With summer in full swing and the July Fourth weekend in the rearview mirror, it’s prime time for BBQ.
But just what exactly is barbecue? The answer depends a lot on where you live or where you travel, as the world of barbecue is highly regionalized. Generally speaking, the term refers to meat that is slow-cooked indirectly, usually with smoke, as opposed to grilling, where steaks, hot dogs or hamburgers are exposed directly over a flame. But this is imprecise, as some foods – barbecue chicken, for example – can often be cooked pretty much in any way.
The barbecue label can also also refer to the type of sauce used but again, it doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, some “traditional” barbecue, such as Texas beef brisket or ribs in various parts of the world, are often served without any sauce at all.
Signature slow-smoked meats include sliced beef brisket, giant beef rib, pork spareribs, pork belly and lamb ribs (clockwise from upper left). (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
It’s confusing, but it’s also delicious. And at the end of the day, BBQ is in the eye of the beholder. It should be all about fun and flavor, not definitions or semantics, and in that spirit, I have long been a sucker for pretty much any kind of roadside or local BBQ joint, no matter how exactly they cook, what they serve tends to fall along regional lines.
In big cities, BBQ restaurants usually adopt either one regional style or an amalgam, so they become less pronounced. But if you’re a BBQ fan looking for an excuse for a road trip, there are several major regional styles of barbecue in the U.S., plus a few smaller and more hyper-local ones.
Let’s take a tour and go back to the roots.
Regional BBQ 101
Most experts break BBQ into four regional styles, Texas, Carolinas, Memphis and Kansas City. However, Texas and the Carolinas each are so broad they pack in multiple styles. And limiting the scope to just four styles omits several tasty offerings from lesser-known sources from Kentucky to California. I’ve opted to take a more expansive approach, featuring places I sampled personally.
Texas-style BBQ is the most clear-cut regional take, though it still has lots of variety. The common theme? Beef is the star. Slow-cooked, dry-rubbed brisket is the Lone Star State’s primary signature dish and the standard by which Texas BBQ is judged.
However, you will also often see smoked prime rib, full-sized beef spareribs and beef short ribs, plus a lot of smoked sausages, especially in the Hill Country and region around Austin more influenced by Eastern European immigrants.
While the most barebones Texas smokehouses focus on beef, you will also see plenty of pork ribs, chicken, even turkey, though pulled pork remains an anomaly. The must-try item is brisket, traditionally smoked with a heavy dry spice rub, hand carved and sold by weight, served with a generous stack of generic sliced white bread and optional sauce you can add tableside.
Sausage, prime rib, brisket and ribs – always served with white bread – are the stars at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
There are tons of great BBQ places in Texas, but to me, nothing personifies the breed like Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Located in the Austin metropolitan area, Kreuz is a big, bustling classic of hand carving and communal tables serving great brisket, amazing and unique horseshoe-shaped house made sausage, and just about everything else that can be smoked. They have been cooking in Lockhart since 1900, but moved to a new location in 1999, an enormous red brick building that resembles a college sports field house and holds a ton of hungry people, yet is still packed.
In direct contrast to Texas, brisket is largely unknown in the palmetto state and might only be found at “modern” places. Throughout the Carolinas, pork is king, but the pork varies across the region.
In South Carolina, both ribs and pulled (or chopped or shredded) pork are ubiquitous, the latter coming from a slow smoked pork shoulder or “Boston butt,” and served on its own or more commonly as a sandwich, often topped with contrasting cole slaw. Sauce is widely used, but this where South Carolina gets funky: statewide, the best-known red tomato-based barbecue sauce is most common, but closer to the coast. the more you find golden mustard-based sauce. A uniquely Carolina specialty, it’s my favorite and a true gift to pork barbecue.
The signature of coastal South Carolina BBQ is a golden mustard-based sauce, and one of the best can be found at Bessinger’s where it is poured over meaty, juicy, chunky, pulled pork shoulder. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
Mustard has long been a traditional accompaniment to pork, and it makes wonderful sense in barbecue sauce. Some of the best can be sampled at Bessinger’s in Charleston. When I say sample, I mean it, because Bessinger’s, a Charleston mainstay since 1939, is a buffet-style eatery. In general, all-you-can-eat is disappointing, emphasizing quantity over quality, but Bessinger’s is the delicious exception, from the fresh and crunchy coleslaw to excellent fried catfish to an unexpected crab salad, rich and laden which chunks of crabmeat.
But the star is the mustard sauce and smoked meat dishes, anchored by superb pulled pork, with big, juicy and meaty chunks of pork tossed lightly in the signature condiment. If you don’t want to hit the buffet, the adjacent sandwich shop offers a normal menu of platters, trays and sandwiches including the same excellent pulled pork, smoked chicken, and very good St. Louis-cut pork ribs.
While it has fallen out of vogue and is becoming harder to find, Eastern North Carolina’s traditional regional specialty is “whole-hog barbecue,” which entails smoking the entire pig rather than doing the shoulder, ribs and other parts separately.
Chopped pork made from the whole hog often includes crispy bits of skin, and while you still find quite a bit of tomato-based sauce, the true regional specialty, especially near the East coast, is a thin and tangy vinegar sauce, or “mop.” The only rub? Finely chopped meat can dry out easily, which some restaurants counteract by continually adding vinegar, which can overpower the meat after a while.
For more than half a century, the humble pig has been the star at Bill Spoon’s BBQ in Charlotte, now serving “3rd generation ‘cue.” (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
For a delicious rendition of the style, head to Bill Spoon’s in Charlotte for its “3rd generation ‘cue.” There’s a small pink neon pig in one of the windows and the sign on the otherwise plain exterior says it all: “Bill Spoon’s Barbecue: We’ve Cooked the Whole Pig Since 1963.”
Simply referred to as “barbecue” here, chopped whole-hog is the only meat served, so you won’t confuse it with ribs or anything else. The pork is finely chopped, quite tender and distinctly smoky, and you add your own sauce. I prefer the sandwich option to the plate because the slaw is a perfect complement, adding both crunch and flavor.
You can try Bill Spoon’s whole-hog BBQ as a sandwich, which is piled with crunchy cole slaw. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
Memphis loves pork ribs in all forms: full spareribs, St. Louis cut and baby backs, as well as a delicious special treat, “rib tips.” These tender, bite-sized nuggets are the ends trimmed from trapezoidal sparerib racks to make uniform St. Louis-cut ribs.
“Memphis-style” is the hardest regional form of barbecue to define – mainly because of one famous (and overrated) spot, the Rendezvous. As a result, diners have come to incorrectly assume that the Tennessee city’s signature barbecue style has something to do with “dry” or un-sauced ribs. That could not be further from the truth.
No matter which meat you choose in Memphis, it will most likely be basted with a red tomato-based BBQ sauce, the city’s signature.
Rib tips are one of the most delicious – and least common – BBQ specialties, and at Cozy Corner, they are drenched in Memphis-style sauce. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
Additionally, Memphis embraces several saucy specialties you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere, including BBQ Cornish game hen and more famously, BBQ spaghetti. This southern take on spaghetti Bolognese features pasta tossed with barbecue sauce and pulled pork. These unusual dishes are all on the menu at the Cozy Corner, a beloved local institution that also serves fried bologna sandwiches. .
Tomato-based BBQ sauce is beloved in Memphis, and Cozy Corner is the go-to spot for the city’s harder to find classic BBQ dishes, such as whole smoked Cornish game hens. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
But if you want to try the city’s definitive ribs and the dish that put Memphis BBQ on the map, head to Central BBQ, which does one of the world’s best takes on the genre, as well as killer BBQ Nachos and house made potato chips.
When it comes to barbecued ribs, it just doesn’t get much better than the superlative racks smoked at Memphis’ Central BBQ. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
Kansas City barbecue isn’t so much one style as a melting pot of the other regions. As such, it is arguably the single best place in the country for the avid BBQ lover to visit, with very high-quality standards and the broadest selection of meats.
Here, they smoke anything and everything, from sausage to ham to turkey to beef short ribs. That said, brisket and pork ribs the mainstays amd pulled pork is less common. One noteworthy distinction is that in Kansas City, the sauce – usually, a tomato and molasses or tomato and brown sugar blend – is often applied after the meat is cooked, rather than basted on throughout the cooking process.
“Burnt ends,” cubed exterior pieces of beef brisket that are smoked again are the signature of Kansas City-style BBQ and a delectable fixture at Joe’s. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
The one homegrown KC signature dish is “burnt ends,” the often crunchy and blackened outside edge of a whole beef brisket, known as “bark,” which is removed, cubed into small bite sized pieces, then re-rubbed and re-smoked to intensify the crunchy smokiness. Burnt ends are usually served as a side or sandwich.
KC has many exceptional barbecue joints. For an old-school meal Gates BBQ beats the better known Arthur Bryant’s. And for foodies craving for a chef-driven dining experience, there’s Danny Edwards Boulevard BBQ).
But at the end of the day, but Joe’s is king, considered by many the nation’s best, serving up amazing sandwiches and ribs to die for – all in a working gas station. How’s that for road-stop efficiency?
Other local flavors
California: Central California’s Santa Maria BBQ is often called the nation’s “secret fifth style,” and was created by Spanish cowboys in the mid-1800s. The signature dish is beef tri-tip roast cooked directly and then indirectly on grates over open fires of California red oak.
The cooking style at the Hitching Post II is Santa Maria BBQ, where meat is dry-seasoned and cooked over a live fire of California red oak while being frequently basted. (Photo: Larry Olmsted, Special to USA TODAY)
The meat is heavily seasoned with dry spices, usually basted with vinegar and oil, and served with grilled buttered bread, tomato salsa and slow-cooked piquinto beans. You’re more likely to come across it in family kitchens or fundraising dinners than restaurants but the superlative exception is the Hitching Post II, famously featured in the 2004 wine-country comedy “Sideways.”
There are plenty of places in the country to try BBQ pork, beef and chicken, but if you want smoked lamb, head to Kentucky’s famed Old Hickory BBQ. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
Kentucky: One of the most concise local styles is found in Owensboro, in northwestern Kentucky, the micro-regional home of slow-smoked lamb rather than beef or pork. The place to try this is Old Hickory, where the Worcestershire-based sauce has been flowing for the better part of a century.
Alabama: In a sliver of the state alongside the Tennessee River, barbecued chicken is famously adorned in a creamy white sauce of mayonnaise, vinegar and spices. The place to sample this is at Big Bob Gibson BBQ, one of the nation’s most legendary smokehouses, also renowned for its ribs.
Cleveland-style BBQ? Yes, it’s a thing, and it’s delicious, at celebrity Chef Michael Symon’s Mabel’s BBQ is in the heart of Cleveland’s restaurant row, on pedestrian-friendly East 4th Street. And now he's opened a second location at the Palms in Las Vegas. (Photo: Larry Olmstead, Special to USA TODAY)
Ohio: Cleveland-bred celebrity chef Michael Symon has created a distinctly Midwestern style of BBQ using ingredients common to the Eastern European immigrants of the northeast Ohio city, such as mustard, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables and kielbasa. His twin location of Mabel’s BBQ are instant classics (and now the best BBQ in Las Vegas). Symon’s offerings are superb across the board, but the pinnacle of his “Cleveland ‘cue” would have to be the pork ribs, which are basted in brown sugar and pickle juice and taste far better than they sound.
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