Daniel Vaughn (@BBQsnob) is the Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.
Regional barbecue lists make it seem easy to distill the many varieties of smoked meat in the country into just a few categories. While time-honored traditions from the Carolinas, Texas, Memphis, or Kansas City hog most of the spotlight in online forums and mainstream media, such broad conversations are a disservice to the complexity and breadth of this genre. Barbecue styles abound outside those major groups, after all, and even within them there is endless variation. Oftentimes, that nuance gets lost in our rush to create tidy divisions.
A casual fan might not notice these micro-patterns, especially if he/she were weaned on a specific style. To truly understand the ins and outs of barbecue requires a thorough deep-dive into a region, a type of scholarship that allows you to pinpoint anomalies in style or preparation. Discovering these differences for myself is what keeps my job interesting, and reminds me of why American barbecue is special in the first place.
Yes, you may have heard about hot links and rib tips in Chicago, mutton in Western Kentucky, or tri-tip in Santa Maria, California. These are less popular styles around the country, but to those who obsess about barbecue, they’re just as important. If you look hard enough, you’ll come across true oddities with unlikely—and sometimes contentious—backstories. From brisket hash in El Paso, to Parmesan mac ‘n cheese in Atlanta, here are 10 micro-regional barbecue oddities to keep on your radar.
Brown Gravy Sauce
Hails from: North Texas and Southern Oklahoma
Backstory: You’ve probably heard of Alabama white sauce, but a few barbecue joints along the Red River serve a unique concoction of a different color—brown gravy sauce, made from flour-thickened drippings of smoked meats captured in the pits. It originated with Oklahoman Po’ Sam and his long-closed Colbert, Oklahoma barbecue joint. His recipe is said to be gone forever, but that doesn’t keep those in the area from trying to replicate it. Some say that Williams Old Style in Colbert is the closest approximation. It smokey and packs some heat, but I prefer the version at Perk’s, where the flavor of the peppers is more pronounced. The best thing about it is that it tastes good on everything, even the bread. (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
Where to get it: Perk’s Bar-B-Que (601 W. Hayes, Savoy, TX 75479); Hickory House Bar-B-Que (630 W Woodard St, Denison, TX 75020, hickoryhousebar-b-que.yolasite.com); Williams Old Style Bar-B-Que (306 Moore, Colbert, OK 74733)
Hails from: Mississippi, Arkansas, Northeast Texas
Backstory: Meat wrapped in corn meal makes for a good main dish, but perhaps an even better barbecue side dish. I’ve bought Delta-style tamales from food carts, shacks, and even out of a cooler in a truck bed, but it’s always rewarding to find it at a barbecue joint. Delta-style tamales differ from Mexican tamales in a few ways. According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, a Delta tamale “is simmered instead of steamed, has a gritty texture from the use of corn meal instead of masa harina or corn flour, has considerably more spice, and is usually served with juice that is the byproduct of simmering.” You’ll find them naked and sold by the dozen at Coleman’s in Clarksville, or buried under a mountain of shredded cheese at McClard’s in Hot Springs. (Photo: Flickr/lucianvenutian)
Where to get it: Abe’s Bar-B-Q (616 N State St, Clarksdale, MS 38614, abesbbq.com); McClard’s Bar-B-Q (505 Albert Pike Rd, Hot Springs National Park, AR, mcclards.com); Coleman’s BBQ (604 N Martin Luther King Dr, Clarksville, TX 75426)
Parmesan Mac n’ Cheese
Backstory: Sam Huff and Dave Poe began a barbecue business together in 2005, and one of the signature side items was a fancier version of mac n’ cheese made with rigatoni pasta and lots of Parmesan. Sam and Dave in turn taught plenty of pitmasters (they’ve spawned at least ½ dozen other local barbecue joints) who opened their own places, many who began to mimic their unique side. Some versions are creamier than others, but they all start with the same elements: Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan. I haven’t found a bad version yet. (Photo: Yelp/Suzanne B.)
Where to get it: Sam BBQ1 (4944 Lower Roswell Rd, Marietta, GA 30068); Dave Poe’s BBQ (660 Whitlock Ave NW, Marietta, GA 30064, davepoes.com); Community Q (1361 Clairmont Rd, Decatur, GA 30033, communityqbbq.com); Grand Champion BBQ (99 Krog St NE, Atlanta, GA 30307, gcbbq.net)
Apricot Sauce and Onions Rings
Backstory: It started with Dyer’s, or maybe Sutphens, but the puffy onion rings and apricot puree form a combo that isn’t found outside the Texas Panhandle. They are paired best with pork ribs and Texas toast. Some say to spread the apricots on toast, and others suggest dipping the onion rings into it. If there’s any left, I’d suggest finishing it off with a spoon. I first encountered it on a road trip through the Panhandle, and thought it first to be a one-joint anomaly. But in my search I kept finding this odd apricot jam. On a later visit to Amarillo, one joint had taken it so far as to have three versions, one of which included Grand Marnier. (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
Where to get it: Old Sutphens BBQ (303 N Cedar St, Borger, TX 79007); Dyer’s Bar-B-Que (1619 S Kentucky St E526, Amarillo, TX 79102, dyersbbq.com)
Hails from: Western North Carolina (Piedmont)
Backstory: You most likely know that barbecue is a highly divisive subject in North Carolina. It has two different camps: whole hog in the East, served with a simple vinegar sauce, and pork shoulders smothered with a ketchup-tinged sauce offered in the Piedmont region. Both traditions cook pig over hot coals, and if you ask me, the meat on either end of the state has more similarities than differences. The slaw, however, couldn’t be more different. In the East, it’s mayo-based, but in Piedmont tradition says to throw the sauce right into the finely chopped slaw. It’s crunchy, bracingly acidic, and has as much kick as the barbecue. It’s certainly more unique than the mayo slaw in the East, but I don’t enjoy it much on a sandwich. Give me the red slaw on the side to enjoy all by itself. (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
Where to get it: Bar-B-Q Center (900 N Main St, Lexington, NC 27292); Stamey’s (2812 Battleground Ave, Greensboro, NC 27408, stameys.com)
Backstory: Barbecue is often defined as much by its side items as the meat. Case in point: burgoo from Western Kentucky. Owensboro is the commercial center for this barbecue region, and is well known for its mutton and black dip that’s heavy on the Worcestershire sauce. Community barbecues play a prominent role here, and most of those festivals will include huge cauldrons of burgoo. It’s a hearty stew with meats like mutton (of course), chicken, or even game meats like squirrel. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and lima beans are common ingredients too. There aren’t strict rules in terms of preparation, but it does need to be thick. A burgoo should be able to make a meal on its own, but I’ll take it with a plate of sliced mutton. (Photo: whirlybirdblog.com)
Where to get it: Moonlite Bar-B-Q (2840 W Parrish Ave, Owensboro, KY 42301, moonlite.com); Ole South Bar-B-Q (3523, Owensboro, KY 42303, olesouthbbq.com); and Ole Hickory Pit (338 Washington Ave, Owensboro, KY 42301, oldhickorybar-b-q.com)
Backstory: Locals call them grease balls or garlic bombs. The casing is generally too tough to eat, so these beef links are enjoyed more like boudin, where the innards are squeezed from the casings. This doesn’t exactly make these sausages sound appetizing, but Texans have been eating them for more than a century in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area. It was probably Patillo’s who first started making them, and owner Robert Patillo still stuffs and smokes the same recipe his great grandparents developed. Unlike most smoked sausages, they start with beef casings instead of pork. The filling is also all-beef, along with garlic, cumin, and chili powder. (And they don’t skimp on the fat either.) These grease balls haven’t become a popular export, but lots of joints all over the region still make sausages from their own family recipe. (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
Where to get it: Patillo’s Bar-B-Q (2775 Washington Blvd, Beaumont, TX 77705); Broussard’s (2930 S 11th St, Beaumont, TX 77701, broussardsbbq.com); Comeaux’s BBQ (1848 Bluebonnet Ave, Port Arthur, TX 77640); Jaws BBQ II (1448 7th Street, Port Arthur, TX 77640)
Hails from: Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia
Backstory: We’re not going to argue whether or not Brunswick stew was invented in Virginia or Georgia. I’ve never eaten it Virginia, but the Georgia version is one of my favorite barbecue sides anywhere in the country. (The ones I’ve tried in North Carolina have more in common with vegetable soup than I prefer.) In Georgia, you can find all sorts of varieties, from the stewed ones at the historic Fresh Air BBQ in Jackson, to chunkier offerings at Heirloom BBQ in Atlanta or Blind Pig in Jackson. Chunks of chicken, corn, potatoes, and beans are common, and at Fresh Air they mix in some ground beef too. No matter the texture, it’s going to be flavorful. There’s always a vinegar tang and a good dose of black pepper. Every time I order this as a side option instead of slaw or beans, I feel like I’m getting away with something; it’s so complex in flavor and filling to boot. (Photo: Flickr/tvnewsbadge)
Where to get it: Blind Pig BBQ (873 Barnetts Bridge Rd, Jackson, GA 30233, blindpigbarbecue.com); Fresh Air BBQ (1164 GA-42, Jackson, GA 30233, freshairbarbecue.com); Fox Bros. BBQ (1238 DeKalb Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30307, foxbrosbbq.com)
Hash & Rice
Backstory: Whole-hog cooking in its truest sense doesn’t just mean muscle meat—there are livers, hearts, and kidneys to deal with as well. Truth of the matter is that those cuts aren’t so popular among the masses, and it’d be hard to get repeat business if they ended up in your barbecue sandwich. In South Carolina, however, pitmasters transform those unwanted parts into their signature barbecue side of hash. The hash has a smooth texture after simmering for hours along with onions, potatoes, and seasonings. It’s generally served over rice, which helps to deaden the strong flavors of the offal. Sauces are also added to help cover up the flavor. At McCabe’s in Manning, they add a heap of black pepper. Modern hash recipes tend to use whole muscle cuts instead of offal, and that’s what you’ll find at Sweatman’s. If you’re looking for the real stuff, don’t worry. You can smell it. (Photo: Yelp/Jennifer D.)
Where to get it: McCabe’s Bar-B-Que (480 N Brooks St, Manning, SC 29102); Sweatman’s BBQ (1427 Eutaw Rd, Holly Hill, SC 29059, sweatmansbbq.com)
Backstory: Brisket hash is one of the many dishes born from leftovers. It was once found all over El Paso, but now resides in just a few joints. One of those places is Tony’s, where owner Martha Vargas serves it on a sandwich, in a burrito, or a la carte. During my last visit, she recited the ingredient list: “It’s brisket trimmings, and potatoes. [Her husband Tony Jr.] added bell peppers, onions, and spices. It’s also cumin, garlic, Worcestershire, and the barbecue sauce.” Those brisket trimmings are essentially the fatty burnt ends, and enough customers in these parts want bark-free brisket that those burnt ends pile up in the scrap tray. At Tony’s, they grind them up and cook them down in a perforated pan to let the excess fat drip away. It’s like a meatier version of corned beef hash, and it’s cheap. A sandwich with hash is half the price of a chopped brisket sandwich. (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
Where to get it: Tony’s The Pit Bar-B-Que (1700 Myrtle Ave, El Paso, TX 79901, tonysthepitbbq.com); Johnny’s Pit Barbecue (4760 Doniphan Dr, El Paso, TX 79922)