When it comes to celebrating America’s regional barbecue traditions, Kentucky always gets the short
rib end of the stick.
Wes Berry will be the first one to tell you so. An English Professor at Western Kentucky University, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book, and self-appointed smoked-meat sherpa of the Commonwealth, he’s like Anthony Bourdain with a twang—and he doesn’t mince his words.
“Nearly all Kentucky barbecue is ‘under-the-radar,'” says Berry.
So why the outlier status when the state shines in other specialties like country ham and bourbon?
“Texans love their beef and North Carolinians worship the hog. In Kentucky, appropriate to our borderline location, we cook up just about any animal that has meat on it. We’re not as big as Texas, but we contain multitudes of barbecue.”
Three major styles dominate: long-smoked pulled pork, mutton, and grilled sliced shoulder.
The first can be found in the western part of the state (considered the hotbed of barbecue), cooked in masonry pits over hickory coals and doused with a variety of sauces that vary from county to county. The state’s claim to fame—mutton (a sheep over a year old)—is served with a savory Worcestershire sauce-based dip that Berry describes as a thin black potion that also contains vinegar and spices like black pepper and allspice. Lastly, the Monroe Co. Style features thinly sliced Boston Butts (first frozen and cut with a meat saw) that are “dipped” in a vinegar, butter, lard, cayenne, and black pepper concoction. Things like chipped mutton, barbecue on toast, and a meat stew called burgoo add micro-regional flair.
“Now, with nearly 200 Kentucky barbecue places under my expanded belt (some of them visited multiple times), I proudly proclaim our state a worthy destination to feast on a variety of God’s creatures properly (and often deeply) smoked,” says Berry.
We’ll take his word for it. From a massive three-pound, 22-hour smoked pork chop, to chopped mutton on hoecakes, here are 10 essential ‘cue experiences to check out in Kentucky.
1. Mutton (ribs, sliced, and chopped) at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q
Address and phone: 338 Washington Ave, Owensboro (270-926-9000)
Berry says: “People call mutton ‘gamy’—a label often attributed to deer and squirrel—and true, these animals don’t taste like supermarket chicken, pork, and beef. Could it be that the deer, squirrel, and sheep eat less corn, hence less ‘gaminess’? Whatever it is, you need to try mutton if in Kentucky, where we cook up more of it than anywhere else in the USA. Old Hickory recently achieved some national fame when it appeared (and won) a rare BBQ Pitmaster’s segment focused on Kentucky. If you want real, deep-holler flavor, get the fatty mutton ribs. The rich muskiness of mutton concentrates in the fats. Chopped mutton—a combination of scraps pulled from hard-to-slice sheep pieces—is likewise gamy and best eaten with bread. The sliced mutton is less funky but still tastes like sheep—you know you ain’t eating brisket when feasting on it. Try ‘em all.” (Photo: Wes Berry)
2. Burgoo at Dave’s Sticky Pig
Berry says: “Burgoo is an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ rich stew made with several meats and vegetables, akin to the Brunswick stews of Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Kentucky burgoo often has mutton in it. The burgoo at Old Hickory is cooked down into slurry, where the individual ingredients have mostly dissolved. At Dave’s Sticky Pig, the burgoo components—like corn, peppers, and pork—are more clearly defined. Both versions go well with cornbread in various forms. Dave smokes meats on a tank cooker with an offset firebox using 100% hardwood. Along with the burgoo, try the St. Louis cut pork ribs and banana pudding.” (Photo: Wes Berry)
3. The Big “Pork Chop” at Knockum Hill Bar-B-Q
Berry says: “Hillbillies say a snapping turtle has seven kinds on meat in it. This pork hunk is the snapping turtle of barbecue—as close to whole hog as I’ve eaten outside of the entire magical pig. After eating some of it at Knockum Hill, I brought the leftovers home, which weighed 2lbs. and 6oz. on my kitchen scale (bones and fat included). Get ready for a deeply smoked hunk of hog that’s several pork chops in one, cooked over hickory coals a long time to soak up a deep smoky flavor. Owner Oscar Hill, nearly 80 years old now, said his smoked chop was a 22-hour process. I’ve not met anything else like it anywhere in the barbecue kingdom.” (Photo: Jeanie Adams Smith)
4. “Chip” at Thomason’s Barbecue
Berry says: “In Union and Henderson counties, a few barbecue joints pick the smoky bark and meat from mutton ribs, neck, and shoulders, mix in some ‘dip,’ and serve it up as ‘chipped’ mutton, which is often eaten on rye bread with sliced dill pickles and fresh onions. (They reserve the mutton hindquarters—hams—where most the meat is for slicing.) Thomason’s mixes in some of the bark pulled from Boston butts. The dip softens the drier exterior pieces of meat. Owner Frank Gibson says their vinegar dip doesn’t have Worcestershire sauce in it, as is typical of mutton dips in nearby Owensboro, but it does contain a lot of spices, including allspice. Thomason’s also offers silky, savory beans jazzed up with Frank’s secret-recipe dip and smoked meat.” (Photo: Wes Berry)
5. Pulled Pork on Toast at Harned’s Drive In
Berry says: “In four western Kentucky counties, people like their long-smoked hog meat served on bread that’s been toasted until golden. A few places have ancient sandwich presses that do the toasting work. This isn’t a dry toast, but more like what you expect of a grilled cheese when you use plenty of butter. Harned’s is a true drive-in, open since 1955. Pull up and someone will come to your car and take your order. Here, the pork is pulled in good-sized strips, and the barky pieces taste of deep hickory smoke. Request no sauce to get the full flavor of that righteous pork, but their sauce—vinegar based with probably chili powder mixed in—makes for a good palate cleanser when dabbing bites of sandwich into it.” (Photo: Wes Berry)
6. Dipped “Shoulder,” Monroe Co. Style, at R & S Bar-B-Q
Berry says: “In five south-central Kentucky counties you’ll see a menu item called shoulder, by far the most popular protein in the region. Pork shoulders—the Boston butt section—are frozen, sliced thinly on a meat saw, and grilled on open pits over hickory coals. Pit tenders sop these thin pork ovals with a dip made of vinegar, lard, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and salt (dip recipes vary from place to place with secret additions to this basic recipe). On the pits they also cook chickens, hamburgers, and hot dogs, sopping everything with that spicy dip. They dip and flip, and when they get tired of that they flip and dip. You get pretty much the same menu items at most barbecue places in Monroe and Barren counties, the areas with the highest concentration of this style of barbecue: open-pit grilled meats, vinegar slaw, beans, and potato salad, and fancier sides like hashbrown casserole. R & S is a good choice because owner Anita Hamilton descends from the originators of this style, and she keeps the tradition and serves up sweet hospitality along with the shoulder and sides.” (Photo: Jeanie Adams Smith)
7. Chopped Mutton or Pork on Hoecakes with Hot Sauce and Hot Slaw at Bar B Que Shack
Berry says: “Several places around western Kentucky and central Tennessee serve barbecue with hoecakes—cornbread batter fried into beautifully browned rounds in a black skillet. A mutton sandwich on hoecakes gets you chopped, fatty, smoky mutton between hot, sweet crispy hoecakes. Vinegar slaw is found all over western Kentucky, but the Shack’s red-tinted slaw stands out—finely chopped cabbage with a red-hot sauce mixed in, leaving a nice afterglow of heat on the tongue. Many locals get the slaw on their pork sandwiches.” (Photo: Wes Berry)
8. Smoked Ham, Turkey, & Bologna at Carr’s Barn
Berry says: “Didn’t I say Kentuckians will smoke nearly anything? We do have the highest lung cancer rates in the nation. To call these smoked cured meats ‘barbecue’ stretches the definition, but the goal here is to show under-the-radar offerings, and you’ll find smoked, sugar-cured hams; smoked cured turkey breasts; and yes, bologna sliced off big smoked rolls at several west Kentucky barbecue places. Carr’s Barn, a quaint little diner open since 1951, uses ‘rag bologna,’ an old Southern staple typically saltier than mainstream bologna. Some places only smoke ham and turkey. Carr’s does all three, and they also smoke all meats with 100% wood on rustic masonry pits out back. Because of the saltiness of the preserved meats, they’re best eaten as a sandwich.” (Photo: Wes Berry)
9. Smoked Lamb Ribs and Pork Belly at Hammerheads
Address and phone: 921 Swan St, Louisville (502-365-1112)
Berry says: “This basement pub in an industrial neighborhood specializes in creative smoked meats and good beers. The young chefs who own Hammerheads smoke meats in big steel tanks with a mixture of hickory and cherry woods. The pink lamb ribs are smoky and tender with the delicate flavor of lamb as opposed to the pungent gaminess of mutton. The pork belly is served as a PBLT (on Texas toast with lettuce, tomato, and sun dried tomato aioli). They also have great fries served several ways, including fried in duck fat, and pretzel croissants served with beer cheese. It’s boutique barbecue in a quirky, laid-back, convivial atmosphere.” (Photo Wes Berry)
10. Beef Ribs at Smoketown USA
Address and phone: 1153 Logan St, Louisville (502-409-9180)
Berry says: “Several barbecue places in Kentucky smoke brisket, but not many do an outstanding job of it. Owner Eric ‘The Redneck Jew’ Gould has figured out how to smoke delectable beef ribs, though, and this is one of the only places in Kentucky where you can find them regularly. (You can also get them at the Kentucky State Barbecue Festival in Danville in September from Lucky Dog Catering.) An order of four ribs can feed two people with good appetites. That fat and flesh of these Flintstone-size ribs melt in the mouth, and the mac and cheese, mixed soul greens, and cake-like jalapeño cornbread make good companions.” (Photo: Wes Berry)