Pizza was invented in Italy and perfected in America. Hamburgers were invented in America but given a really German-sounding name. Indeed, it's quite possible that no culinary tradition (except for the Hot Pocket) is more thoroughly American than barbecue, with its different variants creating intense arguments and even more intense blood pressure issues across this great land. These are the 33 finest examples of the smoked meat arts from across the country. While we don't necessarily expect you to agree with all of them (that'd be borderline un-American) we do expect you to get quite hungry. So hungry, in fact, that you'll make it your mission to try all of them and keep track on this handy checklist. On with the picks!
Fat Matt's Rib Shack, Atlanta, GA
What you're getting: Ribs & Chicken Combo
There's a good chance you'll be waiting for a table at this Atlanta meat-stitution, but there's also a good chance there'll be live blues music playing to help you pass the time until you can sit down and dig into some fall-off-the-bone ribs and moist BBQ chicken, all of which marries nicely with their well-balanced sauce. If you're craving carbs try the ribs in sandwich form. They still have the bones in 'em (unlike a McRib), but they're easily extracted to leave you in sandwich heaven.
Franklin BBQ, Austin, TX
What you're getting: Brisket
There's a reason why people wait for three hours for a slice of Aaron Franklin's meat. Lauded as the best BBQ in the nation by everyone from Texas Monthly to Bon Appetit, the Franklin Moist is like the platonic ideal of brisket: the caramelized candy fat, crispy salt and pepper-rubbed bark, and meltingly tender meat smoke-kissed by hours of post-oak form a perfect union of brain-stopping deliciousness.
John Mueller, Austin, TX
What you're getting: Brisket and a beef rib
The grandson of BBQ legend Louie Mueller (more on him later), JM delivers the goods with his brisket, his sausage, and his turkey, but it's the beef ribs that you'd better not miss, with their fatty juiciness enhanced by a black pepper-loaded crust. If you find yourself in a long line, don't worry, he's known to occasionally dole out free beers to help patrons pass the time.
Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC
What you're getting: BBQ Sandwich with slaw
You don't have a lot of options at Skylight Inn, presided over by the Jones family which has been steeped in the whole hog, vinegar-kissed Eastern North Carolina BBQ tradition since the early 19th century. The good news is you don't need choices. Get a chopped pork sandwich topped with their fresh, crunchy coleslaw, or if you're watching carbs (really?), nab the tray with a pile of succulent meat, slaw, and a thin piece of cracklin' cornbread. Whoops. Sorry, carb guy.
BrisketTown/ Delaney Barbecue, Brooklyn, NY
What you're getting: Brisket, duh
First there was BrisketLab, a traveling series that popped up around NY to serve Daniel Delaney’s ultra-simple, salt & pepper-seasoned, Post Oak-smoked brisket, and it was delicious. Then there was the formal home of BrisketTown, and it was also delicious, and you didn’t have to do weird things to find it. Aside from some (brisket-based, of course) tacos here and there, Delaney is all brisket, all the time. Such singular focus will either drive a man mad, or lead him to create delicious smoked meat that lands him on 33 Best lists. Winston Churchill said that.
Fette Sau, Brooklyn, NY
What you're getting: Brisket and a beef rib
It means “fat pig” in German, and it will do whatever it can to make you the same thing in English. Sporting a run of outdoor picnic tables leading to what’s essentially a cinder block garage filled with hungry Brooklynites who wait in line to select their by-the-pound meats, Fette Sau does everything exceptionally well, and some things exceptionally-er well. The beef ribs will make you feel like a caveman gourmand, an espresso-involving rub gives the tender pork belly a unique kick, and the charred, fatty top layer of the brisket will melt in your mouth, which is unfortunate -- it’d be better if it just stayed there for, well, ever.
Smoque, Chicago, IL
What you're getting: Brisket & St. Louis Spare Ribs
Like many joints North of the BBQ belt, Smoque draws various elements from all of the great regional 'que traditions, but it also nails them to a degree rarely seen in said parts. Any doubts about their attention to detail will be put to rest in their epic BBQ Manifesto, and by a peppery, tender bite of brisket followed up with a meaty pork spare rib.
Lockhart Smokehouse, Dallas, TX
What you're getting: Beef shoulder clod
Started by the granddaughter of the guy who ran Kreuz Market from 1948 until the '80s, Lockhart has family cred to spare. And they've also got Kreuz foodstuffs, like their amazing jalapeño cheese sausages. And some of the best brisket (and its beefier, leaner cousin shoulder clod) coming out of that Bewley smoker.
Pecan Lodge, Dallas, TX
What you're getting: The Three Meat BBQ Combo with brisket, beef ribs, and sausage (plus the M-m-mac 'n cheese as your side), AND a "Hot Mess"
Even if you're not convinced by the fact that Texas Monthly's BBQ editor named Pecan Lodge the second best BBQ place in Texas, perhaps you will be convinced when you see the hordes of people lining up for hours just to get at this relative newcomer to the BBQ scene, started by a couple who worked as management consultants, but decided -- despite the inherent sexiness of that gig -- that smoking brisket was the better move. If you come on the weekend, come early, and prepare to wait. But once you try the peppery beef ribs, the crazy moist brisket, and that legendary Hot Mess (a "sea salt-crusted sweet potato, South Texas barbacoa (shredded brisket with southwestern seasoning), chipotle cream, cheese, butter, green onions"), you'll understand why.
Big Bob Gibson's, Decatur, AL
What you're getting: Whole chicken, white sauce
With a shload of history going back to 1925 and an even bigger shload of accolades thanks to their competition team, BBG excels in many facets of the smoked meat arts, and no one but your cardiologist would question you if you just went with a massive combo platter of everything. But the white-sauced chicken is a unique experience, with black pepper and horseradish spicing up the mayo-based sauce.
Wilber's Barbecue, Goldsboro, NC
What you're getting: The barbecue pork plate (and maybe a half-chicken, barbecued, all dark meat)
Since 1962, Wilber's has been one of the best whole-hog BBQ joints in the country. Hogs are cooked for 12hrs and pulled apart by hand, with just a hint of vinegar and chile. The BBQ chicken -- especially that dark meat -- is unbelievably moist as well, and if you're feeling particularly Southern, it all goes down smooth with a side of smoky, thick Brunswick stew.
Scott's Bar-B-Que, Hemingway, SC
What you're getting: A half pit-cooked BBQ hog (if you called ahead), or 1lb of pulled pork with a side of fried skins (if you didn't)
The Scotts have been slow-cooking hogs over a wood-burning pit since 1972. Rodney, the son, is now the pitmaster, and his BBQ'd pork (cooked over wood he fells and chops himself!) has been a cultish hit, making the spot a pilgrimage destination for BBQ aficionados all over the East. But, seriously though, get that side of fried skins.
Arthur Bryant's, Kansas City, MO What you're getting: Pork ribs, original sauce
The legendary KC joint has spawned a mini-empire, but you want the Brooklyn original (as in Brooklyn St, not NY or Decker), where you'll tear into a slab of still-amazing ribs that has sated great Americans from Harry Truman to the one and only Bryant Gumbel.
LC's Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, MO
What you're getting: The burnt ends sandwich
Often flying under the radar relative to some of its more heralded KC BBQ brethren, LC's is an unassuming shack with the pit situated directly behind the counter, where, if you know what you're doing, you'll be ordering yourself a burnt ends sandwich. The term "sandwich" only applies loosely here in that there are two pieces of bread involved, but good luck picking up the entire pile of fatty, smoky, delicious hunks of bark-y brisket with your hands.
Oklahoma Joe's, Kansas City, MO
What you're getting: Ribs & burnt ends (if they have 'em)
Getting its start as an award-winning competitive BBQ team in the '90s, Oklahoma Joe's eventually settled into a KC gas station and hasn't looked back since, spawning several more locations and an endless stream of accolades. It's hard (actually, damn near impossible) to make a bad call, but don't miss the ribs, and if they happen to be serving burnt ends (availability is limited), definitely don't miss those. Also, purists might scoff at their celebrated Z-Man sandwich because of the smoked provolone that sits atop sliced brisket along with thick onion rings, all jammed into a kaiser roll, but your taste buds will not.
Lexington BBQ, Lexington, NC
What you're getting: Chopped BBQ sandwich with some "outside brown"
If you want to try and sound like a local, you can call it "The Monk", as it was established by Wayne Monk in '62. But maybe don't call it the Monk and just settle down and enjoy the sated bliss of eating one of their pork-shoulder-only specials cooked for nine hours over hickory oak coals. Or just move to Lexington, NC, eat there twice a week, and earn it. It might be worth it.
Snow's BBQ, Lexington, TX
What you're getting: Whatever's left
They're only open Saturday's from 8a to whenever they're out of meat (usually by around noon). The pit boss is in her 70s and works as a custodian during the week at the nearby school. And the spectacular BBQ went from largely unknown to statewide sensation when Texas Monthly named it best in Texas in 2008. Since then, they've fought to keep up the quality in the face of increased demand, and, given the way the brisket keeps moving, they're succeeding.
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, Llano, TX
What you're getting: The BBQ Pork Chop, aka "The Big Chop"
You know how we know Cooper's is awesome? Maybe because they have a FREAKIN' JINGLE THAT PLAYS OVER AND OVER AGAIN ON THEIR SITE. Or maybe it's because the legendary spot cooks their meat (kind of controversially!) "cowboy-style" over coals, before finishing it in smoke-filled pit. Though you won't care about the controversy once you try that pepper and salt flecked pork goodness. After all, the song does say "nothing beats a Big Chop, smoked over mesquite".
Black's Barbecue, Lockhart, TX
What you're getting: Brisket, beef ribs
Declared the "Barbecue Capital of Texas" by the state legislature, Lockhart likely boasts more BBQ history per capita than just about anywhere (see the next entry). Black's has been continually operated by the same family since 1932 (now on generation number four), and you can taste them (well not like, literally) in the peppery bark that envelopes their brisket and beef ribs.
Kreuz Market, Lockhart, TX
What you're getting: Brisket, jalapeno sausage, pork chop
A meat mecca that got its start at the turn of the last century, Kreuz relocated to its current digs in 1999 after outgrowing its former home (which now houses just-missed-the-list Smitty's Market). Load up on fatty, tender brisket and spicy, house-ground jalapeno sausage, then just say goodbye to the rest of the day and add a pork chop, too. Just don't ask for a fork (they rightly believe meat should be eaten with hands) and don't ask for sauce unless you're referring to a Shiner Bock.
City Market, Luling, TX
What you're getting: Pork ribs and sausage
This Texas institution (don't accidentally end up in the confusingly named Luling City Market in Houston) is set up with separate lines for your 'que and your beverages/ sides, so you know which line you're going for. Brisket is king in Texas, and City Market certainly gets it done, but the even bigger standouts are the smoky, spicy sausage links and the pork ribs, which marry excellently with the mustard-kicked sauce, an unusual move in these parts.
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Memphis, TN
What you're getting: Large order of the charcoal-broiled pork ribs, and the sausage and cheese appetizer
As legend has it, in 1948, Charlie Vergos was cleaning out his diner's basement when he discovered a coal chute. The chute, he reasoned, could work as a vent. And the vent, he reasoned, would work well to help him charcoal-broil meats. One day, his meat guy brought him ribs. And Charlie tried a dry-rub using Greek seasonings and chili powder. The meat guy said "gross, BBQ should be red". So he added paprika, and boom, that's how "the modern dry-rub seasoning was born". And now that you know these things, go to this eclectic, awesome resto, and eat all that history in rib form.
Central BBQ, Memphis, TN
What you're getting: A full slab of ribs served "1/2 and 1/2", and the chips and bleu cheese
Crazily named for the Avenue it sits on, Central is a young buck in the Memphis BBQ game (opened in 2002), and, at first glance, the servers in tie-dyed shirts and the hip outdoor deck might make you feel like you might've just stumbled into a tourist trap (SPOILER ALERT: you didn't!). Don't worry: Central has serious BBQ chops, as evidenced by their loin back ribs, which are like larger babies rubbed with their special rib rub, marinated overnight, and slow smoked. You're also going to want their house-made potato chips with chunky bleu cheese dressing. And a Ghost River beer. And pretty much everything else.
Payne's Bar-B-Que, Memphis, TN
What you're getting: Chopped pork sandwich (jumbo size)
The space may not be handsome, but literally no one cares. All they care about is getting one of these chopped pork classics with pickle/mustard seed sweet slaw that Horton and Flora Payne's family have been serving since 1972. Though you won't have any luck eating it like a sandwich, you won't care about that either, as stuffing your face and covering it in pork and sauce until it, too, isn't handsome is just another Payne's tradition.
17th St Bar & Grill, Murphysboro, IL
What you're getting: Ribs
Three-time Memphis In May Grand World Champion Mike Mills' BBQ acumen has spawned restaurants in Vegas and a stake in NYC's lauded Blue Smoke, but you're headed to the mother ship in Southern Illinois, widely touting Mills' quote "Life Is Too Short for Half a Rack". You should probably listen to him.
The Joint, New Orleans, LA
What you're getting: Ribs, pulled pork, mac & cheese
Having recently relocated to a new spot in the Bywater, The Joint's tagline (Always Smokin') is apt given the juicy, perfectly textured ribs and the succulent pulled pork (excellent with the apple cider vinegar-kicked sauce), and the creamy mac & cheese actually makes it work, diverting your attention from the meat for a little bit. But not too long.
Podnah's Pit, Portland, OR
What you're getting: The Pitmaster
Podnah's pitmaster gets up at 5a every day to make the meats, kind of like a blood-stained Dunkin' Donuts mascot. So pay respect by ordering the namesake, which is a greatest hits of Podnah's Texas-style meat madness. The heaping platter includes 1/4lb of pulled pork (sauce on the side), 1/4lb of brisket (including melt-in-your-mouth burnt ends), a sausage, two ribs, and, sadly, no Prilosec.
Clyde Cooper's Barbecue, Raleigh, NC
What you're getting: Chopped pork, hush puppies, pork rinds
First the bad news: development is causing Clyde's to relocate soon from the location it's called home since 1938. But the good news is you'll still be able to enjoy a heaping plate of Carolina pork with delicious, subtly sweet hush puppies and crispy pork rinds when they relocate. Clyde himself lived to be nearly 100 eating it, so it has to be good for you.
Pappy's Smokehouse, St. Louis, MO
What you're getting: A full slab of ribs and burnt ends combo meal
Mike Emerson's slow smokes his meats over apple and cherry wood for up to 14 hours, but if you don't get there early on the weekend, you won't taste them, as Pappy's sells out faster than its meats cook. But if you do get your chance, opt for the ribs and underrated burnt ends, and keep a little of Pappy's Original sauce on the side for dipping.
Phil's BBQ, San Diego, CA
What you're getting: The El Toro sandwich and a half rack of baby back ribs
San Diego!? California!? To see a place in Southern California make the list might cause some consternation from the purists, but Phil Pace's spot has earned a seat at the table. Combining self-taught recipes for rubs and sauces with traditional mesquite BBQing has netted him a successful mini-empire in SD, and last year, that El Toro tri-tip 'wich was a finalist for Alan Richman's "Best Sandwich in America" (though those same purists might want to just stick to the baby backs).
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Syracuse, NY
What you're getting: Tres Hombres (pork, brisket, ribs)
Some BBQ joints are acolytes of form and tradition, and will never, ever veer from the path set by their regional forefathers. Others name themselves after awesome giant cretaceous lizards, start as a biker shack, never grow out of it, and also have pretty good damn good ribs. “Dino” has given birth to outposts in Harlem, Brooklyn, Newark, and more, but the original in ‘Cuse is the one making this list, and only partially for the food. Weave through the Harleys, put your name down, wait outside, wait some more, grab your table, and prepare for the biker-chick waitress to plop down at your table and chat you up, and eventually, also take your order.
Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX
What you're getting: The beef brisket, and a Texas beef rib
LM has been featured in three films (including The Hot Spot!), two documentaries, and that show where Guy Fieri shows people in diners how he bleaches his hair. It's been around since 1949. It has some of the best brisket on the planet. This is not even opinion, but more like stated fact. But a lesser-known fact is that it also has some of the best beef ribs in the world, which are like the ones Fred Flintstone eats before yelling at his weirdly sexy wife: all fatty and rich and giant and delicious.
Dreamland BBQ, Tuscaloosa, AL
What you're getting: Ribs, then banana pudding
Weirdly also where you're likely to end up AFTER leaving this place and entering a meat-induced food coma, this Alabama institution (started in 1958, the same year Bear Bryant took over the Crimson Tide) is without question known for its tender, juicy, "is that guy looking because I might steak one of his" ribs. Eat enough to be comically full, then eat some of the crazy-good banana pudding anyway.