Which American BBQ Style is Best?
There may be no food more essentially American than barbecue – and no food that inspires so many, shall we say, strong opinions.
Pork or beef? With sauce or dry-rubbed? Sauce that’s thick and sweet, or tangy and thin?
These seemingly innocent questions are at the heart of one of the great debates of American culture: Which barbecue style is best?
At its core, barbecue is meat cooked low and slow with some amount of smoke. But beyond that, styles vary widely. Each of the six dominant barbecue regions – South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, Alabama – boasts a unique approach that, locals will tell you, is the only right way to do it.
Of course, every style has its strengths and weaknesses, but we couldn’t help but wonder…Is there one region that really does reign supreme?
We turned to pitmasters and restaurateurs who serve barbecue to find out – and uncovered the one region that beats them all.
Let the debating begin.
6. South Carolina
South Carolina is known for pork-based barbecue – often whole hog slow-cooked over wood or coals – and mustard-based sauces. “Around here, pork is king,” says Tiger O’Rourke, President & CEO of South Carolina-based Smokehouse Products.
In many ways, the style here is similar to North Carolina. But as opposed to the vinegar-based sauce up North, South Carolina boasts a bright, tangy mustard-based sauce you won’t find anywhere else in the States.
Why South Carolina BBQ is Among the Best
South Carolina has history on its side: this is touted by some as the true oldest style in the nation, though most attribute that distinction to North Carolina.
More than that, many believe South Carolina dishes are the best of the best. And it’s not just locals who will tell you this.
Last year, South Carolina’s Rodney Scott, of Scott's BBQ in Hemingway and Charleston, was named Best Chef in the Southeast in the prestigious James Beard Awards. The Barbecue Editor (yes, that's a real job) for “Southern Living” also named Scott’s BBQ the #1 barbecue restaurant in all of the South last year.
Interestingly, Scott has played with South Carolina tradition a bit; his sauce uses vinegar and pepper, rather than mustard. But his commitment to slow-cooked hog makes him a South Carolina cook through and through.
The state’s Julia Belle’s Restaurant, which does serve the traditional mustard sauce, is also considered among the best joints in the nation.
Alabama doesn’t always get a nod in regional barbecue roundups, but we think this region deserves its time in the sun.
“Alabama barbecue is the best barbecue in the country,” says Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur. (Who, yes, may be a bit biased.)
Alabama is known for smoked Boston butts, pork shoulders and ribs, usually cooked over local hickory wood, according to Jonathan “Rusty” Tucker of Rusty's Barbeque in Leeds. “Alabama is a unique blend of different barbecue styles, integrating vinegar sauces from the Carolinas, rich thick tomato-based sauces like what you find in Kansas City, and Memphis-style dry rubs,” he explains.
That said, Alabama does boast one unique factor that no other region has.
While there are many different kinds of sauces involved in this barbecue style, including a 50/50 mustard-and-tomato variety from Tuscaloosa, it’s most known for a distinctive white sauce, developed by Big Bob Gibson in Decatur.
This mayonnaise and vinegar sauce heavy on black pepper and spices pairs particularly well with smoked chicken and turkey, another unique Alabama tradition – whole split chickens cooked over hickory wood and slathered with white barbecue sauce is a purely Alabama thing.
Why Alabama BBQ is Among the Best
If it’s a numbers game, Alabama is perhaps the winner, with the highest percentage of barbecue restaurants of any other state in the nation.
But it’s more than just quantity that distinguishes this style; the state’s inclusive approach, many claim, makes it special.
“In my opinion, [Alabama style] is the best because we have borrowed pulled pork from the Carolinas and put it under the same roof as St. Louis cut ribs and Texas-style beef brisket and made it our own by smoking over hickory in a brick pit,” says Tucker. “We do a little bit of everything, but we always try to put our spin on things.”
Plus, many advocates say the state’s white sauce can’t be beat. The BBQ Chicken with White Sauce at Big Bob Gibson has even been singled out by the Food Network as one of the top five barbecue dishes in the nation.
Like North and South Carolina, Memphis is known for pork, though in this region, ribs are where it’s at.
Anna Vergos Blair of Charlie Vergos Rendezvous explains that Memphis-style ribs are “synonymous” with a local dry rub. “In fact, The Rendezvous, which started in a downtown Memphis alley in 1948, first put this style of ribs on the menu in the 1950s,” she notes.
Of course, other types of pork are available in Memphis, too.
“Even though Memphis is known for the dry-rub ribs, we also do shoulder really well,” says Blair. “One thing that Memphis offers is diverse options at every BBQ restaurant – from barbecue nachos, to ribs, to lamb, to barbecue spaghetti, Cornish game hens, sausage and cheese plates, barbecue bologna, red beans and rice and on and on. There is something for everyone.”
Whatever you opt for in Memphis will usually be served with a Memphis-style barbecue sauce, a rich blend of tomato, mustard and vinegar that’s nevertheless thinner than sauces you’ll find in Kansas City.
Why Memphis BBQ is Among the Best
Memphis ribs in particular consistently rank high on best-of lists. Food Network even named The-Bar-B-Q Shop’s fall-off-the-bone pork ribs the very best in the country.
Even experts we spoke to had to concede that Memphis knows what’s what, especially when it comes to ribs. Jim Early, founder and CEO of the North Carolina Barbecue Society, says, “If you're asking for a place that produces the meat that I would give a second-place trophy to, it would be Memphis and the ribs.” (His first-place pick? North Carolina, of course.)
3. Kansas City
Like Alabama, Kansas City is a true melting pot of barbecue styles.
“Kansas City is known for its eclectic and inclusive barbecue," explains Doug Worgul of Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.
“We didn’t invent barbecue,” he continues. “We perfected it.”
Nevertheless, Kansas City is especially known for a few things. Heath Hall, CEO of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, says its signature sauces boast “a slightly complex flavor combination of sweet, savory, acid and heat which come together as the perfect compliment to well-smoked meat.”
Jerry Rauschelbach, Director Of Operations at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, echoes this thought.
“What we are known for is our value, sauces and rubs,” he says, noting that KC barbecue is “much more diverse than any other city that I have visited.”
Why Kansas City BBQ is Among the Best
Kansas City boasts more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other city. So if you’re looking for a lot of options, this is the place to go.
The city’s mix of styles is also hard to beat. North Carolina-based Early says he would select Kansas City as a runner-up to his own beloved style. O’Rourke, from South Carolina, also calls the rich, sweet sauces of Kansas a personal fave.
Plus, many Kansas City restaurants are considered best-of-the-best. Food Network has singled out the burnt-end sandwich at Joe’s as one of the top five barbecue dishes in America.
Perhaps most importantly, locals here take barbecue very seriously, arguably more so than anywhere else in the nation. The city even hosts the largest barbecue competition in the world – the aptly named American Royal World Series of Barbecue, featuring more than 500 teams and upwards of 50,000 hungry spectators.
2. North Carolina
North Carolina is sometimes dubbed the cradle of American barbecue and may in fact be home to the oldest recipes. For sociologist John Shelton Reed, the author of several books about the South, including “Barbecue: A Savor the South Cookbook,” North Carolina ‘cue is a direct descendant of Caribbean styles, where meats were basted in lemon and red pepper. Since lemon juice was hard to come by north of Florida, vinegar made a quick and easy substitute.
North Carolina may appear at first to be one barbecue region, but ask any expert, and you’ll immediately realize it’s two: Eastern, common on the coast, and Lexington, common in the west of the state.
Eastern-style barbecue is likely the older of the two, combining whole-roasted hogs with a pepper- and vinegar-based finishing sauce. Lexington-style barbecue utilizes only the shoulder of the hog, serving it with a “dip” that benefits from the addition of a touch of tomato, usually in the form of ketchup.
But don’t confuse this with the thicker, sweeter sauces more frequently found in Kansas City: Both Eastern and Lexington-style sauces are decidedly thin and vinegar-based. Some folks draw even more distinctions between the two. Craver Stamey of Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro notes that in the west of the state, sauces use apple cider vinegar and a few more spices than in the east.
“Ours has a little bit more flavor going on, as far as more items in the mix,” he says, “so that's definitely different.”
Why North Carolina BBQ is Among the Best
North Carolina isn’t just, it's widely believed, the oldest barbecue region – one Google survey also ranked it as the country’s barbecue capital. (We can only find this verified on the North Carolina Barbecue Society website, though, so take it with a grain of salt. Or, as the case may be, a drizzling of sauce.)
What makes this ‘cue so good is the fact that it doesn't try too hard. “North Carolina barbecue stands out by blending in,” says Dan Levine, Chief Smoke Detector at the Campaign for Real Barbecue/TrueCue.org.
“It's much more subtle than some barbecue styles,” he continues. “North Carolina barbecue is not much to look at, unlike say a hefty Texas beef rib or a full rack of Memphis ribs. And it's not heavily flavored with smoke like some brisket, nor richly sauced like a Kansas City burnt end. It's just unassumingly delicious.”
When we asked our experts to select the barbecue style other than their own that they most enjoy, many chose North Carolina, including Alabama-based Tucker and Lilly and Kansas City-based Hall.
“I’m a sucker for a good pulled pork sandwich with a traditional Lexington North Carolina style barbecue sauce of vinegar and pepper,” says Hall. “The way the acid of the vinegar and heat of the pepper in the sauce meld with the fat of the pork creates a perfect flavor bomb.”
That's right, barbecue fans: the Lone Star State comes out on top.
Unlike most of the regions on this list, Texas is not known for pork, but rather for beef – mainly ribs and briskets. Here, barbecue is dry rather than wet, prepared with a richly-flavored pepper rub.
“We use a heavy course pepper in our rub and slow smoke our briskets for up to 15 hours,” explains Alison Clem of Austin’s La Barbecue. “I feel like the heavy pepper is what sets Texas barbecue apart from other regions.”
Why Texas BBQ is the Best
When our experts were asked to select the best style other than their own, Texas was the region that got, hands-down, the most votes.
For South Carolina-based O’Rourke, Texas’ brisket emerges supreme. “Your meat should have a flavoring to itself, and then your sauce should accompany and accent the meat. It should not be the flavor of the meat,” he says. On this front, Texas gets things exactly right.
North Carolina-based Lora Lanier, chef-owner of Switzerland Café, notes that she loves “the smell of a Texas BBQ joint, the heavy mesquite smoke that sticks to your clothes.”
Texas also gets the vote of Kansas City's Rauschelbach; he notes that Arthur Bryant himself, the namesake for the popular Kansas City restaurant, was actually a native Texan.
“Although brisket rubs are very similar in Texas versus the various rubs created and used in Kansas City, Texans smoke their brisket much longer and to a higher temperature, which makes the product much more expensive, but the flavor is just outstanding,” he says. “This is not a knock on the other areas, as the Carolinas and southeastern barbecue restaurants really don’t do much beef as their focus is on pork products. I just love to go to Texas and eat their brisket.”
John Lewis, the Texan owner of Lewis Barbecue, a Texas-style barbecue restaurant in Charleston, is humble about the outpouring of support for his regional style.
“Maybe the beef has something to do with it!” he says. “Because I think a steak would always win over a pork chop.”
But the Real Winner Is...Local Barbecue Across America!
Before you come at us for selecting Texas as the best, it’s important to note that all our experts agreed it’s really a matter of preference, and you can’t go wrong in any of these regions.
First and foremost, they emphasize, local is best.
“If I had a second place trophy I'd throw it out,” says Levine, of Campaign for Real Barbecue/TrueCue.org. “I'd rather give first place trophies to each distinct style in each region.”
“I'd rather eat brisket or hot guts in Texas, for example, and mutton in Kentucky, than eating North Carolina barbecue in either of those places,” he continues. “And I'd rather not eat a rack of ribs or chicken with Alabama white sauce in North Carolina.”
“I like just about any barbecue in its native habitat,” agrees Reed. “Brisket in Texas, ribs in Memphis, stuff with thick red sauce on it in Kansas City, even mustard-sauced pork in South Carolina, mayonnaise-sauced chicken in Alabama, and mutton in western Kentucky. It's when they crop up as invasive species – like brisket in North Carolina – that I get annoyed.”
Our experts also insist on ‘cue that’s true to tradition – cooked low and slow over a fire – and note that it’s rarer than you might expect. Jim Early recounts the tale of one spot that touted real pit-cooked barbecue, but in reality had taken a piece of masking tape, put it on an electric cooker, and, with a felt-tip pen, written “pit.”
“When they broke the pig and the shoulder down and chopped it, they would save the skin, gristle, bone,” he says. “And then at around 10 o’clock, they'd fire up the old pits, and put the skin and gristle and fat and bones on the old pit, and get that fat drip on the coals to have that smell wafting out across the parking lot for the luncheon crowd.”
“Their clientele didn't know the difference,” he continues. “It's kind of like great sex: if you think it's gonna be great, you're more apt to think it was. If you think, because of the smoke and the wood and so forth, you're gonna eat great meat cooked over a pit, you're more apt to think you did.”
The key to all good barbecue is to take it nice and slow.
“The biggest mistake is that people get in a hurry,” says Tucker. “What makes barbecue so good is the people involved; barbecue is about making time to be with the people you care about.”