One of the oldest and greatest American culinary traditions is the classic barbecue. In fact, this ancient method of cooking has been around far longer than the the United States. Today, there are a variety of barbecue styles across the country, such as Santa Maria, Kentucky, Caribbean and Mongolian. Yet the nation’s best and most passionate places for barbecues are located primarily in the Southern states. With a nod to all of the remarkable barbecue spots spread across the entire country, here is a look at just five of the best BBQ cities in America.
Greenville, South Carolina
With a history of barbecue cooking traced back to the 16th century, South Carolina is said to be the “Birthplace of Barbecue.” Home to the Four Official Sauces of mustard, vinegar and pepper, heavy tomato and light tomato, the Palmetto State loves its slow and low “Carolina cue” so much it’s the official State Picnic Cuisine. World-class barbecue restaurants can be found all across the state, particularly in the coastal cities of Myrtle Beach and Charleston and in the capital city of Columbia. But despite the lofty statewide competition, Greenville, in the Upstate, has been getting the most national praise lately with recent Top 10 nods from Thrillist, Yahoo News and Livability. Among the outstanding restaurants contributing to Greenville’s phenomenal success as a national BBQ hotspot are Bucky’s Bar-B-Q, Henry’s Smokehouse, Smoke on the Water, Mike and Jeff’s and Little Pigs. First-time visitors should opt for smoked pork ribs, Carolina pork shoulder or South Carolina’s signature pulled pork sandwich, especially because anything other than pork isn’t considered barbecue Carolina style.
Kansas City, Missouri
With over 100 barbecue restaurants in Missouri’s largest city, a visitor will have no trouble savoring some Kansas City-styled barbecue dishes. While it’s practically impossible to go wrong with any of Kansas City’s BBQs, a select group can claim legendary status in this slow-smoked barbecue style with a tomato and molasses sauce developed in a trolley barn in the early 1900s. Kansas City barbecue loyalists say the discussion should begin with a pulled pork sandwich at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, widely recognized as the city’s best BBQ and once listed by Anthony Bourdain as one of the ”Thirteen Places to Eat Before You Die.” Other can’t-miss BBQ joints in Kansas City are Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Danny Edward’s, Gates Bar-B-Q, Q39 — led by national barbecue champion Rob Magee — and Arthur Bryant’s, often acknowledged as the most famous barbecue restaurant in America.
Lexington, North Carolina
Located in central North Carolina, about 20 miles south of Winston-Salem, Lexington claims to be the “Barbecue Capital of the World.” While that assertion is obviously up for serious debate, Lexington-styled barbecue (slow roasted pork ) is definitely something worth sampling for passionate BBQ foodies or even the casual diner. Despite being the smallest city to claim best in the world status, Lexington has one of the nation’s highest BBQ restaurants per capita and also claims the status as the “Barbecue Capital of North Carolina.” Additionally, Lexington is a consistent entry on several Top 5 or Top 10 lists for the best barbecue cities in America. Many of the more than 20 barbecue restaurants in Lexington are undeniably world-class, such as Lexington Barbecue (also known as Honey Monk), Barbecue Center, Speedy’s BBQ, Cook’s Barbecue and Smokey Joe’s Barbecue.
Some say Austin, with award-winning spots like Franklin Barbecue and John Mueller BBQ, is hands down the single best barbecue city in the entire state of Texas. Others will say Taylor, with the James Beard Award-winning Louie Mueller Barbecue, is the best. Still many others will say Dallas or Houston since, after all, it’s the fourth largest city in America and has a ton of BBQ restaurants. But the city honored with the distinction of being named the “Barbecue Capital of Texas” is Lockhart, population 13,098. So why does this small city in Central Texas about halfway between Austin and San Antonio receive so much attention? Because some of the best Texas-style barbecue dishes can be found here, including mouthwatering beef briskets, giant beef ribs, homemade sausages and barbecue chicken. Among the most celebrated spots to dine in the BBQ Capital of the Lone Star State are the historic Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and the legendary family-owned Black’s Barbecue, the oldest BBQ joint in Texas that is best known for serving some of the tastiest beef ribs on the planet.
It’s really a toss up between the top two cities for barbecue in Tennessee, as Memphis and Nashville always seems to appear in Top 5 or Top 10 lists. While Music City was named the top city in America for barbecue as recently as 2014 by Travel+Leisure, Memphis rose to the occasion to finish in second place last year by the same publication, second place by Time Magazine and received fourth place from Thrillist. Tennessee’s largest city is also home to the world’s largest and most prestigious barbecue competition, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest held annually during the Memphis in May International Festival. While Shed BBQ from Ocean Springs, Mississippi was named last year’s Grand Champion at the prestigious contest, a collection of Memphis-based teams also took home awards, such as Victory Lane BBQ, Auto Be Grillin’ and Serial Grillers. Top choices for BBQ dining in Memphis include A&R Bar-B-Que, Central BBQ, Payne’s Bar-B-Que, Cozy Corner, Corky’s Ribs & BBQ and Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que. Last May, TripAdvisor named Tennessee as the best state in the U.S. for BBQ.
Related: A Food Lover’s Guide To Austin, TX
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com