Tim Carman (@timcarman) is a James Beard Award-winning reporter and columnist at The Washington Post.
We live in a partisan country where the people cling to their beliefs like a mother clutching a newborn—and I’m not even talking about politics. Barbecue was partisan before partisanship was, well, not exactly cool, but a fact of life in the halls of Congress and on the streets of America.
You want to start a fight? Go to North Carolina and tell the locals that Texas pitmasters produce the best barbecue in America. (Yes, I did this once, in my youth. Never again.) Calvin Trillin famously opined in 1974 that Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City was “possibly the single best restaurant in the world”—writers who quote this line often neglect to include the word “possibly,” with all the hesitancy it implies—and it’s been game on in the barbecue world ever since. Possibly before, too.
The thing is, the barbecue landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or more. The inexorable shift of America’s population, from farm to city, has made the rise of urban barbecue inevitable. You build restaurants where the people are. The pitmasters are no longer apprentices who work under a legend for years before taking charge of the wood smokers. They’re classically trained chefs or second-career folks who have traded in their drumsticks for a pair of tongs (as did Aaron Franklin, the current golden boy of American barbecue at Franklin Barbecue in Austin).
The new pitmasters are hard to categorize as a whole. Some embrace modern gas-powered smokers and the efficiency they bring to the fickle barbecue process. Others embrace the old ways, relying on wood-fired smokers and their own ability to maintain a fire. Some focus on a single regional style. Others take a broader approach to developing a menu, borrowing from traditions all over the country. These pitmasters have both reinforced the borders around American barbecue—and erased them.
Which brings me to the chore at hand: Picking the best and most iconic dishes in American barbecue, an exercise fraught with complications. I wanted to select dishes that have become the rock stars of barbecue, recognizable (if not always accessible) to barbecue lovers across the country. But in singling out these plates, I also realize all are not created equal: A pork shoulder smoked in Eastern North Carolina often comes with generations of tradition behind it. The same dish in Dallas? Not so much.
Then again, some dishes are so localized that I couldn't convince myself to give them a listing of their own, like chopped whole-hog, which I love for its mix of flavors and textures. So instead, I included it as part of the pulled/chopped category. My list, by and large, favors meats over sides, which is natural. While almost anything can be thrown into a smoker these days—fruits, vegetables, cheese, even tofu, for chrissakes—the earliest and most defining barbecue meals involve whole animal muscles, sometimes whole animals.
But whether animal or vegetable, the list below—possibly—has its own partisan slant, the result of my years living in Kansas City and Houston before arriving in our nation's capital, ground zero of partisanship. Without further ado, here are the best barbecue foods, ranked.