American BBQ is both rooted in tradition and constantly evolving. Fourth-generation pit masters stoke coals alongside classically trained chefs and (gasp) Yankee expats. Their craft spans supple sandwiches made from vinegar-spiked whole hogs, sweetly sauced ribs, slow-smoked briskets as big as Texas, plus new riffs that defy regional conventions. Bone up on the lingo then take your pick from these smokin’ BBQ restaurants in finger-lickin’ capitals across the country. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter
Best BBQ restaurants in America
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q; Decatur, AL
Pit master Chris Lilly is a legend in barbecue circles. He has taken 10 World BBQ Championships and six world titles at the Memphis in May ’cue cook-off. Lilly helms the hickory at 90-year-old institution Big Bob Gibson, best known for smoky barbecue chicken in his trademark tangy white sauce. Never one to let smoking coals lie, Lilly later introduced traditional red sauce at Big Bob Gibson—and promptly took home the American Royal prize for the world’s best barbecue sauce.
Black Dog Smoke & Ale House; Urbana, IL
This southern-Illinois spot serves smoked meats and Midwestern microbrews to a ravenous crowd of families, locals and students from the neighboring University of Illinois. Black Dog is known for its cornbread studded with green chilies, pit beans and pulled pork, in addition to its Polish sausages and burnt ends, which are made in limited supply from double-smoked brisket. The Urbana original opened in 2009 and seats 70; a second, larger location recently opened in neighboring Champaign.
Bludso’s BBQ, L.A.
Patience is a virtue at Bludso’s BBQ in Compton, the famed barbecue hot spot that specializes in Texas-style ribs, brisket, chicken and anything else you can think of to throw in a smoker. The wait can be tedious; the service at the counter a little brusque. But good things come to those who wait: Brisket is beyond tender, and expertly cooked ribs and sausage links lie under a slathering of sweet barbecue sauce. Just make sure to save room for the creamiest banana pudding spooned out of a Styrofoam container.
Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ; Napa, CA
When considering the best BBQ in the country, most people don’t imagine a restaurant deep in California’s wine country. Those people are missing out though: The ribs at Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ might be the best you’ll find outside of Memphis. The Napa Valley joint’s “slow and low” cooking process and juicy cut make for delectable bites that slide right off the bone.
Jersey-born Daniel Delaney—a bespectacled former Web journalist—might not seem like an obvious poster child for purist Texan ’cue. But at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn eatery BrisketTown, the Yankee is turning out some seriously craveworthy meat. Delaney takes the traditionalist route, coating chunks of heritage beef in salt and pepper before smoking them over oak-fueled fire for 15 hours. The deep-pink brisket, along with remarkably tender pork ribs, are complemented by a trim selection of sides: rich, garlicky collard greens and potato salad zipped up with pickled mustard seeds and caramelized onions.
Bub’s BBQ; Sunderland, MA
Western Massachusetts doesn’t have much of a barbecue scene, so thankfully, there’s Bub’s, a gritty picnic-table-and-paper-towel spot. Bub’s serves up solid ribs and sausages, but the barbecue chicken and hot-and-cold bar of side dishes steal the show. Little more than $10 gets you a smoky half chicken and unlimited runs through the bar, where you should load up on dirty rice, orange-glazed sweet potatoes and barbecue baked beans.
CorkScrew BBQ; Spring, TX
Served out of a colorful trailer just north of Houston, CorkScrew serves up beautifully smoky brisket, spicy sausage, ribs and smoked turkey, and you can get them in a platter or turned into sandwiches or tacos. (Yeah, tacos may not be traditional, but roll with it.) Then add a slice of pie, and sit down to a feast at the cluster of picnic tables.
Doc’s BBQ and Southern Buffet, Columbia, SC
South Carolina has four regional barbecue styles, and around Columbia, Carolina Gold reigns supreme. The sauce starts with yellow mustard and adds tang from vinegar and sweetness from honey and sugar. It’s usually doused over pulled pork, and Doc’s version is terrific. Eat as much as you want from the affordable buffet, which also stocks mac and cheese, collards and other staples.
Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, Atlanta
Twin Texpats Justin and Jonathan Fox helm this Austin-by-way-of-Atlanta restaurant near downtown’s Little Five Points. The freewheeling menu at Fox Bros. culls from the entire American barbecue diaspora. Think chicken-fried pork ribs, Tater-Tots covered in brisket chili or Brunswick stew, and pulled-pork sandwiches accompanied by crispy fried okra. Smoked chicken wings are a crowd-pleaser, as is the Sunday night special, dinosaur-like beef ribs. Seven rotating drafts and 45 bottled beers include local names SweetWater and Terrapin.
Franklin BBQ, Austin
Franklin gets a ton of hype, but it’s worth joining the inevitable queue. Get there early and bring a folding chair (you could be there for more than three hours, so you might as well be comfortable). A server will take your order while you wait, and the staff also doles out canned beer. As for what to order—get everything. The brisket is moist with a perfect charred edge, the ribs are hefty and the sausage has a perfect snap.
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que; Kansas City, KS
Opened in 1996 as Oklahoma Joe’s, the recently retitled KCK institution affirmatively answers the question: Would burnt ends by another name taste as sweet? All three Joe’s locations serve the aforementioned local delicacy of charred brisket trimmings, as well as a proprietary Z-Man sandwich, consisting of brisket, provolone and two onion rings on a kaiser roll. Such ingenuity has earned Joe’s legions of fans—including President Obama, who reportedly spent $1,400 on sweet, saucy Kansas City–style ribs, links and the like earlier this year.
The Joint, New Orleans
NOLA’s homegrown food scene hardly disappoints, but, until recently, American barbecue was notably absent among the po’boys and pralines. Since 2004, Bywater fixture The Joint has been raising the regional bar(becue) for pork ribs, shoulder, brisket and chaurice sausages. Meats are smoked on-site in a custom smoker, and portions are epic, but in-the-know locals end their ’cue with slices of the Joint’s legendary pecan, key lime and peanut-butter pies.
Kreuz Market; Lockhart, TX
Anyone seriously into Texas barbecue makes a pilgrimage (or just moves) to Lockhart, a tiny town between Austin and San Antonio, where you’ll also find Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue dishing up classic ’cue. Kreuz may not have the charming old-school ambiance of Smitty’s (which occupies the former’s original premises), but it’s been around since 1900, so they’ve had time to figure out how to master fat-laced brisket and meaty, juicy sausages.
Lem’s Bar-B-Q, Chicago
If you didn’t know that Chicago had its own style of barbecue, try South Side barbecue at Lem’s. Made in an aquarium-style smoker, the most commonly cooked meats are rib tips and hot links. Lem’s is takeout only, so you’ll need to get your spare ribs and rib tips, which have a thin, vinegary sauce and charred outer edges hiding pink, juicy pork, to go.
Lexington Barbecue; Lexington, NC
Since 1962, Piedmont-area mainstay Lexington Barbecue has been producing tangy pork barbecue sandwiches, served sliced or chopped (or, for the ravenously committed, one of each). Occasionally referred to as “The Honeymonk” after the owner Wayne Honey Monk, the roadside spot roasts pork shoulders over hickory and oak coal, giving them a sweet, toasted taste that’s subtler than their smoky brethren. Don’t skimp on the tart, cider vinegar-based cabbage slaw, which locals scoop directly atop sandwiches.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Southern Foodways Alliance
Mighty Quinn’s, NYC
Drummer turned chef Hugh Mangum first hawked his Texalina (Texas spice meets Carolina vinegar) specialties at his immensely popular Smorgasburg stand. Now Mighty Quinn’s has six brick-and-mortar locations. At the steel-tinged East Village location, black-gloved carvers give glistening meat porn a dash of Maldon salt before slinging it down the assembly line. Paprika-rubbed brisket, slow-cooked for 22 hours, boasts a quarter-inch smoke ring and a girdle of fat that will have your taste buds cheering. The thick campfire bark of the pulled pork elevates it from the usual saucy porcine slop you’re used to, and the Jurassic-size beef rib is so impossibly melt-in-your-mouth tender, one bite will quiet even the pickiest of BBQ hard-liners.
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn; Owensboro, KY
Uninitiated outsiders may not consider Owensboro a barbecue hub, but Moonlite presents a strong counterargument. The enormous establishment combines a lunch and dinner buffet, an à la carte dining room and a takeout operation selling sandwiches and meats by the pound. The house specialty is Kentucky’s hickory-smoked barbecue mutton, served sliced or chopped, alongside more traditional fare like ham biscuits, pork sandwiches, smoked catfish, corn muffins and lemon icebox pie.
Pappy’s Smokehouse, St. Louis
As any pit master will tell you, barbecue demands utter devotion and epic patience. Nowhere is that sentiment truer than at Pappy’s, a Midtown St. Louis institution since 2008. The specialty is Memphis-style barbecue, cooked low-and-slow and brushed with ruby red tonic, for which passionate, persistent locals wait in lines two or three hours’ long. Ordering a combo plate is a pro move, as is sampling all four house sauces: Original, Jane’s (sweet), Holly’s (hot) and Hoodoo (hotter).Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Yi-Liang "Lucas" Liu
Payne’s Bar-B-Que, Memphis
Tennessee barbecue spans sweet, scarlet-sauced hams in the Appalachian east, and slaw-topped pulled pork sandwiches in the southwestern areas around Memphis. Roadside Payne’s serves a superlative-if-sloppy version of the latter. Tender pork is chopped with crispier outside edges, dressed in a thin, tangy red sauce and served with yellow mustard-spiked slaw. Such richness quickly soaks through the bun, rendering it ornamental, so Payne’s thoughtfully wraps the enterprise in wax paper and secures it with toothpicks. It’s not dainty, but it is utterly delicious.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Sean Davis
Saw’s Soul Kitchen; Birmingham, AL
In the vast American landscape of BBQ flavors and techniques, Alabama holds the mantle of pulled pork and tangy sauces. Saw’s is a relative newcomer to the scene, having only opened its first restaurant in 2009, but it has quickly cemented itself as a BBQ front-runner. We suggest the signature dish, “pork ’n greens,” which features smoked pork covered in house sauce and served over cheese grits and greens with onion rings on top. It doesn’t get much more Southern than that.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Daniel Schumacher
The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint; Ocean Springs, MS
A larger-than-life establishment with two branches 30 miles apart in southern Mississippi, The Shed began as a humble, family-run affair built from dumpster-diving spoils in 2002. The Ocean Springs original has grown from a one-room riverfront shack to a 9,570-square-foot campus, whose expansive digs include a stage that has been graced by the likes of T-Bone Pruitt, Voo Davis and the late Percy Sledge. (Performance schedules vary by venue, so check the website for upcoming shows.) House specialties include meltingly tender baby back ribs, plus pecan-smoked brisket and wings in sweet, largely tomato-based house sauces.
Smalls Smoke Shack & More, Chicago
Smalls lives up to its name: a tiny, cerulean-painted restaurant with a few tall chairs placed along a narrow ledge. If you want to dive into trays of Asian-tinged barbecue, like falling-apart-tender brisket, or meaty ribs glazed with a combination of soy, banana ketchup, garlic and Mexican 7 Up, you’ll need to hope that everyone else decided to take their orders to go. Alternatively, ask for takeout, follow the crowd next door to Lizard’s Liquid Lounge and enjoy a beer with your barbecue.
Sweet Cheeks Q, Boston
The brainchild of Tiffani Faison (of Top Chef fame), this barbecue haven is a rustic, kick-back find in the Fenway—and a great pre- or post-Sox game hot spot, where main dishes are served on metal trays, cocktails come in mason jars, and napkins and silverware are plucked from cans on the table. On warm nights, hit the pavement seating. Start with the bucket o’ biscuits with honey butter—because one won’t do. Pair the brisket or buttermilk fried chicken with Faison’s famous farm salad (brussels sprouts, farro, grapes) or broccoli casserole. The giant Nutter Butter cookie and rich and creamy butterscotch pudding is the right way to end the evening.