It’s barbecue season: Step away from the grill, and leave it to the professionals to deliver smoked meat the way it’s meant to be.
The Oxford Dictionary defines barbecue as “a meal or gathering at which meat, fish, or other food is cooked out of doors on a rack over an open fire or on a special appliance.” But Oxford is in England, and any self-respecting Southerner knows that the definition of barbecue isn't as straightforward as cooking meat outdoors. In the U.S., and especially in the South, barbecue is a staple, and it’s all about cooking meat ‘low and slow’ so the end result is tender, melt-in-your mouth meat filled with flavor.
Barbecue aficionados are on the same page when it comes to the meal’s importance to America’s culinary scene, but that’s where the agreement ends. From state to state, and even within, regional variations mean fierce competition for who claims rights to the best type of barbecue, and more than one state lays claim to being the birthplace as well. There’s pulled pork, brisket, pork ribs, chicken, beef ribs, pork shoulder, and a whole lot more. The list of seasonings is just as long, with dry rubs, vinegars, mustards, and hot sauces. And sure, they’re not barbecue, but you’ll want to indulge in the side dishes, too. Think potato salad, mac’n’cheese, coleslaw, cornbread, and baked beans.
Humans have been cooking over open flames since they lived in caves, but today’s style of barbecue likely originated during the colonization of the U.S. (If you’re still imitating the caveman’s style of grilling, you’re doing it wrong. Turn down the heat, leave the meat covered and smoke it, slowly.)
The word barbecue likely comes from the Arawak word for a wooden frame, barbacoa, which was sometimes used as a structure to cook meat. Pork became popular with British colonizers because pigs gave them a lot of bang for their buck: they were easy to keep, and the meat from one pig went a long way. When it came time to cook, the community would get together for the feast, and the modern-day barbecue as a social event was born.
Barbecue got a foothold in American culture during those colonial times, and has been around ever since. George Washington wrote in his diaries about barbecuing, and Andrew Jackson rose to power during a time when barbecues were getting political. In the early 1800s, the gatherings were a popular way for politicians to wrangle a crowd. Not everyone was a fan. One particular fellow who dubbed himself Barbecuensis went on a crusade to try to end the trend, which he thought was sloppy and distracted voters from the real issues. He clearly failed to alter the course of barbecue history, given that even modern day presidents make a point to eat at local joints when they’re on tour — remember when Obama reportedly became the first ever person to skip the hours-long line at Austin’s Franklin Barbecue?
We can’t help you cut the queue — pun intended — but we’ve saved you some time with this list, compiled by Yelp, of the best 25 places to enjoy barbecue across the U.S. “Best” is based on Yelp's algorithm that looks at both the number of reviews as well as the star rating. Large chains were excluded, and there are no more than two establishments from each state to ensure geographic diversity.