America's Best Cities for Barbecue 2014
Like a lot of people, Jay Metzger draws a line when it comes to his barbecue loyalties—and for him, that line falls along the Mississippi River.
“While it’s nice to enjoy a little Memphis and Carolina barbecue, the real stuff comes from the center of the U.S.,” says the L.A.–based advertising executive, who favors Kansas City and Texas barbecue.
Plenty of Travel + Leisure readers agree, ranking KC and more than one Texas city in the top 10. But where there’s smoke, there’s fiery debate. As part of the America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 35 metro areas for such qualities as good-looking locals, great sports teams, and regionally distinct pizza and barbecue. To be fair, since the survey covered only 35 cities, some barbecue hot spots like Lexington, NC, Lockhart, TX, and St. Louis were not even on the table for this particular vote.
But plenty of other hot-button BBQ cities were—and one dark horse (or perhaps pig) even took the top prize. Certainly, the prevailing styles and some gourmet-friendly trends vary from city to city, from the burnt ends in Kansas City, MO, to the mustard-sauced pork in Charleston, SC, or the piles of brisket on butcher paper in Austin, TX—so the definition of best may depend on what you’re used to.
“Charleston has great barbecue, but any southerner will argue that their city has the best,” says Boston-based chef Jason Albus, who hails from South Carolina. But good “low-and-slow” cooking methods, he says, transcend any regional distinctions. “You really can’t rush barbecue—you can definitely taste the difference when someone puts time and passion into it.” For the customer, he adds, three other factors are essential: “Good friends, cold beer, and lots of napkins.”
No. 1 Nashville
It’s a Tennessee takedown: with its ever-expanding foodie scene, Music City won for compiling a greatest-hits collection of barbecue styles—from the whole-hog approach of rural Tennessee, the tomatoey sauces of Memphis, and even the mayo-and-vinegar white sauces typical of Alabama—with southern-style catfish, fried okra, and banana pudding thrown in. Alongside traditional platters, the best places in Nashville offer some cheeky twists: Martin’s Bar-B-Que has Redneck Tacos (filled with brisket or pulled pork), while Peg Leg Porker in The Gulch offers an appetizer of Memphis Sushi (cheese and sausage on saltines). At Edley’s Bar-B-Que, both in East Nashville and 12South, the Tuck Special is a brisket sandwich topped with house-made pimento cheese, an over-easy egg, red and white sauce, and pickles. In a perhaps related note, Nashville also scored near the top for its civic pride.
No. 2 Memphis, TN
Ribs and pork sandwiches are the staples of Memphis-style barbecue: dry-rubbed and smoked over hickory, and often mopped with sauce while cooking. To eat with the savviest locals, head to one of the branches of Central BBQ, which does a classic pork sandwich, pulled-pork nachos, and even a four-ounce barbecued bologna sandwich (the newest is downtown, next to the National Civil Rights Museum). Another favorite—especially with local chefs—is the Bar-B-Q Shop (“home of the Dancing Pigs BBQ sauce”), which claims to be the birthplace of another Memphis staple, sauce-coated barbecue spaghetti. And while the locals ranked at the bottom of the survey for being physically fit, Memphis impressed readers with its bluesy street performers and low-cost luxuries.
No. 3 Kansas City, MO
Only within the realm of barbecue can a gas-station location boost your appeal. At least that’s the case with Oklahoma Joe’s, a relative newcomer (as in, the 1990s) to the KC barbecue scene, whose first location was inside a Diamond Shamrock. This meatpacking city–which also ranked at the top of the survey for its great burgers—is known for delectable burnt ends that come off brisket and taste great with a tomatoes-meet-molasses sauce. Two legendary places to try it are Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q, which date back to the 1920s and ’40s, respectively. Readers also applauded Kansas City for its welcoming locals, solid museums, and, come December, its twinkling Christmas spirit.
No. 4 Austin, TX
With its emphasis on lightly seasoned brisket, German sausage, and a tomato-vinegar sauce (and sometimes even no sauce), Texas barbecue has plenty of passionate loyalists in the state capital. Iron Works and the Salt Lick are traditional favorites, but these days the lines are longest at Franklin Barbecue in East Austin, which serves meat-market-style brisket, turkey, sausage, and more on pink butcher paper, with white bread and three sauces (including an espresso-based version) on the side. The ultimate barbecue-lovers’ day trip from Austin is the little town of Lockhart, less than an hour away, where old-time classics include Smitty’s Market and Black’s. Readers also put Austin in the top five for food trucks (including another barbecue must, John Mueller Meat Co.).
No. 5 Houston
This big-business city still likes to go old-school, ranking in the top 10 for both antiques and messy burgers. Local stars include mom-and-pop-style Gatlin’s BBQ, in Houston Heights, and Goode Company, known for its smoked duck, jalapeño cheese bread, and rich Brazos Bottom pecan pie. To keep your blood-brisket level high—and also see why the metropolis scored well for its bars—go to Beaver’s in Memorial Park, which pairs smoked meats with creative cocktails such as the Sherry Cobbler.
No. 6 San Antonio, TX
Travel + Leisure readers have always loved the Alamo city’s chili-sauced Tex-Mex, but some of its emerging barbecue has a cutting-edge style. At the Granary ’Cue & Brew, within the rehabbed Pearl brewery, the menu features classic brisket and house-made sausage, along with grilled quail, root beer–sautéed scallops, and Texas toast glazed with a mixture of brisket drippings, butter, and sea salt. Just outside town, Texas Pride Barbecue keeps it classic; based in a former filling station, it offers a bikers’ night as well as a quasi-vegetarian giant baked potato (stuffed with cheese and chopped brisket).
No. 7 Charleston, SC
South Carolina may represent the most diversity among the main barbecue styles, thanks to its core of four sauces (mustard-based, vinegar-and-pepper, and two tomato-based sauces). In Charleston, which also scored well for its fine dining, the honky-tonk-themed Home Team BBQ ups the ante with six sauces (including an Alabama white) to go with your ribs, turkey, or Redneck Pot Roast (brisket). That sloppy eat-off-the-paper approach is a bit of a let-loose departure for locals; Charleston also scored near the top for its home décor shops and for feeling tidy.
No. 8 Dallas–Fort Worth
Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas and Angelo’s in Fort Worth are longtime favorites for barbecue. But it says something about the cowboy-spirited metroplex that folks even flock to the farmers’ market for meat. Pecan Lodge, in downtown Dallas’s farmers’ market (but soon to move to the Deep Ellum neighborhood), sells Pitmaster sandwiches: a triple threat of brisket, pulled pork, and sausage. Meanwhile, in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District, Lockhart Smokehouse is a North Texas branch of Lockhart’s legendary Kreuz Market, where you eat your brisket, sausage, and beef ribs right off the butcher paper (and sans sauce).
No. 9 Savannah, GA
T+L readers embrace this Georgia city for its unpretentious charm, and the best barbecue places reflect the city’s easygoing attitude. Angel’s BBQ has the confidence to highlight a BBQ bologna sandwich on its menu, as well as a changing menu of sauces (such as Shot Gun Wedding or Voo Doo Juice) and a down-South version of poutine topped with baked beans and cheese. And tucked away in Savannah’s historic district, Wall’s Bar-B-Q is open only from noon to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; it’s famous for ribs, fried chicken, and collard greens.
No. 10 New Orleans
Wedged between Texas and the Southeast, this Louisiana city landed in the top 10 by making barbecue on its own terms—like the pork-belly po’boys and sausage-filled boudin balls at uptown’s Squeal Bar-B-Q, or the Cajun chaurice sausage and spicy Creole coleslaw at Saucy’s on Magazine Street. Either way, a hearty barbecue dinner provides good fuel for a long night of partying: New Orleans ranked at the top of the survey for its wild weekend mojo, girlfriend-getaway fun, and people-watching.
No. 11 Atlanta
Hotlanta—which also made the top 20 for nightclubs and its singles scene— does not clearly pick sides in the BBQ debate, but tends to give classics a Georgia spin. One local favorite is Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, which serves ribs, chopped pork sandwiches, “rum” baked beans, and sweet potato pie, as well as nightly blues music. At Bone Lick BBQ, which started as a pop-up but now has a home in West Midtown, you can try the ménage à trois sampler (spareribs, Texas brisket, sausage) along with starters like fried pickles, boiled peanuts, and flavor-of-the-day pork rinds.
No. 12 Honolulu
About as far west of the Mississippi as you can get in the U.S., Honolulu tends to prepare its barbecue smoked over local wood. One prime example is Good to Grill, where the specialties are prime rib and short ribs smoked over kiawe, similar to mesquite. Lunch-only joint Guava Smoked smokes salmon bellies and turkey tails over strawberry guava wood, while at Sweet Home Waimanalo, the kalua pork, chicken, and brisket are locally sourced and offered with guava chipotle or “beerBQ” sauce. Honolulu also ranked highly for couples’ getaways and Valentine’s Day; after all, these sunsets can make even a pork-sandwich dinner romantic.
No. 13 Chicago
Readers love the cultural contrasts in the Windy City, rating it highly for both its neighborhood delis and luxury shopping. And even if the local pizzas tend to hog the spotlight, Chicago has made its own mark on the BBQ world, often by way of rib tips, taken off the ends of St. Louis–style spareribs. County BBQ gives shout-outs to East Carolina, West Texas, St. Louis, and Memphis in its approach to slow-smoked brisket, ribs, and burnt ends—and adds trendy sides like seared kale and blackened cauliflower.
No. 14 Denver
In this western city—where the locals seem to love to spend time outdoors, preferably with their dogs—it’s easy to work up a hearty appetite. Plus, ordering a platter of meat invites an excuse to add the highly ranked microbrews. At downtown’s Boney’s BBQ, they subscribe to St. Louis–style ribs and rib tips, served with sides like green beans with bacon and washed down with local Great Divide IPA. Coloradans are also known to make pilgrimages up to Estes Park, where Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ and Taphouse sells a lot of original, tangy, spicy, or Carolina mustard sauces to go.
No. 15 Orlando, FL
Perhaps due to the demands of tired kids, voters gave this family-vacation mecca its highest praise for two food categories: ice cream and dessert. To get both good barbecue and sweets, go to 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, which is known for its Texas-style sausage, St. Louis ribs, and extensive sweet shop. The cupcake options include a Coca-Cola Potato Chip Cupcake; the gift shop even sells a brisket-grease-infused candle.
No. 16 Portland, OR
In this eco-conscious, foodie-friendly town—which treats international cuisine and PB&Js with equal passion—barbecue provides an opportunity to shine (and something else to pair with those Willamette Valley wines). The newest BBQ place in Southeast Portland is Reverend’s BBQ, where the red sauce is from Missouri, the mustard-tinged sauce is South Carolina style, and fried chicken is served not by the part, but by the pound. On the Northeast side of town, go to Podnah’s Pit, where the whole menu is Texas style, and the name (for the owner’s grandfather) is spelled phonetically.
No. 17 San Diego
The blue-skies city is not known for its decadent eating, but the active locals appreciate the high-protein benefits of good barbecue. One favorite is Phil’s BBQ, which focuses on ribs and chicken; locations include Petco Park, home of the Padres. Downtown’s Kansas City Barbecue is another bucket-list barbecue stop in the SoCal city—in part, of course, for the legit pork spareribs, but also because it was the location where Tom Cruise musically wooed Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. Readers still have that loving feeling for San Diego—it ranked in the top 10 for both good-looking locals and romance.
No. 18 Portland, ME
As proof that the New England city is not a pretender when it comes to smoky goodness, one of the hottest tickets during fall’s gourmet festival, Harvest on the Harbor, is the barbecue event hosted by local sauce-mogul Denny Mike. For an excellent sit-down meal, try Buck’s Naked BBQ in the Old Port, which does St. Louis–style ribs, poutine topped with local cheese curds and duck confit, and a Wicked Fried Chicken sandwich.
No. 19 Providence, RI
One of the most popular barbecue places in the Rhode Island capital jumps the international date line: Mama Kim’s serves Korean barbecue, such as beef bulgogi or pork-belly kimchi, from a food truck that moves around town. Providence also scored well as being LGBT friendly and having a thriving live music scene. For a late-night barbecue snack, go to Wes’ Rib House in the Olneyville neighborhood, where the barbecue is Missouri style and the joint stays open until 4 a.m. on weekends.
No. 20 Philadelphia
Even if the home of the Liberty Bell does not have much barbecue history, its fluency in comfort food—say, pizza and cheesesteaks—proves that the locals have high standards for good grub. At Percy Street Barbecue, on South Street, the brisket is done Texas style, but the rest of the menu features some earnest Pennsylvania flourishes: the chicken is touted as Amish, and sides include German potato salad.