The 10 Best BBQ Joints in America

on May 28, 2013
The Salt Lick/Photo by Kenny Braun

When smoke gets in your meal... everyone wins.

There’s no one way to do barbecue. Like many types of cuisine, the smokey world of grilled meats takes a cue from its geographical region. While pork ribs rule in Memphis, beef brisket is king in the Lone Star State. But there’s one thing that pitmasters and barbecue connoisseurs around the world can agree on (and no, it’s not how to spell it): the best kind of barbecue requires a wet-nap. Whether you prefer pulled pork in Raleigh or spare ribs in St. Louis, we’ve stuffed ourselves from coast to coast to uncover the 10 Best BBQ Joints in America.

—By Jennifer M. Wood

Photo by Kenny Braun

The Salt Lick

Locations: Driftwood & Round Rock, TX
Website: The Salt Lick

Since 1967, The Salt Lick has been a defining staple of the Texas barbecue scene. But its roots go back even further, to the mid-1800s, when owner Scott Roberts’ great-grandmother Bettie traveled from Mississippi to Texas and brought along her love of open-fire cooking.

It’s Bettie’s very method—which includes searing then slow-cooking the meat over coals—that the restaurant continues to use today, with everything cooked over the open fire pit that has been The Salt Lick’s signature design element for more than 40 years. This is where they prepare a serious smoked brisket, available by the pound, on a plate or on a truly Texas-sized sandwich. Oh, the choices!

Franklin Barbecue

Location: Austin, TX
Website: Franklin Barbecue

“Great barbecue needs to be eaten right away,” says Stacy Franklin, one half of the husband-and-wife team who owns Austin’s drool-worthy Franklin Barbecue.

While fresh-off-the-grill is part of the business plan, the enviable dishes that Franklin Barbecue is cooking up are anything but quickly thrown together. This being Texas, brisket is the thing. And Franklin is doing it right—making sure their meat is growth hormone- and antibiotic-free and tending to each slab of meat for 12 to 18 hours, using only oak for fuel. It’s no wonder Bon Appetit named it the Best Barbecue Restaurant in America (and gave it the number 17 spot on its list of The 20 Most Important Restaurants in America just a few weeks back). These accolades could also help explain the line of patrons who wait outside, attempting to get their mouths around some of the world’s best brisket before it sells out (which it has done every day of its existence).

Photo by Scott LeVoyer

The Pit Barbecue

Location: Raleigh, NC
Website: The Pit Barbecue

From hole-in-the-walls to sprawling upscale eateries, North Carolina is home to some of the world’s most legendary barbecue joints. Among the state’s top contenders is The Pit in Raleigh, where the pitmasters cook whole-hog—literally. The restaurant’s signature dish is a whole-hog chopped barbecue with Eastern North Carolina sauce. The menu’s most popular offering is the Carolina ribs, a meatier version of baby back ribs. But the menu goes way beyond the traditional: barbecued tofu, which is seasoned, grilled and topped with The Pit’s signature sauce, makes this one of the few vegetarian-friendly BBQ joints (if that vegetarian doesn’t mind watching his or her carnivorous friends chow down).

For owner Greg Hatem, great barbecue is all about timing. “The real secret is patience and following tradition,” he says. “And you do that by starting with great, locally raised whole hogs, cooked slowly over a combination of oak, hickory and charcoal and smoked to perfection for a dozen hours or more."

Photo by Benjamin Galland, H2O Creative Group

Southern Soul Barbeque

Location: St. Simons Island, GA
Website: Southern Soul Barbeque

Off Georgia’s scenic coast, among its quaint Golden Isles, sits St. Simons Island. Which is where you’ll find this self-described “smoke joint,” which has been praised by media near and far, from Southern Living to The Huffington Post. It’s also made appearances on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters. Which is to say that it’s a favorite of smoke-loving tastemakers everywhere—and with good reason!

Proprietor/pitmaster Harrison Sapp has got two hard and fast rules when it comes to cooking up the perfect dish: “Respect the pig” and “No wood, no good.” Since its inception in 2006 (and subsequent resurrection in 2010), local hardwood oak is the only fuel you’ll ever find at Southern Soul. And that’s the key to all that slow-smoked deliciousness, including their signature salt and sugar-cured ribs with pan drippings. But you’ll find plenty of other unique eats, from turkey and chicken to sausage and Brunswick stew.

Redbones Barbecue

Location: Somerville & Malden, MA
Website: Redbones Barbecue

Boston’s culinary scene may be more closely associated with baked beans and clam chowder than downhome-style cooking. But since 1987, Redbones has been offering up an authentic taste of the south, from hush puppies to fried okra. And with nearly 30 beers on tap, there’s plenty of liquid with which to wash it all down.

If you want a chance to sample it all, order up the Barbeque Belt, a heaping dish of Memphis pork ribs, Texas beef rib, sliced beef brisket and Redbones’ own homemade sausage, plated with a side of beans, coleslaw and cornbread. Pitmaster/co-founder Robert Gregory’s advice for bringing a taste of the south to Beantown? “Make love to the meat.”

Moe’s Original Bar B Que

Location: Various locations
Website: Moe's Original Bar B Que

If you’re in the mood for a true Alabama-style experience, chances are there’s a Moe’s Original Bar B Que near you. With 26 locations across the country, including outposts in Colorado (where they also operate a food truck), North Carolina, Tennessee, Maine, Georgia and, of course, Alabama, you’re never too far from an authentic Bama-style meal.

The most decorated dish is Moe’s pulled smoked pork sandwich, which is served up with white and red sauces, marinated slaw and pickles. (The fried shrimp “Moe Boy” is a close second.) “Our secret to great barbecue is using fresh meats, roasted daily over hardwood, and lightly saucing before serving,” shares founding partner Mike Fernandez.

Photo by William Brinson

Blue Smoke

Location: New York, NY
Website: Blue Smoke

From Memphis to Kansas City and Texas to North Carolina, diners at New York City’s Blue Smoke don’t need to side with one particular regional style of cooking to feast. This is an equal opportunity eatery. It’s a restaurant/jazz club where Memphis baby back ribs, Kansas City spare ribs and Texas beef ribs play nicely together on the menu, and all can be washed down with a Southern-style cocktail (the Lynchburg Lemonade and Blood Orange Margarita are among our favorites).

When it comes to the recipe for perfect barbecue, executive chef/pitmaster Kenny Callaghan’s approach is simple: “You’ve got to handle good barbecue like a woman: low, slow, and steady.”

The Smoke Daddy

Location: Chicago, IL
Website: The Smoke Daddy

Founded in Chicago’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood in 1994, The Smoke Daddy (or just The Daddy, as it’s known to its legion of devotees) has been lauded by The New York Times, National Geographic, Zagat and Chicago Magazine and visited by The Food Network likes of Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray. That’s just how it goes when you’re constantly being deemed The Windy City’s best place for barbecue (which also features free live music nightly).

Come for the ribs—St. Louis-style spare ribs, baby back ribs and rib tips are among your choices—but stay for the Kansas City Burnt Ends, a limited sandwich item that also happens to be the restaurant’s signature dish. The secret to such crave-worthy dishes, according to co-owner Michael Dunlay, is twofold: “High quality meat [and] a great, thoughtful pitmaster who seasons and smokes the meat properly.”

Phil's BBQ

Location: San Diego, CA
Website: Phil's BBQ

When it comes to southern eats on the California coast, San Diegans have spoken: Phil’s BBQ wins! With four locations—including a spot at Petco Park, the city’s open air ballpark—no restaurant better satisfies residents’ cravings for mesquite-grilled baby back ribs, Phil’s most ordered dish.

What makes the menu so hanker-worthy is owner Phil Pace’s homemade (and top-secret) barbecue sauce, which tops everything from the ribs to the grilled chicken and also makes a delicious dipping sauce for the fresh-cut French fries and enormous onion rings. “Only two people know, and that’s how it’s going to remain,” Pace says of hush-hush recipe.”

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

Locations: Various locations
Website: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

What began as a mobile concession stand for bikers outside of Albany in 1983 has morphed into one of the culinary world’s most sought-after barbecue restaurants, with a half-dozen locations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, including the original brick-and-mortar outpost in Syracuse.

The most ordered item on Dinosaur’s menu of goodies? The St. Louis-style pork ribs, which are spice-rubbed, pit-smoked and lightly glazed with the restaurant’s signature BBQ sauce. “The secret to great BBQ is balance. The right balance of smoke, spice, sauce and meat. And that meat has to be tender; not falling apart, but tender,” says John Stage, Dinosaur’s CEO and the man who literally wrote the book on great barbecue. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: An American Roadhouse, co-written by Stage, was given a major thumbs up from the National Association of BBQ upon its release in 2002.