Three decades ago, one would have been hard-pressed to compile a list of the best barbecue in each of the 50 states. America’s low-and-slow tradition was a highly regionalized practice mainly found in the South. Back then, asking a person to track down a single barbecue restaurant in states with little spiritual connection to the wood-burning pit—Connecticut, say, or North Dakota—was sending him on a fool's errand.
But these days, the problem is narrowing down the list. Barbecue has now won over fans all across the country, driven first by cable television and then by social media, which popularized the idea of “destination barbecue.” This cultural exchange has blurred regional boundaries, inspiring Carolina pitmasters to try their hand at Texas-style brisket, and those down in Texas to tackle whole hog. (And don’t get us started about the six packs of different sauces found on the tables at the places our friend John Shelton Reed has dubbed “The International House of Barbecue.”
On the plus side, though, it is now possible to find really good barbecue no matter where your travels may take you. So, when First We Feast asked Daniel Vaughn and I to compile our picks for the best barbecue in each state, we pulled out our maps, scanned our sauce-stained eating logs, and decided, yes, we might actually be able to pull this thing off.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Quality barbecue is still not distributed equally throughout the country, and trying to pick just one “best” in barbecue-blessed states like Texas and North Carolina is bound to be arbitrary and capricious. For such states, we homed in on the joint that, in our minds, most completely encapsulates the unique style and traditions of its particular region—the style of cooking, the type of sauce, and the legacy the restaurant represents.
And then there are places like Alaska and Utah. It’s not for lack of trying, but even between the two of us we’ve not yet managed to canvass the barbecue in every single state in this big nation. So we leaned upon our a few trusted friends and fellow food writers for nominations for the more out-of-the-way corners of the country.
Local partisans, we are sure, will quibble with our picks, but that comes with the territory when you start ranking barbecue. We do feel confident about one thing, though: If you go and eat at any one of these spots, you’re bound to have a memorable meal.
Here is the best barbecue from each of the 50 states.