Few styles of food are more satisfying and primal than barbecue. Meat and fire tend to do that sort of thing. And while we've pointed out the best barbecue spots in the country before, we've never sat down over a pound of brisket and hashed out, not only the best cities in the country in which to eat it, but how those cities stack up against each other. Well, until now.
Our ranking of America's 11 top barbecue cities is the first in our series examining and arguing about both the best and the most underrated cities across the country in a variety of our favorite food and drink categories. We judged each barbecue city on tradition, mastery of style, technique, and density. We want to put our opinions out there and hear yours, too. So what do you say we start with meat and fire, and see where we go from there?
11. Honolulu, HI
Okay, first things first: to truly get the best cross-section of distinctive Hawaiian BBQ, you may have to travel a little bit outside of the city, too, but, even so, the point is clear: with its famous Kalua pork, Honolulu and its surrounding towns in Oahu have a BBQ culture unlike anywhere else in the country. Of course, there are the Asian influences, like the delicious Korean inflected specialities at the Soup Nazi-esque Me's BBQ (get the Kalbi Bar-b-q plate) or Gina's for a BBQ bulgogi beef plate lunch. But you can also go outside the city for an island take on the Southern technique, at places like Uncle Bobo's (pork shoulder sandwich, all day), and Molly's Smokehouse. Either way, you can't truly talk about BBQ in the US without giving Hawaii its fair shake.
Major players: Me's BBQ, Uncle Bobo's Smoked BBQ, Gina's BBQ, Molly's Smokehouse
Credit: Flickr/Joshua Bousel
10. Murphysboro, IL
It's a curious thing that a Midwestern state known more for Chicago and its Great Lakes border boasts one small town that has championship-level 'cue in every style and meat. Thanks to one man, Mike Mills, Murphysboro, Illinois manages to be part of the barbecue conversation -- not just part of it, but firmly, very naturally rooted in it, despite being north of the traditional, smokey arenas. Mills runs 17th Street Bar & Grill and is the man behind one of the winningest teams at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. He's barbecue smart, well-studied, and, thanks to a removal from the constraints of regional bias, he's mastered it all -- baby back ribs, juicy pulled pork, pink-ringed brisket slices -- to the point that pit masters from Texas Hillcountry to Carolina's coastline are impressed.
Major players: 17th Street Bar & Grill
9. Greenville, SC
Those who preach the gospel of South Carolina barbecue do so with a conviction that's hard to ignore. "We've got four different kinds of sauce!" they shout. "No one does a mustard sauce like us!" And they're right. Though others may argue for Columbia or even Charleston, we like Greenville for the proximity of spots all serving up classics like the BBQ sandwich with some Brunswick stew at Henry's Smokehouse; the ribs, chicken & chopped combo at Mike & Jeff's; the original Bucky's for the pork plate with cajun pinto beans and sweet potato crunch, or -- if you're looking for something a little more dignified -- Smoke'N Jackets (potato skins stuffed with pulled pork) and the beer-butt chicken at Smoke on the Water.
Major players: Bucky's Bar-B-Q, Henry's Smokehouse, Mike and Jeff's BBQ
Credit: Flickr/Joshua Bousel
8. Owensboro, KY
I'm going to assume you've never had mutton, so let me make a taste-picture: think about how tough, bland pork shoulder becomes tender and juicy and literally falls apart after a night in a smoker... and then apply that to lamb, a meat that's already rich and earthy, no matter how you cook it. That's mutton, and the small city of Owensboro in Daviess County is the epicenter of this particular and peculiar tradition, that alludes to a far earlier time when sheep were plentiful (historians have record of Abe Lincoln's parents serving BBQ mutton at their Kentucky wedding, so America). The region also does pork shoulder and brisket over the same hickory coals, but you're in Western Kentucky for the mutton, basted and served with a variety of sauces, the most famous of which is a black "dip" sauce of Worcestershire and vinegar and tomato paste and sugar.
And once you're swayed to the style, come back in May for the International Bar-B-Que Festival when hickory-smoke pits for mutton and giant, bubbling vats of burgoo, the barbecue stew made with mutton, fill the town's streets.
Major players: Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, Henry's Bougaloo BBQ
7. New York, NY
As a Southerner, I admittedly hate writing this: New York City has a formidable barbecue scene, one of the best in the country. Whereas other barbecue epicenters that're removed from the heart of the cuisine have melded styles or perfected specific, traditional dishes, New York spit barbecue out in its own special way, as the city tends to do.
NYC's BBQ can be compared to what folks in Southern cities (those ones that have an inherit claim to 'cue) would call new money. There are no third or fourth or -- let's be honest -- even second-generation pitmasters behind the smokers; the barbecue is fancy (finishing salt!) and requires million dollar ventilation systems and pairs well with specialty craft microbrews and reaches its moist, tender finished state under the watchful shadow of many a hipster beard. But from a Carolina-trained whole hog set-up in Bushwick to an East Village spot whose "Texalina" sauce covers pink-ringed brisket and fatty pulled pork, every spot boasts serious, studied knowledge of the craft and, importantly, a deep respect for barbecue in all its iterations... and it is damn delicious.
Major players: Briskettown, Fletcher's Brooklyn BBQ, Mighty Quinn's, Arrogant Swine, Morgan's Brooklyn Barbecue, Hometown BBQ
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