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.