America's Best BBQ Restaurants
Published: August 2009
By Matt Lee, Ted Lee
The country’s best barbecue joints, from Kansas to North Carolina.
Beyond the shamrock gas station’s pumps and past the racks of Hostess cakes, a warren of
tables and booths makes up the Kansas City, Kansas, barbecue joint Oklahoma Joe’s. On a steamy Wednesday in July, the dean of Kansas City barbecue, Ardie Davis, sat alone in the
restaurant beneath drowsy ceiling fans, looking at his watch.
When he spied us, Davis shot up from his seat, and though it was just after 11 a.m., dashed
toward the cashier to place his order: sliced beef brisket, pork ribs, French fries, beans, and
The woman behind the counter looked up from her register. “Burnt ends ain’t ready
yet,” she said. “Y’all gone stick around?”
“Wonderful,” Davis replied, and explained: you won’t find these caramelized
morsels from the edges of the brisket, where the seasoning gathers as the fat renders, on the menu,
they’re only served on Wednesdays and Saturdays; in a half-hour’s time, the lunch line
would extend out the door, and then…who knows when they might run out?
Davis wasn’t taking any chances. An avuncular retiree with a sturdy build and snowy hair,
he’s the author of five books about barbecue and has been a competition-barbecue judge for 25
years. Oklahoma Joe’s began life on that circuit in the early 90’s as the
Slaughterhouse Five, a team of barbecue enthusiasts who got together to cook at weekend
championships around the Midwest and the South. The team won so many awards that by 1996, they
opened a restaurant. Compared with Kansas City institutions like the circa-1920 Arthur Bryant’s, O.J.’s was a modern place, using state-of-the-art smokers that cook meat with
a combination of natural gas and wood.
When our food arrived, Davis took a bite of the rib, which pleased him immensely. “See
this bark here?” he said, pointing to a reddish-black shard of crust on the surface of the
rib. “You want it crispy like that on the outside, but tender on the inside. And
there,” he said, pointing to a layer of almost lurid pinkness just beneath the skin that
extended the length of the rib, “that’s the smoke ring, the sign that it’s been
properly smoked. O.J.’s uses more wood than gas. You go to some places and you can’t
taste any smoke at all.”
The ribs were, indeed, redolent of white oak and porky, and they disappeared quickly. The
brisket was fall-apart tender, a tad dry but then there were sauces to dress it with (permissible
in Kansas City).
Finally, the burnt ends came, and they were wonderful: salty, glistening with smoke-tinged fat,
and prickly with the heat of black pepper. To us, they seemed to be the best bit, but Davis was
having none of it. “They’re too salty, and there’s no bark on ’em,”
he said, but conceded, “Concerning taste, there’s no argument. That’s what makes
Barbecue: A Brief (25 Millennia) History
What is it about barbecue? Historians tell us that for 250,000 years, man has applied low, slow
heat to proteins to make them meltingly tender and delicious. Christopher Columbus discovered the
Taino people of modern-day Haiti cooking fish and meats on a grate of sticks lashed together and
suspended above a fire, and dousing their food with a scorching chili sauce. Portuguese and Spanish
explorers in the New World found American Indians practicing a similar culinary art, and as waves
of European settlers and enslaved Africans landed in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries,
they adapted the technique to the food traditions they brought from their homelands and the raw
materials of their new environment. Germans who settled in the Hill Country of Texas smoked fat
pork sausages over mesquite or oak of the region. In Kansas City, a cow town at the crossroads of
several important early trade routes, the abundance of pecan and hickory meant that deeply smoky
beef brisket and ribs came to define the city’s style. Barbecue emerged as something more
than heating and seasoning protein—it became culture.
Every morsel of barbecue tells a story, starting with the meat: if it’s sausage,
you’re in or around Austin, Texas. Mutton? Owensboro, Kentucky. Whole hog might be eastern
North Carolina, western Tennessee, or upstate South Carolina, depending on which hardwoods
you’re using and how you seasoned your pork. Did the pit master put a dry rub of black pepper
and salt on it before laying it over the coals? Did he baste it once it was on the heat, and if so,
with what kind of liquid? Did he turn the pig before it was done, and did he dress it with sauce
before it was served? Every decision a contemporary pit master makes might be rooted in tradition,
in the choices our ancestors made; and even today these regional differences hold up.
We’d set out on a 3,000-mile odyssey, exploring the contours of American barbecue the way
hikers thrill to the changing topography of the Appalachian Trail. We were in search of the
ultimate barbecue, of course, but more than that, we were on a quest to determine what perfect
barbecue might mean in 2009. We had notions of the quintessential barbecue joint: family-run (with
a few generations on site, preferably), with an authentically acquired patina of age. We were
fairly sure the barbecue of our dreams would come from a dwelling with a certain undersung-ness
about it (and likely not a place with a punning or deliberately alliterative name, like Swineomite
or Peter’s Piggy Palace).
But for the sake of our journey, we set out with open minds, hungry mouths, and—did we
mention?—a 1972 Buick Limited. We’d seen the ad for the gold-colored,
black-vinyl-topped Limited online about a month before our departure. It only had 90,000 miles on
the clock, and we watched as the asking price dropped, then dropped again as our departure date
approached. About a week before we left, we sent a check for the car, sight unseen, to a guy named
Mick, in Stillwell, a suburb of Kansas City.
Why a 36-year-old, 6,000-pound car, when gasoline prices were running at an all-time high?
Because our quest defied common sense, and we needed a vehicle to match. The Buick had compelling
features beyond its 455 V-8 engine and black brocade interior. Namely, four cigarette
lighters—critical because we were packing our phones, one laptop for note-taking, another for
downloading photos, and a small A/C car refrigerator (we’d be ordering a lot of barbecue,
tasting lightly, and would want to keep samples for comparison). But more than all that, piloting
the old American workhorse, demanding vast quantities of vigilance, time, and fuel, seemed to
project a oneness with the ’cue.
First Stop: Kansas City
It was at the airport that we learned Kansas City lives and breathes barbecue the way New Orleans does gumbo. We’d simply asked the man behind the rental-car counter what his favorite
barbecue spot was. “Gates, definitely Gates. Best burnt ends—you’ll want the
mixed plate, too, with fries,” he said. Then a coworker chimed in. “Naw, meat’s
too fatty at Gates,” Brian said. “Okie Joe’s is the place. The sauce is spicier
there, too.” Everywhere we went in Kansas City, we ran into barbecue. As we fired up the
Buick, tightening a loose hose clamp, we watched Mick’s neighbor Larry load coolers into an
SUV, headed to Peculiar to compete in “the Peculiar BBQ Roundup.” Our session with
Ardie Davis at Oklahoma Joe’s was a superb first impression, but it wasn’t until we
rolled into the parking lot at Arthur Bryant’s and saw the mountain of cordwood just beyond
the kitchen’s back door and the chuffing smokestack that we realized there was an element
missing from our O.J.’s experience: the process.
Inside Arthur Bryant’s, a snaking line stretched to the door, and as we inched toward the
order window, an opening in a Plexiglas wall, we watched, riveted, as the workers performed the
rough-and-tumble procedure: pulling a whole brisket, blackened and quivering, from the
white-enameled brick smoker; throwing down a broad sheet of red butcher paper; slapping on it a few
slices of Wonder bread followed by a generous heaping of brisket ribbons; piling a fistful of
steaming, thick-cut fries on top; then rolling the heaping mass into a package the size of a
In the fundamentals of pit cookery, Arthur Bryant’s shone: brisket beautifully marbled,
lightly smoky; pork ribs perfectly moist, not too salty; the sauce, rust-colored, almost gritty
with dried spices, with a delectable Worcestershire-coriander inflection and a brisk vinegar bite.
But since the taste, the texture, the flavor is so tied to a sense of place, it stands to reason
that the way the establishment envelops you in the process—and its past—matters.
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.
Skip the Salad, This is Barbecue
One thousand miles into our journey, we resolved that perfect barbecue is a liberation from
restaurant conventions. It knows no appetizers or white tablecloths. As we rolled across North
Carolina, we categorized the fresh-air, order-window type places that use hardwoods from the local
forests and specialize in one style of barbecue as Heritage. And the chains we had encountered?
Those with air-conditioning, the Hi-may-I-help-you waitstaff, the all-things-to-all-people menu and
wines by the glass, we dubbed Contemporary.
But in Raleigh we found a third barbecue style—Postmodern—at the Pit. Eyes rolled
and tongues wagged in this town when developer Greg Hatem, a guy with a knack for restoring
downtown landmarks and outfitting them with upscale restaurants, recruited one of eastern North
Carolina’s preeminent old-school whole-hog pit masters, Ed Mitchell, to take up shop in a
loftlike former meatpacking warehouse (for comparison’s sake, imagine your local morning show
luring the Rolling Stones to be the house band). Though Mitchell still wears his trademark
overalls, the place is a barbecue joint for a new age: the kitchen is a spotless, open,
stainless-steel affair at the back of a dining room with—you guessed it!—white
tablecloths. All the meats—and, one presumes, the fish and barbecued tofu—are organic,
humanely raised specimens.
We chose to sit in the stylish bar area, where college guys drink Bud Light longnecks, gnaw on
ribs, and watch The Game on big-screen TV’s. And while Mitchell’s briquette-fired
smokers might raise a few eyebrows farther east in the state, we were impressed by the chopped
whole hog, which was classically eastern N.C. in style, with a blast of vinegar, red pepper flakes,
and smoke, and the baby back ribs, with the lightest brush of caramelized sauce to frame the
background smoke and salt. And they were crispy outside and moist inside. There were some
thoughtful regional touches up front we didn’t expect, like a delicious sangria made from
North Carolina Scupperdine wine. We had a lovely dinner at the Pit, but that’s just
it—the place got us to thinking: At what point does barbecue become so mannered it
stops being barbecue?
Wilber’s: Barbecue Nirvana?
The following morning, we set out east before the crack of dawn. We’d read—and
confirmed over the phone—that Wilber’s Barbecue, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, opens at
6 a.m., and when we rumbled off the highway and into the parking lot of the sprawling roadhouse at
exactly 7 o’clock, three dozen cars had already crowded the lot. Smoke puffed from a fire
somewhere and lost itself in the morning’s mist. We took a seat in one of the knotty
pine–paneled rooms, with wooden schoolhouse chairs and red-checked tablecloths, next to a
gathering of steely-haired farmers having their morning smokes and trading portentous outcomes.
“I’ll tell you what,” one of the men piped up. “The rain comes,
there’ll be a lotta IOU’s going down that river.” In the silence that followed,
heads nodded, cigarettes got stubbed out.
Our own bleak future seemed foretold when the waitress arrived and said we could order anything
we liked off the breakfast menu, but that the hogs simply weren’t done cooking. Barbecue
wouldn’t be available until about 10.
We ordered a breakfast—brains and eggs; country ham; grits—that might have been
cause to rejoice in other circumstances, but we ate them in silence. There was a long drive home
ahead, and the week’s worth of work to catch up on. We really didn’t have a few hours
to kill, but then—what’s a few hours, for the perfect barbecue?
We strode back to the Buick to take stock—still not sure whether we’d be killing
time here, or heading home—when we heard a voice behind us: “Hey, aren’t
y’all the Lee brothers?” The man juggled a Bible and a set of car keys, then set his
Bible on the trunk of the car. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Celebrities
right here in Wilber’s parking lot. I’m Willis Underwood.”
We were speechless, not only because he’d mistaken two freelance writers for celebrities,
but because we’d just been thinking Wilber’s barbecue was the celebrity and we were the
supplicants, waiting outside the trailer for a glimpse.
“Have you met Dennis? Have you been ’round back?” Underwood asked, then
beckoned, “Come on!” He lit out past a fence shielding the operation from the parking
lot and introduced us to Dennis Monk, who poked at the remains of a log fire that had burned down
to glowing coals. A mountain of wood piled at the edge of the adjoining cornfield would last
through the weekend, he said, and then they’d get another full trailerload Monday, and a week
of barbecue would begin again.
Monk shoveled up some embers from the fire and ushered us through a screen door into a brick
shed about three times longer than it is wide, lit by a string of bulbs, with the smoky-sweet smell
of roasting pork fat everywhere. Each of the pits—troughs, really, about waist-high, running
parallel to one another down the length of each wall—held a few hogs. Walking the aisle
between the troughs, he shoveled fresh coals into the bottom of the pits through openings in the
wall beneath each pig.
Monk lifted a battered sheet of tin loosely covering one pig, pulled at a couple ribs, which
gave readily, with a plug of meat still attached, and proffered them. “This one’s about
done,” he said, but there was one that had already come off the pit, and was in fact being
pulled inside the kitchen, did we want to see?
Leamon Park, a 36-year veteran cook at Wilber’s, was upending a bus pan full of freshly
pulled pork morsels onto his board, and with two huge cleavers, hacked at it in a rhythmic
roundhouse, chopping it down to size. He paused to season the meat with salt and pepper, and then
poured what seemed like a gallon of crushed red pepper–spiced vinegar from a stainless-steel
pitcher over it. Park tossed the meat with his cleavers, and the pork readily absorbed the
We ordered and left Monk to finish cooking—there were many more hogs to come off the pit,
and much chopping to do before the lunchtime rush. The sandwiches were undoubtedly the best of the
pilgrimage, freshly warmed, well seasoned. And by that time, Underwood’s friend had showed up
in his ’71 fire-engine red Gran Sport convertible, and Underwood’s wife and sister had
arrived, too. So we all piled into the caravan of vintage Buicks, and we were on to the next place,
for another bite of ethereal whole hog.
Fall—when the air has a slight chill and the pitmasters have returned from their summer
vacations—is a great time to plan a barbecue road trip.
Great Value Hilton St. Louis Downtown Housed in an 1888 former bank, steps from the iconic Gateway Arch. 400 Olive St., St. Louis;
314/436-0002, doubles from $134.
Great Value Raphael Hotel Grand old hotel overlooking Country Club Plaza, the first suburban shopping center in the U.S.
325 Ward Pkwy., Kansas City; 800/821-5343, doubles from $229.
Great Value Sheraton Raleigh Recently renovated 353-room hotel in the heart of the city. 421 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh;
919/834-9900; doubles from $179.
Blackberry Farm Ultra-luxe resort in the Smoky
Mountains with an outstanding culinary program. 1471 W. Millers Cove Rd., Walland; 800/648-4252;
doubles from $795, including meals.
Madison Hotel A 110-room hotel with a quiet Art Deco lobby and a private rooftop bar. 79 Madison Ave., Memphis; 901/333-1200; doubles from $280.
Great Value Union Station, A Wyndham Historic Hotel Housed in a former train station, with spacious, whimsically decorated rooms. 1001 Broadway,
Nashville; 615/726-1001; doubles from $189.
Bring It Back
Kentucky’s Ale-8-One ($3) is a smooth, easy-drinking ginger ale
that’s a great mixer, too.