Barbecue is a common thread running through the fabric of Southern food culture. It’s a unifying element, yet it also has the power to divide. (Most of us have very strong preferences for our hometown ‘cue — sometimes to the exclusion of everything else on the table).
In conjunction with today’s special Best of the Southeast travel section, we’re highlighting places to find crave-worthy barbecue in our region. From TripAdvisor’s top-ranked barbecue restaurant in the country to the home of Alabama white sauce, our contributing writers give us a guide of notable pit stops.
The secret of enjoying Abe’s Bar B-Q
If you want to eat like a local at Abe’s Bar B-Q (616 State St., Clarksdale, Miss. 662-624-9947, abesbbq.com), start with the house appetizer. You’ll have to make it yourself. Tear open a bag of ridged potato chips and set it flat on the table so it forms a “tray.” Douse it with the house barbecue sauce and dig in.
You won’t find this on the menu. But everyone in Clarksdale seems to know about it. Weird as it sounds, it works: the crunchy, salty chip is just the thing for soaking up the vinegary, not-too-sweet tomato-based sauce, whose formula is top secret outside the Abe’s dynasty.
Abe’s has been a Clarksdale institution since 1924. Its hand-painted sign with the bow-tied pig is as familiar a landmark in the dusty little city as the much-photographed crossroads signs of Highways 61 and 49 with the trio of blue guitars on top.
Throughout its existence, Abe’s has been a favorite community gathering spot, as well as a popular stop for bluesmen and many other famous musicians traveling the famed Blues Highway, including ZZ Top and Paul Simon.
Abraham Davis, a Lebanese immigrant, learned to barbecue pork and roll tamales with the leftover meat from local artisans, and passed those skills on to his offspring. Over the years, the family put their own distinctive spin on both. They expanded their menu to include ribs, burgers, hot dogs and chili-cheese fries.
But the draws are their pork barbecue sandwich — regular or Big Abe double-decker — and pork-filled tamales (most others are beef), served plain or with chili and other toppings.
Unlike most barbecue in the state, which borrows from the traditions of Tennessee and Missouri, Abe’s has a style of its own. After smoking Boston butts over hickory or pecan wood for 10 hours, they chill them overnight to congeal the fat. Then, just before serving, they slice it paper-thin, heat it on a griddle until sizzling, chop it up, douse it with sauce, and pile the crisp-edged slivers onto a grilled bun with slaw. Even the slaw is unique — no mayonnaise, sugar or sweet pickle, just shredded cabbage tossed with vinegar, oil and seasonings.
You also can get Abe’s barbecue sauce to go, by the pint or the quart, or shipped by the case. You furnish the chips.
— Susan Puckett
For some of the best barbecue, eat at Joe’s
After a career in the mortgage business, Joe Ray was ready to try something different. Owning a restaurant held appeal, but with no hospitality background, he spent time collecting the best advice on how to do it.
In 2011, he put that expertise into one project: making the best barbecue in the Blue Ridge area. Four years later, Joe’s Barbecue (3365 E. 1st St., Blue Ridge. 706- 946-2727, joesbbqblueridge.com, @abasw88) is also making the best pulled pork, ribs and chicken in the country, according to reader comments from TripAdvisor, who hail its main plates as perfectly smoked and tender.
On the four days the little log cabin opens for business (11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 11 a.m-3 p.m. Sundays), there’ s usually a line out the door as diners jockey for 30 indoor and 29 outdoor seats.
The dry-rubbed and hickory-smoked meats are served with a selection of sauces: a mustard-vinegar sauce created by Ray’s mother, a spicier version with cayenne pepper, a tomato base with coarse black pepper, a slightly sweet option and — the most popular — Alabama white sauce with horseradish, mayo and vinegar that Ray “makes by the gallons.”
Classic sides of beans, Brunswick stew, potato salad, cole slaw and mac and cheese are served, along with baked potatoes stuffed with pulled pork or chicken. Ray also boasts the only beer service in any Fannin County barbecue joint.
But be aware: Once the meat runs out, service is over — which may be two hours before the usual closing time.
— H.M. Cauley
Eating high on the hog in Baton Rouge
City Pork Brasserie & Bar (7327 Jefferson Highway, Baton Rouge, La. 225-615-8880, cityporkdeli.com, @CityPork2), a new, charmingly rustic yet modern restaurant in the center of Baton Rouge, is an homage to pork in its many delicious variations, but it’s the barbecue that sends diners straight to hog heaven.
It’s technically not a barbecue restaurant, but, with so many customers hog wild over the Big Pig, a pulled pork sandwich topped with crunchy cole slaw, City Pork does a good imitation of one.
The smoky meat is drizzled with a vinegar-based, housemade barbecue sauce that marries the best of Memphis and the Carolinas. The result is a balanced, taste bud-tingling sauce bursting with sweet, spicy goodness.
— Tracey Teo
More than just pork
It’s not often that you get the opportunity to munch on barbecue and sip some sweet tea in direct view of the Parthenon — unless you’re lucky enough to be in Nashville and found Hog Heaven (115 27th Ave. N., Nashville., 615-329-1234, www.hogheavenbbq.com, @Hog_Heaven_BBQ).
While traditional pulled pork is still king at this family-owned eatery, locals and visitors alike flock to snag the hand-pulled, hickory-smoked turkey sandwich with Hog Heaven’s trademark Kickin’ Chicken white barbecue sauce. If you’re thinking that “white ain’t right on barbecue,” then, clearly, you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting this buttermilk-mayo-based sauce blended with just enough proprietary seasonings to deliver a medium-size sting.
Since nearly 50 percent of the diners choose the white barbecue sauce, Hog Heaven now sells it through its online store (bbqfightclub.com).
As with many authentic barbecue joints, Hog Heaven is about the food, not the ambiance. There’s no indoor seating, and enough for just a dozen outside. If you’re lucky 13, you can do as other fans, and eat your meal while perched on the wall across from the restaurant.
— Sabine Morrow
Home of white barbecue sauce
Alabama’s most famous contribution to the world of barbecue is white sauce, a mayonnaise and vinegar-based concoction with a peppery kick. Try it at the place it was invented in the 1920s, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (1715 Sixth Ave., Decatur. 256-350-6969, bigbobgibson.com, @BigBobGibsonBBQ). White sauce is traditionally served on top of chicken, but it goes well with other meats after they come off the grill. It’s also used for dipping, as people have discovered the pourable sauce makes a good table condiment.
Decatur, a riverfront town, is also home to Point Mallard, a large water park that boasts the first wave pool in the nation. Across the river is Huntsville, home to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, one of Alabama’s top tourist attractions.
— Blake Guthrie
Smoke signals in the Sunshine State
Although the Sunshine State doesn’t beam brightly as a ’cue capital, it still has a long list of places sending reputable smoke signals. Among them stands 4 Rivers Smokehouse (multiple Florida locations including 1600 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. 844-474-8377, 4rsmokehouse.com, @4RSmokehouse). It takes guests on a regional roundup of several styles. Fall-off-the-bone St. Louis ribs share space with slow-smoked Texas brisket. Pulled pork and brisket wind up as bedfellows on the burnt ends sandwich. Southern-centric sides provide support. Although its smoke first billowed in a smaller location in Winter Park, 4 Rivers considers its larger upgrade the flagship.
The mustard-based barbecue sauce, the slow-go signature meats and the fiery pit blazing with real wood serve as a few of the factors that have kept Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q (multiple Florida locations including 4907 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville. 904-398-4248, bonosbarbq.com, @BonosBBQ) smoking for more than 65 years. Ribs lovers often gravitate to the St. Louis-style creations, while sandwich fans open wide for the Bo-Hawg with barbecue pork, cheddar cheese and a sausage link.
Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex throw a saucy fiesta at Hickory Sticks BBQ (8320 W. Sunrise Blvd., Plantation. 954-368-4478, hickorysticksbbq.com, @HickorySticksB2). The barbecue party comes to life via the in-house Oyler 700 smoker. The devoted gush over the beef brisket. The hefty Hog Heaven sandwich with its Carolina sauce stacks beef, pork and sliced sausage with a mound of slaw.
— Jon Waterhouse
South Carolina Barbecue Trail
While South Carolina is justifiably famous for its pulled pork, the debate over what to put on it breaks into four different camps, with mustard, vinegar and pepper, light tomato and heavy tomato sauces to explore at restaurants along the state’s regional Barbecue Trail (discoversouthcarolina.com/barbecue, @Discover_SC). Two of the best, Scott’s and Hite’s, are on opposite sides of the state.
At Scott’s Bar-B-Que (2734 Hemingway Highway, Hemingway. 843-558-0134, thescottsbbq.com), star pitmaster Rodney Scott has been working in the family barbecue business since he was 11 years old, cutting wood and manning the fires and sauce mops to slow-cook whole hogs. The result is totally authentic food that’s both beloved by locals and praised in culinary publications such as Saveur. The signature half-pound pulled pork plate is served up with vinegar and pepper sauce and a side of pork skins.
Hite’s Bar-B-Que (240 Dreher Road, West Columbia. 803-794-4120, www.hitesbbq.com) has been keeping the pit fires burning since 1957. Hickory and oak-smoked chopped pork, ribs and ham are served by the pound with mustard or sweet brown sauce. There’s also that stuff they call hash. Essentially stewed pork served over rice, it’s the side dish barbecue joints are judged by around these parts.
— Bob Townsend
‘BBQ Capital of the World’
South of Winston-Salem, Lexington calls itself the “BBQ Capital of the World.” And its barbecue roots certainly run deep. Recently, officials unearthed the pits of an old barbecue restaurant behind the walls of a City Hall building.
But it’s the unique style of hickory-smoked pork shoulder that beckons visitors from around the world. Lexington barbecue is chopped or sliced not pulled, and it’s often served with barbecue slaw, which is red and made with ketchup and vinegar. Most distinctive, though, is the “dip,” a thin, tangy sauce made with vinegar, ketchup, salt, pepper and sugar.
At the top of the list of places to try, Lexington Barbecue (100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington. 336-249-9814, www.lexbbq.com) has been named as one of the nation’s best barbecue restaurants by the likes of USA Today, Huffington Post and Time Out New York. For the full flavor of the scene, log on to the Lexington Barbecue Tour (www.visitnc.com/trip-idea/lexington-barbecue-tour).
In late October, the city hosts its annual Barbecue Festival (www.barbecuefestival.com, @barbecuefest). Featuring more than 400 exhibitors and seven performance stages stretching over nine blocks, the event drew an estimated 200,000 people last year, with even more expected to attend this fall. The 2015 festival is Oct. 24.
— Bob Townsend