Barbecue's American origins are older than the country itself, first showing up in the late 1600s in colonial Virginia. Since those early days, it's created a subculture of its own. The debate over which state has the best barbecue rages on, but most experts agree that there are four primary styles of barbecue — Kansas City, Memphis, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Yet many states have developed their own techniques, cooking methods, and flavors, earning them a spot among the best places to find savory, delicious barbecue in the U.S.
When it comes to top-rated BBQ cities in America, four in the Lone Star state continue to show up on the list. Barbecue fans hail Texas' brisket and ribs as top favorites. Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio have earned top marks for their many world-class competitions and a vast number of excellent barbecue eateries. Yet the Texas Legislature named the small city of Lockhart the "Barbecue Capital of Texas" in 2003. Its decades-long history of serving up smoked meats brings in crowds from around the world year-round.
While some barbecue states focus on beef recipes, Tennessee chooses pork to satisfy its cravings. Local barbecue joints smoke a whole hog over wood for hours to create tasty, tender meat that's served pulled, chopped, or sliced. Pork ribs stand out as one of the favorites across Tennessee, but don't expect to find them smothered in sauce. They're served dry with a side of vinegar-based sauce — Memphis sauce — to add a little kick.
Not only will you find a unique style of barbecue in North Carolina, but you'll also discover different types from one side of the state to the other. Like Tennessee, North Carolina barbecue centers its expertise on whole hog barbecue and distinctive "mop" sauces, which are brushed onto the meats as they cook. In the eastern part of the state, pitmasters prefer a clear, vinegar-based sauce that enhances the fattier cuts carved out from the hog. But in the western sections, most restaurants serve a Lexington-style BBQ, smothering pork shoulder with a sauce made from ketchup, pepper sauce, and vinegar.
The barbecue traditions in South Carolina run deep, and it's one of the few states where you'll find all-you-can-eat barbecue buffets. Similar to Tennessee and North Carolina, whole hog cooking rules the pits here, but they also love a tender, slow-smoked ham or pork shoulder. Food historians say that the methods used by South Carolinians are closest to those practiced in America's colonial days. The state is famous for its tangy Carolina Gold sauce, a mustard-based sauce with a lot of spice and a hint of sweetness.
In the past, you had to drive hours to indulge in world-class barbecue in the Sunshine State. But in recent decades, Florida has pushed its way to the top, with eateries specializing in all-things barbecue, from melt-in-your-mouth brisket to smoked chicken with yellow mustard sauce. With Florida's BBQ, you'll discover a merging of southern American traditions with Cuban, Portuguese, and Brazilian flavors in restaurants all over the state.
The famous Kansas City-style barbecue masters hone in on the perfection of slow-smoked meat covered in a thick, sweet sauce containing tomatoes, molasses, and brown sugar. The originator of the style, Henry Perry, first started serving his ribs on sheets of newspaper from his meat stand in 1908. Later, the St. Louis style emerged, pushing spare ribs to the top of diners' barbecue favorites. Burnt ends, one of the most popular barbecue dishes in Missouri, is created with cubed, caramelized chunks of slow-smoked meat, creating a sweet flavor and super-tender texture.
One of the most eclectic states when it comes to barbecue, Georgia serves all kinds, from pit-smoked to grilled and even oven-roasted. You'll find a very different type of barbecue in bigger cities like Atlanta than you will in the state's rural areas. Brunswick stew, a delicious concoction of smoked meats, sauces, and veggies like tomatoes, corn, and butter beans, is a traditional favorite. Georgian pitmasters prefer cooking hams or pork shoulders slowly, over hickory or oak, and serving them with a tomato-based red sauce that varies in its heat and sweetness levels.
It's the origin point of slow-cooked meat preparation in America, though most people don't think of it as a leading barbecue state. Traditionally, both pork and beef are popular choices. However, if you head to the Shenandoah Valley, you'll likely find more chicken served. Similar to the Carolinas, Virginia's sauces vary, from vinegar-Worcestershire versions in the central part of the state to a much sweeter, fruity "mahogany sauce" in the northern part of the state.
If you love barbecued poultry dishes, you'll love what they're serving in Alabama. Their legendary smoked chicken and Alabama-style white BBQ sauce is a staple at home cookouts and restaurants alike. The mayonnaise-based white sauce also contains cider vinegar, brown mustard, and horseradish. It's a creamy, zesty, tangy dip or topping that not only compliments any barbecued meat but also enhances side dishes like french fries.
Pulled or chopped pork takes center stage in the Bluegrass State, especially in its western counties. They're smoked in concrete block masonry pits for 12 to 13 hours. Smoked hams and turkey breasts are also favs. Unlike other states, part of Kentucky's claim to barbecue fame is connected to mutton. According to traditional recipes, cooks smoke the mutton over hickory coals and baste it with a Worcestershire-based sauce, seasoned with allspice and black pepper.
Home to a 150-year tradition of flavorful barbecue meats, California is also known for its excellent Korean barbecue establishments. In the mid-19th century, grill masters created Santa Maria-style barbecue in the ranch areas in the Santa Maria Valley along the state's central coast. The meat cut of choice for this style is the tender and sumptuous beef tri-tip. Recipes call for seasonings of black pepper, salt, and garlic before grilling the meat over native coast live oak.
Creating a combination of several barbecue styles, Oklahoma's version is a merger of methods and flavors. The state also has an impressive number of restaurants serving smoked meat dishes. Most describe the type of BBQ as part Texas, part southeastern U.S. Order up a plate in this state, and you'll get more than one type of meat alongside a few tasty side dishes and sauce on the side. Traditional sauce recipes combine apple cider, ketchup, brown sugar, Worcestershire, red pepper, and garlic powder, along with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.
The sheer volume of barbecue eateries across Nevada, especially in Las Vegas, pushes the state into the top tier of smoked deliciousness. Just about any direction you go, you'll find a hearty, yummy BBQ plate to fill your cravings. There's also a long list of grillmaster challenges, cook-offs, and barbecue-focused festivals combining delectable eats with good fun throughout the year.
Travelers will no doubt come across the aromatic smell of burning hickory in towns dotting the map across Arkansas. While the state is a southern one, experts say it's also a fringe state and not part of any one region, making its barbecue hard to categorize. Their meat of choice is pork, except for the areas that border Texas, where beef has also made its way onto menus. Sauces vary from one place to another, ranging from mild to wildly hot. Locals advise that some of the most ramshackle little roadside buildings serve the best barbecue dishes.
For decades, barbecue lovers and critics have honed in on the southern states when seeking out the best spots for a tempting plate of smoked pork, chicken, or beef. Yet, at some point, New York eateries have become contenders, hiring the best grillers in the country and creating delicious renditions of classic barbecue fare. You'll find smoked versions with a twist, including apple cured chicken and andouille sausage, as well as traditional favorites like sliced brisket and baby back ribs.