The Ultimate BBQ Road Trip

With 60 spots over 5,120 miles, we're bringing you the barbecue joint essentials in 3 customizable road trip plans
This year's road trip is broken down into three customizable plans.

What’s almost as difficult as creating an itinerary for the South’s essential barbecue stops is knowing how to spell the name of the dish itself. Depending on your location, you might come across crucial orthographic nuances like barbecue, barbacue, barbeque, BBQ, B-B-Q, Bar-B-Q, and even Bar-B-Que. To be clear, though, we can understand the staple as the slow cooking, and (very often) smoking, of meat.

Styles, like spelling, are distinct depending on the regional preference. "Barbecue" the verb means the process of roasting with indirect heat. The technique can often be used in the preparation of lamb, turkey, and chicken, but cuts of beef and pork generally make up the dominant styles.  

Click here to see The Ultimate BBQ Road Trip for 2013 Slideshow!

Different styles also incorporate different garnishes, with some being as simple as a salt and pepper dry rub, while others are a complex mix of tradition and a particular pitmaster’s choosing. After the meat is sliced, chopped, or shredded, sauces (which can also play a role in the cooking process) can be applied and range in viscosity and ingredients. Whether it should be vinegar-based, tomato-based, mustard-based, or even mayonnaise-based is a perpetual argument that’s most likely to sway depending on where one is.

Barbecue (apologies to regional spelling purists) is more popular than ever on a national scale, which makes finding an abiding restaurant, cart, or food truck in most corners of the country not uncommon. For our purposes, though, we chose to focus on the South, since, quite simply, it’s where our country’s barbecue tradition takes root. Here more than anywhere else, it is a form of identity instead of a timely interest.

Our comprehensive road trip begins in Virginia and the Carolinas where whole-hog pulled pork reigns. As you count down the miles from start to finish, expect the meat (for the most part, except for several creative variations developed by some of the newcomers) to be dressed in either a vinegar-, tomato-, or mustard-based sauce. If not served on a simple white bun, then it's probably on a platter with baked beans, mayonnaise-based coleslaw, the occasional hushpuppy, and a tall cold glass of iced tea.

Part two stretches from the deep South up into the Midwest to take us through what is traditionally beef brisket, sausage, and rib territory. Whether they're serving out of a repurposed market, off a back porch, or even out of a trailer, the majority of these legendary joints forgo the frills to offer simply delicious smoked and/or grilled meat garnished in a range of rubs and sauces. Along with simple and common sides of crackers, beans, white bread, and pickles, meats vary along this route, with barbecued poultry and lamb sometimes finding a spot on the menu. 

Our last leg covers the heart of the southeast. Across seven states, expect to find some of the country's best brisket, pulled pork, sausages, ribs, and even gator. Pits along this 2,253-mile route range from family-owned franchises to modest dining rooms with concrete floors and wooden tables. You're likely to find a variety of traditional rubs and sauces, including Alabama's white sauce, a mayonnaise-based condiment that's most often used to dress barbecue chicken.

To honor the diversity of barbecue culture, the stops on our road trip are unranked. Instead, our map is meant to highlight local landmarks that both honor the culinary tradition as well as think creatively about the future of this Southern staple. You say BBQ, I say barbecue — it’s simply a matter of personal taste.  

This year’s road trip takes us to even more essential barbecue joints than last year, while also branching out to include an entire additional leg. Along with stops from last year’s lineup, we collected reader, staff, and regional expert recommendations to cover 5,120 miles (that’s almost twice the length of I-40) over 16 states. Building again on last year, the 60 restaurants listed were in part provided by the recommendations of informed chefs, pitmasters, and barbecue experts (there is a culture), as well as the broad knowledge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi-based nonprofit that seeks to study and document Southern foodways. Be sure to check out the slideshow to learn more about each selection!

In addition to the detailed slides, we’ve mapped out the three parts using the free Web-based road trip planner app Roadtrippers. You may be up for tackling the whole voyage, but in the more likely event that you’re just looking for the best addresses across a given region, our itineraries are designed so that you can stop or start at any point along the journey. Roadtrippers can also suggest hotels and other travel essentials along the way with its "Find Places" function.

Have we missed a spot? Please let us know by leaving a comment!

Caroline Brown, Emily Kolars, Colleen Laughlin, Lauren Mack, Emily Rothkrug, Tayler Stein, and Meredith Whitman contributed writing and research to this story. 

BBQ Road Trip List: Part 1

Our comprehensive road trip begins in Virginia and the Carolinas where whole-hog pulled pork reigns. As you count down the miles from start to finish, expect the meat (for the most part, except for several creative variations developed by some of the newcomers) to be dressed in either a vinegar-, tomato-, or mustard-based sauce. If not served on a simple white bun, then it's probably on a platter with baked beans, mayonnaise-based coleslaw, the occasional hushpuppy, and a tall cold glass of iced tea.

Start: Cowling’s BBQ (Waverly, Va.)
North Carolina-style pulled pork smoked with white oak and served with a tomato-based sauce

1. Checkered Pig BBQ and Ribs (Danville, Va.)
The signature menu items are the ribs and roasted pork sandwiches

2. Short Sugar’s Pit Bar-B-Q (Reidsville, N.C.)
Carolina-style pulled pork topped with a house recipe brown sauce

3. Stamey’s BBQ (Greensboro, N.C.)
Hickory-smoked pork shoulders served with a ketchup-based sauce and hushpuppies

4. Lexington Barbeque (Lexington, N.C.)
Hickory-smoked pork shoulder served with a "Lexington style" tomato-based sauce, tangy slaw, and hushpuppies

5. 12 Bones Smokehouse (Asheville, N.C.)
Signature ribs include blueberry chipotle alongside made-from-scratch sides like jalapeño cheese grits, corn pudding, and mashed sweet potatoes

6. Bridge’s Barbecue Lodge (Shelby, N.C.)
North Carolina-style barbecue served alongside sides like red vinegar-based slaw and beans

7. Allen & Son’s (Pittsboro, N.C.)
Eastern North Carolina-style chopped pork with a vinegar and pepper-based sauce served with hand-cut french fries

8. The Pit (Raleigh, N.C)
Restaurant with full bar that serves free-range whole hog meat that has been smoked with hickory and oak before being seasoned with a vinegar sauce

9. Parker’s Barbeque (Wilson, N.C.)
Eastern North Carolina-style whole hog barbecue served in a vinegar-based sauce and with sides like mustard-dressed slaw

10. Skylight Inn (Ayden, N.C.)
Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue served as a sandwich or on a tray with slaw, cornbread, and sweet tea

11. King’s Restaurant (Kinston, N.C.)
Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue served in a buffet alongside homemade collard greens

12. Grady’s Barbeque (Dudley, N.C.)
Eastern North Carolina-style pulled pork smoked over hickory coals and dressed in a vinegar-based sauce

13. Scott’s Bar-B-Que (Hemingway, S.C.)
Known for its pulled pork plate served with crispy skin and vinegar-based sauce on the side

14. Melvin’s (Charleston, S.C.)
St. Louis-style pork ribs, chicken, brisket, and "All Ham" barbecue

15. Sweatman’s BBQ (Holy Hill, S.C.) 
Whole hog smoked with oak and pecan wood and served with a mustard-based sauce

16. Maurice’s Pig Park (West Columbia, S.C.)
South Carolina-style pork sourced from the restaurant's organic farm, smoked on hickory coals for 24 hours, and served with a mustard-based sauce

End: Hite’s Bar-B-Q (West Columbia, S.C.)
South Carolina-style barbecue and spareribs with special seasonal menu items like pig's feet

BBQ Road Trip List: Part 2

Part two stretches from the deep South up into the Midwest to take us through what is traditionally beef brisket, sausage, and rib territory. Whether they're serving out of a repurposed market, off a back porch, or even out of a trailer, the majority of these legendary joints forgo the frills to offer simply delicious smoked and/or grilled meat garnished in a range of rubs and sauces. Along with simple and common sides of crackers, beans, white bread, and pickles, meats vary along this route, with barbecued poultry and lamb sometimes finding a spot on the menu.

Start: Grayson Bar-B-Que (Clarence, La.)
Pork sandwiches topped with "brown" sauce and served on house-made buns

1. Church of Holy Smoke (Huntsville, Texas)
Brisket smoked over red and white oak wood with a little hickory, pecan, and mesquite mixed in toward the end of the cooking process

2. Luling City Market (Houston)
Barbecued meats including brisket, chicken, and sausage smoked over oak

3. City Market (Luling, Texas)
Sausage, pork ribs, and brisket served with signature sauces

4. Kreuz Market (Lockhart, Texas)
Barbecue and sausage joint serving up sides including baked beans, German potato salad, sauerkraut, and dipped ice cream

5. Smitty’s Market (Lockhart, Texas)
Barbecue and sausage with bread, crackers, pickles, onions, tomatoes, avocado, and cheese

6. Salt Lick BBQ (Driftwood, Texas)
Pork ribs, sausage, and brisket served from a pit occupying the center of the restaurant

7. Franklin Barbecue (Austin, Texas)
Brisket and pork spareribs smoked over oak and served with white bread, pickles, and onions

8. Taylor’s Café (Taylor, Texas)
Seasoned brisket smoked over oak for five to six hours and served with a ketchup-based sauce

9. Pecan Lodge (Dallas)
Brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage, beef ribs, and sides made from local ingredients

10. Baker’s Ribs (Dallas)
Hickory smoked St. Louis-style pork ribs

11. Hard Eight BBQ (Coppell, Texas)
Variety of barbecued meats that can be ordered by the pound served with homemade desserts and sides

12. Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ and RV Park (Davis, Okla.)
Ribs and chopped brisket served with thick-cut bologna and dill pickles

13. BBQ Station (Cassville, Mo.)
Signature ribs, brisket, and warm potato salad served out of a former gas station

14. B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ (Kansas City, Mo.)
Sausage, chicken, beef, turkey, and pork with sides like Louisiana gumbo, red beans and rice, and jambalaya

15. Oklahoma Joe’s (Kansas City, Kan.)
Ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, chicken, and pork plates served in a gas station

16. Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (Kansas City, Mo.)
Hickory-smoked lamb ribs, Angus beef steaks, brisket, and signature beef, pork, and ham burnt ends

17. Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque (Kansas City, Mo.)
Hickory and oak wood smoked ribs slathered in tangy vinegar sauce and served with sides like white bread and pickles

18. Pappy’s Smokehouse (St. Louis)
House specialty is the ribs that are smoked for four to 14 hours over apple or cherry wood and served with made-in-house sauces

End: 17th Street Bar and Grill (Murphysboro, Ill.)
Baby back ribs smoked over applewood, dry rubbed with "Magic Dust," brushed with sauce, and served with with tangy pit beans

BBQ Road Trip List: Part 3

Our last leg covers the heart of the southeast. Across seven states, expect to find some of the country's best brisket, pulled pork, sausages, ribs, and even gator. Pits along this 2,253-mile route range from family-owned franchises to modest dining rooms with concrete floors and wooden tables. You're likely to find a variety of traditional rubs and sauces, including Alabama's white sauce, a mayonnaise-based condiment that's most often used to dress barbecue chicken.

Start: McClard’s (Hot Springs, Ark.)
Hickory-smoked beef, pork, and ribs with sides like coleslaw, spicy barbecue beans, and hot tamales

1. Craig’s Brother’s Café (De Valls Bluff, Ark.)
Uncured ham, ribs, pork, pork sausage, and chicken cooked over hickory smoke in an outdoor pit; the sliced pork sandwich with green apple slaw is a signature

2. J & N Barbeque (Bono, Ark.)
Ribs, chicken, beef, hamburgers, raccoon, deer, wild turkey, and other game that's garnished with a vinegar-based sauce

3. Cozy Corner Barbecue (Memphis, Tenn.)
Sliced pork sandwiches and plates, barbecued Cornish hens, and smoked turkey (on special order)

4. Payne’s Bar-B-Q (Memphis, Tenn.)
Pork shoulder smoked over hickory coals and topped with green mustard-based coleslaw

5. Jones Barbecue Diner (Marianna, Ark.)
Pork shoulder smoked in a cinder block pit and served on white bread

6. Abe’s Bar-B-Q (Clarksdale, Miss.)
Beef, pork, ribs, and hot tamales served with crackers and slaw

7. Ubon’s Barbeque (Yazoo City, Miss.)
Whole hog barbecue served with their signature and award-winning sauce that's based on Ubon's mother's recipe

8. Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn (Hattiesburg, Miss.)
Pork ribs drenched in a house-made suace and legendary pecan pies

9. The Little Dooey (Starkville, Miss.)
Pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and catfish served alongside appetizers like dooey (a fried smoked sausage)

10. Archibald’s Barbeque (Northport, Ala.)
Ribs cooked over hickory, coated in a vinegar-based sauce, and served in butcher paper with white bread

11. Top Hat Barbeque (Hayden, Ala.)
Pork shoulders and ribs roasted over hickory and served with a roughly 20-ingredient tomato-based sauce

12. Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ (Decatur, Ala.)
Signature dishes are the smoked pork in a vinegar-based tomato sauce and chicken garnished with Gibson's famous mayonnaise-based white sauce

13. Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue (Lexington, Tenn.)
Whole hog barbecue roasted over hickory coals and served with a vinegar-based sauce

14. BBQ Shack (Hopkinsville, Ky.)
Open-pit, hickory-smoked pork, chicken, beef, and lamb served with spicy slaw and burgoo (a Civil War-era stew of pork, carrots, and beans)

15. Sweet P’s BBQ (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Chopped pork, pulled chicken, beef brisket, ribs, and smoked chicken wings made fresh daily

16. Jim N’ Nick’s Bar-B-Que (Cumming, Ga.)
A growing chain where the signature meal is a pulled pork sandwich and barbecue plate that's prepared daily from scratch

17. Paul’s BBQ (Lexington, Ga.)
Only open on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to serve sliced pork (bread optional) with sides of beans and coleslaw

18. Dean’s Barbeque (Jonesboro, Ga.)
Chopped or pulled pork smoked over an outdoor pit and tossed in a vinegar-based sauce

19. Fresh Air Barbeque Place (Jackson, Ga.)
Pork roasted over hickory and oak wood and topped with a vinegar- and tomoato-based sauce

20. Gator’s BBQ (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Brisket, sausage links, spareribs, and gator served with a choice of five different (primarily mustard-based) sauces

End: Monroe’s Smokehouse BBQ (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Pulled pork, beef brisket, and smoked wings coated in a dry rub and served alongside collard greens and a "Carolina Sauce"

 

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