The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America

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Barbecue in the land of a UFO-Kabob known as the Space Needle

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No search for America’s best barbecue would be complete without a trip to Seattle, right?  OK, rather than barbecue, Seattle conjures up images of salmon and Starbucks, coffee and Cobain, Fortune 500 companies and Frasier.  Nevertheless, part of my project is giving Seattle smokers (and not the recently legalized kind) a chance to compete with the old smokehouses of the South, Midwest and Texas that drip tradition like a Seattle downspout in December.

Like most of America, a barbecue renaissance has taken place in Seattle over the last 10 years with the number of barbecue restaurants doubling or tripling in this time.  In most cities, I am easily able to spot the “can’t miss” barbecue restaurants by looking at reviews of local writers and scouring local websites.  Unfortunately, nothing really stood out as the “can’t miss” barbecue restaurant in Seattle, so I had to do a bit more digging.  Seattle is a hip town, so I had to wade through a few whiskey bars moonlighting as barbecue restaurants in order to find places more committed to the last syllable of barbecue (‘cue) than the first (bar).

Fortunately, I think I made the right two stops. Hole in the Wall BBQ has been serving lunch to Downtown Seattle since Chuck Forsyth opened the doors 25 years ago.  With his son, John, now running the place and Chuck’s granddaughter at the register the day I visited, three generations is a good start for a restaurant in the barbecue world.

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I sampled the brisket and had the Pig with Lipstick sandwich which was composed of pulled pork, slaw, dill pickle and I opted for the hot barbecue sauce.

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I loved the experience of Hole in the Wall.  It’s a comfortable, fun place run by a kind family and if I worked in Downtown Seattle, I would be a regular for lunch.  I think, however, that The Boar’s Nest has raised the barbecue bar in Seattle.

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The Boar’s Nest has been open for three years in Ballard and owner Gabe Gagliardi has a classic barbecue story.  A native of Tennessee, it took Gabe few years of wearing a tie at a desk job to figure out that food was really his passion.  After culinary school in Chicago and working at a number of fine dining establishments around the country, he returned to his barbecue roots and opened The Boar’s Nest.

While Gabe initially used a more traditional style smoker that you will find in the south, the city didn’t care for it.  As they do in many urban areas, unfortunately, the City of Seattle’s health and safety concerns trumped their regard for barbecue.  Nevertheless, Gabe pressed on and the food that I had was absolutely terrific.

Competition barbecue aficionados prefer ribs to have a little bit of tug to them, but the general public prefers a fall-off-the-bone style rib.  I’m probably somewhere in between.  I could hardly pick up the ribs at The Boar’s Nest as they quite literally fell off the bone.  The pork was quite smokey, but in no way oversmoked.  The fried mac ‘n cheese balls were creamy and perfect while the panko coating on the fried pickles added welcome crunch to a fried item that often seems greasy and flimsy.

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While The Boar’s Nest’s food is available to locals via Amazon Fresh, I recommend stopping in to have it at the restaurant with a local beer.

In addition to barbecue, I imbibed in a healthy sampling of local beers at Chuck’s Hop Shop and had to visit Paseo for one of my favorite sandwiches anywhere.  Seattle isn’t going to be mentioned as a barbecue hotspot anytime soon, but I think its barbecue scene will continue to grow.  I’m glad I made the trip.

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Filed under seattle barbecue bbq restaurant the boar's nest hole in the wall barbeque ribs pulled pork washington

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Quick Reactions from my day in Dallas

I visited eight Dallas area barbecue spots when I was through the area in January.  I wanted to spend another day in Dallas for a few more visits.  All three of today’s visits would be celebrated as the best barbecue restaurant around in much of the country.  In Texas, however, the bar is a bit higher and I’ll have to throw in a bit of criticism to sort the three.  

The day started at Pecan Lodge which is one of the highest rated barbecue spots by Texas Monthly.  Texas barbecue joints’ reputations are based on one thing: brisket.  Pecan Lodge has a top tier brisket which puts it in an elite class of Texas barbecue.  I’m not quite ready to put it at the very top as I think there are a few out there that have a slight edge over it, but it is terrific.  

The ribs, sausage, mac ‘n cheese and “Hot Mess” (baked sweet potato with barbacoa and all the fixin’s) were all good, but they didn’t quite wow me after the brisket.

I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Vaughn, author of Prophets of Smoked Meat and America’s first Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly, today at The Slow Bone.  Vaughn is seen as the chief expert on Texas barbecue and a primary expert on barbecue in general.  I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the conversation and plan to have a few notes about Texas Monthly’s Texas Top 50 list in The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America.

The Slow Bone is the kind of place that I expect to provide a consistently good meal.  I certainly didn’t try anything bad, but had a bit of trouble picking out what I liked best.  I was excited to try the cilantro sausage since I may have a slightly unhealthy affinity for cilantro.  The cilantro seemed to be a bit lost in the sausage, at least to a cilantro addict like myself.  Pick your favorite meat and a couple of their quality sides and you can find yourself a good lunch.

Hard Eight was an interesting visit for me.  The pits, process and experience reminded me of Cooper’s, a place in Llano that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I was amazed at the amount of smoke billowing out of the place as I approached.  I later heard that they run through about 20 cords of Mesquite every 8 days.  That is insane.

It’s a clean, large restaurant, but it’s still unique and maintains character.  Hard Eight provides a bit more of the full restaurant experience than some Texas spots by being open for dinner, serving more drinks and desserts than most and paying more attention to atmosphere and service than many places.

I enjoyed it.  I particularly enjoyed the jalapeno sausage.  As someone who appreciates a bit of kick, I’m disappointed when I try a link merely a tick above a mild sausage if it claims to be hot.  Hard Eight’s brings a little heat and I appreciated it.  I’m sure others have done this, but Hard Eight was the first place I noticed to use a crumbled vanilla wafer rather than the whole cookies.  It transformed what can be a tough, dry part of the classic barbecue dessert into a light, easy to eat topping.  Certainly a small detail, but after 300ish restaurants, it’s the small things that matter!

Filed under dallas texas brisket banana pudding hard eight pecan lodge slow bone bbq barbecue barbeque foodporn food restaurant

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Three more stops today as I made my way from Memphis to Dallas.

Smokey Joe’s in Benton, Arkansas was the second Smokey Joe’s of the Barbecue Rankings Tour (the other being in Virginia).  Sandwich wish slaw and spicy sauce was quite good, but I was disappointed with the fried okra.  It was an unplanned visit and I asked the lady behind the counter if the okra was fresh or frozen.  She said that it was frozen but that it was “really good and fried to order”.  I obliged and what I received was exactly that - hot, from frozen okra.  Had they had a quality side, I would have been enticed to try a bit more to see how they stacked up against the best…instead I moved on.

Big Jake’s has a few locations around the Texarkana area which straddles the Texas-Arkansas state line.  Interestingly enough, the store located on the Arkansas side, a mere 4 miles from the Texas location that I visited, serves twice as much pork.  It’s amazing what happens when you cross that arbitrary geographic line.  The restaurant had a separate fried pie shop counter and my favorite item of my sampler plate was Big Jake’s own blend of sausage.  Thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Owner Matt Palmer.

I’ll offer a semi-apology for only posting one picture from Bodacious tonight.  This is the only one I took with my phone and it’s late after a long day of driving so I don’t want to transfer photos from my other camera.  Bodacious is one of the more interesting chains, if you can call it that, that I have visited.  First of all, it’s limited to a handful of restaurants in a relatively small area.  That isn’t unusual for a blossoming chain.  What is unusual is that it’s only friends and family that can buy in.  Each owner is only offered one store as they are expected to be in the restaurant running it rather than simply serving as an investor.  While the sauces and rubs are standardized now across all of the restaurants, one restaurant is a bit unique from the next.  Owner Jay Isonhood (of the Sulphur Springs location) said that he is most proud of his ribs.  Since he bought this individual store, rib sales have increased dramatically.  After trying the brisket, pork and ribs, I see why ribs have taken off as I found the dry rub ribs to have both a nice flavor and texture.

Happy eating!

Filed under barbecue bbq barbeque texas arkansas bodacious smokey joe's big jake's

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Alabama…again!

I found myself in Alabama again and enjoyed winding my way along the rolling roads of the beautiful Northeastern part of the state.  I needed to stop for gas and the first place I found was just outside Fort Payne.  I’m not sure what brand of gas I purchased, but there was no mistaking the nationality of the owners. 

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To some in my generation, a pump like this is as ancient as a Sinclair tin sign.

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Upon completion of filling the tank, I entered the small convenience store to pay.  I am no product placement expert, but I imagine that the University of Alabama bumper stickers were placed in the large display immediate inside the door because these stickers are the convenience store’s best selling items.  Noting my look of confusion at the amount charged to my credit card, the clerk said that there was a fee to pay with plastic.  Due to my curiosity more than a sense of being taken, I searched the front door, counter and pump for a sign stating the existence of this charge.  One was not to be found.  It’s almost as if I was the odd one in this transaction by not expecting the charge.  I checked my phone to make sure that somehow I had not gone back 20 years as I crossed from the Eastern to Central time zones.

After visiting the Space Museum in Huntsville, I set off for Greenbrier Restaurant in…well…the middle of some fields.  It was Sunday afternoon, which was probably the most lively time of the week to visit Greenbrier and I felt out of place not wearing my Sunday best.

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My next stop was the reason for my trip through this part of Alabama.  Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q.

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When we think of historic Texas barbecue restaurants, places like Black’s and Kreuz come to mind.  Kansas City conjures images of Gates and Arthur Bryant’s.  These places have storied traditions that exemplify particular styles of barbecue.  Big Bob Gibson actually defines a style of barbecue.  It is synonymous with North Alabama barbecue and the it’s iconic white sauce.  Big Bob Gibson’s competition team won Memphis in May again this year to become one of the most decorated teams in barbecue competition history.  While competition success does not always directly lead to a quality restaurant (sometimes it can be a distraction to the detriment of the restaurant), it’s generally a good sign.

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I thought it lived up to expectations.  The ribs, pork, brisket and turkey were all well done, but I was here for the chicken.  The mayo based, vinegary, tart, peppery version of a ranch dressing works some sort of white magic when it touches Big Bob Gibson’s moist, smokey chicken.  The whole chickens are dunked once in the white sauce (as Ken Hess is doing below), but I like adding a bit more at the table.  

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I made two more stops in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Brooks Barbeque is absolutely adored by the “Marie, Let’s Eat!” blog as they wrote about here.

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It’s a little bitty restaurant, and, while I wasn’t quite as wowed as “Marie, Let’s Eat!”, at least I found something unique.  The flat sandwich with highlighter yellow slaw was certainly different.

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I had deja vu at Rick’s Barbecue.  See my (also in Alabama) post about Full Moon.

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And then it was off to Memphis again!

Filed under alabama huntsville decatur gas station time travel barbecue bbq barbeque rick's greenbriar big bob gibson white sauce chicken brooks

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Four stops yesterday just wasn’t enough…so today I did 5!

I started in Greenville, South Carolina at Mike & Jeff’s; hit Jack’s, This Is It and Hierloom before falling into a deep barbecue coma at Fox Bros.  I’m communicating this message through a brain wave transponder at Grady Memorial Hospital.  The bad news is that the hospital may have to feed me through a straw.  The good news is that I ate enough barbecue to last me a week, so I might wake up before it comes to that.

This is pork country and Heirloom, Fox Bros and Jeff & Mike’s all delivered a great pulled pork.  During five months in Hong Kong, my most frequently eaten dish was Chinese barbecue pork with rice and bok choy.  Heirloom’s Korean influences reminded me of this and I appreciate Cody making his own path by creating a style of barbecue uniquely his own.  While imitation and tradition are more commonly found than individuality and inventiveness, it was a risk, but one that has paid off for Heirloom.

Gotta run…nurse is hooking me up to an I.V.  Apparently my B.BBQ.L. (Blood BBQ Level) is dangerously high.

Filed under barbecue bbq barbeque south carolina sc atlanta atl georgia greenville heirloom fox bros this is it jack's mike and jeff's pork restaurant food foodporn rib hong kong korea

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And Down the Stretch They Come!

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On October 22, 2013, I kicked off the Barbecue Rankings Tour at Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis.  Since then I have visited roughly 300 restaurants in 40 states.  I’ll wrap up the Barbecue Rankings Tour (at least for the first book), on October 22, 2014.  To finish strong, I’m making a big road trip west to visit states I have not yet covered while knocking out enough restaurants to hit 365 in one year.

Most of my posts have been a couple of weeks behind my actual travel and sometimes I like to group them into articles as I’ve done with NYC and DC recently.  As I finish up the trip, though, I’ll be doing more live, less detailed posting.  

Thank you for coming this far with me.  We have a long road ahead (basically one big circle around America…), but the finish line is only about a month and a half away!

Filed under bbq barbecue barbeque rankings travel book st. louis pappys

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R.I.P. Ole’ Friend…

Life on the road can be lonely.  As I’ve traversed this great land in search of America’s best barbecue I have had a trusted friend with me along the way.  My Jack LaLanne Power Juicer.

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With as much cholesterol, fat, carcinogens, etc. as I have put into my body over the last year, the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer deserves a lot of the credit for me still being alive.  She rode with me in the car and I introduced her to friends all over the country.  In some ways, I was a traveling juice evangelist.

And there we were yesterday…just the two of us in the kitchen…not knowing that it would be a tragic day.  We were working together beautifully, laughing, sharing a meal.  Kale, carrots and apples had already gone into the juice for the day.  When I began to add celery, I was struck by the foul smell of burning rubber/plastic.  I never knew what it would be like until I faced it for myself…and made the decision to pull the plug.

Juicy Lucy the Juicer gave her life for others.  Never thinking of herself, she worked hard so that others might live healthier, happier lives.  It was my honor to have called her a friend and to have received so much of her labor.  She will be missed.  R.I.P. my Ole’ Friend.

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Along the way I’ve visited a number of restaurants that I didn’t end up blogging about for one reason or another.  Among those are the famous Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, Atomic Grill in Morgantown, Uncle Buck’s in Pennsylvania and BBQ Country in rural Virginia.  

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