At a ‘cue joint, barbecue sides are like the halftime show at the Super Bowl. They may not be the main event, but for some of us, they’re the whole reason to show up. In speaking with nine chefs from across the South, we uncovered the multitude of options that serve as barbecue sides, many being derived from rich histories and local ingredients. Showcasing a range of flavors from bright and zesty to rich and savory, these rising star pitmasters prove, when barbecue sides are done right, they can easily steal the show.
Barbecue Sides that Steal the Spotlight
Chef Michelle Bailey thought she’d seen all the ways to prepare okra, frying it being the clear winner. But that all changed when her now-fiancée surprised her with whole grilled okra during a spontaneous summertime dinner. Swooned by the simplicity, crunch and layered flavors, the dish became a menu staple at Smoky Park Supper Club in Asheville, North Carolina, served with a creamy Alabama white sauce and pickled banana peppers. Whole grilled okra converts many okra naysayers and only needs around 20 dedicated minutes total to become a munchy side. Bailey recommends pairing the okra with quick-cooking proteins, like grilled chicken thighs with barbecue dry rub.
Arroz con gandules, a traditional Puerto Rican rice dish, proves to be a filling yet fresh companion to a variety of proteins. Balancing bright, fresh herbs with an earthy blend of spices, it acts as an impressive side to many smoked meats. Arroz con gandules also utilizes the legume known as the pigeon pea, a less sweet and more starchy counterpart to the common garden pea. While this dish is traditionally paired with lechón, slow-roasted pork, chef Hector Garate of Palmira Barbecue in Charleston, recommends barbecued beef cheeks to amplify the fattiness of the meat in contrast to the rice.
In a tale that was bound to end successfully, David Bancroft, 2016 James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: South and winner of the Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown in 2017, was inspired by Doritos to create “Cool Ranch” tater tots. These tots riff on the Doritos fan-favorite flavor incorporating the iconic seasoning and a drizzle of poblano ranch. And just like Doritos, this dish works well as an appetizer or a side. Bancroft serves these at his restaurant, Bow & Arrow Barbecue in Auburn, Alabama.
Rashad Jones attributes the idea for these smoky gouda grits to Patrice, his wife; their goal was to “introduce smoke or fire or char to every one of these ingredients,” he says. Although these gouda grits stand alone, they’re truly meant to be paired with their testaurant, Big Lee’s in Ocala, Florida, famous brisket, which can be ordered and shipped anywhere in the United States.
This refreshing cucumber radish salad is inspired by Korean-style barbecue, which pairs heavier, smoky meat dishes with fresh and fermented ingredients in side dishes to aid digestion. According to chef Jiyeon Lee of Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta, Georgia, this cucumber radish salad provides “crunchiness and a little acidic sweetness” to complement smoked brisket and other beef dishes.
When Jason Gonzalez was growing up, Grandma Mabel’s dirty rice was a family staple. She made hers the traditional Cajun way with livers. Today, Gonzalez puts his own spin on her recipe by folding in bits of smoked brisket or beef cheeks to sit alongside the brisket and beef ribs on the menu at Gonzo’s. You can use whatever beef you’re smoking, or find prepared brisket from your favorite barbecue joint to pair with this dirty rice.
A lot of barbecue places put cornbread on the menu, but Leonard Botello improvises with a homey, comforting corn pudding, using his grandmother’s recipe. With just a few ingredients, it shines in its simplicity. At Truth BBQ in Houston, Texas, Botello serves his corn pudding with brisket; it stands up to the hearty meat and evens out its richness. But personally speaking, he prefers it with prime rib.
Kimchi and pork are a classic pairing in Korea, so chefs Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor of Heirloom BBQ in Atlanta recommend piling this on a pulled pork sandwich. This preparation is a “fresh” slaw, meaning that the kimchi base is cold fermented one week in advance, and then mixed with the fresh chopped vegetables.
Jake Wood of Lawrence Barbecue in Raleigh, North Carolina, firmly believes that brisket needs an accoutrement to balance its rich, meaty profile. For him, this chilled, herby chimichurri pasta salad does exactly that. Spaghetti tossed in a cilantro-based chimichurri and topped with shaved jalapeños and red onions will “wipe your mouth clean with its flavor profile!” He recommends enjoying the pasta on the second day, once the refrigerated noodles have a chance to set.
For nomadic master butcher, Blair Machado of Hamfish BBQ, barbecue sides were synonymous with summer during his Virginia childhood. This summer melon salad pairs well with anything that has come off the grill, from a whole hog to a whole fish—and it’s easy to source ingredients from local farms, which is what Hamfish is all about. Watermelon, cantaloupe, and Brazilian melon are all good melon candidates for this summer melon salad.