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Smoking Out America's Best Barbecue

Belly Up to a Plateful of Ribs, Pulled Pork, Chicken or Beef

by John Mariani

Barbecued Ribs

Anyone who has ever smelled the smoke curling from a chimney at a barbecue eatery knows that cooking meats in a closed pit over a slow wood fire is not just quintessentially American but one of this country's great gifts to gastronomy. That gift is multifaceted, considering that there are so many different regional styles of barbecue, sometimes depending on little more than which side of the river you call home.

There is Southern 'cue and its many subcategories—by state, then by county. There is Texas 'cue, which is principally beef, not pork, and Southwestern style, which has more chilies and spice. Then there's Big City barbecue, from New York to Chicago, St. Louis to Kansas City. It seems that wherever you go in this country, you'll find good barbecue to eat somewhere. Here's a sampling of some I consider among the best and most representative of regional styles.

As Jane and Michael Stern point out in their "bible for motorists," Roadfood, Lexington, N.C. is a "small city with more than one barbecue restaurant per thousand citizens." That means folks there have a dozen barbecue joints to argue about. For me there's no argument: Lexington Barbecue (10 Hwy. 29-705, Lexington, NC; 336-249-9814), which opened in 1962, is to my mind the overall best and most consistent. The pork shoulder at what the locals have dubbed Monk's undergoes ten hours of smoking, plus basting with a vinegar-rich sauce that defines the area's style. Founder Wayne "Honey" Monk displayed his pit mastery at Ronald Reagan's International Economic Summit in Williamsburg, Va.

The Rendezvous
The Rendezvous
Locals do take their barbecue personally. In Memphis, Tenn., there's a real insiders' feeling to Charlie Vergos' The Rendezvous. Duck back in an alley near the deluxe old Peabody Hotel, go down a few steps, and sit yourself down at a counter or table in a raffish atmosphere of fiery grills giving off the smell of good smoke. Then, you salivate and wait. Finally, your dry-smoked pork ribs arrive, and you slather them with as much or as little sauce as you wish. The key ingredient is the dry rub of spices, which you can also sprinkle on the ribs to your taste. Charlie himself once wrapped up some ribs for me to go as I was heading out of town to the airport, even though he hadn't opened for lunch yet and hadn't a clue who I was. So I'm prejudiced. But don't just take my word for it. When the Rolling Stones play Memphis, this is where they eat and drink. Tack your business card to the wall. Everyone else in the world does.

There's something just so down-to-earth about Dallas's famed Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse. Success—with several branches around the state—hasn't hurt the place's reputation much, despite Sonny's demise a few years back. But you'll get the ultimate experience by heading for the rustic—well, okay, make that "shabby"—1958 original on Inwood Avenue. The likes of Eric Clapton, Katie Couric, Governor Schwarzenegger and the late Julia Child have praised the place, and on any given afternoon there are as many Mercedes and Maseratis in the lot as there are lowriders and Rancheros. Whatever your lot in life, you give them your order, they jot down your first name, and a few minutes later your name is called and you bring the steamy beef sandwiches and onion rings back to a one-arm schoolroom chair to eat. It's proletarian food paradise!

A Texas Great: Goode Co. Barbeque
As long as we're in Texas, I ought to share with you another one of my favorites: Goode Co. Barbeque. The city's finest now has three locations, as well as a seafood restaurant, a taqueria and a brand-new saloon. The original barbecue joint on Kirby is in a no-frills building where you grab a tray, get your food and head outside into the Houston heat. Take a slug of Lone Star beer, then tuck into such house specialties as brisket piled high on a po' boy, a smoked turkey leg, jalapeño-laced pork sausage, a stuffed baked potato and some jambalaya "Texacana." End off with a slice of pecan pie and coffee, and you'll be happy all week until you're ready to come back for more.

That craving for barbecue can hit a person at any time, which is one of the reasons why I like St. Louis's C & K Barbecue so much. C&K can soothe my hunger pangs at just about any hour—eleven in the morning, three in the afternoon or even around midnight. It's a take-out place with all the usual ribs, chicken and wonderful potato salad. But connoisseurs come here for the "snoots"—hog snouts and ears—which come out crispy and lavished with Darryle Brantley's no-kidding-around barbecue sauce. Whatever you order, be prepared to eat it in you car, because it'll be impossible to smell that aroma and not begin tucking in on your way back home. Just be prepared to have to give your car a good wiping down later.

Arthur Bryant's Original Location
Arthur Bryant's Original Location

Barbecue lovers often glory in the mess of it all. Kansas City's Arthur Bryant's, made famous 30 years ago by homeboy Calvin Trillin, endures as the revered "Grease House" among locals, who can be very argumentative about who makes the best barbecue. Things aren't quite so greasy there anymore, but the new owners since Arthur himself passed away have the old recipes down cold, and Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Wilt Chamberlain have all chowed down here. The sauce is key to Bryant's uniqueness appeal, and I find a perky, piquant, piney flavor behind the heat—and it is very orange. Beef brisket is smoked over hickory and oak, then sliced thick and set on white bread; the potatoes keep their skins on and the owners keep their beer mugs on ice.

When I want damn good barbecue in New York, I know my best bet is to head uptown to Harlem and Sylvia's.The pork ribs at this beloved institution run by three generations of the Woods family are as tender as can be, and they're joined by other great platters of soul food, from black-eyed peas to sweet potato pie. The place can now sit 450 people at a time, which makes the Sunday Gospel Brunch quite an event, filled with families in their Sunday best after church. There's often a line, but you'll be hanging with everybody from local pols and Columbia students to soul singers and sports figures who love this place like home. You can even buy Sylvia's Beauty Products on your way out.

So have no doubts that a steady diet of ribs, chicken wings, turkey legs, sausages and sliced brisket is a sure path to beauty!

Didn't see a great spot in your area?
Check our lists for more Best Barbecue around the country and the
Top 10 Barbecue Restaurants in the U.S.

See also Barbecue Tools, Best Barbecue Products and
Top 10 Wines for Summer Barbecues.

John Mariani is well known for his frank and poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of the Italian-American Cookbook.

(Updated: 06/14/10 SG)