The Tastiest Road Trip Itinerary Through America’s Barbecue Belt
Different styles of barbecue are popular around the world. Some are done in underground pits, others in slow smokers that burn through the night. And while it’d be a monumental task to taste every style out there, it’s undeniable that some of the best slow cooked meats can be found on a barbecue road trip through the Southern United States.
Yes, there are under-appreciated barbecue styles elsewhere in the country — California’s Santa Maria-style, Chicago barbecue, and Hawaiian barbecue come to mind — but the styles served up in the South are most often what people think of when they talk about classic American barbecue. Fasten your seatbelt for a road trip around the Barbecue Belt.
Brisket — a cut from the lower chest of a cow — is king in Texas. That’s especially true in central Texas. In Austin and smaller cities around the middle of the state, hunks of brisket are typically given a simple dry rub treatment with salt and pepper before being smoked over mesquite, oak, and hickory for 12 to 24 hours. The meat is full of flavor despite the simple preparation thanks to the low and slow cook time and natural fattiness of brisket. Each bite has a crisp outside crust and a juicy interior.
There are a lot of famous Texas barbecue spots out there to add to a barbecue road trip. To taste some of the most iconic examples, stop by the spots with the highest accolades: Franklin Barbecue (900 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702), Snow’s (516 Main St, Lexington, TX 78947), and Louie Mueller Barbecue (206 W 2nd St, Taylor, TX 76574).
Kansas City has a long history with barbecue, and the city’s pitmasters have a strong influence on barbecue across the country. Consider, for proof, that there are about 100 barbecue restaurants in Kansas City and it’s the home of the American Royal World Series of Barbecue.
Here, slow-cooked beef covered in a thick and sweet molasses-based sauce is the most iconic, but pork, chicken, sausage, turkey, and fish all commonly make barbecue menus as well. Be sure to order the burnt ends if they’re available, which are the charred bits at the end of a slab of brisket.
Start with the following for any visit where the goal is to explore what Kansas City has to offer on the barbecue front: Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue (1727 Brooklyn Ave, Kansas City, MO 64127), Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que (3002 W 47th Ave, Kansas City, KS 66103), and Slap’s BBQ (553 Central Ave, Kansas City, KS 66101).
Kansas City and central Texas can have their beef ribs. In Memphis, the focus is on pork — specifically slow cooked pork ribs and pork shoulder sandwiches. There are more than 100 barbecue restaurants in Memphis. The style traditional to the city is to either serve the ribs dry (meaning with a dry rub) or wet (slathered in sauce). The sandwiches typically are chopped pork shoulder.
Breaking down which to visit can be hard with so many options, but start with Payne’s Bar-B-Que (1762 Lamar Ave, Memphis, TN 38114) for a delicious sandwich and to A&R BBQ (3721 Hickory Hill Rd, Memphis, TN 38115) for ribs. If you don’t mind a wait, Cozy Corner (735 North Pkwy, Memphis, TN 38105) is one of the city’s most popular barbecue draws.
Barbecue seems relegated to red meats across the South. Not so when it comes to Alabama’s classic barbecue style of chicken slow-cooked and smothered with mayonnaise-based Alabama white sauce. The sauce is made with mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, and black pepper (with a few modifications depending on who is doing the sauce making). A man named Big Bob Gibson created the sauce in 1925 in Decatur, Alabama, as a way to keep his chicken moist when cooking alongside pork. Today, Gibson’s great-grandchildren are keeping the Alabama white sauce tradition alive in the original location — and is a spot to make sure you add to any barbecue road trip.
Chicken with Alabama white sauce isn’t found much outside of the state, making barbecue chicken a must-stop on any proper barbecue tour. To start, make a point to eat at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que (1715 6th Ave SE Decatur, AL 35601) and SAW’s Soul Kitchen (SAW’s Soul Kitchen, 215 41st St S, Birmingham, AL 35222).
The Palmetto State is considered by some to be the original home of American barbecue. Pork is the primarily protein — usually whole hog that’s slow cooked and chopped or shredded. The two main styles in the state are centered around Columbia (known as the Midlands), where pitmasters use a mustard-based sauce, and in the northern region of Peedee, where a vinegar and pepper sauce is preferred.
Try Hite’s Bar-B-Que in Columbia (240 Dreher Rd, West Columbia, SC 29169) for the mustard-based style, and Scott’s Bar-B-Que (2734 Hemingway Hwy #5420, Hemingway, SC 29554) for classic vinegar whole hog barbecue.
One of two popular barbecue styles in North Carolina, Eastern-style barbecue is defined by whole smoked pig (“everything but the squeal”) that’s brushed with a tangy vinegar and red pepper sauce. After 12 hours or more, the pig is chopped up with more of the vinegar sauce and served by the plate or with a bun.
We’ll let you decide which side of the North Carolina barbecue line you land on, but for a taste of whole hog Eastern-style barbecue you should pull up a seat at the historic Skylight Inn (4618 Lee St, Ayden, NC 28513).
Stay in North Carolina for the next barbecue pit stop. The state is split both by geography and by barbecue preferences. In the western part of the state in the Piedmont region, pitmasters add ketchup or tomato paste to the vinegar sauce as both a seasoning and in the coleslaw. This is called Western-style or Lexington-style after the town where you’ll find many of the joints making this type of barbecue. The ketchup sauce divide has caused state legislature battles and countless passionate arguments.
Stop by the oldest barbecue in downtown Lexington, The Bar-B-Q Center (900 N Main St, Lexington, NC 27292), as well as Stamey’s Barbecue (2206 W Gate City Blvd, Greensboro, NC 27403), which opened in 1930.