Never Ignore These Red Flags At A Barbecue Restaurant

Barbecue is one of the cornerstones of American cooking and grilling. From backyards to tailgates to the finest BBQ joints in Texas, Kansas City, and the Carolinas, everyone has their own way to do the cue. Regional variants from across the country put their spin on the same basics such as smoked meats and sides like cornbread, greens, and beans. But regardless of whether you're a fan of brisket and coleslaw or you're craving ribs and baked beans, any fan of the ole BBQ knows how difficult it can be to find a great local barbecue joint.

When it comes to looking for new barbecue restaurants to try, knowing what to avoid is just as helpful as knowing what to look for. And once you are aware of the telltale signs of not-so-great barbecue, you will easily be able to identify it without even walking in the restaurant. From looking at the menu to scouting the premises, these are the ways to separate the authentic joints from the imposters. So follow our lead and avoid these red flags, and you'll be seated at your new favorite BBQ restaurant in no time.

You can't see the wood stack on the premises

Knowing what to scope out with your senses is the first step in looking for red flags at new potential barbecue spots. For starters, you can learn a lot just by looking around the premises. When it comes to barbecue, wood is good. This means that if you see stacks of wood around the restaurant, that is usually a good sign of fresh food. 

Seeing wood is a sign that the establishment has an active pit barbecue that is currently burning a wood fire. In an interview with Insider, BBQ owner, pitmaster, and James Beard Award winner Rodney Scott said, "If you could see if they've got wood, or if you could see if they're cooking it on-site — that's a good sign."

So when scoping out a joint, you are either looking for stacks of wood or the pit itself. Some BBQ joints, like Scott's own eponymous restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, have their pits in view of the public, but others don't, so spotting wood is a reliable way to tell if a place is going to be legit.

The location isn't suitable for smoking meat

Another warning sign of bad BBQ that you can see without even entering the restaurant in question is the location. When you're looking for a new barbecue joint, ask yourself if the space lends itself to smoking large quantities of meat. Is there a way for that smoke exhaust to escape from the kitchen, pit, or wherever the food is being prepared? This isn't just a question of whether a place has outdoor dining or not, either. Some perfectly good BBQ establishments are located in places where outdoor seating isn't viable many months out of the year, but that's not what we mean by "unsuitable." 

Some pretty obvious examples of unsuitable locations for legitimate barbecue would be an airport or in a mall. If you ever see a BBQ joint in an airport, know that they aren't cooking the food on site. This is a telltale sign of a meal that is going to be of questionable quality. What you want to look for is a location, ideally with an outdoor space, where you can see the setup. However, as long as a restaurant has a kitchen that can properly handle the smoke output, you can guess the cue will be fresh.

The meat is served with the sauce already applied

Most barbecue styles (from Kansas City to South Carolina to Texas) are all about the low and slow cooking of meats that are seasoned and smoked. The key thing to remember is that a good barbecue joint won't pre-sauce your food. In fact, the best places usually just keep bottles of various house BBQ sauces on the table for you to self-serve. When it comes to meat that is served pre-sauced, Jonathan Fox, co-owner and pitmaster of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in Atlanta, told Fox News it "feel[s] like you are trying to cover something up."

Good barbecue doesn't need the sauce necessarily, but establishments are often proud of their sauces and will always give customers the option for delicious dipping. If you get ribs at a restaurant and they come glazed in sauce already, it likely means they were not slow cooked and won't be as flavorful as you desire.  

The one exception to this rule is if you are in St. Louis or eating St. Louis-style barbecue. Aside from St. Louis having its own unique flavor of sauce different from Kansas City style, the city's BBQ is known for being drenched in sauce. St. Louis' take on spare ribs involves grilling them off before lathering the ribs in sticky sweet sauce, a very different technique than pretty much anywhere else.

The menu is lacking too many of the traditional BBQ sides

Talk to a dozen BBQ experts, and you will get 13 different answers on what the best traditional BBQ side dish is. They might not all agree on a number one, but without a doubt every pitmaster worth their salt would agree that there are some dishes that are simply essentials. This list of seminal American barbecue sides includes coleslaw, baked beans, cornbread, mac and cheese, and collard greens, to name just a few.

Any BBQ joint that doesn't have a majority of these side dishes on the menu likely shouldn't be trusted. One or two specialty sides is generally a good sign, but too many deviations from the norm and you're getting into questionable territory. Conversely, a menu that lacks two or more essentials like coleslaw and baked beans must also be called into question. This isn't a very common issue to run into when searching for BBQ joints, but if you do, you can consider it a major red flag.

There is no specialty dish

There are definitely dishes you want to see at every BBQ place. Ribs, brisket, wings, and the essential sides have got to be featured front and center. But that doesn't mean every barbecue restaurant has to stick strictly to the old standards. In fact, if there is no specialty dish that jumps out at you from the menu, then it might not be worth going inside in the first place. America's best BBQ restaurants all have something special that gives them an extra edge.

Like any style of cuisine, having a trademark dish is usually a sign of high quality. While not a requirement by any means, finding a BBQ place with a specialty or unique dish tends to mean the establishment has a history of success and returning customers. At Helen's Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee, for example, the signature dish is the BBQ bologna sandwich. On paper, that might not sound as appealing as the rest of the menu at Helen's, but locals swear by the dish and say it's the only bologna they ever want to eat (via the Jackson Sun).

The menu offers a wide array of regional styles

If you see a barbecue menu that offers Texas, Kansas City, and South Carolina-style BBQ, you are probably in for some slop. All the good barbecue joints stick to one regional style and focus on that.

Smoked meats are hard enough to get right as it is, so a menu with multiple different styles of BBQ is a red flag for a couple of reasons. For one, the lack of a focused menu likely indicates a restaurant takes less care in developing flavors and giving meats the proper time to cook and rest. "If I walk into a barbecue joint and it has Texas brisket, Carolina pulled pork, Memphis ribs, a smorgasbord of styles, I simply walk out," said Brooklyn BBQ owner Tyson Ho (via Fox News). 

You should trust the experts and follow Ho's lead. Often, having different regional offerings on a menu also means that the restaurant is not cooking all of its meat on the premises — and potentially none of it. And at that point, you're simply not getting the quality that you're used to paying for. And at the prices some BBQ joints charge, that is simply not going to fly.

The menu is too big

You can learn a lot without even leaving your house by looking up a place's menu online beforehand. You can see what type of barbecue they specialize in and what sides they offer, but you can also spot another huge red flag that will save you some money on dinner and gas. If the menu is too big, you should definitely try to find somewhere else to fill your smoked meat and cornbread cravings. A large menu can consist of too many dishes that stretch outside the confines of traditional BBQ. The less focused the menu, the more likely you will be getting bad BBQ.

Menus can reflect poorly on an establishment in other ways as well. If a restaurant is touting their cocktail menu or selection of craft beers, it is likely that BBQ might not be their specialty after all. To this topic, five-time barbecue world champion Myron Mixon said to Fox News, "You need to ask, is [this place] a barbecue joint serving beverages, or a bar serving a little barbecue?"

You don't hear any good word-of-mouth reviews

The best restaurants you'll ever eat at are as just as likely to be the critically acclaimed fine dining eateries making "Best Of" lists as they are to be your local hole-in-the-wall small businesses. Thus is the power of word of mouth, one of the strongest tools a restaurant can employ to gain a crowd. If your food is good, people will tell their friends. There is obviously more to running a restaurant, but for BBQ in particular, strong word of mouth can be a good start. 

"Some newer barbecue joints are just glorified trophy rooms, with awards won on the road," Rien Fertel, author "The One True Barbecue," said to Garden and Gun, when discussing what to look for at the best BBQ restaurants. "Those competition barbecue types just don't tell a story like Larry Dennis at Bum's in Ayden. His history spans hundreds of years, and it makes no sense. His stories are real, though, because people believe them. I think a barbecue business has to have a mythology."

The prices are too good to be true

Taking the family out to barbecue isn't usually the most wallet-friendly dinner option. The premium cuts of meat you are getting, plus the sheer amount of food in general, usually tend to add up quick. But trying to get around this restriction will likely end with you wasting a modest amount of money on a pretty bad meal. With BBQ, you get what you pay for, and high quality does not come cheap, especially in this day and age. 

In 2022, BBQ expert Steven Raichlen noted, "Budget barbecue is unlikely to be great barbecue" and pointed to the rising prices of beef in the previous two years as just one reason why that is (via Barbecue Bible). A majority of what you're being served at a BBQ restaurant is either a cut of beef (like brisket) or pork (ribs and pulled pork). So let Raichlen's market expertise serve as a warning to you to beware of barbecue prices that are too good to be true. They are not to be trusted.

The restaurant closes at a set time

One of the best signs of a great barbecue restaurant is one that consistently finds itself out of food and forced to shut down food service before closing time. This signals a couple of positive things. For one, it can mean the establishment is using fresh ingredients daily and going through everything they get in the morning before shutting down. Secondly, it obviously indicates a huge demand and a crowd that will reliably wait in line or go even when the place is jam packed. That's how good the food is. Steven Raichlen says, "The best barbecue joints simply close when the meat is gone. And that can be before lunchtime" (via Barbecue Bible).

So if a prospective BBQ joint has a hard closing time, that might be a red flag. It might not be, but it is always a better sign to see a closing time that is vague or specifies that the restaurant closes when they need to close. 

You can't smell the meat cooking

Of all your five senses, the one you can best use to detect good BBQ should be pretty obvious at this point: It's your sense of smell. When it comes to sniffing out barbecue red flags, your nose is your greatest weapon. If you can't smell the meat smoking when you're dining, it's a red flag you should never ignore; you might not be getting the freshest or most authentic BBQ.

The smell of smoke and cooking meat are two of the most recognizable signs that BBQ is being cooked properly. For as much emphasis as Rodney Scott puts in being able to see a pit setup, the pitmaster believes just as strongly that you need to smell the meat cooking to know the barbecue you're getting is the real deal (via Insider). So next time you want to try out a new spot, maybe stop by sometime to assess whether or not there is a heavenly scent wafting from the restaurant. If your nose likes what it smells, you've found your new favorite BBQ joint.