The Warning Sign You Should Never Ignore For Barbecue Restaurants

Stumbling upon a great barbecue restaurant doesn't have to involve knowing a secret handshake, searching food reviews for hidden delectable tidbits, or being friends with someone in the know. Although not all 'que is created equal, there are a few warning signs that should make even the hungriest patron put a particular restaurant in the rearview mirror.

From Yelp and OpenTable to your local restaurant review, food opinions can cause heated debates. While people are hungry to taste that perfect bite, perspectives vary on what makes one barbecue dish more lip-smacking than another, but Eater once did a deep dive into the various types of barbecue, calling it "as close to a national cuisine as America has." 

Although the smoke-infused meat might not be quite as original as the American spirit bourbon, the barbecue belt has created a massive food culture. From proteins cooked over the fire to the sauces that finish them, each one adds a layer of nuance to American cuisine. As each region carved out its flavor niche, food lovers longing to find that deliciousness in the food diversity have some people wondering. Are certain signs that point to a great, or a not so specular, barbecue restaurant? It might not be as clear as the neon shining in the darkness.

The seven characteristics of great barbecue

While the Barbecue Hall of Fame might have crowned its legends, mastering the characteristics of great barbecue is not just for the select few. According to Texas BBQ Posse, there are seven basic characteristics associated with the best barbecue. They are "tenderness, juiciness, smokiness, proper fat rendering, enhanced rub, good exterior bark, all with a firm texture." 

Although the pitmaster might be as much an artist as a cook, the reality is that a delicious brisket does not come down to an easily measurable scientific method. The balance of smoke, temperature, and seasoning creates a memorable flavor. But, there is a fine line between the nuance of smoke and tasting like an ashtray. 

Even if those seven characteristics are considered, it's not necessarily a simple equation. As Matthew Horn, who wrote "Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of BBQ," told UPROXX, his journey to discover the deliciousness of great barbecue did not happen overnight. Trial and error, and moving forward yet falling behind, created a wealth of knowledge and a vision beyond the smoke-filled air surrounding the pit. It's one of the reasons why people long to sit down at one of his restaurants. While food lovers might be able to discover a better barbecue restaurant, avoiding the subpar ones might be easier than you think.

A great barbecue restaurant is obvious before you walk in the door

While any restaurant can label its signature dish as iconic, best ever, or award-winning, that stamp of approval should be more than self-proclamation. Even if a locale earned prime billing on a "Triple D Nation" episode, a great barbecue restaurant is more than publicity. In some cases, you can tell that there's a delicious, smoky bite waiting with just a whiff. 

In an Insider article, barbecue legend Rodney Scott said that guests should be able to smell that smoker when arriving at the restaurant. Patrons do not have to see the billowing smoke rising from the pit, but not even a whiff of hickory, mesquite, or other hardwood can be a dangerous sign. Given that barbecue often focuses on the slow and low, a smoker should be running more often than not in order to keep the flavorful food available for guests. If a restaurant only feeds the flame periodically, the food served on the table might not be worthy of the blue ribbon. The lack of smoke in the air could be a sign that either the food is not made on premises, the pitmaster does not cook often, or another concern to sound the alarm. In some ways, the old phrase where there's smoke there's fire has a different connotation. This application is a smoke signal and is a sign that it might be better to keep driving to the next pit stop. 

Great barbecue does not have to get saucy

Even if the smoky aroma sets the scene for the anticipation of some tasty barbecue, the condiments on the table might tell a different story. As discussed by Fox News, a collection of barbecue sauces might be a recipe for disaster. Jonathan Fox, the pitmaster and co-owner of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in Atlanta told the publication that over-sauced meat might be trying to hide something. From dry meat to lacking flavor, a condiment cannot cover up a sub-par barbecue dish.

Beyond the condiment catastrophe, other indications of bad barbecue can be an over-inclusive menu with a lack of clarity. There is a reason why plain, white bread is served with a slice of brisket. The simple BBQ sides are the supporting cast that should never overshadow the real star — the barbecue. If the menu gives beer more real estate than the brisket, you might be in a bar, not a barbecue joint. In the end, great barbecue is not about the white tablecloth, flowery language, or numerous food choices. It's a piece of butcher paper surrounding a tender, flavorful piece of meat that might be a little messy but is worth all the effort of enjoyment.