One of the many observations I took away from compiling this year’s list of the South’s Top 50 BBQ Joints is that there is an incredible amount of top-notch barbecue in Lexington.
“Which Lexington do you mean?” one might rightly ask, for lots of places in the South share that name.
When it comes to barbecue, Lexington, North Carolina, is perhaps the first that springs to mind. Though its population is just under 20,000 (18,931, according to the 2010 census), it has at least seventeen barbecue restaurants in operation today—almost one for every thousand residents. Even more remarkable, the Campaign for Real Barbecue has confirmed that nine of those restaurants are still cooking the traditional way over real wood.
You’ll often hear the term “Lexington-style” used to describe barbecue throughout the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Indeed, the town’s pioneering pitmasters—Sid Weaver, Jess Swicegood, Warner Stamey—created a distinctive style that quickly spread throughout the surrounding counties. It features pork shoulders cooked over hickory coals then chopped or sliced and dressed in ketchup-laced vinegar sauce. Red slaw and hushpuppies are the universal sides.
Two of the town’s most noted restaurants, Lexington Barbecue and Bar-B-Q Center, made it into our Top 50 list, and several others are strong contenders, too. (I’m particularly partial to Smiley’s and Cook’s.)
But the North Carolina town isn’t the only place named Lexington where you can find great barbecue. Scott's-Parker's Barbeque in Lexington, Tennessee, still cooks whole hogs the old shovel-and-coals way, and they clocked in at number 18 on the list. Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, ranked even higher, landing all the way up at number 2 thanks to pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz’s incredible smoked brisket, chicken, and pork steak.
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We can also include Hite’s Bar-B-Q in West Columbia, South Carolina, which took the 27th spot, for it’s located in Lexington County. (The same county had another Top 50 joint in previous years’ lists, but unfortunately Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Que in Leesville closed its doors last year.)
But being named Lexington apparently isn’t enough to guarantee great barbecue. Lexington, Mississippi (population 1,731), Lexington, Alabama (735), and Lexington, Georgia (239) can be forgiven for not making any “best of” lists, for they don’t have any barbecue joints at all. But I suspect if someone decided to open one in any of the three towns they’d do quite well.
And what about Lexington, Kentucky? It’s the capital of a state with a long, proud barbecue tradition. With a population of 321,000, it’s larger than all the other Lexingtons in the South combined. With all these advantages it seems like this Lexington would be a shoe-in as a major barbecue destination.
I happened to be in Kentucky last week, and I decided to take a detour over to the state capital and check out its barbecue scene. I hadn’t heard of any “must visit” joints there, but I figured there had to be a hidden gem somewhere amid all that Lexingtoness.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any great new discoveries to report, just run-of-the-mill meats with decent texture but hardly a hint of smoke. I won’t name any names to protect the perhaps not-so-innocent, but if there is a Top 50 candidate in Lexington, I wasn’t able to find it. (I was able to visit only a handful of restaurants, so I had to pick the most promising-looking ones. Let me know if there’s a sleeper out there I missed and I’ll go back and check it out.)
In The Kentucky Barbecue Book (2013), Wes Berry noted about Lexington, “I haven’t detected any distinctive styles linking the barbecue places . . . they seem to be a melting pot of barbecue styles, serving Texas brisket, Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs, and Western Kentucky-style pork.”
That’s pretty much what I found, too—a geographic mish-mash of meats, sides, and sauces imported from all over the South. One of the places I visited, not content with having just a six pack of different sauces of the table, added a seventh bottle outside the cardboard container. One wishes they would offer just two and make sure at least one of them was delicious.
I suspect another limitation on the barbecue in this particular Lexington is that none of the city’s restaurants have managed to stick around as long as, say, the Bar-B-Q Center in North Carolina, which was founded 1955. For a long time the oldest barbecue joint in Lexington, Kentucky, was Billy’s, which was founded in 1978, but it closed a few years ago, leaving the city without a single spot predating the 21st century.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect Kentucky’s state capital to have great barbecue just because of its name. Perhaps the reason the barbecue is so good in all the other Lexingtons is that they don’t have a ginormous supply of top-shelf bourbon and a string of horse races to go to every spring and fall. Both would suppress one’s propensity to stay up all night cooking a pig.
For now, I’ll stick with the Carolinas or Texas or Tennessee when I want great Lexington-style barbecue. Rumor has it, though, that there’s also a town in Massachusetts named Lexington. I might need to go check it out.