Whether you’re looking to expand your barbecue horizons or just want a well-timed detour on your next summer road trip, TLP is here to help. These are our top 25 picks for pit-stop-worthy barbecue across the South and beyond.
From its battered wooden tables to its tall walls, stained brown by decades of post oak smoke, Louie Mueller embodies the classic Central Texas style, which evolved out of the region’s meat markets. You’re going for hot guts sausage, colossal prime beef ribs, and moist, fatty brisket, fresh off the pit and cut to order while you watch.
James Beard award winner Aaron Franklin started his operation as a trailer by the highway—a long way from the epic lines that await his Austin restaurant these days. Still, his just charred brisket and lightly sauced ribs are worth the trek—and the wait.
La Barbecue owner LeAnn Mueller comes from a long line of barbecue legends (see Louie Meuller Barbecue above) and is seriously committed to serving the best. Grab a spot and settle in for the luscious slices of brisket; spicy, house-made links; and ribs as long as a forearm.
Founded in 1912 by Jack Patillo and carried on today by great-grandson, Robert, Patillo’s is the oldest family-owned barbecue restaurant in the state and a pure example of the distinctive East Texas style. You can get beef (it is in Texas, after all)—but here it’s thin-sliced shoulder served in a pool of a peppery, gravy-like sauce. The top sellers, though, are pork ribs, chicken, and the iconic links—juicy handmade beef sausage studded with garlic and chili powder.
On Saturdays only, pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz and her team fire up two steel smokers and load them up with brisket, while also tending six cookers to put out hundreds of cuts of ribs, pork steaks, sausages, turkey breasts, and half chickens. It’s a rustic operation but her fans are loyal, so get there early.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA; BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
Having cut his teeth at his family’s Hemingway pits, Rodney Scott opened his own joint in Charleston, bringing his whole hog expertise to a boatload more people. Manning the pits overnight, watching for scorched meat, Scott has perfected his technique over 30 years—this results in succulent pulled pork, delicately laced with a vinegar-based sauce that shows off the flavor of the smoke.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Having grown up tinkering with smokers and eventually designing his own, John Lewis earned his barbecue chops alongside Austin’s Aaron Franklin, and barbecue family royalty, LeeAnn Mueller. He arrived in Charleston in 2015, emphasizing Texas-style chopped and sliced brisket, smoked turkey, and hot guts sausage.
HEMINGWAY, SOUTH CAROLINA
Roosevelt and Ella Scott’s son, Rodney, has gone on to achieve culinary fame and now runs two restaurants of his own in Charleston and Birmingham, but it’s well worth a drive out to Hemingway, where the family’s famous whole hog-style originated. Cooked on open cinderblock pits and mopped with a spicy vinegar sauce, the longs strands of pulled pork are barbecue perfection. 843-558-0134
HOLLY HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA
Set in an old farmhouse that opened as a barbecue joint in 1977, Sweatman’s smokes whole hogs over oak, hickory, and pecan woods for 12 to 24 hours, basted along the way with a mustard-based sauce. Don’t miss the sides, especially the hash and rice and banana bread. sweatmansbbq.com
WEST COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
A take-out-only market open Friday and Saturday, Hite’s turns out some of the best Midlands barbecue to be found. That means pork cooked for hours on open wood pits, then chopped and dressed in a bright yellow, mustard-based sauce. Be sure to get a side of hash and rice: a thick, savory gravy served over white rice. It’s a local delicacy.
AYDEN, NORTH CAROLINA
In the eastern parts of North Carolina, they cook whole hogs on open pits, chop it fine, and finish it in a pepper-laced vinegar sauce. Perhaps the purest distillation of this can be found at Skylight Inn, where the Jones family has been serving it since 1947 with nothing more than slaw and cornbread on the side.
GREENVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA; RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA
Third-generation pitmaster Sam Jones learned the business from the ground up at his family’s restaurant, Skylight Inn BBQ. At his own spots, he carries on the tradition of whole hog pit cooking with a pulled pork sandwich named for his grandfather. Don’t skip the catfish bites.
LEXINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA
Barbecue means pork in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, but here they cook shoulders, not whole hogs. The vinegar sauce gets a sweet red tinge from tomato ketchup, as does the coleslaw.
ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
Chef Elliott Moss sticks with an Eastern Carolina style of ‘cue, cooking whole hogs over a wood-fired pit—and often uses the drippings to tenderize and flavor his green beans. The Asheville operation also puts out a serious buttermilk fried chicken sandwich and beloved pies.
The Fox brothers are one dynamic twin duo. The Texas natives brought smoked brisket to Atlanta, along with a beloved dish from childhood, frito pie. Start with their smoked wings and then move on to a heaping platter of pork ribs.
JACKSON AND MACON, GEORGIA
Right behind the counter at Fresh Air BBQ is a big, L-shaped brick pit where they cook uncured hams over oak and hickory all night long. The menu is slim—chopped pork on a sandwich or by the pound, with brunswick stew, slaw, and potato chips for sides.
The counties around Owensboro, Kentucky, are home to burgoo—a tangy, slow-cooked barbecue stew—and barbecued mutton dressed in dark, worcestershire-tinged “dip.” There’s no better place to sample both than at Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, where the Foreman family has been cooking mutton on woodfired pits for more than a century.
A&R is a great place to sample the key features of Memphis barbecue. That means pork shoulders and ribs cooked on charcoal-fired pits and dressed in a sweet, tangy sauce that sparkles with spice. They’ve even got barbecued bologna and barbecue spaghetti, two of the city’s delicious novelties.
The western counties of Tennessee used to be whole hog barbecue country, but most restaurants long ago switched to cooking just shoulders. Scott’s-Parker’s in Lexington is one of the holdouts. They pile moist, smoky chopped pork on a bun and dress it with crisp slaw and a spicy, lip-tingling red sauce. 731-968-0420
In concrete brick pits, over hickory and oak embers, Helen Turner smokes shoulders, ribs, and smoky, sweet bologna using the same methods she’s applied for nearly twenty-five years. Polish sausage and pork tips round out the menu, as do her sides, like fluffy cabbage slaw and barbecued beans. 731-779-3255
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE (plus multiple other locations)
Pitmaster Pat Martin continues a long Tennessee tradition of whole hog style barbecue, cooked over pits in his now numerous restaurants. Stuffed into a sandwich, that meat is a must, as are his St. Louis-style spareribs (find his recipe on page TK), smoked wings doused in Alabama white sauce, and mac and cheese made with barbecue rub.
Known for his rowdy competition team, and now a highly awarded whiskey, Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker remains an expert at spice-laden dry-rubbed ribs as well as pulled pork, which Nashvillians know to enjoy atop Bringle’s BBQ nachos.
Alabama barbecue offers a little of everything rolled together—beef, pork, turkey, chicken. You can find all that and more cooked on big wood-fired pits at Big Bob Gibson. It’s the original home of the state’s most notable contribution to the South’s regional styles: mayo-based white barbecue sauce, which gives a cool and tangy finish to slow-smoked chicken.
Smoked chicken in white sauce and pulled pork are the stars at this popular Alabama spot. Owner Mike Saw hails from North Carolina and brings a tangy sweet vinegar-based sauces to the table, along with a mean banana pudding.
Experts at the half chicken smoked over coals that are recognizable at this region’s many fire department fundraisers, BBQ Exchange also hickory-smokes pork shoulders and spareribs. Don’t miss the brunswick stew or the pumpkin muffins.
Two joints that are new to the Southern scene
RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA
Chef Jake Wood’s plans to open Lawrence BBQ, named for his son and grandfather, could easily have been derailed by Covid, but instead, it gave him a chance to work out the kinks. He spent the first few months of the pandemic preparing free meals for furloughed restaurant workers and figuring out curbside sales. In April of this year, the doors finally opened, bringing hickory-smoked pulled pork, brisket, chicken thighs and wings, and sticky spareribs to Boxyard, a shipping container food and retail space in Research Triangle Park. More than a fast-casual barbecue joint, the surf-cowboy-inspired space also rolls out grilled oysters and a host of sides and small plates, like pork belly corndogs. Upstairs, you’ll find Lagoon, a second-story leisure bar: Think 1970s-era tropical resort complete with boozy slushies and party platters.
GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
The Greenville location of Husk, known for its commitment to hyper-local sourcing, did what most restaurants did last year and shut down—then they looked at how they might do things differently. With a focus on take-out, the team determined barbecue would be a smart pivot, especially when the Husk touches were applied. Chef and pitmaster David Jensen mans the Old Hickory smokers, now set at the center of the restaurant, firing a mix of oak and hickory to smoke their pork shoulders, served in a North Carolina vinegar-style of sauce, spareribs with a Memphis-reminiscent rub glazed in a sweet and tangy red sauce, and more. As per Husk coda, local purveyors are showcased throughout the broad menu, which includes a host of starters and sides, like cheesy collard green dip layered with spices and cheeses and baked until bubbly. huskbbq.com
- by Hannah Lee Leidy
- by Julia Miller
- by Robin Roenker
- by Maggie Ward