Johnny Fugitt wasn’t content to read the same recycled, online lists touting the country’s premier barbecue. Nor when it came time to write his resultant book, 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America, was he satisfied to simply catalogue his exploits.
“I’m really proud that it’s more than just a guide book,” says Fugitt. “It tells my story of immersing myself into that world, of asking questions and uncovering practices, of learning about the successes and struggles of pitmasters around the country.”
Committing a full year to hitting the road in pursuit of good barbecue not only gave Fugitt insight into the food or specific practices, but it gave him a well-informed perspective on the culture as a whole in 2015.
“Barbecue has never been more popular than it is today. Interestingly, the places where it’s growing most are the non-traditional regions. You’ve seen it develop in NYC over the past five years. That same fervor is taking place in the Northeast and West Coast too.”
After hundreds of pit-stops, we asked Fugitt to take one final break and reflect on his carnivorous journey.
99% of the “Texas Brisket” found outside Texas isn’t “Texas Brisket” at all.
Fugitt says: “What is served as brisket in most parts of the country comes from the brisket cut of beef, but is more accurately described as “cooked brisket.” A true Texas brisket, which is not even found consistently in the Lone Star State, is a completely transformed piece of meat. When you get a true Texas brisket from Franklin, you don’t shave or slice it and stack it on a sandwich—which is what you find in most of the country. In most places they’re not using the smoking technique to transform it and render the fat. There’s only a couple places outside of Texas that can do it at an elite level, like Hometown BBQ.”
Barbecue is becoming less geographically defined.
Fugitt says: “Food television, barbecue competitions, increased travel and relocation, home smoking, and the growing popularity of barbecue is spreading recipes and techniques faster than ever. The big barbecue regions are still king, but I found restaurants in places like New York and South Dakota that are better than the vast majority in Kansas City, Texas, Memphis, or even the Carolinas. Most barbecue dishes are now found all across the country. Even tri-tip, California’s so-so contribution to barbecue, can be found on the East Coast. Pitmasters in places like NYC are not bound to a particular style; they have the freedom to pull flavors from different kinds of cuisines from different parts of the world. However, some restaurants that try to serve various styles end up being mediocre. That’s partially responsible for the rising cost of brisket too.“
Barbecue is becoming sweeter.
Fugitt says: “Sweet sauces are the best sellers, and these preferences are influencing all kinds of barbecue dishes. Some ribs are practically coated in candy. Sweet rubs are used on fries, applied after pork is pulled, or appear where savory rubs traditionally ruled—like brisket. The barbecue restaurant world is influenced by the competition circuit, and sweet barbecue has taken over that world. So many of these barbecue competitors that open restaurants are influenced by the mindset that sweeter always wins. It’s a trickle down effect.”
Many restaurants struggled through the economic downturn beginning in 2008, but a number of barbecue restaurants thrived—and continue to do so.
Fugitt says: “While people were eating out less overall, in many places, barbecue was turned to as a relatively affordable meal option. Restaurants certainly lost some customers to fast food dollar menus, but they picked up many more who might have previously opted for the steakhouse. I would even argue that in NYC barbecue is somewhat affordable. To me a $20 plate at Hometown is better than any other option in NYC. In some places like North Carolina you can get a pork sandwich with coleslaw for only a couple of bucks.” (Photo: eatitnorthcarolina.com)
You can’t always trust the historic barbecue joints.
Fugitt says: “I would say it’s a mixed bag. Some of the really famous historic places, like Rendezvous and Black’s, I think are still producing great ‘cue. Others like Moonlite are decent eating experiences, but are still worth visiting because of the legacy. But there are other definitely past their prime. Whether it is due to laziness because they have all the popularity and recognition that they need, I’m not sure. I left off places like Dinosaur, which used to be the biggest barbecue name in the Northeast. Maybe it has to do with how it’s gone corporate.” (Photo: facebook.com/Moonlite)
BBQ is shaped by hyper-regional traditions.
Fugitt says: “Perhaps the most noticeable example is with Hispanic influences in Texas. You see it with pinto beans, and sometimes places will use cumin and paprika for rubs. One of my favorite places is Valentina’s Tex-Mex. The guy uses the same brisket in tacos as well as in barbecue sandwiches. In south Florida I had smoked alligator tails. There’s a place in D.C. that uses Old Bay seasoning in their rub that’s a nod to Maryland and seafood culture. You see stuff like this across the country.”
The best pitmasters aren’t always the best businessmen.
Fugitt says: “A lot of really great barbecue pitmasters struggle with the business aspect of their job. Their passion is to be over their smoker for 12 to 16 hours a day, which means they’re not always great at managing people, generating PR, or talking to reports, finding suppliers, or negotiating prices. It’s just not in their skill set. Many of the new barbecue places that have opened up are run by restaurant folk who take an interest in smoking meats. Places like these typically provide decent dining experiences, but rarely great barbecue. But they’re able to stay around because they know how to control food costs and are familiar with promotion and marketing.” (Photo courtesy James Boo)