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.”