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America's Best BBQ Restaurants

Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Illinois.
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Photo: Courtesy of Oklahoma Joe's

Snoots and Whole Hog

We’ve heard all the old saws on the subject: Barbecue is like sex—tough to describe, you just know it when it’s good. Barbecue is religion, people say, to explain the rectitudinous fervor that regional styles tend to engender. And we’ve met leagues of barbecue one-upmen from Charleston to Charlottesville, Brooklyn to Laurel Canyon.

All that bluster, all that talk—it doesn’t do much to elucidate the experience of traveling through a place, eating great barbecue. In St. Louis, we bought the region’s specialties, snoots—no pretty way around it, it’s the snout of a hog—from C&K, a takeout window with nary a wood chip in sight, but a steady stream of locals on a lazy Sunday. We took the platter to the park below the Gateway Arch, near where the Mississippi River had submerged the riverwalk. Like oversize pork rinds, the texture of a rice cake, the snoots were sluiced with a tomatoey sauce that had the right amount of sweetness and heat cutting through its deeply porky hit. Did we get too wrapped up in it all—the newness of the snout, the majesty of the arch, and the fear of the rising river drowning the old Buick? Whatever the case, we loved the snoots, and we ate every last bite.

And it was an altogether different kind of love from the intoxicating one we experienced when we dropped down to Memphis and, in the space of two days, hit Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Neely’s, Central, Leonard’s, Tops, and Cozy Corner—a charry, sticky blur of ribs and even more ribs, with only a trip to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for respite. We were worried the resulting hangover might color our experience of the more fragile Tennessee whole-hog tradition that lingers on in the counties east of Memphis, near Lexington.

No chance. About halfway to Nashville, we were hunting for a barbecue restaurant among the grain mills and goat farms of Route 69 when a freshly painted barn-red hut came into view, a plume of smoke issuing from somewhere behind the building. A line of customers queued outdoors by a screened window. By this point in the trip, we knew what we had to do. We ordered our pulled-pork sandwiches, lightly sauced, and made our way to the perfunctory dining room, which is more like a freestanding screened porch. A truck out back was filled with squared hickory rods—evidently there’s a drumstick mill in the area that sells the curved or split blanks, the rejects, to the local barbecue shops to burn. In a barrel nearby a few bushels of sticks were crackling into the swelter of summer afternoon. Once the fire settled down, the glowing embers would be shoveled into the smoker to gently cook the pigs. Jerry’s pulled-pork sandwich was outstanding, perfectly seasoned and lubricated, plenty smoky, with a chunky home-cut slaw on top for tonic balance and a sauce that hinted at spice without overstating the obvious.

We were beginning to spot a pattern with the barbecue joints we liked most, a certain disrespect for the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, kitchen and dining room, a fundamental flexibility that allows for the main ingredients—smoke and fat—to flow where they may. Customers get to see the action firsthand and inhale a strong whiff of the wares. In a roadside setting, selling a product as slippery as barbecue, an open kitchen is an expression of honesty.

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