The best way to see America is by car, and the best way to taste America is on a driving tour of the country’s most celebrated BBQ pits. On a three week, six state and 2,500 mile journey from Texas to the Carolinas, I went in search of the best BBQ in the American South, revealing not only deeply satisfying meals but repeated warm receptions at these independent and mostly family-owned eateries. Here’s a starter course to whet your appetite and inspire you to hit the highway for your own foodie adventure.
(Barbecue not your style? Then check out our definitive list of the 8 best pies in London.)
A tour of the South’s best BBQ establishments without a stop in Austin would be remiss. Indeed, this youthful and sunny city was where I embarked upon my trip, with my first bite of BBQ taken at one of the state’s most celebrated places to eat: Franklin Barbecue.
Franklin is known as much for its moist and tender brisket as it is for the daily hours-long queues required to endure if you hanker for a a taste for. Many an Austinite will tell you Franklin’s is the best in the land. Theirs is a strong argument, but maybe just as delectable – and minus the epic wait times – is what’s on offer at the Micklethwait Craft Meats trailer about a five minute walk up the road. For a meal full of Texan tradition, try Micklethwait’s brisket frito pie.
While in Austin, an obligatory drive to the 25-county region of Hill Country yields more reason to try top Texan BBQ. A standard-bearer for the state is Salt Lick. Located in Driftwood, this restaurant, bar and winery has fanned out over the decades from its original (and still very much in use) 1967 stone pit. For an indulgent plate of Southern cooking and slow-cooked meat, Salt Lick is as good as it gets.
Proudly doing ‘cue in its own big way is Dallas, where dining can be a blend of gourmand and gourmet. For an upscale excuse to enjoy a down-home meal, head to chef Dean Fearing’s eponymous restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton. The menu is one of old timey BBQ and Tex-Mex tradition with a worldly twist and a culinary approach. Like Fearing’s, Smoke is another chef-led hotel restaurant. Set in the historic Belmont Hotel, chef Tim Byres creates his dishes with a “food-fire-glory” motto.
For a streetwise take on smoked meat, Pecan Lodge in the happening district of Deep Ellum satisfies immensely. Lodge diners with especially hearty appetites might consider “The Trough” (one beef rib, a pound of pork ribs, a pound of brisket, half of pound of pulled pork, three sausage links, and lots of southern style sides) or the “Hot Mess” (jumbo sea salt-crusted sweet potato, shredded brisket with southwestern seasoning, chipotle cream, cream, butter and green onions).
Similarly popular among Dallas foodies is Lockhart Smokehouse BBQ – and with good reason! This hole-in-the-wall in the trendy Bishop Arts District wows the palate with a range of cuts, from the brisket of Texan ubiquity to the lesser known (but better tasting) shoulder clod.
Blazing a trail from Dallas through this deep south state for a date in Memphis, I nevertheless found myself in need of something to eat around lunch o’clock. About 100 miles west of Memphis, Nick’s Bar-B-Q & Catfish more than fit the bill with a plate of St Louis style ribs, farm-raised catfish fillets and homemade comfort food sides. Nick’s dining area is lined with framed portraits of Arkansan pageant winners to ensure an element of beauty is enjoyed with your meal of beastly pleasure.
One of America’s greatest cities for BBQ is Memphis, Tennessee. Locals love Central BBQ best, especially for its pulled pork sandwich. For dirty nosh in humble digs (ie, a breezeblock shed with a kitchen in the parking lot of a DIY megastore), Elwood’s Shack is another locally loved dive.
About 50 miles east of Memphis is Helen’s Bar-B-Q in the sleepy town of Brownsville. Driving along Interstate 40, you can see the plumes of hickory smoke billowing out the back this tiny joint from about a mile away. The pork here is as tender as possible and coupled with a tangy sweet and sour sauce that’s equally distinctive. Adventurous gourmands may consider trying the smoked bologna (American style mortadella).
Nearer to Nashville is the celebrated Martin’s BBQ Joint in the suburban enclave of Nolensville. Martins does whole hog BBQ, hickory-smoked and accompanied by an enticing menu. For full flavoured southern charm try the Redneck Taco (BBQ on top of a cornbread hoe-cake topped with slaw and sauce).
From its Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains, Georgia has as rich a BBQ heritage as any Southern state. My first Georgia pit stop was Savannah, where award-winning Wiley’s Championship BBQ delighted with a range of homely treats including Redneck Nachos (white cheddar, pickled jalapenos, pulled pork and hot sauce), smoked sausages and a top-rate variety of meats.
Down the shore toward the Georgia-Florida state line is Saint Simons Island. Here locals and vacationers alike know that the island’s most moreish bites are cooked in the kitchens and smoked in the pits at Southern Soul. I can attest Southern Soul’s ribs; they were the tastiest and most tender had during my trip.
To walk off your Southern Soul feast, head to the island’s sandy beaches or schedule a round of golf. An outdoor lover’s paradise with year-round mild climate, Saint Simons boasts 99 holes and plays host every November to the PGA’s RSM Classic.
Pit-cooking hams in the Middle-Georgia style for more than 75 years, family-owned Fincher’s Barbecue in Macon has the distinction of smoking the only BBQ to be sent into space. One taste and it’s easy to see why astronaut Sonny Carter made his odd request for Fincher’s ham to be part of the cargo for his 1989 NASA mission. With locations in Macon and Jackson, the 18-hour smoked hams at family-owned Fresh Air are just as out of the world.
For smoked meat bragging rights, the university town of Athens has Pulaski Heights BBQ. Owned by hands-on chef Chuck Ramsay, the restaurant adheres to old methods when it comes to slow-cooking meats to succulent perfection but tends to go about its veg with more worldly and health-conscious means. Ramsay’s vinegar lime slaw, smoked cauliflower, kimchi and more are all excellent accompaniments for a meaty chow down but would please on their own as a veggie plate.
Just outside of Athens is blink-and-miss-it Watkinsville where owner Mark Thomas carries on the family legacy at Hot Thomas BBQ. Named not for its tantalisingly tangy sauces but the fevers his father suffered as a small child, the humble eatery’s focus is on smoked ham. But a selection of choice meats and sides is available.
Urban delights sooth carnal cravings in Atlanta where local heavyweights of a burgeoning BBQ scene include Grand Champion BBQ – whose solid menu of award-winning meats racks up the points among the most ardent of the BBQ faithful – and Sweet Auburn, the food-van-cum-brick-and-mortar superstar whose menu is as big on southern classics as it is tinged with southeast Asian influence. With a downtown location, a roadhouse feel and a kitchen presenting a contemporary take on rural favourites (and possibly the tastiest brisket east of the Mississippi) a great meal at Smoke Ring is all but guaranteed.
Most preferred by locals is Fox Bros, where for every bite had there, but maybe especially so for Fox Bros’ chicken fried ribs (double sided, thick cut ribs breaded, fried and served with white sauce).
The small town of Lexington, North Carolina has made a huge impact on BBQing traditions in America and is home to its own signature “Lexington style” (also known as Piedmont or Western Carolina style) of BBQ. Lexington style means wood-smoked, chopped pork shoulder served “wet” with vinegar and ketchup based red sauce, as a sandwich or more typically in a tray filled with meat, a side of “red” coleslaw, and a few hushpuppies.
Considered the barbecue capital of the world, there’s been a BBQ restaurant in Lexington since 1919 when local farmer Sid Weaver set up a tent and started selling his smoked pork to folks coming out of the courthouse at lunchtime. And the roots of barbecue continue to be unearthed here. Recent renovations and building works at the City Hall have uncovered the pits of the old Beck’s Barbecue restaurant from the 1950s.
BBQ lovers in other states (not to mention other regions of North Carolina) may beg to differ about the town’s capital status, but no one disputes it is an extraordinary place for exquisitely produced BBQ. There’s a high pit-to-resident ratio in Lexington (with more than a half dozen eateries offering Lexington style chopped pork to a high standard). Two of the oldest and best include family owned restaurants Barbecue Center and Lexington Barbecue. A great time to visit is toward the end of October during the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival.
Heading eastward, another small town with a big taste for BBQ is Hillsborough, where the Hillsborough BBQ Company smokes a range meats. The turkey’s especially nice here, but be sure to save room for some of the homemade banana pudding. A few miles away in Chapel Hill, The Pig pleases most palates with local, pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone-free pork served in myriad options (homemade hotdogs, bologna, Vietnamese pork cheek). For the vegetarians there’s country-fried tofu, the BBQ tempeh and more. BBQ traditionalists rave about the rich flavoured meat on offer at nearby Allen & Son’s Bar-B-Que.
Nearer the North Carolina coast is Pitt County where a preponderance of traditional BBQ restaurants makes this largely rural area a prime destination for some of the best tasting and most tender meat in America. On the outskirts of Greenville is B’s Barbecue. Opened in 1977 by William and Peggy McLawhorn, B’s Barbecue today is run by their daughters Donna, Tammy, and Judy. And folks still don’t mind driving for miles and lining up for the traditional smoked pork, just like their parents taught ‘em. It’s the “best things since snuff” according to Donna. They’ve even got their own street named after the restaurant.
South of Greenville is the tiny town of Ayden where two of the nation’s best BBQ restaurants are hardly more than a minute’s drive from each other. The multi-generation, family-run Bum’s Restaurant in downtown Ayden offers 24-hour wood smoked whole hog with heaped helpings of homegrown veggies. Over at Skylight Inn, third generation proprietor Sam Jones sees no reason to “bastardise what made me and my family.” What “made” Sam and his family since 1947 is 16 to 18 hour wood-smoked and “dirt raised” whole hog chopped and blended with some skin left in for flavour and texture. Sam is however keen to expand his vision with a new Sam Jones BBQ in Greenville to open soon with the same adherence to tradition and principle but fancier digs and a broader menu.
Charleston's two most popular pits are owned by pro chefs turned restaurateurs, who found more pleasure in patiently stoking their own fires than in slogging away in the kitchens of fine dining restaurants.
At Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ, owner Aaron Seigel has a well-rounded take on BBQ, not just adhering to local traditions. Indeed, his brisket might as well be smoked in Texas as its flavour, texture and moisture harkened my taste buds back to what I’d tried in Austin and Dallas. Pulled pork and dry rubbed ribs suggest knowledge of how to do things with Memphis style, and his Brunswick stew is as good as any stirred in its original home in neighbouring Georgia.
Not all that far from Home Team is chef Anthony Dibernardo’s Swig & Swine, where an equation of an inventive BBQ menu and an ever-updated list of mostly local craft beer adds up an awesome dining experience. Of particular note are the pork rinds with Tabasco honey and blue cheese, the smoked wings, and the melt-in-your-mouth smoked pork belly. Great Charleston and regional beers include those from River Dog Brewery, Holy City Brewing, and Palmetto Brewing Company.