The Ultimate Road Trip for America's Best BBQ
Juicy melt-in-your-mouth ribs. Delicious spice rubs. Tangy sauces. American BBQ is the stuff of legend, and the way you prefer it cooked completely depends on the region you grew up in or have come to love.
That’s why we’re not here to name the winner (although we’d happily debate it) but instead embark on the ultimate road trip. One that takes you to America’s eight best cities for BBQ and the three BBQ joints that you must try out in each. If you’re looking for the best money can buy, these 24 BBQ joints are it. Just don’t forget your sweatpants because there are a lot of good eats to be had on this journey...
First Stop: Kansas City, Missouri
Let’s start with one of the country's BBQ capitals: Kansas City. The city’s BBQ consists of a variety of meats, rubbed with spices and then slathered in a tomato-based BBQ sauce. The sauce is key to KC BBQ, and every local has a favorite (ahem, Gates!).
With more than 100 BBQ restaurants in the greater metro area (on both the Missouri and Kansas sides), it’s safe to say you could spend months here without having tried them all. Luckily, the city is also host to the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, the largest competition of its kind in the world, where you can sample lots of different styles at once.
Trendiest Joint: Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que
If you’re only in Kansas City for a day, you may want to drive over to this famous restaurant in a gas station, located on the Kansas side. Originally called Oklahoma Joe’s, this restaurant earned a reputation after its competition team, Slaughterhouse Five, won several awards at the American Royal back in the 1990s.
If it’s your first time here, order the Z-Man, a delicious brisket sandwich, topped with provolone cheese and onion rings. It’s so good that it inspired celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to list the joint as one of his “13 Places You Must Eat Before You Die.”
Most Legendary Joint: Arthur Bryant’s
Now, Arthur Bryant’s is one with serious KC roots, dating back to 1946 with Arthur Bryant who ran with the early KC BBQ crowd, including Henry Perry who is credited with bringing BBQ to the city from Tennessee in 1908.
To this day, Bryant’s has barely changed, still serving up heaps of meat on slices of bread, topped with fries and then wrapped up on butcher paper for a mess of a meal that’s so good Presidents Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Regan and Barack Obama have had to taste it for themselves.
Most Unique Joint: Q39
One of the newer joints in town, Q39 is what some Kansas City Barbeque Society members claim to be the “closest to competition BBQ.” This one definitely has a trendier vibe, too, inviting patrons to sit down for awhile for a sports game or to taste the local beers.
While you can’t go wrong with the Judge’s Plate, more adventurous eaters may want to try the pork belly and sausage corn dogs or smoked beef brisket poutine (yes, it’s a thing!) for something a bit more unique.
Second Stop: Dallas, Texas
Distance From Kansas City: 506 miles
Drive about eight hours south to get a taste of some Texas BBQ — first stop, Dallas. Now, BBQ in Texas can vary in different parts of the state, but one thing’s for sure: the meat is smoked to perfection.
And spice rubs tend to reign supreme here, with sauce often considered unnecessary.
Trendiest Joint: Pecan Lodge
Pecan Lodge has quickly earned itself a reputation as one of Dallas’ best BBQ joints. What started as a farmer’s market stand in 2010 has turned into a global sensation. Pitmaster Justin Fourton takes his work seriously, with four smokers that are watched 24/7 to ensure that temperatures stay consistent.
Just see for yourself by ordering the Pitmaster sandwich. And don’t forget to order Aunt Polly’s Banana Pudding — an ode to the owners’ family recipes.
Most Legendary Joint: Hutchins BBQ
Hutchins BBQ has been around the Texas BBQ block a time or two. Established in 1978, it started out as Roy’s Smokehouse in Princeton, Texas, as a hole-in-the-wall joint connected to Roy’s home. He moved to a bigger spot in the early 1990s and did business as usual until retiring in 2006 when his three sons took over.
Come hungry to either one of its McKinney or Frisco locations hungry because the all-you-can-eat option will give you a chance to chow down on everything from brisket to pork ribs and house-made sausages.
Most Unique Joint: Cattleack Barbeque
This North Dallas spot has been known for its fall-off-the-bone meats ever since opening in 2010. Don’t miss the beef rib, which averages about 2 pounds and can feed about four people easily.
What’s also great about this place is the sides, including the hatch chili mac and cheese, apple broccoli salad, burnt end beans and cheesy chipotle corn — to name a few.
Third Stop: Austin, Texas
Distance From Dallas: 195 miles
We’re going to be honest, we saved some of the best Dallas BBQ spots for this section because some of them started in Austin and the surrounding areas, especially the BBQ mecca of Lockhart, dubbed the “Barbecue Capital of Texas.”
After all, it’s in this part of the state where Texas BBQ originated way back in the early 1900s.
Trendiest Joint: Franklin Barbecue
Yes, you’ll want to visit the area’s legendary BBQ spots, but you must first check out the newer player in town. Opened in 2009, Franklin Barbecue is so well known that pitmaster Aaron Franklin received a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in 2015.
Needless to say, people are willing to wait in line for hours to taste this guy’s mouth-watering brisket. Oh, and in case you want to try to smoke meat at home, he also has a line of barbecue pits to purchase.
Most Legendary Joint: Terry Black’s BBQ
With locations in Austin and Dallas, the legend of Terry Black’s BBQ actually starts in Lockhart, with the Black family, dubbed the oldest BBQ family in Texas, having gotten their start in 1932. Terry Black’s BBQ is the brainchild of the family’s younger members — twins Mike and Mark — who learned their grilling techniques from their father, Terry. (Their uncle, Ken, still owns and operates Black’s Barbecue in several locations throughout Texas.)
At Terry Black’s BBQ, Mike and Mark go back to their family’s pit-smoking roots and serve up all the fixings — sliced brisket, chopped beef, pork or beef ribs, sausage, you name it.
Most Unique Joint: Kreuz Market
Now, we take you about 30 minutes outside of Austin to Lockhart, where Kreuz Market has been serving up smoked meats since opening as a grocery store in 1901. Charles Kreuz Sr. was the original brains behind the operation, and he decided to combine his German roots in meat markets and sausages with Texas-raised cattle and pork. The result is delicious — you’ll want to try the jalapeno cheese sausage for a true taste of Texas.
Fun fact: The owners of Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas (and other parts of Texas) have a strong tie with Kreuz Market, bringing the best of Lockhart to Dallas.
Fourth Stop: Birmingham, Alabama
Distance From Austin: 760 miles
Now, this is the longest leg of our BBQ road trip, but trust us, you want to head east to get some more unique BBQ. First up is Birmingham, Alabama, in a state that is having quite a moment in the food scene. While it’s not the first place that comes to mind when you think about American BBQ, that’s starting to change, as legendary BBQ joints in Decatur spread their word and trendier Birmingham establishments start to pop up.
The BBQ here is somewhat of a blend between the BBQ traditions of Tennessee and the Carolinas (more on them later) by adding their own unique twist: the white sauce. Yes, that’s right, Alabama’s creamy white BBQ sauce is typically made using apple cider vinegar, mayo and mustard.
Trendiest Joint: 2 Men and a Pig
Some may doubt that delicious BBQ can come from a food truck, but those people likely haven’t tried 2 Men and a Pig. One Yelp reviewer writes, “THE MEAT BY ITSELF HAD FLAVOR!!!”
That's all caps people — need we say more?
Most Legendary Joint: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
If you want the Alabama BBQ of legends, take a detour a little over an hour north to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur. It all started in 1925 with Bob Gibson and his hand-dug BBQ pit.
More than 90 years later, his white BBQ sauce is what's believed to have earned it 15 World BBQ Championship wins.
Most Unique Joint: Miss Myra’s
Miss Myra’s is where the locals in Birmingham have been going since 1984. Not only does Miss Myra Grissom Harper make a killer white sauce that gives Big Bob a run for his money, but her smoked chicken and banana pudding are the stuff of dreams.
Oh, and don’t forget to taste the pie!
Fifth Stop: Columbia, South Carolina
Distance From Birmingham: 360 miles
Head east, and you’ll come to a stretch of I-26 Highway between Charleston and Columbia that is dubbed the “Mustard Belt” for a reason. While South Carolina BBQ isn’t only served with a mustard sauce, it is unique to the state, which is why it’s the go-to choice when visiting.
Of course, pork is the name of the game here, with BBQ joints cooking up whole hogs to create delicious pulled pork sandwiches. And come hungry, as BBQ buffets are quite common here.
Trendiest Joint: Doc’s BBQ
Doc’s BBQ puts the cool in Southern buffet. Here, you’ll load up on pulled pork, pulled chicken, sliced brisket, fried chicken and even fried catfish. Of course, fried okra and fried pickles are also on the menu.
And if you want to take Doc’s home with you, you can order meat by the pound from the butcher.
Most Legendary Joint: Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que
Located about halfway between Columbia and Charleston off of I-26 is Sweatman’s BBQ, a classic Southern BBQ joint. That includes red-and-white picnic tablecloths and all. Bub and Margie Sweatman first opened this spot in Holly Hill in 1959. Their whole hogs cook for 12 to 14 hours and are continuously basted with their secret mustard sauce.
We recommend ordering the all-you-can-eat option here. Trust us: It’s worth it.
Most Unique Joint: Southern Belly BBQ
Let’s just say if you want your Instagram followers to be jealous of the sandwich you’re eating, take a shot of any one of the sandwiches served at Southern Belly BBQ’s three locations. Their atypical flavor combinations make them particularly Gram-worthy and delicious.
The Double Wookie with grilled onions (pictured) perhaps takes the cake, though. Good luck to anyone who attempts to devour it in one sitting!
Sixth Stop: Lexington, North Carolina
Distance From Columbia: 150 miles
BBQ is so serious in North Carolina that political debates over it have resulted in bills and laws related to the state’s two BBQ types — Lexington style and Eastern style — both of which are pork based. Lexington style uses a red sauce made from vinegar and tomatoes and only the pork shoulder section of the pig, while Eastern style uses the whole hog and a vinegar-based sauce with no tomato whatsoever.
But it’s Lexington where the Lexington Barbecue Festival happens each year and that’s earned spots on numerous lists of the best U.S. cities for BBQ.
Trendiest Joint: The Smoke Pit
The Smoke Pit has four locations throughout the state and has been touted as a 2020 Travelers’ Choice by TripAdvisor. They take their meat seriously here, smoking it up to 18 hours each day with local hickory wood.
Since this is still the South, all BBQ plates come with either cornbread, hush puppies or Texas toast.
Most Legendary Joint: Lexington Barbecue
First established in 1962 by Wayne Monk, this spot is typically referred to as “The Monk” by locals. People come here for one thing and one thing only: pork shoulder. Whether you want it chopped, sliced or coarse chopped is your prerogative.
And, yes, they do offer fish and chicken plates, but you’d be crazy to miss out on the BBQ. We especially love this spot for its crinkle-cut fries.
Most Unique Joint: Speedy’s Barbecue Inc.
Speedy’s is about as no-frills as it gets, as one of the few restaurants around that still offers curb service. The brainchild of the Dunn brothers has been around since 1970 and was a participant in the first annual Lexington Barbecue Festival back in 1984.
This spot also has crinkle-cut fries and big portions, so come hungry!
Seventh Stop: Memphis, Tennessee
Distance From Lexington: 644 miles
Our second-to-last stop brings us to another American BBQ capital: Memphis. This is where the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is held each year. It's the largest “pork” BBQ contest in the world (not to be confused with Kansas City’s American Royal).
Memphis-style BBQ is typically made using pork — both shoulders and ribs — but it’s the ribs that people could debate about for hours. “Dry” ribs are covered in a dry rub of delicious spices, while “wet” ribs are brushed with sauce throughout the cooking process.
Trendiest Joint: Central BBQ
Less than 20 years in this legendary BBQ town, and Central BBQ has earned a cult-like following. The restaurant has four locations throughout Memphis, and its “The Smoke Is Our Sauce” slogan says it all.
This place is known for its dry ribs that have been smoked to the point of falling off the bone, but you can also order them wet if you’d prefer.
Most Legendary Joint: Rendezvous
For more than 70 years, the Vergos family has served up pork in more ways than one. It started with a basement restaurant known for ham sandwiches and beer. But then they moved onto smoked ribs, turning what was once considered scrap meat into melt-in-your-mouth gold.
Using a family Greek chile recipe and Cajun spices from nearby New Orleans, the dry rub is what keeps people coming back.
Most Unique Joint: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Martin’s has several locations throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and South Carolina. What makes it standout, though, are the other unique items on its menu.
Take it’s Redneck Taco for instance: a cornbread hoecake with either pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken, turkey or catfish. There’s also a fried bologna sandwich that screams Tennessee.
Eighth Stop: St. Louis, Missouri
Distance From Memphis: 283 miles
And this brings us full circle back to Missouri for our eighth stop on the BBQ tour. St. Louis-style BBQ is a bit newer to the scene. Also all about the ribs, St. Louis is especially known for spare ribs, which are cut in a way that removes some of the excess cartilage and bone.
These ribs are typically grilled rather than slow-cooked and are also heavily sauced with a tomato-based sauce.
Trendiest Joint: Salt + Smoke
Salt + Smoke has quickly expanded throughout the St. Louis area, offering the triple threat of BBQ, bourbon and beer. Yes, that means its drink menu is almost as exciting as its dinner menu.
We suggest pairing the delicious trashed ribs with the Bartender’s Choice whiskey flight.
Most Legendary Joint: Pappy’s Smokehouse
Even though Pappy’s only started in 2008 (we told you St. Louis BBQ was newer!), it’s been busy, expanding with several offshoot smokehouses, including Bogart’s, Adam’s, Boogie’s, Southern and Dalie’s. All offer something a bit different, but Pappy’s is the original.
Dry-rubbed ribs are what’s earned it a spot on many a BBQ list, but the burnt ends, brisket and pulled pork are equally delish.
Most Unique Joint: Sugarfire Smoke House
Even newer, Sugarfire got its start in 2012 and has really taken the St. Louis-style of BBQ and turned it into a thing, opening up more than 15 locations throughout the country.
It’s known for its rather unique specialty sandwiches like the Big Muddy, which earned Best Sandwich in the World at the 2018 World Food Championships. And the smoked fried artichokes are a perfect way to start or finish off your meal here.