To find good barbecue while traveling, Michael Smith advises that you look for ambience—depending, of course, on how you define the word.
“Look for dives that have been around for a while,” says the Missouri-based healthcare marketing pro, who has sought out bucket-list barbecue joints all over the South and Midwest. “You can trust them for the best barbecue—because no one is going there for the atmosphere.”
Case in point: the original Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, one of Smith’s favorites, which is housed in a gas station. Travel+Leisure readers seem to have enjoyed refueling in Kansas City, too: they ranked the Missouri metropolis as a top contender for the nation’s best barbecue.
As part of this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 metro areas on a variety of refined features, from art galleries and antique stores to wine bars and thoughtfully, artfully smoked meats—no matter the setting.
The top 20 barbecue cities still reveal some colorful diversity, from the dry rubs of Central Texas-style barbecue—often served “meat-market-style” on butcher-paper-lined trays—to the mustardy sauces of the Carolinas or the mopped-with-sauce pulled pork and barbecue pizza of Tennessee. (Purists take note: Because of the general parameters of the survey, some small-town barbecue meccas, like Lockhart, Tex., and Lexington, N.C., were not part of the survey.)
With or without sauce—or even a view of fuel pumps—one intangible element may also enhance the barbecue experience. Sriram Srinivasan—a Plano, Texas-based blogger for travel site UPGRD.com—loves Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas, where the not-so-luxurious atmosphere lets you break (white) bread with like-minded meat lovers. “It has a cafeteria-style line and a communal-style dining room,” he says, “so you sit family-style, and get to know your neighbors.”
No. 20 Tampa
If the locals had to pick sides in the regional barbecue wars, this Florida city might raise the Alabama flag: One of its most beloved barbecue joints is Big John’s Alabama BBQ, which has been in East Tampa since 1968 and is also known for its sweet potato soufflé. Otherwise, the city’s reigning source of smoked meats is Holy Hog Barbecue, which calls its Kansas City-style burnt ends “BBQ Candy” and has won awards for its mac ‘n’ cheese. For the most scenic BBQ—accompanied by some homemade sangria—go to Kojak’s House of Ribs, opened by a retired detective and housed in a converted bungalow off Bayshore Boulevard. Remember to use your napkins, though: The city ranked at No. 5 for being clean.
No. 19 Chicago
Chi-Town resonated with readers for its stately architecture, and two landmarks for barbecue lovers are the South side’s Leon’s and Barbara Ann’s BBQ, known for Chicago-style hot links and rib tips (preferably with fries on the bottom). But for a lot of folks, Chicago’s mother ship of barbecue is Twin Anchors, which has been around since 1932 and became Frank Sinatra’s favorite spot for post-show ribs (and he was known to tip staffers $100 each). The newest generation of barbecue spots include the West Loop’s Green Street Smoked Meats—helmed by Brendan Sodikoff, of upscale Francophile diner Au Cheval —where you can pair your meal with one of the city’s well-ranked, home-grown beers, like Local Option.
No. 18 Providence
In this artsy, gourmand-populated town—which ranked in the top 5 for chef-driven restaurants, wine, and pour-over-style coffee—the boundaries of “barbecue,” or just well-prepared meats, can stretch into the more exotic terrain of charcuterie. A great example is downtown’s New Rivers, where the meats—jagerwurst, lamb shoulder sausage or pastrami made with Wagyu beef tongue—are served with white bread and pickles. You’ll find more traditional fare at Rick’s Roadhouse, which also showcases Providence’s excellent rankings in brunch— like a Fried Chicken Benedict with bacon-braised greens and chipotle hollandaise. The locals, meanwhile, topped the survey for being nerdy.
No. 17 Cleveland
The Ohio city may have made the barbecue top 20 out of its allegiance to quality comfort food: it also ranked in the top 10 for pizza, diners, and food trucks. But it also makes regionally authentic spins on barbecue, from the Polish Boy at Hot Sauce Williams to the “rib steak” at Bubba’s Bar-B-Que (de-boned using a patent process seen on Shark Tank). Cleveland also made the top 10 for its foodie-friendly watering holes, like The Greenhouse Tavern, run by James Beard Award-winner Jonathon Sawyer; in the spirit of the whole pig approach, he does a limited number of Whole Roasted Pig Heads every evening, served with housemade sauce, salad, lime, and brioche buns.
No. 16 Los Angeles
While the cuts of barbecue-friendly beef can be a little different in California—often tri-tip instead of brisket—you can still find traditional BBQ joints in Tinseltown, like Bludso’s in Compton or Hollywood, and Horse Thief BBQ in downtown’s Grand Central Market. But L.A. really distinguishes itself with its Korean-style barbecue, like the ddong daeji pork belly at Honey Pig, or the flower-cut, marbled short rib, or kkot sal, at Park’s Barbecue. Koreatown is also a prime part of town to experience the city’s highly ranked nightlife—like the bottle-service S Bar or the speakeasy scene at R Bar.
No. 15 Tucson
Barbecue was readers’ favorite cuisine in this Arizona college town—and here, the local style sometimes looks west, or even south of the border. Food truck Guero Loco’s Bubba-Que (also known as the Bubba Truck) does Cali-style Tri-Tip and Hawaiian Pork Tacos, while BrushFire BBQ Co. puts chili lime butter on its corn on the cob and details exactly what kind of rub each meat features, and how long it was smoked (say, up to 18 hours).
No. 14 Phoenix
Like tumbleweeds bouncing in from the east, the reigning barbecue style in this desert city comes from Texas—with the addition of some local oak and pecan wood for smoking. At Little Miss BBQ, the brisket, ribs, turkey—even occasional lamb’s neck—are served Texas-meat-market style, on butcher paper with pickles, onions, and white bread. Texas BBQ House even takes some cues from farther east in Louisiana, with a one-pound Texas Po-Boy sandwich piled with a triple threat of brisket, pulled pork, and sausage.
No. 13 New Orleans
The Crescent City almost overwhelmed readers with its potential for indulgent eating—it ranked in the top 10 for notable restaurants, baked goods, brunch and coffee—but folks also loved the uniquely bayou take on BBQ, which tends to feature local cane-sugar-fueled sauces, Tabasco-laden marinades and Caribbean spices. The Joint, for instance, offers both ribs and locally made Chaurice sausage, while Squeal is renowned its sauce and barbecue duck legs. Voodoo BBQ & Grill, meanwhile, uses a Cajun-spice dry rub and Mango Crystal Sauce, made with the beloved local hot sauce. New Orleans also scored at No. 1 for its festivals: you can marry your love of local music with good grub at fall’s Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival.
No. 12 Louisville
Plenty of barbecue fan swear by an ice-cold beer or Dr. Pepper to wash down a pile of barbecue—but in this Kentucky city, it’s hard to argue with the merits of a bourbon slushie. You can order one at Feast BBQ, a hot newcomer in the NuLu neighborhood, which also throws a bone (so to speak) to vegetarians, with its crispy-smoked tofu as an alternative to the pork cakes and chopped chicken. Indeed, thanks to its Urban Bourbon Trail, Louisville also made the top 20 for cocktail lounges. If you want to cleanse your palate between neat-bourbon tastings, stop for some St. Louis-style ribs and butter-basted chicken at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar, on the city’s historic Whiskey Row.
No. 11 Detroit
Readers gave Motor City credit for its hearty eating: It also ranked in the top 11 for baked goods, burgers, and diners. Like a lot of cities in the top 20, Detroit doesn’t offers thoughtful interpretations of other regional styles: at Slows to Go, you can get a Cubano made with pulled pork, jalapenos, and South Carolina-style mustard sauce, while Greektown’s Redsmoke Barbecue offers a vinegar-based Michigan Cherry Molasses sauce, which goes especially well with chicken. Also in Greektown is a representative of Detroit’s high ranking for bakeries: Astoria Pastry Shop, known for its decadent cheesecakes.
No. 10 Albuquerque
There’s no need to eat your barbecue alone: The New Mexico city made the top 10 for its wealth of good festivals, which—thanks to the wealth of chiles and other home-grown produce—aren’t limited to hot air balloons. The July 4th weekend brings the Annual Pork & Brew BBQ State Championship, while spring means the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show, which boasts of the world's largest festival for Teflon palates. If you can’t make it to town for either one, many locals swear by Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q, a far-east outpost of an Austin barbecue joint, known for its spicier-than-usual sauces. Besides having a high threshold for culinary heat, the locals ranked at No. 5 for being a little weird.
No. 9 Charleston
The South Carolina city easily made the top 10 by showcasing Carolina-style BBQ—a whole-pig approach with four sauces, including a vinegary mustard elixir. But Charleston also adds the Low Country angle, infused with and Creole influences and seafood. You’ll find it at places like Home Team BBQ, which does Low Country shrimp boils and oyster tables, alongside pulled pork and creamy grits. To take some expert fixins home—from dry rubs to shrimp sauce and artichoke relish—go to the ’Cue-osk in the Old City Market, helmed by James Hagood, a former insurance advisor who has racked up several awards for his sauces and rubs. Charleston also gave readers an appetite for shopping, ranking it in the top 10 for antiques, boutiques and home décor.
No. 8 Atlanta
Just as Atlantans made the top 10 for their good fashion sense, their barbecue offers classics accessorized with Georgia flourish. That’s the case at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, which offers St. Louis-style ribs—though they’ve been chicken-fried—tater tots smothered in brisket chili and spicy, Georgia-born Brunswick stew. Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt, meanwhile, offers pulled pork wrapped in fried dough as well as a rotating menu of blues bands. Atlanta indeed impressed readers with its live music, and in another kind of flash, its colorful Christmas lights.
No. 7 Dallas
Big D may lie farther away geographically from Lockhart than Austin does—and readers may associate Dallas more with luxe shopping than good eating—but Dallas still holds its own with meat-market-style ’cue. Lockhart Smokehouse, in fact, is a branch of the central Texas town’s legendary Kreuz Market, while Pecan Lodge does handmade sausage, along with ribs that average one pound each. For a barbecue experience that blends with the city’s posh demeanor, go to Smoke, in the retro Belmont Hotel, where the sausage is comprised of pork andouille, rabbit and spicy lamb. Despite its high-end swagger, Dallas also made the top 20 for being affordable.
No. 6 Oklahoma City
While OKC’s barbecue takes many cues from Kansas City, the Carolinas and neighboring Texas—like at Back Door Barbecue on NW 23rd, created by an Austin transplant—some of the best BBQ joints focus on Oklahoma’s strong sense of local history. Downtown’s Iron Star (with its brown-sugar-cured brisket), for instance, pays tribute to famed outlaw and Oklahoman Belle Starr, while Bedlam Bar-B-Q (where the smoked meat menu features brisket, polish sausage and bologna) is named for the rivalry between Oklahoma University and Oklahoma State.
No. 5 Nashville
While it’s long ranked for its live music and concerts, Music City has more recently become a serious foodie city, where locally sourced ingredients bolster the Southern comfort cuisine. That enhanced down-home sensibility really comes out at Edley’s Bar-B-Que, where catfish and the local specialty “hot chicken” join the ranks of pulled pork, and Peg Leg Porker, where you can nosh on “Memphis sushi,” a sausage-and-cheese platter with saltines. At another Nashville favorite, Martin’s, they pride themselves on not owning either a microwave or freezer, and the signature item is the Redneck Taco, a cornbread hoe-cake topped with meat, slaw and sauce. The locals, having shed most of their rhinestones over the years, also ranked highly in the survey for their hipness and lack of snobbery.
No. 4 Houston
While some barbecue purists would say less is more when it comes to sauce, more is more when it comes to anything barbecue-related in this Texas city, which also impressed readers with its generous burgers and wine bars. Gatlin’s BBQ in the Heights, for instance, asks, naturally, what kind of meat (pork, sausage or beef, for starters) you’d like piled on your baked potato. Killen’s in Pearland goes the meat-on-trays route, adding local St. Arnold’s Beer and heaping desserts (you can buy the crème brule bread pudding, for instance, by the quart). And while it is easy to fill up on the low-and-slow meats at Goode Company—with its original location on Kirby Drive—fans always leave room for the jalapeno cheese bread and the Brazos Bottom pecan pie. The locals clearly have an eye for masterpieces, edible and otherwise: it ranked at No. 3 for its museums, like the Menil Collection.
No. 3 Austin
The Texas capital made the top 3 again this year for its old-school, Central Texas-style barbecue—prepped with a dry rub and often served on wax paper and trays with white bread—found at the renowned Franklin, La Barbecue, trailer Micklethwait and Black’s, a branch of the legendary restaurant from the town of Lockhart, about an hour away. Austin also ranked near the top for its good-looking, offbeat locals: one good place to absorb that Keep Austin Weird vibe—along with more brisket, ribs and sausage—is Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew, which played the part of a pool hall in famed Austin flick Dazed and Confused.
No. 2 Memphis
The Tennessee city need not sing the blues over a second-place finish: its devotees are fiercely loyal to the local barbecue style, which is dry-rubbed, smoked over hickory, and often mopped with sauce during cooking. You can enjoy a classic example at Payne’s Bar-B-Que, housed in a former service station, or Cozy Corner, where barbecue Cornish hen and bologna get equal billing. Memphis also gets special credit for stretching the boundaries of the genre: you can experience the birthplace of barbecue spaghetti at the Bar-B-Q Shop (home of Dancing Pigs Sauce) or partake of the seminal barbecue pizza at red-checker-tablecloth Coletta’s‚ which once counted Elvis as a loyal customer. No surprise, Memphis also ranked well in the survey for its music scene and its melodic sense of history.
No. 1 Kansas City
Whether it was for the sweet, tomato-y sauce, the rich history in meat-packing or those densely flavorful scraps—the burnt ends—this Midwestern city took the gold medal this year. To understand its basics, start at legends Arthur Bryant’s or Gates Bar-B-Q, which date back to the 1920s and ’40s, respectively. Then, branch out to the newbies, like Q39—led by national barbecue champion team Rob Magee—or Char Bar, which complements its burnt ends and pulled pork butt with lobster deviled eggs and a vegetarian-friendly, smoked jackfruit. Char Bar has also has added a huge beer garden with bocce ball, croquet, and local beer—like beloved Boulevard Brewing—a reminder why KC also won the silver medal for its craft beer scene.
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