“There was a time when barbecue was like the armpit of the culinary world. It was for the bottom feeders almost,” says Samuel Jones, pitmaster of Ayden, NC’s beloved whole-hog specialist, Skylight Inn.
Fast forward to 2015, when Aaron Franklin—bespectacled brisket prodigy from Texas—accepted the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, marking a historic occasion for barbecue’s status in the culinary field.
“Every now and then, someone comes along who changes the way we look at something. Aaron Franklin is one of those guys,” said writer Jim Shahin in our State Of The BBQ Union panel.
That Franklin is a popular talking point in the context of barbecue’s upswing makes a lot of sense. But the long lines wrapping around his establishment aren’t the only reason to get excited about today’s smoked-meat landscape. Urban city centers like New York have entered the playing field, complicating the common belief that good ‘cue can only exist in a specific setting. Meanwhile, a growing number of reality TV shows has inspired amateurs to ditch their backyard grills for smokers and set their sights on the competition circuit.
“I was working with Sean Brock and Drew Robinson as part of the Fatback collective,” adds Jones. “And I thought to myself, who am I to be working with these guys? And they had the same admiration for me, which blows my mind.”
Even as the scope of BBQ broadens, fierce regionalism and passion for the craft remain strong. What other food phenomenon—aside from Guy Fieri—can stoke the ire of fans in the way that a botched brisket carving can? That attitude of Trust-Me-I-Know is still pervasive, whether you’re seeking chicken with white sauce in Alabama, or mutton “dip” in western Kentucky. Lines will be drawn in the sand because talking about barbecue, Jones says, is like talking about politics: People have already made up their mind, and you’re not going to change it.
But as evidenced from our contributors below, you’ll notice that the tradition is still deeply rooted in community and woven into the fabric of everyday life. That you’re gnawing on a giant beef rib from Texas, say, doesn’t hurt its cause either.
To kick-off your search for BBQ paradise, we hit up a panel of ‘cue-minded authors, revered pitmasters, and others members of the smoked-meat cognoscenti to help us prioritize our carnivorous travels. Our panel includes:
- Tim Carman, James Beard Award-winning reporter and columnist at The Washington Post (@timcarman)
- Daniel Vaughn, Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly, author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue (@BBQsnob)
- Myron Mixon, three-time BBQ world champion, host of BBQ Rules (@lord_of_q)
- Tim Byres, chef and author of Smoke: New Firewood Cooking (@timbyres)
- Ray Lampe, a.k.a. Dr. BBQ, judge, BBQ HOF inductee, and author of Pork Chop (@drbbq)
- Robb Walsh, food writer and author of Legends of Texas BBQ (@robbwalsh)
- John Shelton Reed, co-author of Holy Smoke
- Craig David Meek, author of Memphis Barbecue and founder of the Memphis Que blog (@memphisque)
- Ardie Davis, author of Barbecue Lovers Kansas City Style, emeritus charter member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society
- Susan Puckett, author of Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South (@puckettsusan)
- Lake High, president and co-founder of the SCBA, author of A History of South Carolina Barbeque
- Wright Thompson, senior writer at ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Lolis Elie, culinary historian, author of Smokestack Lightning (@lolisericelie)
- Jim Shahin, “Smoke Signals” Barbecue columnist for the Washington Post. His work has appeared in NPR’s The Salt, Bon Appetit.com, Esquire.com, Texas Monthly, among others. He is a journalism professor at Syracuse University. (@jimshahin)
- Colleen Rush, co-author of Low & Slow (@FoodRush)
- Craig Jones, live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts, food blogger for the Kansas City Star
- Robert Carriker, professor and author of Boudin: A Guide to Louisiana’s Extraordinary Link
- Harry Soo, award-winning BBQ Grand Champion pitmaster, founder of Slap Yo’ Daddy BBQ (@slapyodaddybbq)
- Elizabeth Karmel, author, chef/owner of CarolinaCueToGo.com (@grillgirl)
- Samuel Jones, pitmaster at Skylight Inn
- Mike Mills, pitmaster/owner of 17th Street BBQ, BBQ HOF inductee
- Wes Berry, professor at Western Kentucky University, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book (@hungryprofessor)
- Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (@soulfoodscholar)
- Frank Boyer, founding member of the California BBQ Association, certified master judge
- John Stage, pitmaster/owner of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (@dinosaur_bbq)
- Bun B, Houston-based rapper and globe-trotting gourmand (@bunbtrillog)
Let the journey begin…
Address and phone: 1727 Brooklyn Ave, Kansas City, MO (816-231-1123)
Carman says: “The moment you walk into the original location on Brooklyn Avenue, you feel as if time stopped somewhere around 1954: the plain Formica tables, the fake leather banquet chairs, the tile floor, the harsh florescent lights, the ordering window that requires you to bend at the waist to speak to the person on the other side. Behind the same window lies another piece of history: an old brick pit, which burns nothing but wood, a throwback to a time before urban barbecue joints were dominated by mechanical smokers with their gas-assisted heat sources. The meats pulled from that old pit are bathed in wood smoke and topped with Arthur Bryant’s signature sauce, a gritty, slightly puckery emulsion of dried spices, vinegar, mustard, and tomato paste. Some might call it an acquired taste. Some might call it a taste of home. But when slathered over ribs, sliced beef, or those famous burnt ends from the fatty end of the brisket, the sauce makes me think of Kansas City itself, as if the flavors were carried on the winds as soon as you entered the city limits.” (Photo: Yelp/Mark S.)
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Address and phone: 7238 Nolensville Rd, Nolensville, TN (615-776-1856)
Mills says: “Regional styles and variations are what make barbecue so special. The way a pit boss uses wood, seasoning, and sauce is a unique signature. I’m a huge fan of what Pat Martin is doing in Nashville. His brand of whole-hog cooking is distinctly West Tennesee-style: flavored with hickory, his own dry rub blend, and his version of a semi-sweet vinegar/tomato-based sauce commonly found in that area. He has brick pits built in the dining rooms of his restaurants, so people can see the hog go on and come off the pit, and smell it while it’s cooking—bringing people close to the source of their food. That’s especially important, I think, as that’s getting lost these days. People rarely see a whole animal cooking. He uses that pork, in all of its smoky, moist glory, to make one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever have on this earth—topped with slaw, because that’s how a proper barbecue is served. DO NOT request a sandwich with no slaw. Just don’t. Another one of my favorite items on his menu is the Redneck Taco. Homemade hoecakes, which are cornmeal flatbread, are topped with that pork, slaw, and drizzled with red sauce. One of the best bites on the planet.” (Photo: Facebook/Martin’s BBQ)
Address and phone: 3947 Houston Ave, Macon, GA (478-788-1900)
Mixon says: “The style of barbecue that I was raised on while eating and cooking with my dad, Jack Mixon, is getting harder and harder to find. It’s traditional Georgian barbecue that’s cooked on masonry pits fired with wood coals. The only place that still uses this style of barbecue, that I’m aware of, is Fincher’s in Macon, GA. They’ve been in the same location and cooking on the same pits since 1927. When I eat there, it reminds me of being with my dad, when we’d stay up late and barbecue all night. One of my favorites is the pulled-pork sandwich, which is great with a side of Brunswick stew. Also, don’t forget to get a bag of fresh crisp pork skins to go with it. That’s Georgia-style!” (Photo: Facebook/Fincher’s)
Address and phone: 3002 Fm 89, Buffalo Gap, TX (325-572-3339)
Byres says: “BBQ is a very loose term—to some it’s big ribs and brisket, and to others it’s outdoor grilling. My idea of an exceptional ‘cue experience is found at Perini Ranch. The spirit is unlike that you can find anywhere else. While they’re known for being a chuck-wagon steakhouse, they also have these indirect low-country Texas-style barbecue pits that they slowly smoke prime rib, whole ribeye roasts, racks of ribs, and a green-chile hominy that’s out of this world. What I love is that everything there is done in a ridiculously genuine way—it’s all cooked outdoors, and it’s humbly and uniquely regional. It has a Texas kind of twang to it—the property used to serve as a cafeteria for cowboys coming off of the ranch, and now it’s a James Beard Award-winning steakhouse. You sit at an outside table covered by an amazing canopy made out of cedar posts pulled off the ranch. It’s legit Old West.” (Photo: Yelp/Mr. M)
Address and phone: 1160 N Dearborn St, Chicago, IL (312-642-1160)
Lampe says: “I have the pleasure of eating at a lot of great BBQ restaurants all over the country, and while I enjoy them all in some fashion, there are a few that really stand out—some for the great food, some for the great ambiance, and some for just being unique. Once in a while I find one that has all three of those things, and Chicago Q certainly fits the bill. I spent 25 years driving a truck in the neighborhoods of Chicago, and the typical BBQ joints of the city are gritty urban places. But Chicago Q is not that at all. This is a beautiful upscale restaurant in Chicago’s ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood. It’s a big home that was long ago transformed into a restaurant space, and more recently remodeled to a level like no other BBQ restaurant you will see. But don’t misunderstand. This isn’t a fancy restaurant—it’s a really nice BBQ joint with a real pitmaster in charge. My good friend Lee Ann Whippen closed her two Virginia BBQ joints to take on this project a few years ago, and it’s been a home run on all accounts. They serve Lee Ann’s famous pulled pork and her “competition” ribs, along with Wagyu brisket. You’ll find great service, an extensive bourbon list (don’t ask how I know), and a nice wine list too.” (Photo: Facebook/Chicago Q)
Address and phone: 208 S Commerce St, Lockhart, TX (512-398-9344)
Walsh says: “After I left my job at the Houston Press after 10 years of restaurant reviewing, I found myself enjoying barbecue more than I had in decades. Liberated from my role as critic and otherwise unemployed, I had the luxury to just sit back and take it all in. And without the strictures of anonymity, or anything better to do, I could banter with the folks who tended the pits to my heart’s content. And I could see the folly of much of what I had written. Barbecue Top 10 lists, ratings and all the rest of it are, as the Buddhists would say, illusion. Bloggers, journalists, and magazine editors put scores on barbecue joints in order to convince the public (and ourselves) that we are the masters of the barbecue universe. But it’s all a lot of smoke.
When you get caught up in arguing about who serves the best barbecue, you lose sight of the larger picture. Some days the sausage at Smitty’s in the Central Texas town of Lockhart is so wet it squirts when you cut it, and sometimes in the late afternoon it gets dry. So what? You want to give the sausage a score? Go ahead, if it makes you happy. The sausage has been smoked the same way for over a hundred years. It will still be here after we are gone. There is no best barbecue, anymore than there is a best song or a best painting. In the country where barbecue has long been part of everyday life, as soon as you forget about the scorekeeping, you become open to the wider experience of BBQ as a culture.” (Photo: Yelp/Whit C.)
Allen & Son Bar-B-Que
Address and phone: 6203 Millhouse Rd, Chapel Hill, NC (919-942-7576)
Reed says: “When Brits talk about their ‘local’ they’re talking about a pub, but my local is a barbecue place, Allen & Son, a few miles north of Chapel Hill toward Hillsborough. Keith Allen (the son—his father has passed on) is here at 3am every morning to fire up the hickory and oak (often wood that he’s collected and split himself). After it burns down to coals, he shovels them into his two pits, and the barbecue is ready in time for lunch. Chapel Hill is on the fault line that divides eastern-style from Piedmont-style North Carolina barbecue. Keith cooks Piedmont-style shoulders but serves them with an eastern vinegar-and-pepper sauce. (Some people think that’s the best of both worlds.) The slaw is eastern-style and there’s a fine Brunswick stew. Unlike many barbecue places, where dessert is an afterthought and you’d do better just to have more barbecue, the pies, cobblers and home-made ice cream shouldn’t be missed here. The place is on the small side, with great taxidermy. (Keith’s a hunter, who sometimes leads safaris to Africa.) The lunchtime crowd brings together all sorts, from workmen to UNC faculty; supper seems to be more for families. The hours are capricious: check on the web or call to be sure they’re open.” (Photo: Yelp/Michael U.)
Leonard’s Pit Barbecue
Address and phone: 5465 Fox Plaza Dr, Memphis, TN (901-360-1963)
Meek Says: “I always tell people there is no one definitive place to try Memphis barbecue, but there is one great starting point that should be included in any serious exploration. Founded in 1922, Leonard’s Pit Barbecue is the oldest Memphis barbecue restaurant still in operation. While no longer in its original location, it still cooks with real charcoal and wood in the type of brick and steel pits that made loyal customers out of people from Elvis Presley to Prohibition-era gangster Machine Gun Kelly. It’s also the place that originated the now-universal tradition of putting cole slaw on a pork-shoulder sandwich. The sandwich is assembled on a hot griddle to perfectly toast the bun. They serve excellent pork ribs, which you can get wet with sauce or coated with dry rub. And if you are new to the city and haven’t formed an opinion on that epic civic debate yet, you can get a slab half wet and half dry. Either will have outstanding bark and an impressive smoke ring surrounding the deliciously tender inner meat.” (Photo: Yelp/Colby M.)
Vaughn says: “What can you say about Franklin Barbecue that hasn’t already been said? They have a long line, longer than anything else in Texas, in a state already synonymous with bigness. It started in a trailer just six years ago and is now situated in a turquoise building that has been host to famous chefs, celebrities, and even President Obama. It’s the barbecue personification of a Drake song. Here they make brisket—and lots of it. Thirty steer’s worth of brisket is required on a slow day, and a slow day means you might have to wait just three hours for barbecue. On a busy day, you could literally watch an entire UT football game up the street then go to any other nearby barbecue joint in the same amount of time as a single Franklin Barbecue visit. But still they come to stand in a line that starts to form before sunrise—and they’re not here for the pulled pork.
The oak-smoked brisket at Franklin Barbecue will make you re-categorize every other bite of brisket you’ve had before as “Not Franklin good.” It starts with prime-grade hormone-free beef sprinkled with salt and black pepper. It takes a slow bath in a steel smoker built by Franklin, then gets wrapped in butcher paper until buttery tender. When a brisket hits the counter at Franklin, it jiggles. The ripples are like a mini-meatquake that registers an 8.0 on the Richter scale…in your pants. The fatty side of the brisket is a beef aspic suspended in cow JELL-O. The lean side’s still juicer than anything in Minute Maid bottles. Get them both and get a lot. If you need more, then it’s back to the end of the line for you, and even then it might still be worth it.” (Photo: Yelp/Eric O.)
Address and phone: 553 Central Ave, Kansas City, KS (913-213-3736)
Davis says: “If your bucket list goes begging before you kick the bucket, don’t worry. In Barbecue Heaven you can get anything you want. Order it and angels will deliver. Here’s what I want: the meat plate with pork ribs, sausage, brisket, burnt ends, pulled pork, and turkey breast from Slap’s on Strawberry Hill, Kansas City. Tender, juicy, and kissed with smoke, it’s a serious contender for best barbecue on the planet. Slap’s is Central Texas barbecue with a Kansas City accent. It’s the Franklin Barbecue of Kansas City, and that’s a huge compliment. Like Central Texas pitmasters, the Pearce brothers are stick burners. They started out with two 500 gallon propane tanks converted to barbecue pits. Now they have a third large cooker to delay selling out and turning away hungry crowds. Slap’s smokes with hickory and oak. Those angels will be as friendly as the Pearce family and the Franklin Barbecue team. So much barbecue, so little time! Come to Kansas City and enjoy at least 80 of our great barbecue restaurants before you kick the bucket. It just keeps getting better.” (Photo: Yelp/Scott T.)
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn or Old Hickory Bar-B-Que
Address and phone: 2840 W Parrish Ave, Owensboro, KY (270-684-8143)
Address and phone: 338 Washington Ave, Owensboro, KY (270-926-9000)
Berry says: “‘Older is smarter and more tasty,’ quips sage poet Gary Snyder in his poem The Sweat. Snyder’s talking about naked women in a sauna, but the sentiment pops into my head when I eat mutton—mature sheep—and get that full-on flavor of fat, flesh, and hickory smoke. Only 18 of nearly 200 barbecue places in Kentucky serve mutton regularly. Owensboro is mutton central. You’ll get two very different eating experiences at Moonlite and Old Hickory, but the mutton at both is about as good as it gets, and moreover they serve mutton every day (unlike some places that smoke it occasionally). Moonlite’s famous for its belly-busting buffet of barbecue, veggies, and desserts. Old Hickory is smaller in scale and provides barbecue sandwiches and sampler plates. Both places smoke animals a long time at low temperatures on long pits using lots of good hickory wood. For a unique barbecue experience you won’t find much outside a small region of western Kentucky, get mutton ribs, chopped mutton, sliced mutton and burgoo. Much of the distinctive muskiness of mutton concentrates in the fats, so I recommend beginning with the milder leaner sliced mutton which has a texture akin to prime rib; then tasting the chopped mutton, a mix of meat, fat, and dip (a thin sauce of Worcestershire, vinegar, black pepper, and spices); and then trying mutton ribs for the ultimate in smoky gaminess. Along with mutton, sample burgoo, a thick stew of various meats and vegetables, including chopped up mutton—Kentucky’s funkier cousin of Brunswick stew. Old Hickory cooks their tangy burgoo down to silky amber colored slurry in which individual ingredients mostly disappear. Plates come with dill pickles, raw sliced onions, and sandwich bread. Rye is the preferred local companion to chopped mutton. Onions serve as a palate cleanser, to be nibbled on throughout the meal. For dessert, try Moonlite’s cornbread muffins with butter and sorghum or decadent homemade banana pudding at both places. (Photo courtesy Wes Berry)
Address and phone: 726 N Pkwy, Memphis, TN (901-527-9158)
Puckett says: “I thought I’d covered all the essential barbecue places for my book, Eat Drink Delta: a Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of The South. But people from Memphis kept asking me what I thought of Cozy Corner, an unassuming little family-run joint on the sketchy fringes of downtown. Living in Atlanta, I only knew what little I had read about it—mainly that, besides doing a superlative job with all the pork classics, they also had a following for their barbecued Cornish hens. Julia Child had even given them her seal of approval on a visit decades ago. Yes I was curious, but the barbecue section of my manuscript was already bloated and I had to draw the line somewhere.
Just before the manuscript went to press, though, I returned to Memphis with a group of my running buddies to run the St. Jude’s Half-Marathon. Afterward, I talked them into coming with me to Cozy Corner for a post-race barbecue fix. Around a worn, laminated table inside the no-frills dining room, we devoured six-bone ribs encrusted in spice and blanketed in a perfectly balanced, tangy-sweet sauce, and tender sliced pork shoulder full of smoky flavor heaped on buns and topped with sweet slaw. Those beautiful signature birds, lacquered with sauce and cooked to a deep mahogany, lived up to the hype. Just as memorable was the thick-cut barbecued bologna sandwich—another Memphis thing, bearing no resemblance to the packaged lunchmeat the uninitiated were expecting. Even the beans were doctored up with mysterious spices and that smoky-sweet pork flavor Raymond Robinson crafted some 40 years ago in his backyard before bringing it to the masses when the restaurant opened in 1977—the same week Elvis died. Last January, though, a fire erupted during lunchtime, threatening the livelihood of this four-generation barbecue dynasty. Since then, top chefs have organized benefit dinners and loyal clientele have donated generously to campaigns to fund the costly renovation. In the meantime, you’ll find the family across the street at Encore Café, where the proprietor invited them to park their pit and sell most of their menu items from the counter inside.” (Photo: Yelp/Momo B.)
Jackie Hite’s Bar-b-que
Address and phone: 460 E Railroad Ave, Leesville, SC (803-532-3354)
High says: “South Carolina is the birthplace of barbecue. It was born in the mid 1500s in the then Spanish colony of Santa Elena when they introduced the pig to the Indians who lived in the area we now call Port Royal in Beaufort County. Since South Carolina has been at it longer than anyone else, you could expect something a little better there. One of those methods was picking your favorite pieces of a hog barbecued whole over real coals in a real pit. Today you might find that at a few church socials (too few, actually), but it’s much rarer to see that at modern restaurants. Except, that is, for Jackie Hite’s in Leesville in Lexington County, smack in the middle of South Carolina. Jackie learned from his daddy and he still does it right. He makes his own coals from hickory and he cooks whole-hog in real pits. Then Jackie does something that no one else is doing on a regular basis: at 11:00 am, on Fridays, he puts out one half of a whole hog for his many fans to pig-pick. At noon he puts out the other half. So for a few hours each week you can feast the way it was when it was better. That is truly unique.” (Photo: Yelp/Jackie Hite’s)
Address and phone: 616 State St, Clarksdale, MS (662-624-9947)
Thompson says: “If I had one meal left in the world, it would be at a barbecue restaurant named Abe’s in my hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and my order wouldn’t be barbecue at all. I’d order the Big Abe chili-cheeseburger, with a side of chips covered in barbecue sauce—the Mississippi Delta salad, I like to think—and eat it with a fountain coke with the world’s best crushed ice. If this were my last meal, my family would be with me, so my mom would order a brown barbecue chopped, and my brother would order hot tamales. My wife would order a grilled cheese, and pour the sauce over her chips, too, and the waitress would be Lucille. I’d recognize the Davis boys behind the counter, too, and listen to the sound of meat frying on the griddle, and see families in hunting gear straight from a deer stand or duck blind, or in suits and ties straight from service.
I’ve been ordering these cheeseburgers since I was a boy, and it is the taste I most often find myself craving. It is simple and addictive. Two griddle patties, with char and burn from the grease, and melted gooey cheese, and chili that burns your tongue and hand if you don’t let it sit for a moment—which I’ve never been able to do. So much is made now of a barbecue joint as a kind of temple for an old way of carefully handling meat, and while I understand that, I disagree completely. A real joint matters not because of whatever people do in the kitchen, but because it is an anchor of a community, of a little town or a neighborhood, a place you grow up going, and then visit every Sunday after church if you stay in town to raise a family; or a place you stop by even before visiting your mom if you up and move away. Abe’s Barbecue is the anchor of the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49, and of Clarksdale and the tiny farming towns surrounding it—of both the daily life of the city’s residents and the shadow memory life of everyone who intellectually knows they’ll never live in the Delta again, but takes a bite of Abe’s and starts to wonder maybe.” (Photo: Justin Bolois)
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
Address and phone: 1715 6th Ave SE, Decatur, AL (256-350-6969)
Elie says: “Around this time of year, while others dream of beaches and mountains, my reveries turn to Decatur, Alabama, home of Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q. I believe that others would incline their reveries similarly if they ever had the pleasure of a Big Bob Gibson pulled pork sandwich. I have never had its equal on any beach or mountain. Indeed, I have seldom had its equal anywhere.
There are a few keys to the greatness of this sandwich. The flavor of smoke and spices is tasted throughout the meat, not just on the outside. The proportion of dark, crispy outside meat to tender, juicy inside meat is perfect. The tomato-based sauce is neither too sweet, nor too thick. The crown of creamy cole slaw adds the perfect bit of mellow crunch. The soft, slightly sweet bun echoes the sweetness of the sauce and slaw. While Big Bob’s is perhaps best known for its barbecue chicken with white barbecue sauce, it’s the pulled pork that most excites me. The annual meeting between me, Big Bob’s pulled pork, and Big Bob’s pitmaster, Chris Lilly, takes place in June at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in Lower Manhattan. It’s a long way from Decatur, but with every bite of the sandwich I think, ‘How long would it take to drive to Decatur?'” (Photo: Facebook/Big Bob’s)
Address and phone: 101 N Main St, Taylor, TX (512-352-8475)
Shahin says: “Located about 40 miles northeast of Austin in the hard-luck town of Taylor, beneath an overpass and hard by the railroad tracks, is the Taylor Café. Painted red outside where the corrugated tin isn’t rusting, the place feels fossilized in some version of what we imagine an old barbecue joint should look like, decorated inside with framed photos of friends and family, neon beer signs, World War II memorabilia, and, of course, mounted deer heads. The ramshackle eatery’s straight-talking, soft-spoken owner, Vencil Mares, is in his nineties, and has been a fixture there since he opened it in 1948. Catch that? Sixty. Seven. Years. One owner. The feeling of timelessness is itself a reason the Taylor Café belongs on a true ‘cue hound’s bucket list. At least as much is the very specific time period it evokes.
There are doors on two sides of the building, one where “coloreds” entered and the other for whites. Inside, two counters run parallel to one another; blacks sat on one side, whites on the other. That was back then. While the doors and the counter remain a jarring reminder of America’s racist past, they also attest to one man’s way of repudiating it. Back then, a lot of businesses didn’t serve blacks.
Vencil’s stance was as simple as it was subversive: open to everyone. Vencil didn’t care which door anyone came through. He just wanted to let people know all were welcome under the same roof and, once inside, they could sit anywhere they wanted, but they often felt most comfortable sitting with their friends, typically the same race as themselves. For decades, there were even two jukeboxes, one R&B and soul, the other rock and country. A few years ago, Vencil got tired of the one-upping of the volume between the two. He got rid of one and combined the songs on the other.
You’ll get no craft beer here. No blueberry or espresso sauce either. Vencil cooks today as he did when he opened—all wood. Awhile back, recognizing a health trend coming on, he started making turkey sausage as an option to his beef sausage. So, yes, there have been changes. But to step inside the Taylor Café and pull up a seat at the counter, anywhere you want, and listen to the lonesome cry of the train whistle over the sound of whatever mish-mash comes over the juke box as you crack open a Bud Light to drink with Vencil’s wood-smoked brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, is to disappear for a little while into a bygone time and place. And if that makes you ponder where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be headed, well sir, that’s not a bad reason to enter one of the Taylor Café’s doors.” (Photo: Yelp/John B.)
Billy’s Old Fashioned BBQ
Address and phone: 1601 N Main St, Jasper, TX (409-384-8384)
Rush says: “We were outside Jasper, Texas staying with a cousin after a mad road dash south to escape Chicago’s long winter. I was writing the first Low & Slow and doing a bit of field research. The cousin told me about Billy’s and said the hot sausage is the thing to get, but order everything with no sauce. He was very clear: Everything. No sauce.
At Billy’s, the woman behind the counter gently warned, “It’s very spicy and greasy.” An attempt to deter a skinny, glowing-white girl from ordering sausage out of her comfort zone? We ordered one of everything: ribs, brisket, spicy, greasy hot link, potato salad, sauce on the side. This tendered the faintest side eye. The ribs were alright, the brisket was spot-on—smoky, fatty, sliced thick—but the homemade sausage delivered the real goods. The casing doesn’t snap like the Hill Country’s German-influenced sausages. It is smoosh-ably soft, and the right kind of greasy that’s perfectly balanced with a black pepper bite (but not particularly spicy), and kissed by hickory smoke. It’s like a meaty link of smoked boudin from South Louisiana got with a spicy link of Mexican chorizo fresco, but better. I loved everything about this place, from the corrugated roof on the disheveled series of connected buildings to the genuinely sweet owner/pitmaster Billy Mahathy, who kindly if bemusedly agreed to show me his pit and wood stack out back. There is no website or Facebook page or Twitter feed. This is East Texas. It’s just good barbecue.” (Photo: Yelp/Igancio S.)
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que
Address and phone: 3002 W 47th St, Kansas City, KS (913-722-3366)
Jones says: “I consider Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s) a catalyst in the BBQ world. They started off as a highly decorated competition BBQ team that successfully transitioned into a restaurant. What I love about this place is that it’s located inside a working gas station and they’re serving up true competition-style BBQ, consistently, on a daily basis. Start with some burnt ends. Originating in Kansas City, burnt ends are succulent little “meat s’mores,” harvested from the point of the brisket that’s been slow smoked until it’s extremely tender and chopped into cubes. Joe’s does them better than anyone. They’re not always available, but if they are, you should order them. Next move on to their ribs. These are not your fall-off-the-bone type; instead, when you take a bite out of Joe’s ribs, just the meat you bite pulls away from the bone, with just a slight little tug—the mark of true competition-style ribs. How they can achieve that on a daily basis still amazes me. Breaking away from traditional BBQ, you can always order the popular Z-Man sandwich, which features sliced smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese, a couple of onion rings, and a bit of barbecue sauce all nestled in a Kaiser roll. One bite and you’ll know why this sandwich has been listed on Zagat’s 50 States, 50 Sandwiches list. Insider’s secret: You can order any meat on the Z-Man that you want. You should try the smoked chicken.” (Photo: Yelp/Ashley W.)
Address and phone: 1111 St John St, Lafayette, LA (337-269-8878)
Carriker says: “In the heart of Lafayette, Louisiana, a city establishing itself as a culinary destination of truly succulent proportions, you’ll find Johnson’s Boucaniere. ‘Boucaniere’ you say? See, things are already getting a tasty bit more interesting. Boucaniere is Cajun French for smokehouse and Johnson’s embodies the very essence of what you want, need, and hope for in a family-run Cajun BBQ spot. Owner, Greg Walls, designed and built this place and each day he pulls his lovingly crafted briskets, pork shoulders, chickens, and various regional sausages from his Cajun vernacular smoking cabinets. Up to half a day in the smoker, homemade rubs, and their own thin and tangy sauce: check, check, and check. The best way to go at Johnson’s is to order one of their special sandwiches coupling smoked meat with flat-top-crisped sausage. The Begnaud Special combines brisket with garlic sausage, the Campos Special puts pulled pork with pork sausage, and the OJA Special merges chicken with mixed sausage and a BBQ ranch sauce. These are heroic sandwiches and, of course, ask for a little extra sauce on the side (who doesn’t like a little extra sauce?!). Your second insiders tip, and really a near requirement, is to also order a link of Cajun Boudin (a pork and rice sausage/delicacy that you eat right out of the casing) made using the state’s most historically significant, 1940s era, recipe.” (Photo: Facebook/Johnson’s)
Big Mista Barbecue and Sammich Shop
Address and phone: 3444 N Los Coyotes Diagonal, Long Beach, CA (562-425-4227)
Soo says: “I’m often asked what barbecue restaurants I eat at because I’ve won many barbecue championships. When I want barbecue that I didn’t cook myself, my go-to place in Los Angeles is Big Mista Barbecue and Sammich Shop in Long Beach. Pitmaster Neil Strawder, who is a BBQ celebrity and a long time competitor, spreads low-and-slow barbecue love at his BBQ joint. You’ll see his pits in front of the store and when you walk in, you’ll be greeted by authentic and delicious smokey brisket, chicken, pork, turkey, and sausages. Since the BBQ joint is a former bakery, Neil has a baker come in each morning to bake fresh buns. He pairs a pillow-soft hoagie roll with his barbecue to create the Big Mista Sammich, which comes loaded with a half pound of barbecue meats and nothing else. Meat is sold Texas-style, by the pound, and I highly recommend Neil’s Big A$$ Pile of Meat (BAPOM) sampler, which is perfect for big eaters. The pork buns, Neil’s riff on Chinese Char Siew Pork buns, are also on point. Who says pitmasters in the West can only cook tofu and artichokes? Save yourself an airline ticket as some of the best barbecue in America is found in California.” (Photo: Harry Soo)
Address and phone: 2514 US Hwy 301 S, Wilson, NC (252-237-0972)
Karmel says: “Growing Up in North Carolina, every family had their barbecue spot. I grew up in Greensboro, so Stamey’s was my local joint. Lexington #1 was where we went once a year to buy the barbecue that we served on Christmas Eve; and on the way to the beach, it was Wilbur’s in Goldsboro. Needless to say, I have been to each of these bastions of barbecue countless times. So, it was not unusual that I had never been to Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson, NC, until last summer. In North Carolina for a weekend, I met my barbecue buddy and ‘cue legend Ed Mitchell for lunch in his hometown of Wilson. Since his restaurant is no longer operating, he took us to his local favorite, Parker’s.
We sat down and Ed waved the menus away, ordering each of us the family platter. Now, as an ex-pat North Carolinian, I was worried—I wanted a big ole Carolina Cue sandwich, some hush puppies and a sweet tea! I wasn’t sure about a platter! Well, thank goodness for Ed a second time that day, because as the men in sharp oxford-cloth shirts and crisp paper-hats started filling our table with plates, I was treated to three southern standouts perfectly “paired” with individual pitchers of sweet tea—my beloved smoky sweet whole-hog barbecue, and much to my surprise, the best fried-chicken and sweet white-corn hushpuppies that I had ever eaten.” (Photo: Yelp/Diana C.)
Address and photo: 2734 Hemingway Hwy, Hemingway, SC (843-558-0134)
Jones says: “One thing that is special about pitmaster Rodney Scott is that he realizes he’s just a guy. People like to pick heroes in food like they do in every other walk of life, and he understands that doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. It’s about being true to what you do and being a man of your word. My wife and I went to Hemingway around Easter time last year to go see Rodney. His place is the epitome of what a BBQ joint is—bare bones. You don’t go in expecting a certain decor or a certain mood. You go there for the food.
Rodney’s food is simple and complex at the same time. Cooking whole hog over fire is the most simple way of cooking. It’s literally meat, fire, and a man who tends it. But it gets complicated because of the sauce. What’s in it? Rodney would say a lot of love—and then you’d have to blow his brains out before he said any more. It’s sweet and a little spicy. What’s interesting about his technique is that he literally takes a serving spoon and breaks down the animal on the pit; then he takes a mop and dips it into the sauce to coat the hog. It’s strange when you see it, but when you taste the meat you don’t care how he achieves that flavor.” (Photo: Yelp/Dwayne H.)
Lexington Barbecue #1
Address and phone: 10 Old US Hwy 29, Lexington, NC (336-249-9814)
Miller says: “Lexington Barbecue #1 in Lexington, North Carolina is a shrine to the Piedmont-style of barbecue that dominates the western half of the state. On the advice of southern food writer extraordinaire John T. Edge, I played straight to tradition and ordered a “Chopped BBQ Plate” which consisted of coarsely chopped pork shoulder with some “outside brown” (the layer of really smoky meat), a barbecue sauce made with a nice combination of vinegary tang and sweetened ketchup, along with side dishes of French fries, hush puppies (deep fried balls of cornmeal) and a unique “bbq slaw” made with cabbage, barbecue sauce, and hot sauce. I got a little nervous while waiting for my food because the guy behind me in line ordered something else and then said, “I guess I need to get something for my dog. Give me the ‘Chopped BBQ Plate.'” I immediately thought, “Oh, snap! How bad is this going to be?” As soon as I took a bite, I instantly knew that dog was having its day. The well-conceived Chopped BBQ Plate doesn’t slap you in the face with aggressive flavors. The vinegary tang of the sauce, the slight sweetness of the slaw, the smoky meat, and the slightly-salty fries and hush puppies complement each other well, and may even put you on your hind legs to beg for more.” (Photo: Yelp/Stephanie H.)
Jocko’s Steak House
Address and phone: 125 N Thompson Ave, Nipomo, CA (805-929-3686)
Boyer says: “The barbecue of choice in California’s Central Coast is Santa Maria-style, and the star of this area is Jocko’s Steak House in Nipomo, CA. Another source for good tri tip is the Thursday night Farmers Market in San Luis Obispo. This regional variant is known for its tri tip—a triangular cut located at the bottom of the sirloin— which is cooked over an open flame using red oak. The seasoning is simple: salt, pepper, and garlic salt, a Dalmatian rub with a little bit of extra. California doesn’t have a tradition of slow-cooked hogs, so instead this process is much quicker; it only takes an hour or so to prepare. Don’t forget the signature side dish, pinquito beans. (Photo: Yelp/Shane S.)
Louie Mueller BBQ
Address and phone: 206 W 2nd St, Taylor, TX (512-352-6206)
Bonus: Bun B’s Big Three in Houston, Texas
Address and phone: 8307 1/2 De Priest St, Houston, TX (281-999-5559)
Address and phone: 1717 W 22nd St, Houston, TX (713-869-4227)
Bun says: “Burns Original BBQ has the best home made sausage in town. Gatlin’s of course has the best ribs. And Killen’s is killing the brisket and turkey game here easy.” (Photo: Yelp/Cory C.)