Americans take their BBQ very seriously; so seriously that large BBQ networks across the country, including the International Barbeque Cookers Association, the Memphis Barbecue Network, the Kansas City Barbeque Society, and the Northeast Barbecue Society, put on numerous competitions each year.
Cooking exemplary BBQ is a fine art; with factors ranging from the kind of meat — pork, beef, chicken, or other — wood, charcoal, or smoke cooking methods; and rubs and sauces. While some make this quest for piquant perfection their every-weekend project, the rest of us simply search out the best BBQ joints on a special occasion, like travel.
Three of the USA’s top cities to find world-class BBQ are Charlotte, Memphis, and St. Louis, where distinctly different styles hold sway. St. Louis is known for its spare ribs: large pork ribs trimmed into a rectangle and grilled, then covered in Missouri-style sauce — a thick, tangy, sweet-spicy tomato-based concoction.
In Memphis, ribs, pork shoulder and other meats are very slowly smoked in a pit cooker, often using special wood varieties to imbue a specific flavor. In Charlotte, which has come onto the BBQ scene a bit more recently (catching up with the rest of North Carolina), it’s all about the slow-smoked, pulled pork shoulder. That juicy BBQ is done in either Lexington style, with a ketchup-vinegar-spicy sauce, or Eastern style, using a vinegar-pepper sauce (and more cuts of the pig beyond the shoulder).
Take a trip to each city with us, to sample the best BBQ each has to offer. No cooking is required on your part, just a big appetite and love of the Q.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, BBQ mavens find a mix of older classics and new favorites that have burst onto the scene in the last year, thanks to a BBQ explosion.
Midwood Smokehouse is one of the best in town, with the original location at 1401 Central Avenue and two others. Owner Frank Scibelli and his crew of pitmasters offer Eastern-style, slow-cooked pulled pork pit barbecue choices, as well as other tasty options like Texas-style beef brisket and smoked salmon. Don’t miss their signature smoked meatballs, made with brisket and jalapeños, or the brisket burnt ends, too. Among the restaurant’s many fans are President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who dined there together in 2016.
At Mac’s Speed Shop, the biker-bar-turned-BBQ-hotspot, Chef Kevin Kuruc began working his pit magic in 2009. These days, with multiple top-five wins in the World Championship of Barbecue, Kuruc continues to win fame for Mac’s eight locations with his signature Carolina beef brisket. Slow smoked for 12 hours with a dry rub, it comes lean, fatty, or both — and always slathered with their vinegar-based “Western” (Lexington-style) BBQ sauce.
Another local favorite, Sweet Lew’s, arrived on the Charlotte BBQ scene in 2018. Located in a converted gas station at 923 Belmont Avenue, the joint is home to a 450-foot smokehouse that operates solely on hickory, pecan, and peach wood. Those add a unique flavor to everything that comes out of the pit, including Lew’s famous smoked chicken. Of course, there’s plenty of North Carolina–style chopped pork, dry rubbed spare ribs, beef brisket, and even $2 bags of pork skins made daily, too.
Another new addition to the BBQ scene, Noble Smoke brings its “heartfelt Southern barbecue” to the people at its huge 11,000-square-foot operation on Freedom Drive. Chef Jim Noble and his crew keep things slow smoking in six custom-built offset smokers and two Carolina masonry pits, with the rest of the casual space devoted to lots of tables and a bar with 36 beers on tap. Using Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork, Noble inspires rivers of drool with chopped pork and pork short ribs, as well as chicken, turkey breast, and beef brisket.
American and United Airlines offer daily nonstop flights from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), while Southwest Airlines flies daily nonstop from MDW.
One of the distinct BBQ capitals of the world, Memphis, Tennessee, has so many wonderful BBQ joints that it really is impossible to pick just one. Happily, there’s lunch and dinner every day of your visit to roam from place to place and compare.
Begin at the venerable Interstate Bar-B-Que, where for more than 40 years Jim Neely has been cooking award-winning, chopped pork shoulder sandwiches, big slabs of pork and beef ribs, smoked sausage, and even his famous spaghetti dinner that has to be tried to be believed. Leave room for some pecan pie or peach cobbler, too, as the Interstate knows how to finish off a good Southern meal in style.
To sample some “So-good-you’ll-slap-yo’-mama” Memphis BBQ, the Germantown-branch of Commissary is the spot. Since 1981, it’s been slowly smoking melt-in-your-mouth pork shoulder (order it chopped or pulled), beef brisket, and pork ribs over a hickory fire. There’s succulent and moist smoked chicken and turkey here, too, as well as fried catfish for a change of pace. And when you get back home and crave some of their Memphis BBQ, just visit the website. The restaurant ship ribs and pulled pork right to your door.
Another local favorite is Central BBQ. Using a dry rub and hickory and pecan woods, owners Craig Blondis and Roger Sapp bring years of barbecue competition experience to every batch of meat they smoke. Their marinade lasts for 24 hours, and they are Memphis purists, with no sauce in their pit. Just that secret dry rub concoction and all those hours of quiet cooking make their pulled pork some of the world’s best. The meat on their pork ribs drops right off, and their beef brisket is trimmed of fat and sliced thin. Try the pork BBQ nachos for a groaningly good pile of decadent flavors. Also order at least one helping of Central BBQ’s homemade banana pudding dessert — it is legendary.
No BBQ crawl of Memphis is complete without visiting Corky’s. Founded in Memphis in 1984, it has expanded to locations all across the South, mostly because of their unique combo of slow cooking over charcoal and hickory wood. That taste translates to a piled-high pulled pork sandwich topped with tangy coleslaw. Charlie Vergos Rendezvous should also be on the BBQ bucket list, especially for the dry-rub pork ribs, cooked the same slow way in a basement in the heart of downtown Memphis since 1948.
American and United Airlines offer daily nonstop flights from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Memphis international Airport (MEM), while Southwest Airlines flies daily nonstop from MDW.
Residents of St. Louis have been eating BBQ for generations, ever since musicians have been playing the blues in this heartland city. And while grilled St. Louis ribs are in a category of their own (literally, they are often a separate element of BBQ competitions), there are plenty of other delicious types of slow-cooked meats to sample as well.
Right next door to the National Blues Museum is one of the city’s terrific BBQ spots, Sugarfire Smokehouse, which not only does the classics like ribs and pulled pork, but also throws things like Andouille sausage and Portobello mushrooms into the smoker. Add in chocolate peanut butter bourbon shake or a local microbrew beer, and you won’t be singin’ the blues here.
Pappy’s Smokehouse has been one of St. Louis’ go-to BBQ joints since 2008, mostly because of its melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork and dry rub smoked and glazed ribs. Ironically, Pappy’s prides itself on its Memphis-Style BBQ, so expect meats cooked over apple or cherry wood for 24 hours, then served with Pappy’s secret sauces — Original, Sweet Baby Jane, or HooDoo. It’s always crowded here, and when the meat runs out for the day, they close early.
BBQ fans love Bootleggin’ BBQ Tavern as much for its convivial atmosphere as its excellent BBQ. It’s a sports bar, too, not far from Saint Louis University, so there’s usually a lively crowd on hand. Taste the smoked, sauced chicken wings for something different or dig into the “belly bacon on a stick” — smoked then fried pork belly, served with a honey sesame sauce. The places does pit-smoked sliced beef and beef burnt ends, too.
Visit St. Louis in late September and discover the annual Q in the Lou BBQ Festival, where top chefs from all over (sometimes including Memphis and Charlotte) meet for a huge cook off. Buy a pit pass and get two hours of all-you-can-eat BBQ and booze, which just might end up being your most memorable BBQ indulgence ever.
American and United Airlines offer daily nonstop flights from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL), while Southwest Airlines flies daily nonstop from MDW.