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The 23 Essential Barbecue Dishes in America

Consider this your ultimate barbecue-eating bucket list

My fixation with the profound, pan-regional variations of American barbecue first kindled in 2002. I was just starting my career as a dining critic; I lived in Atlanta, and, sure, I savored a rack of ribs or a saucy pork sandwich as much as the next food enthusiast. That year, though, the Southern Foodways Alliance held its fifth-annual symposium. The theme was “Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce, and History," and its promise of hickory-perfumed meat and conversation lured me and over 200 other participants to Oxford, Mississippi, a leap in attendance for the then-fledgling event.

It was during feasts of lacquered, pit-blackened Cornish hens and hogs cooked whole in eastern North Carolina fashion — as well as the symposium's many smart, sometimes heated talks — that I realized how little I really grasped barbecue's myriad variances. Each discussion deepened my curiosity and hunger: the nuances in chopped versus pulled pork; the gradations of vinegar, chile, and ketchup in sauce variants; the fierce loyalty to beef in Texas; and the very existence of mutton barbecue in western Kentucky.

Nearly 15 years later, the glory of barbecue's diversity is a far less obscure subject. Our country's full-blown meat obsession has fueled the mania for true barbecue transformed by wood fire, smoke, expert attention, and time. Venerable institutions are revered with fresh eyes; serious new practitioners (many particularly inspired by the bovine marvels of Central Texas) work smoldering pits all over the country. It's a tradition we now relish with atomic devotion, dish-by-dish, cut-by-cut, bite-by-bite.

Our roll call of 23 dishes stands as a celebration of American barbecue in its heyday, which — happily for us — is right this moment.

In compiling to guide to essential American barbecue dishes, it was clear we needed a task force. I brainstormed the list with three veteran thinkers and travelers: Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly's barbecue editor and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue; food and drink writer (and all-around expert on the culinary South) Jennifer V. Cole; and in-house ace Nick Solares, Eater NY's restaurant editor and the host of Eater's The Meat Show. We focused purely on main courses built around smoked meats; barbecue restaurant side dishes are another topic altogether.

It turns out the four of us have a collective traditionalist streak: Our choices stayed mostly centered within the heart of the country's barbecue culture, which for us encompasses not only the South in its broadest geographic definitions, but also Midwestern cities like Chicago and Kansas City. No picks in California or on the West Coast? Correct. More dishes lauded in Texas than anywhere else? Also correct. We likewise express some potentially controversial opinions, like where to find the best ribs (answer: not in Memphis).

After all, barbecue is meant to be debated as much as it is to be relished. Our roll call of 23 dishes stands as a celebration of American barbecue in its heyday, which — happily for us — is right this moment.

Large whole hog tray, Skylight Inn

Skylight’s signature order has become the iconic, sculptural emblem of eastern North Carolina’s whole-hog tradition: a checkered paperboard vessel containing tangy, minced slaw totters atop a rectangle of cornpone (cornbread’s dense, sugarless cousin), which in turn rests on another cardboard tub piled with long-smoked, well-cleaved meat. This is the holiest trinity of barbecue. Behind the restaurant, pigs roast for hours over hickory and oak woods. A cook hacks meat from every part of the animal; seasons it with vinegar, Texas Pete hot sauce, salt, and pepper; and then folds some of the separated and diced skin and fat back into the feathery pile of pork. 4618 South Lee Street, Ayden NC, 28513,

Image credit: Addison/Eater

Coarse-chopped BBQ tray, Lexington Barbecue

The Tar Heel State remains forever divided between two proud and opposing barbecue regions: the eastern coastal plains, where whole hogs slowly smolder over timber, and the western piedmont plateau, where smoked pork shoulders reign. At Lexington, which represents the apotheosis of western-style ’cue, cheerful waitresses deliver plates of barbecue that come sliced, chopped to a frilly texture, or — best of all — coarsely chopped. Vaughn, Solares, and Cole each separately mentioned that it’s vital to request plenty of "outside brown," the burnished, perfumed crust that forms on the shoulders’ exterior during smoking. Note the twang of ketchup that races through both the vinegar sauce lightly dressing the meat, as well as the pink-tinged slaw served as part of the tray. 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, NC 27295,

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Pulled pork plate, Scott’s Bar-B-Que

Over the last decade, Rodney Scott has become the poster pitmaster for whole-hog barbecuing: The Internet hosts innumerable images of him tending to splayed pigs over metal grates or wire caging, often washing the pork in peppery vinegar sauce with an actual mop. Trekking to the Scott family’s restaurant in Hemingway, South Carolina, about 80 miles northeast of Charleston, makes it clear why this is one of America’s great barbecue pilgrimage sites: The pork is transcendent. The meat is energetically seasoned with salt, red and black peppers, and Accent while cooking; the skin is separated and offered in its smoky state or after it's plunged in the deep fryer to make cracklings. Ask for some of each to complete your plate. Highway 261 Brunson Cross Road, Hemingway, SC 29554,

Image credit: Solares/Eater

Brunswick stew, Southern Soul Barbeque

When it comes to barbecue traditions, Georgia is more a center of convergence for different styles than a state with its own distinctive specialty. But the local barbecue restaurants do take ownership of a 'cue-based side dish: Brunswick stew, the ruddy, chunky potage of smoked pork, tomatoes, corn, and often other vegetables, amped with vinegar. Out of the myriad versions across Georgia, Cole particularly prizes the nuanced take at Southern Soul, located on Saint Simons Island, a getaway destination about 85 miles south of Savannah. "The soul of the stew is the amalgam of smoked meats: pork, chicken, beef brisket, and turkey," she says. "I love that at special events, the cooks go old-school and even add smoked squirrel. Yes, squirrel." 2020 Demere Road, Saint Simons Island, GA 31522,

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Spicy Korean pork sandwich, Heirloom Market BBQ

At their tiny but always-packed Atlanta storefront, chef-owners Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor take an unorthodox yet exceptional approach to barbecue, combining the flavors of Taylor’s Southern background with Lee’s Korean culinary heritage. The sandwich is their loftiest achievement: pork rib meat soaks in sweet, gently fiery gochujang chile paste before smoking over hickory and oak. The pork gets hacked into cubes and tumbled onto a potato bun with a generous heap of kimchi coleslaw. If this is the direction of American barbecue’s evolutionary path, count us in. 2243 Akers Mill Road Southeast, Atlanta, GA 30339,

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Smoked chicken wings, Saw’s Soul Kitchen

Of the three Saw’s barbecue restaurants throughout Birmingham’s metro area, Soul Kitchen rolls with the most avant-garde menu, tackling Southern standards with a mix of tradition and imagination. The kitchen distinguishes wings by coating them in peppery dry rub for baseline heat before smoking, tossing them in a not-too-sweet red sauce before serving, and then drizzling on the regional triumph — North Alabama-style white sauce, a marriage of mayo and vinegar zinged with spices. "Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama, may have started the revolution of chicken with white sauce," Cole says, "but the wings at Saw’s give the beloved pairing a decidedly next-gen twist." 215 41st Street South, Birmingham, AL 35222,

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Slab of spare ribs, Archibald Drive Inn

The archetypal example of barbecued spare ribs — tender-taut, fleshy, and speckled with char marks from the grill — can be savored at this tiny white building just outside of Tuscaloosa. (Archibald’s interior sports a deep red coat of paint in support of the nearby University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team.) Tray Archibald mans the pit, cooking the ribs over hickory the way his grandparents, George and Betty Archibald, did when they opened the place in 1961. "These ribs come correct: beautiful char and meat that requires a tug from the teeth to be satisfyingly pried from the bone," Cole says. A vinegary sauce delivers sweetness, acidity, and heat in even measure. 1211 Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, Northport, AL 35476, (205) 345-6861

Image credit: Amy C Evans for SFA/Flickr

Dry ribs, Peg Leg Porker

"The best Memphis-style dry rub ribs in the country are in Nashville," Vaughn says plainly about his preference for Carey Bringle’s masterworks at Music City’s Peg Leg Porker. The technique for dry-rub ribs originated in the 1950s with Charlie Vergos, owner of a Memphis restaurant called Rendezvous, who swabbed ribs with a vinegar mixture and then dusted them with a spice blend after cooking. But Bringle perfects every element of the dish. His cooks swab the ribs with an acidic, finely tuned baste, and then just before the barbecue leaves the kitchen, they dust over a potent spice blend that riles the taste buds into a frenzy yet never detracts from the redolent meat underneath. 903 Gleaves Street, Nashville, TN 37203,

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Chopped pork sandwich, Payne’s Bar-B-Q

The ideal chopped pork sandwich is about consistency, in both meanings of the word: the satisfying textural interplays as well as the skillful, steady manner in which every element is prepared. Flora Payne achieves those twin aims brilliantly. Out of a converted filling station, she smokes pork shoulders and then dices hunks to order, incorporating plenty of outside brown bits for contrast and moistening the meat with just enough thin, plucky red sauce (offered hot or mild). The slaw pulls no punches: It’s alive with vinegar and mustard, with a glow that calls to mind a school bus in direct sunlight. Built on a simple hamburger roll, it makes for one commanding sandwich. 1762 Lamar Avenue, Memphis, TN 38114, (901) 272-1523

Image credit: Rien T. Fertel for SFA/Flickr

Cornish hen, Cozy Corner Restaurant

White or dark meat? Here you’re delivered both in one compact bird, a longtime specialty of Cozy Corner matriarch and pitmaster Desiree Robinson, who oversees the restaurant now largely run by her children and grandchildren. Customers can see rows of petite chickens — as well as pork ribs and other meats — through the smudged windows of the restaurant’s glass-front, aquarium-style smoker, an apparatus that originated in Chicago in the 1950s (and is rarely seen beyond the Windy City). Fetchingly singed at the tips of its wings, the Cornish hen arrives with a fresh veneer of sweet and vinegary red sauce, which pools around the bird and glosses the meat when you start feasting. 745 North Parkway, Memphis, TN 38105,

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Pulled pork sandwich with spicy sauce and slaw, Helen’s Bar BQ

Without a shred of gimmickry, Helen Turner serves the country’s definitive pulled pork sandwich. She’s run her no-frills operation in Brownsville, Tennessee (about an hour’s drive northeast of Memphis) since 1996, ministering to her righteously smoky pork shoulders in an open pit and then tending to her eager, loyal customers. Turner offers the pork chopped or pulled; the latter furnishes ropy, gratifying chunks that she’ll thwack a few times with a cleaver to create manageable bites. A squirt of warming sauce in the sandwich’s center, followed by a sensible tuft of slaw, and you have an edible fulfillment of the American dream. 1016 North Washington Avenue, Brownsville, TN 38012, (731) 779-3255

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Mutton combination plate, Old Hickory Bar-B-Que

Western Kentucky mutton barbecue traces its genesis at least back to the early 1800s, when the local Scotch and Irish wool industry made sheep plentiful. The best cooking method to offset their gaminess? Over hardwood, low and slow. The town of Owensboro is best known as the seat of restaurants specializing in the local delicacy. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Que draw the most praise; between the two, Vaughn prefers Old Hickory, in business since 1918. For the full experience, he suggests you get the combination plate — including mutton ribs and well as "off the pit" meat chopped and sliced from the hind quarter. Hint: The lean sliced option will taste the mildest. 338 Washington Avenue, Owensboro, KY 42301,

Image credit: Solares/Eater

Burnt ends, LC’s Bar-B-Q

In a 2014 Eater article on the subject of Kansas City’s beloved burnt ends, food writer and KC native Bonjwing Lee defined them as "crisped and charred ‘bark’ from the fattier corners of the brisket — beef crackling that has been blackened by smoke." Our burnt end go-to, also a favorite of Lee’s, is LC’s, a modest roadhouse in a barren stretch of town but where a line often snakes out the door at lunchtime. These are the scrappy, fatty-crisp, glorious shards that burnt ends were meant to be. One warning: They come liberally doused with sweet, potent sauce. Risk a dubious glance from the staff and ask for the sauce on the side. 5800 Blue Parkway, Kansas City, MO 64129;

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Smoked salami, Adam’s Smokehouse

Vaughn singles out this lush, campfire-scented salumi as the single most memorable creation he’s tried during his St. Louis barbecue explorations. Adam’s Smokehouse owners Mike Ireland and Frank Vinciguerra — both veterans of St. Louis’s Pappy’s Smokehouse, known nationwide for its baby-back ribs — launched their place in 2013. Since opening, the smoked salami has drawn attention as an ambrosial curiosity among the more typical meats. Generous amounts of black pepper and other spices riddle the mix (70 percent pork and 30 percent beef), but one twist is especially key to its uniqueness: "Smoked garlic goes into the combination," says Vaughn. "It imparts a smoother, rounder flavor, unlike most garlic sausages, which use raw cloves." 2819 Watson Road, St. Louis, MO 63139,

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Rib tips, Honey 1 BBQ

Pitmaster Robert Adams Sr. moved from Arkansas to Illinois and embraced the locals’ love for rib tips — the pudgy stubs cut from the lower ends of spare ribs that are plentiful in both meat and cartilage. He and his son Robert Jr. opened their place on the Westside of Chicago in 2003, a location where the customers came in fits and starts. But a move last year to South Side’s Bronzeville, in a space with plenty of foot traffic, has been a boon for business. From a custom aquarium smoker, the father and son team pile crackly, chewy, brawny tips into a paperboard tub, glazed with exactly the right amount of sticky, vinegar-kissed sauce. 746 East 43rd Street, Chicago, IL 60653, (773) 285-9455

Image credit: Nick Murway

St. Louis P Parada-style ribs, Smalls Smoke Shack & More

The list’s most unconventional entrant reads like an outlandish fusion mashup but makes wondrous sense on the palate. At his Chicago takeout counter (look for the turquoise exterior), chef-owner Joaquin Soler draws on his Filipino lineage as inspiration for his ribs, which take their name from food-truck-lined street in Manila. A marinade of soy sauce, banana ketchup, and Jarritos lime soda (a curveball nod to Mexico) imbues the meat with piquant sweetness. "A perfect melding of flesh and fat, the ribs show off layers of complexity, like a meaty mille feuille," says Cole. "It results from charring them in a Southern Pride smoker, reapplying the punchy marinade, and then repeating the process." 4009 N Albany Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625,

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Brisket, Franklin Barbecue

In compiling this list, the four of us involved never even commented on the inclusion of Aaron Franklin’s magnum opus: It was a foregone conclusion. Franklin and his geeky, perfectionistic ways with Central Texas-style barbecue have arguably made him the most famous pitmaster in the world. He published a treatise on his brisket technique, but that hasn’t diminished the trailing line that forms every morning (except Mondays, when the restaurant is closed). The brisket deserves the queue. It’s a feat of meat uncanny in its poise between salt and smoke and in its utter, irrefutable pleasure. Other near-supernatural briskets entice in Texas these days — La Barbecue and Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin and Killen’s Barbecue outside Houston among them — but the discussion always starts (and mostly ends) with Franklin. 900 East 11th Street, Austin, TX 78702,

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Short rib, Louie Mueller Barbecue

If Central Texas-style barbecue — a tradition founded on the smoky creativity of local Czech and German meat market owners looking to make less-desired cuts of meat more tempting — has become a national trend, the mascot for the craze may well be the Flintstonian short rib, a brute of a thing that when properly cooked can yield beef that is as poetically tender as it is ferociously smoldered. The prototype for this sensation hails from Taylor, Texas, about 35 miles northeast of Austin, where it has been a mainstay at Louie Mueller Barbecue for decades. The restaurant, now run by Mueller’s grandson, Wayne, is one of the giants of Lone Star barbecue, and the short rib — near-molten meat contained by a crust of black pepper and still attached to an imposing bone — still sets the standard every single day. 206 West 2nd Street, Taylor, TX 76574,

Image credit: Solares/Eater

Pork steak, Snow’s BBQ

Snow’s — housed in tiny Lexington, Texas, 50 miles east of Austin and open only on Saturday beginning at 8 a.m. — became modern barbecue legend in 2008 when Texas Monthly plucked the place from previous obscurity by naming it the number one barbecue joint in the state. The throngs arrived the next weekend and have been arriving early on Saturday mornings ever since. Lifelong pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz exerts her prowess over a variety of meats, but Snow’s piece de resistance is the pork steak. "This tastes more profoundly like a beef steak than any other piece of pork in my experiences," says Solares. "It is resolutely meaty, with the upfront brashness of a rib steak, but tempered with a sweeter flavor and smoky finish." 516 Main Street, Lexington, TX 78947,

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Sausage, City Market

Another Texas pillar that took very little deliberation among our barbecue band: Nearly equidistant from Austin and San Antonio in Luling (population: 5,411), City Market’s wood-paneled interior leads to the sacrosanct back room, where homemade sausages absorb the scent of oak while dangling from metal grates in tidy rows. The casings pop; black and red peppers kindle the flavors in the ground meats, a mixture that’s 95 percent beef and five percent pork. It sounds basic, but the ratios of leanness and fat, plus the blast of textures, have no equal. Texas often eschews sauce, but the mustard-tinged version here marries superbly with the sausage. 633 East Davis Street, Luling, TX 78648, (830) 875-9019

Image credit: Solares/Eater

Smoked bologna, Burn Co. Barbecue

Adam Myers and Robby Corcoran make use of a novel setup for their Tulsa, Oklahoma kitchen: a labyrinth of 11 Hasty-Bake grills spreads out under a series of giant vent hoods. (Myers formerly worked as a Hasty-Bake sales manager.) Cooks use the grills for everything, even for boiling water to make mac and cheese. Among the breadth of menu items — including a construct called "the Fatty," essentially sausage meatloaf surrounded by a lattice of bacon — Vaughn singles out the smoked bologna as exemplary. "Generally this dish tastes like nothing more than warm bologna," he says. "Burn Co. slices it thick and seasons it before the smoking process, so it actually tastes like barbecue." 1738 South Boston Avenue, Tulsa, OK 74119,

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Jamaican jerk baby back ribs, Hometown Bar-B-Que

Hometown in Red Hook, Brooklyn, has emerged as the darling of New York’s burgeoning barbecue scene. Owner Bill Durney spent time learning the smoky arts with Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue, but Durney takes a global approach to flavors that happens to suit his home turf: pulled pork fills tacos, lamb belly gets the banh mi treatment, and wings absorb the pungent herbaceous notes of Vietnamese cooking. Our panel zeroes in on the outstanding baby back ribs and their West Indian-esque zing. "A pronounced smoke ring, supple but firm flesh, and a mahogany crust all stand on their own merit," says Solares. "But unexpected flavor comes in the form of a picante jerk rub that evokes Jamaica, redolent with cloves and chilies." 454 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231,

Image credit: Solares/Eater

Smoked lamb neck, Little Miss BBQ

The newest restaurant on this list opened in February 2014 in Phoenix (if world-class pizza can thrive in the Sonoran desert, so can stellar barbecue). Scott Holmes and his wife Bekke (a Texas native) looked to Franklin Barbecue and other Austin-area luminaries for inspiration. But the marvel that left a lasting impression on Vaughn was a weekend special of smoked lamb neck, a cut that is slowly popping up in restaurants across America. The thought of "neck" may be daunting, but slow cooking tames the meat into soft, pot-roasty strands. "The juicy shreds of lamb reminded me that pork shouldn’t have a monopoly on the pulled meat section of a barbecue menu," says Vaughn. 4301 East University Drive, Phoenix, AZ 85034,

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Bill Addison is Eater's restaurant editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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