Daniel Vaughn (@BBQSnob) is the Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.
For the longest time, the search for great barbecue was limited to large swathes of the rural South. But over the past decade—thanks to barbecue’s growing TV presence and the meteoric rise of pitmasters like Aaron Franklin—its popularity has grown exponentially, even infiltrating urban centers whose denizens at one point could barely distinguish Texas brisket from roast beef. If that wasn’t enough, the trend has also entered European territory, and let’s be honest: if you’re in Maine or Oregon, you don’t want to be lagging behind the French when it comes to understanding ordering procedures at a barbecue joint.
But navigating a barbecue menu isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In many ways, it’s a lot like looking over your options at a fancy steakhouse, where regulars know to stick with the ribeye for flavor and the flatiron for value, while skipping the flavorless filet or the overpriced veal chop. There are, of course, certain hard-and-fast rules to abide by: In barbecue, fat is good. If you see “lean” anything, don’t chance it. A great slice of lean brisket is hard to beat, but put your money on the fatty slices if you only get one roll of the dice.
One of the most common mistakes for a ‘cue rookie is entering a barbecue joint for the first time with a preconceived notion of what you want to order. The menus might be similar, but the specialties vary from place to place. You need to let your observations dictate your decision-making. Here, we teach you how to identify clues while waiting in line and craft a reliable strategy, so that when your turn’s up, you won’t look like a deer-in-the-headlights who just wasted a golden opportunity.
1. Study up on regional specialties.
There are, of course, plenty of regions where you won’t have many options to choose from. Stick with whole hog in Eastern North Carolina and the mutton in Western Kentucky. However, the menu options around the rest of the country generally include a bevy of proteins. Making the right choices depends on your observations, the region, and even the restaurant’s suggestions. First, understand your location in the barbecue world to guess what the barbecue joint might excel at. There are exceptions to every rule, but you’ll have better luck sticking with pigs east of the Mississippi; feel free to add beef to the mix once you get west of it. There’s a brief cheat sheet below. (Photo: nobullbbq.com)
- Ribs and burnt ends in Kansas City
- Chopped pork and chicken in the Carolinas
- Spare ribs and chicken in Alabama
- Ribs and pulled pork in Tennessee
- Mutton in Western Kentucky
- Sirloin (not tri-tip) in Santa Maria, CA
2. Understand your setting.
Once you get in the door, check your surroundings. A meat counter where you can talk through your order with a meat cutter is always preferred to having your barbecue plate prepared out of sight in a kitchen. If you’re forced to sit down with only a menu to guide you (and all the barbecue is hidden away behind the kitchen doors), your options for specificity lessen. If one meat is the obvious feature to the menu then there’s no need to stray. If it’s not so apparent, don’t be afraid to ask. Any decent pitmaster will be happy to tell you what he/she does best. Also, be sure to check the specials board. Unlike fine dining where specials are the place leftovers go to die, these are cuts the pitmaster decided to cook on this occasion. This is where the attention will be. (Photo: Yelp/Michael U.)
3. Speaking of leftovers, be wary of BBQ-fusion dishes.
You should also know where leftovers do go to die. If a barbecue joint is selling enchiladas, quesadillas, or anything called a sloppy joe, it’s doubtful that barbecue was cooked today. Ironically, these items on a menu (as well as sausage in the beans or brisket in the mac ‘n cheese) are a good sign that the meat on your plate will be fresh since the leftovers go elsewhere. (Photo: Yelp/Sarah M.)
4. Never take your eyes off the cutting board.
A counter with a meat-stacked cutting board gives you the best opportunity to really pick and choose. Having all the meats in sight will help you make the right decisions, so don’t waste your time in line chatting it up your buddy—that’s a noob move. Watch what is going on with the orders ahead of you. If the cut edge of the brisket looks like shag carpet—or, worse still, like petrified wood—skip it. If it sits like a rock on the cutting board (tender brisket looks relaxed, not springy), look for another option. The same goes if the meat cutter’s first step was to strip away the fat cap and throw it in the trash. This is textbook brisket disrespect. Steam pouring out of the meat as it’s sliced looks cool, but that is meat that wasn’t rested properly; all that steam is actually moisture that is now lost forever, which means you’re going to need the sauce. On the flip side, if you see the juices running from the meat, get a pound.
Side note: This might be where you expect me to discuss the virtues of the smoke ring, but here’s the deal—the smoke ring alone doesn’t tell you much other than the meat was probably cold when they put into a low-temperature smoker. Chain barbecue cooked in thermometer-controlled, gas-fired smokers will have more impressive smoke rings than barbecue cooked a little hotter in a wood-fired offset smoker. The smoke ring is pretty, but an impressive one shouldn’t trick you into thinking you’re necessarily eating good barbecue. (Gif by Liz Barclay)
5. Ignore meat that is shaped unnaturally.
Turkey and ham that looks like it belongs in a deli counter should be avoided. The best barbecue comes from whole muscles, so remember that animals aren’t constructed of perfectly shaped ovals or long meat cylinders (disregard this tip if you have a hankering for smoked bologna). (Photo: lynnskitchenadventures.com)
6. Tongs are a very bad omen.
Run away from a joint that pre-slices their meat for easy service. Sliced brisket or pre-cut ribs served up with tongs from a steam table is the clearest way for a barbecue joint to tell you they’ve given up. Once a hunk of meat has been sliced into, it only gets worse. Adding the heat of the steam table exacerbates this decline in quality. (Photo by Daniel Vaughn)
7. Chopped or pulled meats can salvage mediocre ‘cue.
If it all looks sub-par, get something chopped or pulled. Whether it’s brisket, pork, or chicken, it can easily be concealed in a bun or stuffed in a giant baked potato. A ladle of sauce can cure a lot of ills too, and piling on pickles, onions, or slaw can mask even the worst smoked meat. You should also feel comfortable asking for any chopped meat that you order be “chopped on the block.” This means they’ll skip the pre-chopped and probably sauced-up tub of meat on the steam table for fresh slices of meat that are chopped to order. Fresher is better. (Photo: Yelp/Michael U.)
8. Use the right lingo to secure the best meat.
“Outside” meat is the best meat. In Texas, we call them the ends cuts, while Kansas City calls them “burnt ends.” In the Carolinas you’ll ask for “outside brown.” The rest of the South will know what you mean by “outside” meat: smoky, highly seasoned portions from the surface of the pork shoulder, brisket, or any large cut of meat. Asking for these tasty nuggets will earn you some points with the meat slicer too. They’ll understand that they’re about to serve a well-informed barbecue consumer who appreciates the good stuff, and they’ll make sure to give the best bites to you. Oddly enough, the regulars at many barbecue joints expect “inside” meat, or the heavily trimmed stuff. These are the people ordering all those filets at steakhouses too. Let them have that bland barbecue and all the sauce needed to liven it up. You want what they consider scraps because that’s where the flavor is—on the outside. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
9. Load up on ‘fixins.
If you’re on a budget, don’t scan the menu for the value items. Instead, look to the toppings bar. Just like the ballpark hot-dog stand, BBQ joints always have free condiments. Many places offer bread, sauce, pickles, onions, and other random shelf-stable items for the taking. That’s how you turn a quarter pound of meat into a triple-decker sandwich. (Photo by Daniel Vaughn)
10. What time of day you go will determine freshness.
If you get to choose a day or time that you visit a barbecue joint, check their hours. Barbecue is a lunchtime food. It gets cooked all night, and is ready to serve during the lunch hour. Some restaurants cook in several batches, but more often than not the meat at dinner was cooked the night before, so go for lunch if you have the option. The same principle goes for days of the week. If they’re closed on Monday, then the barbecue on Tuesday will be fresh (unless the joint is particularly terrible). The stuff they offer around closing time on Sunday will be just the scraps. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
11. BBQ sauce is not (necessarily) a sin.
No matter how you have to order it, always ask for sauce on the side. Texas is known for not liking barbecue sauce, but there is literally only one barbecue joint in the state that doesn’t serve it. That’s Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Sauce can be good, and maybe the meat needs it. But just like reaching for the salt shaker, it’s best to figure out if sauce is the answer after taking a few bites. Even if it needs a flavor or moisture boost, it’ll be better if you get to choose just how much to apply. (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
Bonus tip: Sausage curvature is key.
For you sausage lovers, look for the bend in your links. A sausage that’s straight as a cane pole means it was made with synthetic-collagen casings. These aren’t the casings used by most craft-sausage makers. Instead, they’ll opt for natural pork casings that result in a sausage that has a curve to it, which means you’ve got a better chance of nabbing a good link. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
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