Every Regional Barbecue Style, Explained
May 2, 2019
Meat plus smoke plus time equals magic
If you define “barbecue” as meat that’s been smoked over wood or charcoal, you’ll discover that there’s literally an entire world of barbecue out there. Countless cultures have devised some method of cooking meat in this fashion, but nowhere has the practice been adapted in such a wide variety of ways as in the United States, where it’s practically a national pastime. Look no further than the numerous yet incredible barbecue chains around the country.
Even if you have only a passing interest in barbecue, you probably know a few of barbecue’s fundamental regional differences. You most likely know that in Texas it’s all about the brisket, for example, and that Memphis is a rib town. But the deeper you dive into the United States of Barbecue, the more you discover that there are countless regional variations, some defined by nothing more than a town’s borders and a way of saucing chopped pork.
While entire books can be written (and indeed they have) about the finer details of, say, Central Texas barbecue, today we’re taking a top-down look at the hallmarks of 14 different regional barbecue styles and where to find them. Barbecue may be just meat, smoke and time, but in the right hands, it’s up there with the most delicious foods on the planet.
Yelp/ Tanvi A.
Pork ribs are the most common barbecue cut in Memphis, served either wet (slathered with a sweet barbecue sauce before and after cooking) or dry (rubbed with a spice mix that usually contains salt, cayenne, paprika and garlic powder before cooking and served without sauce). Chopped and pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue spaghetti and barbecued bologna are also popular in Memphis. Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous (pictured), Payne’s and A&R are Memphis must-visits.
Yelp/ Arkadiusz S.
As far as proteins go, Kansas City barbecue offers a little bit of everything thanks to the city being a major meatpacking hub. Smoked low and slow over hickory, you’ll find ribs, brisket, chicken, lamb, fish and just about any other protein you can think of, all served with a thick, sweet, tomato- and molasses-based sauce (think KC Masterpiece). If there’s one particular cut Kansas City is known for, though, it’s burnt ends: thick cubes of fatty brisket, smoked extra low and slow. As far as KC barbecue goes, you can’t beat Joe’s Kansas City (pictured), Arthur Bryant’s and Gates.
Yelp/ Tian Q.
As a barbecue town, St. Louis is best known for its sauce, which is thick and sweet; and its spareribs, which are cut “St. Louis style,” in which a strip of meat and cartilage near the sternum is trimmed away and the whole rack is cleaned up so it looks neat and tidy. Less popular pork cuts, including rib tips, pork snoots and pork steaks (slices of shoulder grilled and stewed in sauce) can also be found here. Quintessential St. Louis barbecue joints include Bogart’s (pictured) and Pappy’s.
Yelp/ Dianna H.
Central Texas barbecue is all about the brisket, usually seasoned with just salt and pepper (and maybe some cayenne) before being smoked with pecan or post oak, sliced in front of the customer, and served on butcher paper, usually with a couple sausage links and slices of white bread on the side, meat market-style (There’s also beef ribs and shoulder clod). Sauce is optional, but almost always available. Essential Central Texas barbecue joints include Austin’s Franklin Barbecue (pictured), Smitty’s and Kreutz Market in Lockhart, and Louie Mueller in Taylor. Not only is Texas barbecue delicious; it’s the absolute best thing to eat in the entire state.
Yelp/ Andrew W.
While you’ll still find plenty of sliced brisket in East Texas, it generally takes a back seat to chopped beef and pork, and is usually smoked over hickory, simmered in sauce until falling apart, and served as a plate or on a bun. Ribs are also cooked until they’re falling off the bone, and it’s all slathered in a thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce. Coarsely-ground sausages are also traditional. Standouts include Bodacious Bar-B-Q in Longview and Stanley’s in Tyler (pictured).
Eastern North Carolina
Yelp/ Craig H.
In the eastern part of North Carolina, it’s all about the whole hog, smoked low and slow over hickory while being mopped with a spicy, vinegary sauce before being roughly chopped and served on a platter or in a sandwich. B’s in Greenville, Parker’s in Wilson and Skylight Inn in Ayden (pictured) all do great whole hog.
Western North Carolina
Yelp/ Daniel B.
West of Raleigh, you’ll find what’s called Lexington-style barbecue, which revolves around the pork shoulder instead of the whole hog. Here, it’s either sliced or pulled and chopped, and served on a bun with a sauce that contains cider vinegar, ketchup and spices alongside red slaw (which contains vinegar and ketchup instead of mayo) and hushpuppies. Lexington Barbecue in Lexington (pictured) and Stamey’s in Greensboro are the best places to sample it.
Yelp/ Chris E.
Whole hog is also prevalent in South Carolina, but it’s the sauce that sets it apart from its neighbor to the north: “Carolina Gold” is what you’ll most commonly find, which is mustard-based with brown sugar and vinegar, but plenty of places also serve tomato-based and vinegar-pepper sauces as well. The best barbecue spots in the state include Sweatman’s in Holly Hill, Scott’s in Hemingway (pictured) and Rodney Scott’s in Charleston.
Yelp/ Tracey B.
The most prevalent type of barbecue found in Georgia is chopped pork, topped with a tangy mustard-based sauce and served on its own or in a sandwich. It’s usually served alongside Brunswick stew, made with pork, corn and potatoes. The state’s leading barbecue joints include Poole’s in Ellijay (pictured), Vandy’s in Statesboro, Fincher’s in Macon and Fox Bros. in Atlanta.
Yelp/ Kurt G.
Smoked pork shoulder and chicken, cooked over pits of hickory, are the most common barbecue proteins in Alabama. The state’s main barbecue claim to fame, however, is its white sauce, made with mayonnaise, vinegar and plenty of black pepper and invented at Decatur’s Big Bob Gibson to douse its signature smoked chicken (one of America’s most iconic dishes). That’s not the only sauce in town, though: spicy mustard-vinegar sauce is popular in Tuscaloosa, mustard sauce is prevalent in the southeast, and Birmingham’s signature sauce is sweet, heavily spiced and tomato-based. Alabama barbecue standouts include Full Moon and Miss Myra’s in Birmingham, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa and the afore-mentioned Big Bob Gibson (pictured).
California’s Central Coast
Yelp/ Robert B.
California’s signature barbecue style has more in common with South American asado or Mexican vaquero cooking than its cousins to the east. Called Santa Maria-style barbecue, it starts with beef (traditionally tri-tip) which is seasoned simply with salt, pepper and garlic salt and grilled over red oak embers on a large grate that can be raised and lowered by the cook. It’s only cooked for about two hours, after which it’s thinly sliced and served with salsa. The most iconic spots for Santa Maria-style barbecue are The Hitching Post in Casmaila and The Hitching Post II in Buellton (pictured).
Yelp/ Niilye B.
Chicago has a barbecue culture all its own, and it’s one you might not know about if you’re not from the area. At Chicago barbecue joints (particularly those on the South Side), ribs, hot links (spicy sausages) and rib tips (made from the cartilage-heavy strip that’s removed from St. Louis-style ribs) are cooked inside “aquarium smokers,” which are large steel cases with glass doors and a chimney. It’s all served doused with a sweet, tomato-based sauce, and it’s a delicious mess. Standout Chicago barbecue joints include Lem’s, Uncle John’s, Uncle J’s (pictured) and Leon’s.
Yelp/ Jay R.
Even though not too many places in Kentucky still serve it, hickory-smoked mutton, chopped or sliced and served with a Worcestershire-heavy sauce, is the state’s primary claim to barbecue fame. Mutton is primarily found in western Kentucky (especially in and around Owensboro); in the rest of the state you’re more likely to find chopped or pulled pork shoulder served with vinegar sauce or the same Worcestershire-and-allspice-based sauce, as well as pork steaks grilled over hickory. Burgoo, a spicy stew made with a wide variety of meats and vegetables, is a popular Kentucky barbecue side. Hit up Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and Old Hickory in Owensboro if you’re looking to try the mutton; other Kentucky standouts include Roy’s in Russellville, Dave’s Sticky Pig in Madisonville and Hutchen’s in Benton.
Yelp/ Sarina J.
In Hawaii, slowly cooking meat in an underground pit is a custom dating back centuries, and it’s given rise to one of the state’s signature dishes: kalua pig. In order to make this dish, a pit (called an imu) is dug out and lined with wood (which is ignited) and volcanic rocks. After the rocks are given a few hours to heat, banana stumps, banana leaves and ti leaves are spread out on top, followed by the pig (or occasionally turkey) and more vegetation and occasionally wet burlap on top. This is all then buried so no heat or steam can escape, and allowed to cook for several hours before being shredded. Because it’s so labor-intensive, it’s hard to find any restaurants making the real thing (nowadays it’s traditionally the province of luaus and family gatherings), but Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Honolulu (pictured) has been making it the old-fashioned way since 1946. It may be tough to find, but kalua pig is one regional dish that’s definitely worth seeking out.
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