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.
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.