-time Texans who have moved everywhere from New England to the Pacific Northwest. Mike Mitchell is one of these people, carting his mobile operation from Dallas-adjacent Denton all the way up to Cody, where Fat Rack’s BBQ became a seasonal favorite with the locals and in-the-know travelers he managed to catch on their visit to Yellowstone National Park, just about an hour away.
These days, the Mitchell family — and Mike’s barbecue — are pretty much a year-round thing at the heart of downtown Cody, steps from the staged gunfights that take place in the street all summer long, in front of the historic Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill himself in 1902. Stop for dry-rubbed baby backs and generous chunks of pulled pork, and a pound of thickly-sliced smoked turkey for sandwiches later on.