Best Barbecue Restaurants in the World
It's 5 a.m., and pit master Keith Allen has already been at work for hours, splitting hickory logs and roasting 20-pound shoulders to be served as tender pulled-pork sandwiches at his cinder-block roadhouse in Chapel Hill, NC.
Barbecue for breakfast? Why not? Whatever the time of day, someone, somewhere is firing up a grill to barbecue something. After all, few words have the power to make mouths water and stir passions as barbecue. And nowhere does that passion show more than in the world's best barbecue restaurants.
The term barbecue may have originated with the Taino Indian barbacoa (a raised wooden grill grate) on the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Today, food grilled or smoked over a live fire is enjoyed on six continents (seven, if you include subzero grilling sessions in Antarctica).
Grilling is one of the oldest and most universal cooking methods, but it is also fundamentally local and idiosyncratic. Grills vary—from Germany's spiessbraten (ingenious "swinging" grill) to Russia's grateless mangal—as do fuels, with the most exclusive being Japan's bincho-tan, the most expensive, cleanest-burning charcoal in the world. Even the word for barbecue changes from culture to culture—braai in South Africa, tandoori in India, and asado in South America.
In the best barbecue restaurants, this cooking method takes various forms. At the trendy La Cabrera restaurant in Buenos Aires, diners sit down around 10 p.m. to a meal of grass-fed, expertly charcoal grilled bife de chorizo (New York strip). It's a rare occasion to get dolled up for barbecue; most other spots start out as roadside take-out shacks and hold on to that casual feel.
For the last 15 years, I've been eating at places like La Cabrera on a worldwide quest to uncover the finest grilling, as documented in my latest book, Planet Barbecue. I've followed Cape Towners to Die Strandloper, a funky fish camp that barbecues snook and rock lobster, and sampled adena kebab (fiery minced lamb skewers) on the terrace of Istanbul's Hamdi.
And here's the result—the best barbecue restaurants in the world, places where a sizzling meal comes with a side of cultural insight.
Ibu Oka: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
They're all here: the expats with laptops, the tourists with dog-eared guidebooks, and the locals, comforted that even with Ubud's newfound fame (thanks, Eat, Pray, Love), they can still find babi guling prepared as it was decades ago. The restaurant's owner and namesake, "Grandma" Oka, presides over courtyard barbecue pits. Whole hogs are seasoned with an electrifying mixture of chiles, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, and turmeric, then roasted over a wood fire on hand-turned log rotisserie spits. Once cooked, the hogs are carried across the street to an open-air restaurant where women wielding cleavers dole out servings of the crispy, spice-scented meat with fragrant rice and spicy long bean salad.
Oklahoma Joe's BBQ: Kansas City, KS
Don't be misled by the restaurant's Okie name: current owners Jeff and Joy Stehney smoke meats over slow-smoldering white oak in the finest Kansas City style. Spice-rubbed slabs of ribs, briskets with visible smoke rings, and a house specialty that nods to the Carolinas while preserving the Kansas obsession with smoke and fire: pulled pork. Order by the pound or pick up a combo-style sandwich such as the Okie Joe—piled high with chopped beef and pork. In keeping with America's roadhouse tradition, this barbecue joint is within a former gas station.
Fogo de Chão: São Paulo, Brazil
Most of the world grills on a gridiron, but Brazil's best barbecue comes off a whole wall of rotisserie spits—a meal at a churrascaria is an exercise in conspicuous consumption. At Fogo de Chão (campfire, literally), founded by two brothers from Brazil's cowboy country, you start with a buffet of salads, cheeses, and cured meats washed down with caipirinhas. Then it gets serious: signal one of the gaucho-costumed, spit-wielding churrasqueiros by turning the medallion at your place setting to green. In rapid succession, you'll be offered more than a dozen meats, including picanha, fat cap sirloin spit-roasted with a delectable curl of fat, seasoned solely with coarse salt, and carved onto your plate. Fogo de Chão has expanded to the U.S., but the experience has a different flavor in Brazil.
Buca Lapi: Florence, Italy
To visit Florence without eating a bistecca alla fiorentina would be like overlooking Michelangelo's David. Fire regulations make it ever harder to find a restaurant that cooks this magnificent porterhouse steak—cut thick as two phone books from a local Chianina steer—the traditional way: on a gridiron over blazing hardwood charcoal. But Buca Lapi soldiers on in a barrel-vaulted basement with frescoes and massive wood tables. They do an awesome bistecca, the fire-charred T-bone standing tall, as well as veal chops served with sweet and sour onion sauce, and crostini, fire-grilled toasts topped with garlicky Tuscan black kale.
La Cabrera: Buenos Aires
"This is the mouth of hell," explains the asador (grill man), gesturing to a firebox filled with red-hot embers. Welcome to La Cabrera, located in Buenos Aires's trendy Palermo district and oozing with atmosphere. They serve such Argentinean grilled standbys like bife de lomo (tenderloin) and bife de chorizo (New York strip)—grass-fed, of course. But you'll also find less common grilled delicacies such as beef roulades stuffed with garlic butter and grilled chicken kebabs scented with oranges and rum. A belt-loosening array of condiments and side dishes come in bowls.
Die Strandloper Seafood Restaurant: Langebaan, South Africa
There's no South African backyard so small, no township so poor, that you won't find a variety of meats sizzling away on a charcoal grill. Braai means more than beef, game, and boerwurs (farmers' sausage), as you quickly learn at Die Strandloper, a fish camp nestled among the dunes of Langebaan, a seaside community located about an hour's drive from Cape Town. There's no menu, but you can expect dishes like grilled mussels, garlic and apricot-glazed snook (a buttery South African fish), and grilled spiny lobster—all cooked over driftwood fires.
Tiered windowed dining levels offer gorgeous views of Istanbul's harbor, so Hamdi does attract a fair share of tourists, but it's still an institution where locals sip raki, an anise-flavored liqueur, and nibble kibbe—lamb and bulgur wheat tartar. Experts, many from the town of Gaziantep, work the blazing charcoal grills (Gaziantep has roughly the same rep for pit masters as does Texas among Americans). Turkey practically invented the shish kebab, and must-try skewers include the fiery adana (minced lamb and Aleppo pepper skewers), sogar (lamb and red onion kebabs), and sebzeli kebab ("bride's kebab," spiced with chopped red peppers and ground black pepper).
Samwon Garden: Seoul
Korean ribs come in small packages—more precisely, small packages wrapped in crisp romaine lettuce leaves. Which brings us to Samwon Garden's house specialty, kalbi kui, beef short ribs cut crosswise into two-inch sections, with the meat butterflied off the bone in paper-thin strips and grilled on a charcoal brazier in the center of your table. The sweet, salty, nutty marinade (made with Asian pear, soy sauce, and sesame oil) plays pinball on your taste buds, while the more than half dozen panchan—fiery pickled cabbage and other small dishes of savory condiments-counterpoint the grilled beef. In summertime, dine in a garden pavilion outdoors, a pleasant break from Seoul's relentless urbanity.
Mercado del Puerto: Montevideo, Uruguay
Elsewhere, people grill steaks or chops, but in Uruguay, no part of the animal escapes the hardwood fire, not mollecas (sweetbreads), not chinchulines (chitterlings), not choto (grilled lamb intestines)—all of which taste a lot better than they may sound. The best place for a crash course in Uruguay's barbecue culture is the Mercado del Puerto, a soaring pavilion of steel girders and glass that's now an upscale agglomeration of grill restaurants, bars, and cafés. Two reliable destinations are El Palenque and Cabana Veronica, but as all the cooking is done on wood-burning grills in open kitchens, you can pick the place that looks best.
Allen & Son: Chapel Hill, NC
If proprietor/pit master Keith Allen seems a bit cranky, keep in mind that his workday began at 3 a.m. While you're sleeping, he's splitting hickory logs, firing the pit, roasting 20-pound pork shoulders until they're tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, chopping them to bits with murderous-looking cleavers, and seasoning them with a unique sauce that contains neither ketchup nor molasses, but simply vinegar, salt, and hot pepper flakes. Thus reduced to smoky, savory hash, the meat is piled on a bun with vinegar slaw and, if you ask nicely, a pickle. Pair it with a locally bottled, lurid red cherry soda called Cheerwine.