It may seem like an odd decision for a born and raised New Yorker to go on a quest for 'que. We know grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and the occasional steak. But like the pilgrims who came to the shores of America, I didn't know exactly what I'd find, but I knew it had to be a whole lot better than what I had.
Regional Differences in 'Que
Barbeque isn't the same all over. First, grilling isn't the same as smoking. Smoking tenderizes the meat with slow, indirect heat and also provides
that heavenly flavor. Grilling is when the meat is placed directly over the heat source. 'Que lovers also regularly disagree about what makes great 'que.
Should it be wet or dry (with or without sauce). Spicy? Mild? Sweet? Vinegar? Then, of course, there are regional specialties.
The folks of Alabama are blessed with much 'que, several restaurants in each town. I confess, I adored the food everywhere. It's country cookin' at its
best with country fried steak, crisp and moist biscuits, delicately yeasty rolls, and (sigh) fried chicken with gravy. And pie for dessert. Into this
wonderland of fabulous food, I found BBQ, and I was introduced to an Alabama version sandwiched with pool room 'slaw. It's mustard sauced rather than
mayonaise. I promise you'll love it, and begin to put it on (almost) every meat you eat.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
1715 6th Avenue, SE
Decatur, AL 35601
Eating in Big Bob Gibson’s is my idea of great eating. Lots of delicious food that keeps on coming. Yes, I ate my way through their menu, from the
smokey tender pulled pork through the oh-my-gosh good homemade pie. Their brisket is the best I've had since Texas. And the pulled pork was a bit of
heaven. Started in 1925 by the original Big Bob, who is said to have nailed some planks together, dug a pit and began smoking, their BBQ has been
winning award after award. Originally the specialties were pork and chicken, especially dipped in the special mayonnaise-based white sauce.
Eventually ribs, brisket and expanded sides were added as well as their fabulous pie, and their gargantuan potatoes filled with butter, sour cream,
bacon, chives and your choice of meat (a complete delicious meal in itself). Their white and red sauces are winners, walking away with prizes in
Memphis in May and other competitions. We walked away with a bottle of each, and another favorite BBQ joint.
Kansas City may be known for its ribs, but if folks had traveled out to Rock Island, Illinois, and had Jim's ribs, people would be raving about
Jim's Rib Haven
531 24th Avenue
Rock Island, IL 61201
"It's almost as good as sex," said Marty in describing Jim's ribs. He patiently heard our expressions of skepticism, and offered to put them to the
taste test. So, about half-dozen of us trooped into Jim's Rib Haven in Rock Island, and emerged believers. Finger-lickin' believers. Hickory smoked
ribs are the specialty. There's other food, but why come if you ain't gonna eat those ribs. BTW, Marty also recommended we order baby back ribs with
the hot sauce. "Don't worry it won't be too hot. It will be just right." He was, of course, right again. Jim would be Jim Overton who started the
eatery in 1967 at the urging of his friends and neighbors who knew a good thing when they ate it. So did Marty. And so did we.
Tompkinsville, the Town with Que
Kentucky BBQ is also pork-based. And they certainly love and do fine pulled pork. But their regional specialty is actually thinly sliced pork butt. Monroe County is also unusual because it has, at most recent count, seven places serving BBQ, all in the area of Thompkinsville. Sadly we couldn't try them all, but we did eat our way through two places.
219 West Second Street
Tompkinsville, KY 42167
R&S Bar-B-Q is owned by Anita who is carrying on the BBQ tradition in her family, dating back to the early 1900s when her grandfather started a BBQ.
Anita uses hickory wood which is burned down into wood chips, then brought inside and placed in a huge grill. Her baked beans are fabulous and the
potato salad has a wonderful pickle sweet flavor. In addition to the Kentucky pork shoulder, try the pulled pork. She boils pork butt until the meat
falls off the bones and mixes it with her special ingredients to make it saucy-delicious. The slaw here is also vinegar-based, although you can also
get a more traditional mayonnaise-based slaw.
163 South Celina Road
Tompkinsville, KY 42167
Frances Bar-B-Que is another local favorite, and with good reason. David Arms, who named the restaurant after his mother, explains that their sliced
pork shoulder starts out as frozen pork butt which is then thinly sliced. How thin? -- 3/16th of an inch. The key to his tender, smoky shoulder is to
"flip and dip" alternating between dipping it in the tangy sauce and flipping over the coals. Their full menu includes chicken, ham, brisket, ribs and
more as well as the full complement of sides.
Tina's Bar B-Q
After several days of eating fast-food (but certainly not good food) on a cross-country road trip I was ready for an offroad search for 'que.
I randomly picked an exit and there in the distance I saw a sign for BBQ. It was truly serendipity and I was grateful. Tina serves her beautifully
smoked pulled pork loose with sides or as a sandwich platter. It came on toast (Texas toast) with mustard slaw which I hadn't had since Alabama and
sorely missed. The beef brisket was, as described, shaved and with a spicy kick. Also available are baby back ribs smoked with dry rub as well as
smoked chicken and shaved smoked turkey. The usual array of lip-smacking good country sides are available. Tina's is serious BBQ. Seriously good BBQ.
And don't even think of asking for burgers or fries.
Whole Hog Cafe -- we don't usually find franchise places to have to-die-for barbeque, until we tried the
Whole Hog Cafe . We were in hog heaven, and brisket heaven as well. They have several
locations around the country, with two in New Mexico.
3006 Cerrillos Road
9880 Montgomery, NE
The pulled pork was perfectly cooked and deliciously lean. The brisket was rubbed to perfection then sliced with just the right thickness. With 6 different barbeque
sauces available, you're sure to find just the flavor you want. Put a little on the pork, but the brisket is heaven just as is. Oh yeah, they have other
stuff as well.
2321 Carlisle, NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
With two locations (the other is in the NW section of ABQ) there's no excuse not to enjoy the deliciously chewy brisket and the lightly smoked prime ribs. We're picky about our brisket, prefering it tender but not mushy. Rudy's measured up perfectly. And well it should. Rudy's actually started in Texas and considers itself a meat market that sells cooked meats.
Smoked prime ribs is a dish we first heard of in Texas (of course) and happily tried in Rudy's. Not as heavily smoked as the brisket, it tastes like prime
ribs, only better. Rudy's has no atmosphere, unless you count a large room filled with long communal tables as atmosphere. But you can order your 'que by
weight, exactly how much you want, pick up as many or as few sides from the racks of covered containers, and grab a drink from the trough filled with ice
and bottles of beer, soda, water, and more. They bottle and sell their own sauce but we're purists. Their brisket comes as regular or lean. The regular
is a bit fatty, and the lean is devoid of fat. Perfect brisket doesn't need sauce, just a great dry rub and smokin'. The other items on the menu didn't
reach these levels of excellence, but if brisket and prime ribs are your thing than Rudy's is your place.
Cowgirl Hall of Fame (and Grill)
319 S. Guadalupe Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
It’s down home delicious. The Hall of Fame part refers to the memorabilia decorating the interior rooms (and worth a visit) but the long community-eating
tables outside in front (although they do have smaller tables as well) are for eatin’ and listening to the music. Mesquite smoked chicken,
ribs, and brisket are excellent, and so is the joint-rocking music. Santa Fe is not really a cowboy town and its restaurants are usually more yuppie than
cowfolk but little folk are welcome too. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then music until 2AM, making it one of the rockingest
happeningest places in town. They also have the texas onion loaf – and a whole slew of other entrees so it's a great place for group dining.
Long Island, New York
Once a desert without any 'que at all, Long Island now one really fine places to get traditional BBQ. There were some places in NYC, but the hinterland of
19 West Main Street
Bayshore, New York
For those wishing to sit down indoors and eat, Smokin' Al's in Bayshore is the best place on Long Island. The pulled pork is smoky good, the ribs are finger-lickin' delicious. The sides are all excellent and you can get bacon-y good collard greens with just the right amount of tang. Al also offers one of my favorite appetizers– a haystack of fried onion sticks with a creamy barbeque favored dipping sauce. The place is easy to miss, except for the people generally pooling outside waiting for a table. The wood floors and brick walls give it a friendly feel.
North Carolina – Outer Banks
The south is pork country. The pork butt should be smoked slowly and lovingly for hours, then mixed with a sassy vinegar-based sauce. Of all the places to eat 'que in North Carolina, why did we pick the Outer Banks? Because it's a great place to visit in its own right. The Outer Banks has long stretches of open
ocean beaches, charming towns, and a protected bay. And why not enjoy some special BBQ while you're here.
High Cotton Barbeque
5230 N. Virginia Dare Trail
Kitty Hawk, NC 27949
The local 'que lovers rave about High Cotton BBQ in Kitty Hawk. It's homey inside and out, in a building typical of traditional Outer Banks Nags Head architecture. Although they serve chicken and ribs, you'll go for the traditional North Carolina chopped pork, smoked over hickory coals. Sides are 'slaw, beans, and cornbread.
416 Broadway (Downtown in the District)
Nashville, TN 37203
We just plain got lucky when we found Jack's. Recommended by the concierge at a downtown hotel as great food and pet-friendly (dogs are allowed on the outdoor patio) we walked over and had the best ribs ever. The line was just about out the door, but the food makes it well worthwhile. You can add sauce if you want -- several kinds are available, but don't bother. These succulent, meaty dry rubbed ribs are perfect as served. Anything else would only distract you from savoring the flavor.
Texas is brisket country. All that cattle, they had to end up specializing in beef. And nobody does it better.
The Swinging Door
3818 FM 359 Rd
Richmond Texas 77469
It was in the Swinging Door in a suburb of Houston Texas that I fell in love with true barbeque. This delicious bit of a honky-tonk haunt was way the heck out. We spent hours on the road, passing farms, and cows, and empty, empty land. But the meltingly tender smoky brisket was a taste of heaven served with just a hint of sauce, the meat pungent with the flavor of pecan wood smoked slowly for hours. People also rave (and with good reason) about their smoked turkey, and their ribs. And if that wasn't enough, there were sides of mustardy potato salad, slaw, and Texas beans which made my mouth water for more. And to finish a meal so crammed with good eatin' I knew I'd never taste its likes again, was fresh made pie topped with soft ice cream. Oh my gosh!
Started in 1973 by Steve and Ward Onstad they clearly knew what they were doing. Only 6 years later they became award-winners at the Houston Live Stock and Rodeo Show. What's Texas without music and dance, so the Swinging Door is open Saturday nights for dancin'.
The Swinging Door, reason enough to visit Houston.
7701 I-40 West
You wouldn't expect a mall to have great barbeque, but in Texas, it certainly happens. They're known for the ribs, brisket, and chicken fried steak.
We stuck to ribs and brisket on the que-hunt, but we're sure they do it all quite well. And have some of their wickedly delicious thin and crispy onion rings.
Wellington Square & I-40 & Georgia
Voted one of the best BBQ places in the region -- and with good reason. Even if the sign didn't proclaim this favorite eatery as BBQ, the unmistakeable smokey aroma, the smell of 'que, tells you that this place is real. Ribs are their specialty but Texas and brisket go together like Maine and lobster. The solution? Their combo platter. I opted for the smaller platter which came with delicious dryrubbed ribs basted in their special sauce (which is also brought to the table) and the slices of earthy, tender, smoked brisket with just the right bit of chew. And, if that wasn't enough to make me smile, it came with mustardy potato salad that seems to be another Texas specialty. We've said it before but no one does brisket like Texas.
'Que fans love to share favorite places, so we're happy to let y'all know about some other "tried and loved" places our readers have recommended.
Off the beaten path is the small town of Smithville in central Texas, southeast of Austin. Try
the bar-be-que, sausage, and ribs at Zimmerhanzel's BarBeQue!! Oh, so good!!! Thanks to HW for this delicious suggestion
A Work in Progress
BBQ Enthusiast (and poet perhaps) Neil Dallenbach writes When I sleep I dream about swirling smoke, hot flames, tender cuts of meat on the grill or smoker,
spicy dry rubs, saucy marinades and tangy BBQ sauces. He also offers these favorite places.
Texas: Luling City Market (The Best); and Kreuz Market for the German-style barbecue restaurant in Lockhart.
If you're in Austin, Neil suggestions Iron Works BBQ, and Stubbs. In Houston it's Goode Company.
But Neil saves his highest praise for Rudy's Bar-B-Q in Selma Texas.
Just inside the Selma city limits and I pull into what looks to be an 18 wheeler truck stop or old Texas ice house. You immediately know that it is
more than a truck stop when you smell that delicious oak smoke from the parking lot. Inside are a myriad of smoky delights. My favorite, and to this day
I say it is the best I have ever had, is their smoked turkey.
You begin your Rudy’s Bar-B-Q experience by walking through the line and choosing your drinks, picking up a red tray and some silverware and then you
arrive at what I believe a BBQ counter in heaven would look and smell like. Behind the counter servers are the pits and the carvers cutting away at the
savory tender brisket, sausage links, turkey and several other smoked meats (See the menu below). The meats, seasoned with wonderful dry rub spices, are
served to you just like in an old butcher shop or classic meat market, on white butcher paper, by the pound with pickles and plenty of bread. Then after
you happily pay the toll (the bill) to the cashier you can head out to the picnic tables, each with their own big bottle of Rudy’s “Sause” and plenty of paper towels.
The flavor in all their meats is perfect and in my book they need no sauce. I like to think this is the true measure of good BBQ. In my circle of
boucaniers the consensus is that good BBQ meat has a well balanced flavor from the dry rub, the smoke on the meat isn’t overpowering and although the
meat is thoroughly cooked and it is still moist. BBQ smothered in a sauce can hide a lot of mistakes. That being said their peppery “sause” is
delicious. It is a nice complement to any of their meats. Every time I come home to San Antonio I stop into Rudy’s for a wonderful south central
Texas BBQ meal.
'Que lover Tex Wilson from Louisiana writes that The Salt Lick in Austin is definitely a place to consider.
They present truly glorious 'que under
the spreading oak trees of the Texas Hill Country. Your mouth starts
watering when you hit the screen door of the stone building
constructed in 1969, and you're drooling like a mad dog by the time
you get your grub to the picnic table. Outstanding food in an east
Texas setting--heavenly. Bonus: relatively inexpensive, clever t-
shirts--who wouldn't want a "Smell Out Pits" souvenir tog? Super
bonus: They ship meat as well as sauce, shirts and the like! A rarity
in the bbq world, in my experience, and a lifeline for us
The search for BBQ never ends, of course. So, as we find great 'que we'll be adding to the listing. Our goal is simple…eat BBQ across the country.
Photos by Neala
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