'Cue Ratings Why good barbecue is worth traveling for--and where you can get it.
(MONEY Magazine) – One bright summer afternoon in 1999, my buddy Sherman and I headed northeast out of Memphis and drove about 100 miles to the tiny Tennessee village of Cedar Grove. After fruitlessly cruising about and twice stopping for directions ("Turn left when you see the big dog at the corner..."), we finally found what we were looking for: the home of Alma "Chinaman" Hutch, which doubles as his barbecue operation. Business was a little slow that day, so the septuagenarian took time out to chat with us while we ate chicken and ribs on a makeshift dining patio in his front yard. As hens and rabbits wandered around the grounds, he explained the secret of his longevity: "The key thing, y'see, is never go to the doctor. They just carve ya up, make a mess of everything." We nodded and kept eating.
It was a surreal scene, a special scene. An ideal scene, in other words, for eating barbecue, a food whose rural origins, primitivist ethos and closely guarded sauce recipes have imbued it with a near-metaphysical mystique. No other American food inspires such magical associations--or such fanatical devotion--at the mere mention of its name. I doubt that I'd drive 100 miles to sample, say, a great Italian restaurant, but I jumped at the chance to seek out Hutch, because barbecue and adventure make such a natural pairing.
When I say barbecue here, I don't mean meat cooked over charcoal--that's just grilling. Barbecue involves meat cooked slowly over low heat and with plenty of smoke generated by smoldering wood. There are countless preparation styles, the most prominent of which we'll get to in a sec, but the universal elements are low heat and smoke--without those, it ain't barbecue, no matter what the sign out front says. Unfortunately, I live in 'cue-benighted New York City, where environmental regulations make it nearly impossible to run a smoker, so I associate barbecue with travel. Which works out well, because barbecue has so many regionally distinct styles.
Here are my favorite eateries in America's primary barbecue strongholds. I'm not naive enough to dub any of them "the best" (them's fightin' words in serious 'cue quarters), but I will say this: Each one is a superb and representative example of its regional style. And with most of them located in or near metropolitan areas, no 100-mile drives are required.
Barbecue's precise origins are murky, but it's generally accepted that southern slaves barbecued in order to tenderize the tough cuts of pork that whites disdained. Unfortunately, the 'cue now typically found throughout most of the Deep South, with its sweet, gloppy, ketchup-based sauces and ribs falling to mush off the bone, is the most generic, characterless style in the nation. A few places stand out, however, notably Bob Sykes Bar-B-Que (1724 Ninth Ave., Bessemer, Ala.; 205-426-1400), just south of Birmingham, where the ribs are tender yet firm, and the sauce packs a spicy punch.
A completely different, more stripped-down style holds sway in eastern North Carolina, where the meat is usually chopped pork shoulder (frequently flecked with some brown, crunchy bits from the shoulder's edges, typically referred to as "outside meat") and the sauces are often little more than vinegar laced with hot pepper. This is my favorite type of barbecue--indeed, one of my favorite foods, period--and my favorite venue for it is Allen & Son (5650 Hwy. 501, Pittsboro; 919-542-2294), just outside Raleigh. The chopped 'cue looks pale and bland on the plate, almost like tuna, but watch out--between the meat's deep hickory smokiness and the vinegar sauce's slow burn, it's surprisingly powerful food, and I know of no place that captures its elemental simplicity and its sublime subtleties like Allen and Son. If you can eat at only one restaurant listed here, this is the one.
Heading down into South Carolina, the sauces turn yellow, signifying a heavy mustard component. An outstanding place to sample this style is Sweatman's (Rte. 453, between Eutawville and Holly Hill; no phone), about an hour southeast of Columbia. The lovely restaurant, housed in a country farmhouse, features a buffet line with first-rate chopped pork, ribs and spectacular cracklings. Sweatman's smokes its hogs during the week and serves only on Friday and Saturday, but go ahead and rearrange your schedule to match theirs--the food is definitely worth it.
For years over in 'cue-crazed Memphis, the boilerplate choice has been the tourist-friendly Charlie Vergos Rendezvous (52 S. Second St.; 901-523-2746), where the ribs are prepared with a dry spice rub instead of a sauce, providing a wallop of concentrated flavor. It's a formidable meal, but better still is the Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway; 901-527-9158), where the meat is smokier, the atmosphere is more down home and the barbecued Cornish hens rival Vergos' dry ribs for best local delicacy.
When southern blacks migrated to northern industrial cities between World Wars I and II, barbecue came with them. The best example is Chicago, whose South Side is dotted with 'cueries. My favorite is Lem's (5914 S. State St.; 773-684-5007), which, like most Chicago smokehouses, features ribs, rib tips (the chewy anterior ends of the ribs) and hot links (spicy sausage), all drenched in a tomatoey hot sauce and served on a bed of utterly irrelevant fries. What sets Lem's apart is the sauce's intriguing flavor profile (Is that allspice? Cloves?) and the meat's remarkable juiciness. Lem's is takeout only, and the neighborhood is sketchy, but don't let that deter you--it's an essential Chicago stop.
Texas barbecue is a completely different animal--literally. The default meat here is beef brisket, not pork, the most plausible explanation for which is that Texas is cattle country. Sausage--traceable to central Texas' German-immigrant heritage--is also a standard menu offering, and many folks eschew the local tomato-based sauces altogether, preferring unfettered communion with the meat's smoky essence. Austin is particularly fertile territory, with at least a dozen prime smokehouses scattered within about 40 miles of the city. My favorite is the Salt Lick (Rte. 1826, Driftwood; 512-858-4959), a boisterous roadhouse with family-style wood-plank tables and a massive open-pit smoker piled high with enough meat to feed a small country for a month or two. The brisket, rimmed with a pink patina and a blackened edge, is particularly fine. For a good backup, try the spectacularly juicy and flavorful homemade sausage at Black's Barbecue (215 N. Main, Lockhart; 512-398-2712), which puts the rest of the region's hot links to shame.
Yet another meat is prominent in western Kentucky, where early Dutch settlers were shepherds, resulting today in a unique regional specialty: barbecued mutton. The capital of this style is Owensboro, home of more 'cueries per capita than anywhere else in America. The city's acknowledged standout is the wonderful Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn (2840 W. Parrish Ave.; 270-684-8143), where a large buffet allows you to compare the chopped mutton's flavor--strong but not gamy--to that of the excellent pork and beef versions that the Moonlite also serves.
Many of these styles collide and commingle in Kansas City, Mo., where assorted historical factors--black migration, nearby cattle ranching, the local stockyard industry--have created a diverse barbecue culture. All K.C. 'cueries feature brisket, pork ribs and burned ends (the blackened edges of the brisket), with ham, turkey and lamb also common, and the tomato-based sauces are often spiked with molasses. The city's most famous outlet, Arthur Bryant's (1727 Brooklyn Ave.; 816-231-1123), earns its reputation with K.C.'s juiciest brisket and a bracingly spicy sauce. But for the town's top meal, get the lamb ribs at Fiorella's Jack Stack (13441 Holmes Rd.; 816-942-9141), which are encrusted with a salty spice rub and topped with a tangy sauce, making for an explosion of flavor and texture. Purists may find Fiorella's a tad upscale--there's even a wine list--but make no mistake: Their barbecue is the real deal.
Drooling yet? Before hitting the road, keep in mind that many 'cueries, including most of those I've listed, are closed on Sundays or keep erratic hours, so always call ahead. Finally, I suppose it's worth noting that some doctors might frown upon eating large quantities of smoked meat. But you remember what Chinaman Hutch said about doctors.
Paul Lukas makes a mean batch of North Carolina-style ribs.