Is there any food that better conveys summer than barbecue? After all, no cuisine is more easygoing, begging to be eaten with a wipe-your-hands-on-your-shorts brio—and nothing tastes as good when the heat of July sweeps in. And while we're all for cooking in the backyard, a quest for America's best barbecue makes a heck of a good excuse to get out and explore our country's little towns and back-road byways. Compare those succulent spareribs from Leon's in Chicago with the whole-hog barbecue in North Carolina's Skylight Inn, while planning a trip to Memphis for barbecue spaghetti (you read that right). Here are our picks for some of the best, representing smoke-pit passions from coast to coast. It'll make you glad to be American.
1. Edisto Island, South Carolina
About an hour southwest of Charleston, Edisto Island seems barely connected to the mainland. Lying among a series of tangled waterways, it has no traffic lights, and beachside residents are required to turn off all outdoor lamps and to be quiet after dark so sea turtles can come ashore and lay their eggs in peace. The buffet line at Po Pigs Bo-B-Q (named for proprietor Robert Bobo Lee) is also proudly primitive, harking back to the old Carolina ritual of a pig pickin'—where everything is laid out, "from the beard to the tail" (barbe à queue). All of the meat is cut and pulled from slow-smoked hogs, and you'll find dark meat, light meat, pork cracklin's made from the skin, even pig innard hash to ladle over white rice. Decorate the pork with any of four different barbecue sauces—including a uniquely South Carolinian mustard sauce—and side it with a panoply of true-South vegetables such as turnip greens and squash casserole, plus hush puppies. True to classic pig pickin' hours, Po Pigs is open only on weekends.
Po Pigs Bo-B-Q
Tel: 843 869 90032. Casmalia, California
Unlike barbecue in the South and Southwest, where meat is cooked for hours in hardwood coals, barbecue in the Santa Barbara area is always done in the open, on a grate over flaming oak logs. It's a legacy of the Golden State's bygone culture of the Spanish cowboys, known as vaqueros, who used to reign over the bucolic ranchland northwest of Los Angeles. The most popular cut of beef here is the tri tip, which, although not as supple as filet mignon or as succulent as prime rib, delivers resounding flavor and robust character. The meat at Hitching Post seems to almost glow with the flavor of the fire, and there's also a piquant smack of a wine vinegar and oil marinade, which is applied as it cooks. "The trick is in how the steaks are handled," owner Bill Ostini says. "You've got to know how to cook which steak which way. It depends on the marbling, and how much age they have. It takes two to three years to train a cook to do it the right way." Who says cowboys are dead?
Tel: 805 937 6151
3. Atlanta, Georgia
"Flames are bad; the glow is good," the pit man at Harold's once told us, explaining that classic Southern barbecue is never cooked over a fire but rather basks in smoke from smoldering wood coals. So it is at Harold's, which, despite its location in a sad neighborhood near a federal penitentiary, is Atlanta's most respected beacon of barbecue, with velvet-soft sliced pork, ribs painted with intensely seasoned translucent red sauce, and the vegetable-and-smoked-meat gallimaufry known as Brunswick stew. The stew comes as a meal unto itself or as a companion to ribs or pulled pork; its vegetal sweetness is quietly accentuated by a distant vinegar tang. It can only be improved by crumbling a square of Harold's corn bread on top.
Tel: 404 627 9268
4. Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs attracts vacationers for its mineral waters and let's-have-a-beer-in-the-tub spirit. It's also host to one of the South's premier barbecue parlors, McClard's. The dish to get: a rib-and-fry plate. Don't worry when it arrives and all you see are french fries. Just below these ravishing dark-gold potato logs you'll discover a mountainous rack of meat-laden spareribs sauced with a dark red potion that the joint has been using since 1928, when McClard's was a trailer park and they secured the recipe from a customer in lieu of rent. (How Southern can you get?) The process of picking up a few fries every time you heft a rib is a skill regulars have perfected. Electrified with a rainbow of different peppers, and just sweet enough to make its heat all the more pleasurable, the sauce will gradually set your tongue on fire, making iced tea refills (or multiple beers) a happy necessity.
Tel: 501 623 9665
5. Memphis, Tennessee
In this barbecue capital, where the pork is mellow and the sauce alarming, the number one barbecue restaurant is the Cozy Corner, a humble, family-run storefront that serves peppery spareribs with a huge sweet-pork punch. Not to mention baby backs with meat that slips from the bone in glistening ribbons, plus thick disks of barbecue bologna, and that delightfully monomaniacal Memphis side dish, barbecue spaghetti (noodles bathed in a kaleidoscopic barbecue sauce—ideal for a hangover). Cozy's unique house specialty is Cornish hen, a plump little bird that emerges from its long smoke bath with fragile, burnished skin wrapping meat that throbs with spicy flavor right down to its bones.
Tel: 901 527 9158
6. Chicago, Illinois
Some of the most soulful barbecue is found in the Midwest. Chicago's original Leon's has been around since 1941, and it still delivers brawny spareribs that drip juice as soon as you bite through the crust. Leon's also serves exemplary rib tips, a lower-cost option that, because of their small size, demand more tooth work—but are perhaps even more rewarding. The tips deliver meat that is tenderloin-tender, dizzyingly swirled with the potent flavors of hickory and oak smoke. Leon's is take-out only, and the meals come in cardboard boats, the entrée covered with a mess of french fries drenched with sauce, plus a couple of slices of clean, spongy white bread. You would not want this bread for any other meal, but as a sauce sop and salve between bouts with barbecue, it's the right stuff. And because it is awfully messy, we suggest you eat it outside of the car.
Tel: 773 778 7878
7. Kansas City, Missouri
Many native sons believe Kansas City barbecue is the best anywhere because of its broad-spectrum appeal: It includes pork ribs, beef brisket, hot sausage, and smoked mutton, plus a sauce as complex as an Indian curry. LC's lends good evidence to that proposition. All the meats are pit-cooked to perfection, and the specialties include burnt ends (pictured). Also known as brownies, burnt ends are the crisp, chewy, extra-luscious nuggets of meat cut from the outside edges of smoked brisket. Heavy with protein satisfaction and radiant with hickory smoke, some pieces are laced with obscenely delicious amounts of fat. There are both chewy chunks and crunchy nuggets, and while a few tips might taste dry all by themselves, LC's excellent sauce makes them sing.
Tel: 816 923 4484
8. New York City, New York
Brazilian churrascarias have appeared throughout the United States in the last dozen years, and while some might argue that this approach is not technically barbecue, the combination of open flame and meat makes this edible orgy an essential stop for all carnivores. One of the most authentic (and delicious) is found on West 49th Street in New York City. Plataforma Churrascaria has the standard massive buffet of salads, cheese balls, cured meats, and seafood—but the sooner you flip your coaster from red to green, the sooner you'll embark on a meat frenzy. Servers bring a variety of proteins in different cuts, including steak, pork roast, sausage, lamb, chicken, and suckling pig. The meats are carved tableside with a lot of knife-and-fork razzle-dazzle, directly off the skewer. (You might wonder if a server has ever dropped a knife on a customer, but these guys are professionals.) The seasoning is mostly subtle, owing to the Brazilian preference to use only rock salt. Filet mignon wrapped with bacon is carnivore comfort food; flank steak seems as tender as the filet; the faint char on chicken hearts only serves to emphasize their elegance. Sadly, it's not humanly possible to sample everything in a single visit—but we applaud the effort.
Tel: 212 245 0505
9. Owensboro, Kentucky
West of Louisville, Kentucky, mutton is king of the pit: rich and smoky with big flavor that isn't pepper-sharp but still hits you with a prizefighter's wallop. The Moonlite Bar-B-Q's huge, garrulous buffet—at which customers stand and admire the 'cue out loud, nearly clapping when new trays are brought forth from the kitchen—offers mutton chopped, sliced, and as ribs. It's also a primary ingredient in the locally loved stew known as burgoo. Served in all the local barbecue parlors, burgoo is fork-thick, loaded with vegetables, and anchored by the holy smoke-pit trinity of pork, chicken, and mutton. It's also got the eye-widening spice quotient of a Creole gumbo. You might find tasty barbecue mutton in other places (try Kansas City), but nowhere outside of western Kentucky can you experience the surprising pleasure of burgoo.
Tel: 270 684 8143
10. Taylor, Texas
The great barbecues of central Texas are often secreted in out-of-the-way nooks, and amenities are scant to nonexistent. Louie Mueller's, located in a former school gymnasium on a side street in the sleepy town of Taylor (west of Austin), is one of those places. Smoke-cooked beef is cut, weighed, and slapped down onto a sheet of pink butcher paper, along with a stack of soft white bread. And while an au jus–like sauce is offered, it's inconsequential. Meat is all that matters in this churchlike shrine to the transformative power of smoke: Brisket, prime rib, and beef sausage are cooked in the haze of oak smoke, so low and slow that little fat seeps out, keeping all the moisture in. The fibers of the meat absorb all its flavor. Even the dark-crusted rim of brisket drips with protein potency. And the outer, less pink circumference of a slice of prime rib radiates the earthy perfume of burning wood. School lunch never tasted like this.
Tel: 512 352 6206
11. Ayden, North Carolina
North Carolina has a lot of barbecue variants (and mini-wars) of its own: heavy sauce in the west, hardly any sauce at all in the east. Creamy slaw versus spicy slaw versus mustard slaw. Hush puppies or corn sticks? But the daddy of all Tar Heel pits, the Skylight Inn, has been unaffected by time or 'cue trends. Treasured by connoisseurs, it's located east of I-95, not far from Greenville, and features whole-hog barbecue. Unlike pyrotechnical kick-ass Q's, Skylight's mating of smoke and pork is a subtle nuptial, elegantly abetted by the addition of a little vinegar and hot sauce—nothing more—as it's chopped on a maple cutting board. Beyond the exquisite flavor, the variety of textures from eating the entire pig is striking. Along with soft shreds from the interior are chewy strips from the outside, and surprisingly crunchy nuggets of skin. The cooked skin conveys terabytes of lusciousness, its firmness adding edible drama that is lacking in barbecue made only from upscale hams or shoulders. There are two and only two ways to have it at the Skylight: on a bun or in a cardboard tray. Other than corn bread and coleslaw, there's nothing else on the menu.
Tel: 252 746 4113
12. Memphis, Tennessee
Assuming you've made your way to Memphis to try out the delights of Cozy Corner, it would be a shame to miss Payne's. The menu is rather limited, but if you are looking for the Memphis signature dish known as a pig sandwich, it's the go-to place. As in most barbecue parlors of the mid-South, the counterman at Payne's won't actually ask if you want coleslaw when you order pulled pork on a bun. It's a given. Tender pork shoulder is hacked apart with a cleaver and put into a bun, with your choice of hot or mild sauce. Then a big pile of pickly sweet slaw goes on top, balancing the meat's smoky profundity. This configuration, first constructed by Memphis barbecue man Leonard Heuberger in 1922, is a tongue-boggling presentation that combines warm meat with cool slaw, spicy sauce with creamy dressing, piggy pork with crunchy cabbage. Perfection.
Tel: 901 272 1523
To read more about Jane and Michael Stern's favorite spots to eat, visit roadfood.com.