The phrase finger-lickin' good might have been coined by the fried chicken industry, but anyone who's attempted to take down a two-pound smoked beef rib drenched in a thick layer of peppery tomato-based sauce knows that BBQ is the real culprit behind this catchphrase. And we're here to honor that with a list of America's finest.
This list is dedicated to those who wear their red-stained T-shirts with pride, for the ride-or-die 'cue heads willing to drive three hours up a country holler just to get their hands on some hickory-smoked pulled pork. Behold: These are the 11 best BBQ joints in America.
Oh, Central BBQ, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. First, the sauce: At once tangy and spicy, perfect for blanketing the most succulent pulled pork in Tennessee. And the nachos! Layers of crunch and impossibly tender pork, molten cheese filling every nook and cranny, and just the right amount of jalapeños to make that paper boat sing. Wings? Dry-rubbed to oblivion and almost too hot to handle (almost). And don't get us started on the sides. Homemade potato chips, fresh from the frier and served with a dollop of cooling blue cheese and a crispy, refreshing slaw to rule them all.
Photo: Courtesy of Central BBQ
To describe this smokehouse as legendary might just be the understatement of the century. One of the oldest family-owned BBQ spots in Texas, Black's storied pit has been churning out hundreds of pounds of top-quality meat every day since 1932. The entire menu is ridiculously delicious; no pilgrimage would be complete without chowing down Barney Rubble-style on a fat order of dinosaur-sized beef ribs, rubbed down with the house blend then left to sizzle over local post oak logs. Served on the bone, these gorgeously charred, impeccably marbled big boys measure nine inches long and weigh about one pound. Bone appétit, y'all.
Kansas City, MO
If you're not familiar with KC-style burnt ends, you better get over to LC's, stat. The digs are modest—neon beer signs, tables dotted with rolls of paper towels, a cascade of billowing smoke—but anything else would just be a distraction. Here, it's all about the grub. The burnt ends sandwich runneth over with prized meat, a veritable mountain of charred crust giving way to chunks of soft, fatty brisket doused in the shop's signature celery salt-tinged sauce (less ketchupy than the standard local fare but just as velvety). Pro tip: The slices of white bread attempting to cradle this mountain are, as they should be, completely soaked through, so don't even think about trying to lift it.
What can we say? Sometimes the king deserves to wear the crown. Franklin BBQ is an obvious choice, sure, but any meathead would be hard-pressed to find anything that stands up to its slow-smoked brisket. Not to mention the Texas sausage: links of pure heaven. And the turkey! Not a dry bite on it. The slaw, the beans, the potatoes—these guys all check out, but it's really all about the protein here. Nobody starts lining up at 6 a.m. for cole slaw. No, we're here for the meat, and the Franklin abides.
Photo: Courtesy of Franklin Barbecue
From its decor to its stuffed taters (giant baked potatoes loaded with any number of indulgences), pitmaster Mike Wilson's mini meat empire screams Bama BBQ. There's the requisite white sauce, a rich, creamy and pepper-flecked mayonnaise-based monstrosity that we'd be more than happy to shovel in by the spoonful. Drizzled (OK, dumped) over luscious smoked chicken, festooned with pickles and stuffed into a soft hamburger bun, this sauce is by far the prettiest Southern belle we've ever seen. Between that and the soul-soothing mac 'n' cheese, we're pretty sure SAW's has what it takes to sway coach Nick Saban away from his beloved Little Debbies.
We know what you're thinking: BBQ? In California? Enter Jocko's, the Santa Maria-style 'cue spot that's been keeping the time-honored, beef-centric practice alive since 1926. Part steakhouse, part smoke shack and part Western saloon, this unassuming family-run joint grills its Bible-thick steaks, ribs, chops and even sweetbreads over an impressive open oak-fueled flame outside. Inside, happy locals cut into their colossal cuts alongside buttery, sour cream-loaded baked potatoes, cheese enchiladas and heaps of french fries. It might not be conventional 'cue, but as one of this style's last remaining vestiges, it sure holds its own.
Saint Louis, MO
Despite being a four-hour drive up the Mississippi, Pappy's has been dishing out some of the country's best Memphis-style BBQ since 2008. Slabs of thick-cut dry-rubbed ribs, slow-smoked over apple and cherry wood, steal the show, supported by a cast of pulled pork and chicken, brisket, turkey breast, spicy sausage and to-die-for burnt ends. And no Saint Louisian worth his salt would miss out on the Frito pie, crunchy corn chips topped with saucy baked beans, melted cheddar cheese, chopped white onions and whatever kind of meat you please (which, let's be serious, is pulled pork).
With the arrival of heavy hitters like Hometown BBQ, Mighty Quinn's and Blue Smoke, NYC's BBQ scene has really come into its own in the last few years. But no smoke shack captures the city's essence quite like Joe Carroll's BK haunt. Fette Sau puts an NYC deli spin on Central Texas traditions, with unique sides like half sours, German potato salad and 30-day fermented sauerkraut. The meat, of course, is just silly—delicately seasoned pulled pork, brisket, ribs and more, either dry-rubbed or finished with a spicy mustard-, chipotle tomato- or vinegar-based sauce. Make sure to round out your plate with a few pints of local craft beer.
Photo: Courtesy of Fette Sau
Chapel Hill, NC
We've yet to encounter a 'cue fiend who wouldn't throw down for Keith Allen, with his roaring brick fireplace full of hickory logs (hand split, mind you). The secret, however, is in the sauce—Eastern North Carolina's finest blend of spicy red pepper, zippy vinegar and love, painted generously onto everything from overflowing chopped pork sandwiches to juicy smoked chicken thighs. If you can manage to save a little room for dessert, make sure to check out the pie. Between the peach cobbler, the pecan and the coconut chess, life doesn't get much sweeter.
If you think BBQ is all brisket and baked beans, this homey diner is about to blow your mind. Two words: kalua pig. The island specialty starts with a whole hog, wrapped in leaves and dropped into an underground pit lined with hot stones called an imu. And it ends, of course, as a mound of seasoned shredded pork, moist, crisp and supple as an orchid petal. Other best sellers include short ribs cooked pipi kaula-style, a traditional method of salting and drying meat over a warm stove, and haupia, a custard-like sweet made with coconut milk. It's no wonder this understated icon made the James Beard Awards' coveted America's Classics list in 2000.
Little Mountain, SC
This easily overlooked joint is essentially the BBQ version of Field of Dreams—if you build it, they will come. Housed in a narrow converted trailer, this backcountry destination is famous for its old-school 'cue, cooked slow 'n' low over wood and bathed in South Carolina-style mustard sauce. Aside from some of the best ribs this side of Texas, pitmaster Leroy Cannon's most noteworthy dish is his take on hash and rice. A mere whiff of this toasty, bright-yellow pork stew bubbling away in its strung-up iron wash pot is enough to cure what ails you. And its counterpart, a dreamlike pillow of airy white rice, only further seals the deal.
Don't see your favorite on this list? Let us know in the comments.
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