Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q (Photo: Sergio Salvador)
By Katrina Brown Hunt
To find good barbecue while traveling, Michael Smith advises that you look for ambience — depending, of course, on how you define the word.
“Look for dives that have been around for a while,” says the Missouri-based healthcare marketing pro, who has sought out bucket-list barbecue joints all over the South and Midwest. “You can trust them for the best barbecue — because no one is going there for the atmosphere.”
Case in point: the original Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, one of Smith’s favorites, which is housed in a gas station. Travel+Leisure readers seem to have enjoyed refueling in Kansas City, too: they ranked the Missouri metropolis as a top contender for the nation’s best barbecue.
As part of this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 metro areas on a variety of refined features, including artfully smoked meats—no matter the setting.
The top barbecue cities reveal some colorful diversity, from the dry rubs of Central Texas-style barbecue — often served “meat-market-style” on butcher-paper-lined trays — to the mustardy sauces of the Carolinas or the mopped-with-sauce pulled pork and barbecue pizza of Tennessee. (Purists take note: Because of the general parameters of the survey, some small-town barbecue meccas, like Lockhart, Tex., and Lexington, N.C., were not part of the survey.)
No. 10 Albuquerque
There’s no need to eat your barbecue alone: The New Mexico city made the top 10 for its wealth of good festivals, which — thanks to the wealth of chiles and other home-grown produce — aren’t limited to hot air balloons. The July 4 weekend brings the Annual Pork & Brew BBQ State Championship, while spring means the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show, which boasts of the world’s largest festival for Teflon palates. If you can’t make it to town for either one, many locals swear by Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q, a far-east outpost of an Austin barbecue joint, known for its spicier-than-usual sauces. Besides having a high threshold for culinary heat, the locals ranked at No. 5 for being a little weird.
No. 9 Charleston
The South Carolina city easily made the top 10 by showcasing Carolina-style BBQ — a whole-pig approach with four sauces, including a vinegary mustard elixir. But Charleston also adds the Low Country angle, infused with Creole influences and seafood. You’ll find it at places like Home Team BBQ, which does Low Country shrimp boils and oyster tables, alongside pulled pork and creamy grits. To take some expert fixins home — from dry rubs to shrimp sauce and artichoke relish — go to the ’Cue-osk in the Old City Market, helmed by James Hagood, a former insurance adviser who has racked up several awards for his sauces and rubs. Charleston also gave readers an appetite for shopping, ranking it in the top 10 for antiques, boutiques and home décor.
No. 8 Atlanta
(Courtesy of Fox Bros. BBQ)
Just as Atlantans made the top 10 for their good fashion sense, their barbecue offers classics accessorized with Georgia flourish. That’s the case at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, which offers St. Louis-style ribs — though they’ve been chicken-fried — tater tots smothered in brisket chili and spicy, Georgia-born Brunswick stew. Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt, meanwhile, offers pulled pork wrapped in fried dough as well as a rotating menu of blues bands. Atlanta indeed impressed readers with its live music, and in another kind of flash, its colorful Christmas lights.
No. 7 Dallas
(Photo: Robert Strickland)
Big D may lie farther away geographically from Lockhart than Austin does — and readers may associate Dallas more with luxe shopping than good eating — but Dallas still holds its own with meat-market-style ’cue. Lockhart Smokehouse, in fact, is a branch of the central Texas town’s legendary Kreuz Market, while Pecan Lodge does handmade sausage, along with ribs that average one pound each. For a barbecue experience that blends with the city’s posh demeanor, go to Smoke, in the retro Belmont Hotel, where the sausage is comprised of pork andouille, rabbit and spicy lamb. Despite its high-end swagger, Dallas also made the top 20 for being affordable.
No. 6 Oklahoma City
(Courtesy of Iron Star)
While OKC’s barbecue takes many cues from Kansas City, the Carolinas, and neighboring Texas — like at Back Door Barbecue on NW 23rd, created by an Austin transplant — some of the best BBQ joints focus on Oklahoma’s strong sense of local history. Downtown’s Iron Star (with its brown-sugar-cured brisket), for instance, pays tribute to famed outlaw and Oklahoman Belle Starr, while Bedlam Bar-B-Q (where the smoked meat menu features brisket, polish sausage and bologna) is named for the rivalry between Oklahoma University and Oklahoma State.
No. 5 Nashville
(Photo: Caroline Allison)
While it’s long ranked for its live music and concerts, Music City has more recently become a serious foodie city, where locally sourced ingredients bolster the Southern comfort cuisine. That enhanced down-home sensibility really comes out at Edley’s Bar-B-Que, where catfish and the local specialty “hot chicken” join the ranks of pulled pork, and Peg Leg Porker, where you can nosh on “Memphis sushi,” a sausage-and-cheese platter with saltines. At another Nashville favorite, Martin’s, they pride themselves on not owning either a microwave or freezer, and the signature item is the Redneck Taco, a cornbread hoe-cake topped with meat, slaw and sauce. The locals, having shed most of their rhinestones over the years, also ranked highly in the survey for their hipness and lack of snobbery.
No. 4 Houston
(Photo: Kimberly Park)
While some barbecue purists would say less is more when it comes to sauce, more is more when it comes to anything barbecue-related in this Texas city, which also impressed readers with its generous burgers and wine bars. Gatlin’s BBQ in the Heights, for instance, asks, naturally, what kind of meat (pork, sausage or beef, for starters) you’d like piled on your baked potato. Killen’s in Pearland goes the meat-on-trays route, adding local St. Arnold’s Beer and heaping desserts (you can buy the crème Brule bread pudding, for instance, by the quart). And while it is easy to fill up on the low-and-slow meats at Goode Company — with its original location on Kirby Drive — fans always leave room for the jalapeno cheese bread and the Brazos Bottom pecan pie. The locals clearly have an eye for masterpieces, edible and otherwise: it ranked at No. 3 for its museums, like the Menil Collection.
No. 3 Austin
(Courtesy of Black’s Barbecue)
The Texas capital made the top 3 again this year for its old-school, Central Texas-style barbecue — prepped with a dry rub and often served on wax paper and trays with white bread — found at the renowned Franklin, La Barbecue, trailer Micklethwait and Black’s, a branch of the legendary restaurant from the town of Lockhart, about an hour away. Austin also ranked near the top for its good-looking, offbeat locals: one good place to absorb that Keep Austin Weird vibe — along with more brisket, ribs and sausage — is Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew, which played the part of a pool hall in famed Austin flick Dazed and Confused.
No. 2 Memphis
(Photo: Chris Hope Photography)
The Tennessee city need not sing the blues over a second-place finish: its devotees are fiercely loyal to the local barbecue style, which is dry-rubbed, smoked over hickory, and often mopped with sauce during cooking. You can enjoy a classic example at Payne’s Bar-B-Que, housed in a former service station, or Cozy Corner, where barbecue Cornish hen and bologna get equal billing. Memphis also gets special credit for stretching the boundaries of the genre: you can experience the birthplace of barbecue spaghetti at the Bar-B-Q Shop (home of Dancing Pigs Sauce) or partake of the seminal barbecue pizza at red-checker-tablecloth Coletta’s‚ which once counted Elvis as a loyal customer. No surprise, Memphis also ranked well in the survey for its music scene and its melodic sense of history.
No. 1 Kansas City
(Photo: Aaron Leimkuehler)
Whether it was for the sweet, tomato-y sauce, the rich history in meat-packing or those densely flavorful scraps — the burnt ends — this Midwestern city took the gold medal this year. To understand its basics, start at legends Arthur Bryant’s or Gates Bar-B-Q, which date back to the 1920s and ’40s, respectively. Then, branch out to the newbies, like Q39 — led by national barbecue champion team Rob Magee — or Char Bar, which complements its burnt ends and pulled pork butt with lobster deviled eggs and a vegetarian-friendly, smoked jackfruit. Char Bar has also has added a huge beer garden with bocce ball, croquet, and local beer — like beloved Boulevard Brewing — a reminder why KC also won the silver medal for its craft beer scene.
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