Robert F. Moss’
Essential Barbecue Spots
Whether you’re looking to expand your barbecue horizons or just want a well-timed detour on a summer road trip, TLP is here to help. We turned to barbecue expert Robert F. Moss for advice on how to sniff out the really good stuff—the kind of barbecue that warms your soul while it fills your belly. Herewith, his picks for eleven of the South’s essential barbecue joints, each representative of the style and tradition of its particular place. But first, Moss taps the wisdom he’s garnered from his time on the road to answer a few ’cue FAQs, from the telltale signs of a good barbecue spot to how to eat like a local when you stop at one.
“Old-school joints have gigantic mounds of oak or hickory because they go through tons of it (literally)—and that’s the kind of thing you can’t fake with clever names or fancy signs.”
How do you spot a good barbecue joint from the road?
For every top-shelf barbecue place in the South there are three or four that that parboil their ribs or serve gas-roasted pork without a hint of smoke. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of clever systems for culling the wheat from the chaff without wasting a meal, such as counting the number of human-like things a pig is doing on the sign, like wearing a hat, plucking a banjo, or dancing a jig. Pull over if the score tops three. Or, looking for an even mix of BMWs and pickup trucks in the parking lot.
But what really works?
What I actually look for is the wood pile. And not some dinky rack with a quarter cord of hickory that might be used for flavoring. Old-school joints have gigantic mounds of oak or hickory because they go through tons of it (literally)— and that’s the kind of thing you can’t fake with clever names or fancy signs.
Does good barbecue need sauce?
Yes it does. You gotta dunk the chicken at Big Bob Gibson in the signature white sauce. At Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, where they finish the pigs with a generous mopping of pepper-laced vinegar, the sauce is integral to the cooking process. And I must admit a particular fondness for the tangy brown stuff they serve down in Texas, especially when applied in large quantities to a chopped brisket sandwich. So sauce it up. It’s part of the experience.
Is it okay to eat barbecue with your fingers?
If you are in Texas, the answer is yes. Smoked brisket and sausage, sliced to order and wrapped in brown butcher paper, have been finger food from the beginning. When you’re in the Midlands of South Carolina, though, where they douse chopped pork in a sticky mustard- based sauce, or you’re tucking into a tray of sauce-slathered burnt ends at LC’s in Kansas City, you better reach for the utensils. And plenty of napkins.
Is real barbecue pork or beef?
Yes. And also turkey, goat, mutton (ask anyone from Owensboro, Kentucky), and sausage, which I know technically isn’t a kind of meat but something made from meat, but you get the point. Chicken, however, is not barbecue. Pork slow-cooked on a pit is “pork barbecue” or just “barbecue,” but chicken slow-cooked on the same pit is “barbecued chicken.” Don’t ask me why.
The Essential ‘Cue
OLD HICKORY BAR-B-QUE | Owensboro, Kentucky
This area is home to burgoo—a tangy, slow- cooked barbecue stew—and barbecued mutton dressed in 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 for more than a century.
LOUIE MUELLER BARBECUE | Taylor, Texas
From its battered wooden tables to its tall walls stained 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.
LEXINGTON BARBECUE | Lexington, North Carolina
Barbecue means pork in the North Carolina Piedmont, but here they cook shoulders, not whole hogs. The vinegar sauce gets a sweet red tinge from tomato ketchup, as does the coleslaw.
A&R BAR-B-QUE | Memphis, Tennessee
A&R is a great place to sample the key features of Memphis barbecue: pork shoulders and ribs cooked on charcoal-fired pits and dressed in a sweet, tangy sauce. They’ve even got barbecued bologna and barbecue spaghetti, two of the city’s delicious novelties.
PATILLO’S BAR-B-Q | Beaumont, Texas
Founded in 1912 by Jack Patillo and carried on today by his great- grandson, Robert, Patillo’s is the oldest family-owned barbecue restaurant in the state and a pure example of the East Texas style. You can get beef here (this is Texas, after all)—but it’s thin-sliced shoulder served in a pool of peppery, gravy-like sauce. The top sellers, though, are pork ribs, chicken, and the iconic juicy links—handmade beef sausage studded with garlic and chili powder.
HITE’S BAR-B-QUE | West Columbia, South Carolina
A take out-only market open just Friday and Saturday, Hite’s turns out some of the best Midlands barbecue to be found. That means pork cooked for hours over wood, then chopped and dressed in a 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.
SCOTT’S BAR-B-QUE | Hemingway, South Carolina
Roosevelt and Ella Scott’s son, Rodney, has gone on to achieve culinary fame with his two joints 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 long strands of pulled pork are barbecue perfection.
SKYLIGHT INN BBQ | 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 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.
FRESH AIR BARBECUE | Jackson, 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.
SCOTT’S PARKER’S BARBECUE | Lexington, Tennessee
The western counties of Tennessee used to be whole hog country, but most restaurants switched to cooking just shoulders long ago. Scott’s-Parker’s in Lexington is one of the holdouts. They pile smoky chopped pork on a bun and dress it with crisp slaw and a spicy, lip-tingling red sauce.
BIG BOB GIBSON BBQ | Decatur, Alabama
Alabama barbecue offers a little of everything rolled together—beef, pork, turkey, ribs, chicken. You can find all that and more at Big Bob Gibson. It’s the 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.