No subject can be more hotly contested and prideful as regional BBQ! Within each region the BBQ stands on its own uniqueness. Being a native BBQing Texan, my default is to Texas BBQ, however,
what about the other options? From the Carolinas over to Memphis, down to Alabama, then a quick jaunt to Kansas City, a dash to Santa Maria, Ca, finally, let’s saunter back home to Texas.
I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying each and everyone of these styles of ‘Que, and I must say they all have a flavor that one can enjoy.
Starting in the Carolinas, pork is king with its vinegar based sauce laced with a little red pepper, you just can’t go wrong. The flavor of the moist pork just wouldn’t be as good with a heavy sauce. That Carolina spicy, vinegary tang just gives it that simple push to make your taste buds do that jittery jig. Even the accoutrements like their vinegary mustard slaw stands on its own. Now let’s make this clear from the beginning, BBQ is about the meat, not the sides. However, some sides do accentuate the 'Que, especially when it’s served on the same bun as the meat. So go to Lexington, NC during the BBQ festival. You’ll be hooked.
Now Memphis has a pride in its BBQ like no other, this hickory or charcoal smoked BBQ is mostly known for the ribs and shoulders. The smoke and taste of charcoal or that distinctive hickory flavor mesh with the pork with an unctuous joy. In Memphis your ribs will be either smoked with a dry rub or a wet depending on your preference. At Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, dry rub ribs is what it’s about. This side street basement restaurant will share their ribs with no sauce so you get that distinctive dry rub charcoal flavor. This a great start to Memphis BBQ. Jim Neely's Interstate BBQ with sauced ribs smoked over hickory will show that dichotomy from “dry” to “wet”. In May, “The World Championship of BBQ”, aka “Memphis in May”, brings the best BBQ Teams from around the country/world to compete for the premier trophy. If you love BBQ like I do, you gotta go!
Alabama, though not one of the four main regional BBQ areas, (Carolinas, Memphis, KC and Texas) still has its pride in BBQ with Hickory Smoked Chicken and its Alabama White Sauce. Yes, I said “White Sauce”. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. This tangy, mayonnaise based sauce was the creation of Big Bob Gibson back in the '20s and is served in his eponymous restaurant still today. Legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was supposedly known to eat this before every big home game. Whether that’s true or not, let’s run with it. It makes for a good story anyway. The balance of hickory smoked chicken and tangy white sauce will leave you craving more of, quite frankly, my favorite smoked chicken. So when in Alabama, make a detour to Decatur, AL, and stop in Bob Gibson’s.
Kansas City BBQ is the most varied BBQ with no specific meat, including beef, chicken, lamb, sausage and fish(?) smoked on various woods and served with a thick sugary tomato based sauce.
One distinctive creation is the “burnt ends”. This takes the fatty smoked ends, cubed and smoked again. I call these BBQ on smoked steroids. The legend of KC BBQ is Arthur Bryant’s. It’s a simple restaurant serving great BBQ. Let this be said, there are over 100 BBQ restaurants in and around KC, so try them all out. One great stop would be Gates & Sons. Like Arthur B’s, it’s been around since the '40s. If you like a saucey BBQ, this is your pit stop of a region.
Now, the second infamous region is the Santa Maria, California BBQ. This is a region where the meat is the beef “Tri-Tip” seasoned with a simple rub of salt, pepper and garlic, cooked over red oak on a grill that is raised and lowered over the pit. I call this grilling, however, like all the others, it is smoked over an open wood pit. This is the California original cuisine dating back to the Vaqueros. So keep your sushi and tweezer food in LA, and head north to the Santa Maria Valley, sit down and have that real deal meal. The sides are beans, salads, salsas and bread.
Ok, here we go with Texas BBQ. It, within itself, varies by its own regions like Lockhart, Austin, DFW, Houston to San Antonio, with each region having its own little twist considering open pit to closed pit, oak to pecan, sauce or no sauce, including a wide range of meat that includes beef brisket and shoulder clod; Czech, German, Mexican, etc, sausages; pork butt to whole hog and ribs; chicken; turkey; venison; it goes on and on. Honestly, we could do a blog on each region of Texas BBQ, however I don’t want to show too much favoritism. The uniqueness of BBQ ranges drastically, so let’s start with central Texas BBQ where the beef is seasoned quite simply with salt and pepper and smoked over post oak. You do see a lot of the sausages being smoked in that old German/Czech style, and in Lockhart, where depending on the restaurant you may or may not get sauced, Blacks, Kruez and Smitty’s are the standouts. A little further north you may see the meats stay the same with a little different seasoning and the introduction of Pecan. In Dallas try Pecan Lodge, Lockhart’s and the Original Sonny Bryant’s. While in Fort Worth try the Railhead and/or Angelo’s. Austin is the home of Franklin’s and Stubb’s. Houston has Rudy’s and Goode Company, San Antonio the Smoke Shack and Two Bros. You’ll find Snows in Lexington, and BBQ on the Brazos in Cresson.
Now, I can’t list or describe every BBQ restaurant in every above mentioned region, so take no offense, nor did I leave out your city from NY To LA, which all have great BBQ restaurants. I just don’t have enough room or time! One thing, just go eat BBQ in every state, every region, every style, and keep supporting those who do it “low and slow”.