When pitmaster Mack Sevier retired suddenly and closed Uncle John's BBQ in September 2013, you could almost hear the faint, collective whimper of white folks and would-be patrons who never made the pilgrimage to the gritty, no-frills barbecue joint on Chicago's South Side. Sevier's rib tips and hot links were the stuff of legend, enhanced not only by the restaurant's unique, Chicago-centric aquarium-style smoker, but also the revolving bulletproof glass window his barbecue was delivered through.
A younger generation of Sevier's family is keeping the flames alive in another location of Uncle John's, but the sudden closing is a cautionary tale for any barbecue eater with an unfulfilled bucket list of smoked meat havens to visit. Barbecue is a tough business. Pitmasters get old and cranky. Legendary dives sell out. Joints burn to the ground. Shit happens, and those great barbecue spots you've been meaning to try won't be around forever. (Or, you could also get hit by a bus tomorrow.)
This isn't a roundup of the "best" barbecue restaurants or a dissertation on what barbecue is or isn't. Lord knows, you people shred those lists like a pack of starving, angry hyenas. These are barbecue restaurants -- new and old -- that have contributed greatly, in some way or another, to the rich, unique, and delicious American barbecue culture. If you consider yourself a supporter of the barbecue arts, these are the places you've gotta try before you die (in no particular order). Go now.
If you're ever passing near Lexington, Texas (population 1,200), you better hope it's Saturday. Snow's is open one day a week only, from 8am 'til the brisket and pit-grilled pork steaks run out. And if you want a shot at everything on the menu, get there by 9am or you're S.O.L. The Saturday-only tradition may be tied to the time when German and Czech butchers operating meat markets in Central Texas smoked leftover meats at week's end. Or maybe it's because Ms. Tootsie Tomanetz, a woman who has spent 48 of her 79 years making barbecue, was working weekdays as a custodian for the school district when the restaurant opened in 2003. Tomanetz, with the help of her son, Hershe, and Snow's owner, Kerry Bexley, starts the fires around 2am and turns out some of the state's best brisket.
It would take up too many pixels to explain the complete barbecue lineage of the family that started the Skylight Inn and runs it to this day, but here's the short version: It dates back to the 1830s. What's more important is the restaurant's fierce allegiance to true whole-hog barbecue -- head-to-tail, rooty-to-the-tooty, everything-but-the-squeal -- cooked over burned-down hardwood coals. Eastern North Carolina is loaded with whole-hog barbecue, and Skylight is the gold standard, down to the harsh vinegar/pepper sauce (no ketchup, ever) that makes it one of the definitive regional styles of barbecue.
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
For the regional barbecue disciples who battle over the supremacy of Texas brisket, Carolina whole hog or Memphis or Kansas City ribs, I have three words for you: Western Kentucky mutton. The history of this distinctive barbecue follows the same plot line as other regional variations in 'cue: Locals make do with tough, fatty cuts of meat from animals available in abundant supply. In Western Kentucky, in the early 1800s, that animal happened to be sheep raised for wool. The tradition stuck. (Quick lesson: Lamb is lamb up to 12 months-old, and sheep is the animal when it's over 12 months. Mutton is to sheep what pork is to pig.) Since 1963, Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn has served hickory-smoked, pit-cooked mutton and is one of the few places in Kentucky that do it justice today. Thanks to the persnickety eating habits of Generation Chicken Nugget, mutton isn't as popular as pulled pork or barbecue chicken (also served at Moonlite), and this tradition may not survive. Go while the gettin' is still good.
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Since 1949, the Flintstonian beef ribs at Louie Mueller have shocked and awed barbecue devotees. The sheer size and unapologetic unctuousness of these mothers is enough to make a Navy SEAL weak in the knees. Biting through the thick, crisped bark of coarse pepper and into Mueller's smoke-ringed brisket is close to a religious experience and at least one man (see: Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue) has credited his brisket epiphany to this Central Texas smoked meat emporium. Louie Mueller has remained a regular fixture on Texas Monthly
's best-of-the-best lists of barbecue joints in Texas, and no self-respecting barbecue diehard can die happy without checking this institution off his list.
Allen & Son
(Chapel Hill, NC
Pork shoulder reigns supreme in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and Allen & Son sets the bar for doing it right: low-and-slow cooked over hickory burned to coals. Hickory that owner/pitmaster Keith Allen logs, hauls, splits, and burns down to coals in the fireplace between the restaurant's two pits. Allen is a barbecue man's barbecue man, a muscled purist who is far too polite to ever dog any other pitmaster or style of barbecue, but who clearly takes tremendous pride in doing this regional 'cue the old-school way. His pork shoulder is the picture of perfection -- riddled with dark, crispy bark and roughly chopped (not pulverized, like other chopped barbecue).
Charles Vergos' Rendezvous
Hold on tight to your barbecue panties if you're in the "it's not barbecue if it's not slow-cooked by indirect wood fire" school of smoked meat. Charlie Vergos opened Rendezvous in 1948, and the restaurant is responsible for putting Memphis on the barbecue map with ribs char-broiled over charcoal. That's right. Char-broiled. They don't use wood and the "dry ribs" are basted throughout the short, hot cook with a vinegar-based mop spiked with their signature rub that, combined with the steady drip of rendered fat from the ribs, sizzles and smokes on the hot coals. The ribs are toothsome (some might even say chewy) compared to the fall-off-the-bone meat Jell-O peddled at lesser "barbecue" joints. Mr. Vergos died in 2010, but his family is carrying on the tradition in the original down-the-alley, next-to-The Peabody hotel location.
Arthur Bryant's Barbecue
(Kansas City, MO
Everybody still gets a good laugh out of food mensch Calvin Trillin's claim that this stripped-down Kansas City joint was "… possibly the single best restaurant in the world" in a 1974 issue of Playboy
magazine. And they're generally laughing and nodding as they gnaw on piles of burnt ends while the restaurant's punchy, gritty vinegar sauce dribbles down their chins and wrists. Plenty of pitmasters from all over, who will forever live in obscurity, gave these glorious nuggets of char and fat to preferred customers (or saved 'em for themselves), but Arthur Bryant's made it a Kansas City thang. And if I have to explain what "burnt ends" are, you shouldn't be reading this.
Big Bob Gibson's
Say what you will about BBG's sauce, rub, and merch bonanza, but Bob Gibson did the unimaginable: He created a barbecue empire out of smoked chicken and white sauce, and in doing so carved out a place for himself in Great American Barbecue history. Gibson's name is synonymous with Alabama white sauce, a concoction of mayo, cider vinegar, lemon, and black pepper, and if you think smoked chicken in white sauce is for girls in Sunday dresses, well, the joke's on you. Gibson's story parallels so many great barbecue men: With humble backyard beginnings, a devotion to the craft of 'cue, and a string of generations keeping the dream alive today, including three-time Memphis in May grand champion Chris Lilly -- aka Gibson's great-granddaughter's husband. The restaurants still use the same time-tested technique of cooking on hickory-fired brick pits that Gibson started his barbecue dynasty with in 1925.
One of the oldest names in Hill Country barbecue, Kreuz (pronounced "krites") Market is more than just a dining hall centered around the shoveling of sausages and brisket into your meat hole (although it is also very much… that). It is one of the finest examples of how German meat markets in Central Texas evolved into barbecue Meccas. The original Kreuz opened in 1900, and, along the way, the small town meat and grocery store's specialty smoked meat and sausages trumped the rest of the goods in stock and became the primary business in 1960. Barbecue hounds might point to better examples of brisket across the state, but the sausage -- oh, the sausage. The smoky, papery casing snaps like it was born to, and it's stuffed with a pork/sausage mix and enough black pepper to make your tongue tap dance. And we should all embrace any establishment where eating meat with your bare hands is not only encouraged, it's the rule. No forks and, bless their big Texas hearts, no sauces allowed.
Hatched in 2009 out of a rinky-dink trailer, Franklin is a newborn among important barbecue purveyors. Mainly because of the serious 'cue -- down to the glorious, fat-crisped bark on slabs of Texas brisket -- but also because owner/meat whisperer Aaron Franklin brilliantly tapped into the recent food lust and barbecue zeitgeist, scoring early cred with a new breed of eaters who debate craft beers, Instagram pictures of fried chicken, and will gleefully wait two hours in line for barbecue sanctioned by Bon Appetit
. (For real, BA
listed Franklin Barbecue in its annual list of the 20 most influential restaurants in America.) The restaurant's intense and immediate popularity may give chronic naysayers an excuse to write it off, but the proof is on the butcher paper.
Colleen Rush is a New Orleans-based food writer and co-author of
Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons. She is currently writing a follow-up with Chicago pitmaster Gary Wiviott. Follow them at @FoodRush and @LowSlowBBQ.