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—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.”

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