Barbecue Picks From Competitive Champs


The best barbecue on the planet, any competitive–barbecue champion will tell you, is to be had not at a restaurant but at the competitions, where contestants spend days coddling their ‘cue. “Once you’ve tasted all that TLC,” says Myron Mixon of Jack’s Old South in Georgia, “you can’t go back.” In other words, when a long–standing winner like Mixon calls out a kitchen (he’s currently starring in the reality TV show BBQ Pitmasters), you know it’s really worth a trip. So to find the best barbecue parlors around the country according to those who’d really know, we asked four of the country’s winningest teams—Jack’s Old South, the Texas Rib Rangers, Illinois’ Bar–B–Quau, and Lotta Bull BBQ from Oklahoma—to tell us where they like to eat slow–cooked meats when they’re not the ones manning the smokers.

Blue Smoke, New York City

It might seem like sacrilege for a pitmaster from the tiny Georgia town of Unadilla to laud a somewhat upscale dining spot in the middle of Manhattan, but Myron Mixon says Blue Smokechef Kenny Callaghan does ribs exactly right. In fact the nine–year–old restaurant from the city’s Union Square Hospitality Group—whose founder and CEO, Danny Meyer, hails from St. Louis—prepares them in three ways, including Kansas City–style spareribs and Texas beef ribs slathered with a smoky dry rub. Mixon is a fan of the Memphis–style baby backs, spiked with a seasoning mix Callaghan calls Magic Dust. “They really hit the tender mark, and they use a sweet glaze I really like,” says Mixon, whose opinion you can trust: His Jack’s Old South team has won the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest eight times, the Jack Daniel's World Championship three times, and was named team of the year by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the organization responsible for accrediting most of the contests around the country. (116 E. 27th St., New York; 212–447–7733)

Buffalo’s BBQ; Sperry, Oklahoma

It might be all the way on the other side of Oklahoma, but Mike and Debbie Davis of the much–respected Lotta Bull BBQ team in Marietta will travel to the Tulsa suburbs to sample the stuff smoked by Donny Teel at Buffalo’s BBQ.Like the Davises, who just took the grand prize at last year’s American Royal in Kansas City, Teel is a lauded competitive champ, and his restaurant is really his mobile smoking unit—it’s parked in the lot outside of Daylight Donuts. There he smokes ribs, pork, bologna, the spicy sausages called hot links, turkey, and ham—plus prime rib on Wednesdays—serving until the food runs out. “He never gave up quality for quantity, “ says Mike, whose favorite order is a $5.99 sandwich with four kinds of meat (chopped beef, bologna, hot links, and pork) that Teel has named Sink the Ship. “It weighs about two pounds,” Mike laughs. “It’s just a monster.” (201 N. Hwy. 11, Sperry, OK; 918–288–6200) Dinosaur Bar–B–Cue, New York City

Like most competitive barbecuers, Bill and Barbara Milroy of Denton, Texas—a.k.a. the Texas Rib Rangers, well–known winners of the Jack Daniel's and American Royal contests—make a point to visit restaurants run by their friends from the national circuit. One of those is Dinosaur,the Syracuse–based business that started out as a mobile concession for motorcycle rallies in the Northeast and settled into its first stationary location in Syracuse in 1988. There are now four Dinosaur outposts around the state, including one in Harlem. That’s the one the Milroys, who’ve been competing since 1977, like to hit to say hello to founder John Stage, who now runs the city outpost full–time. Each time, they “try everything on the menu,” says Bill, who’s fond of appetizers like smoked shrimp remoulade but also recommends the brisket. It’s smoked over hickory for “12 hours or so,” says pitmaster Stage, “until it gives up the ghost.” (700 W. 125th St., New York; 212–694–1777)

Fincher’s Bar–B–Q Restaurant; Macon, Georgia

Myron Mixon’s number one barbecue joint is actually the very first he ever visited, a low–slung place just 30 miles away from his Georgia hometown. “My dad carried me to it, and his dad carried him to it,” he says of the humble restaurant, which now operates three more outposts around Macon. A family–run operation that started in the 1930s, Fincher’sis best known for pork shoulders and hams cooked in its coal–fired pits, which are then chopped and dressed with a thick tangy sauce. It was a go–to dish for NASA astronaut Sonny Carter, who took Fincher’s along for the ride on a 1989 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. “They have some of the best restaurant barbecue I’ve ever had,” says Mixon, who insists you also order the spot’s crispy pork skins, “and they use a vinegar sauce that’s almost as good as mine.” (3947 Houston Ave., Macon, GA; 478–788–1900)

Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue; Kansas City, Missouri

When the Kansas City Barbecue Society meets for banquets, says Mike Wozniak of Brimfield, Illinois’ Bar–B–Quau team, the Missouri–based mini–chain Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecuedoes the catering. Wozniak—whose crew scored the Grand Champion at last year’s Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue and was named the 2010 Kansas City Barbecue Society team of the year—is a fan of both their beef ribs and their cheesy corn casserole: “They have some of the best sides,” he enthuses. Fiorella’s got its start as a highway joint in 1957, but upped the ante in the 1970s with the addition of brick–oven smokers fed with hickory wood and a massive menu; then came four outposts around Kansas City. Today their aged beef and giant slow–smoked prime short ribs—they’re served on the bone, Fred Flintstone style—are some of their biggest sellers. (13441 Holmes Rd., Kansas City, MO; 816–942–9141)

Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecue, Memphis

This 33–year–old Memphis institution—originally a grocery store on a highway—is beloved for its simple pit–cooked pork, but Myron Mixon’s favorite order here isn’t ribs or a pulled pork sandwich. Like many other barbecue restaurants in the area, Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecueserves a Memphis–created dish called Bar–B–Q Spaghetti, a mound of noodles dressed with shredded pieces of slow–smoked pork, spices, and Neely’s tomato–based barbecue sauce, the whole mess served with slaw and bread. Mixon first sampled it on a visit to the state nearly a decade ago, and “it was something,” he says, “I’d never had before.” (2265 S. Third St., Memphis, 901–775–2304; and 150 W. Stateline Rd., Southaven, MS, 662–393–5699)

Q Barbecue, Richmond

Q Barbecue,a brightly painted modern fast–casual spot with two locations in Virginia, is the most recent project from George “Tuffy” Stone. Stone’s both a competitive–barbecue champion who helms the team called Cool Smoke and a French–trained chef who runs a high–end Richmond catering company, a combination that seems to work in ‘cue. “He’s won just about everything,” says Texas Rib Rangers’ Bill Milroy, including a nod as the Kansas City Barbecue Society team of the year in 2007. Milroy says Stone’s slow–cooked pork, chicken, and brisket—prepared with care on indoor smokers—are “as close to competition style as you can get.” (2077 Walmart Way, Midlothian, VA, 804–897–9007; and 4201 Kilgore Ave., Hampton, VA, 757–896–0200)

Ralph's Pink Flamingo BBQ; Fort Smith, Arkansas

A multiple winner of national awards, Ralph Taylor named his pink–flamingo–themed restaurant after his competitive team, whose motto reads, “we’re cheap, we’re tacky, and you don’t want us in your yard.” A retired banker, Taylor might poke fun at his former part–time hobby cum career, but his skills with slow–cooked meats aren’t to be taken lightly. The three–and–a–half–year–old Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQprepares beef, pork, chicken, and Taylor’s sausage, which took top awards at the American Royal competition in Kansas City. A mild mix of beef, pork, and turkey, its secret weapon is a long bath in Taylor’s sweet tomato–based sauce. But that’s not all he’s known for, says Mike Davis of Oklahoma’s Lotta Bull team: “His brisket and his chicken are legendary—Ralph does everything well.” (2801 Old Greenwood Rd., Fort Smith, AR; 479–649–7427)

Smokey D’s BBQ, Des Moines

A favorite of Bar–B–Quau’s Mike Wozniak, Smokey D’s is the collaborative effort of two top–ranking Iowan competitive barbecue teams, Darren and Sherry Warth and Shad and Angie Kirton. (Shad Kirton, a trained chef who used to helm a fine–dining restaurant in nearby Perry, was a 2010 winner on BBQ Pitmasters.). All three outposts of Smokey D’sare known for ribs, sausage, brisket, and burnt ends, but the newest location also features a hungry–man style “Big D Menu” with platters like the Man Handler, a pound of your choice of smoked meat piled on half a loaf of garlic bread and covered with cheese. The place also reportedly makes one of the area’s better renditions of the Des Moines specialty sandwich called the tenderloin, perhaps because of the barbecue–spice rub the paper–thin pork cutlet gets before it’s panko–battered and fried. (5055 N.W. 2nd St., Des Moines; 515–243–2747)


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