Finding a good restaurant in an unfamiliar locale can be challenging—especially if you’re craving authentic, even mind-blowing, barbecue. And let’s face it: Restaurant meals can be expensive. Paying for one that’s mediocre is painful. So it’s important to sort the wheat from the chaff.
I was confident no one had better strategies for finding these gems than Steven, who is the most indefatigable barbecue scout on the planet. (If you don’t have The Barbecue! Bible or Planet Barbecue in your personal library, add them now!)
Below are Steven’s invaluable tips for finding restaurants that serve some of the world’s best barbecue!
Tips for Finding the Best Barbecue Restaurants
Before you go…
Consult locals: In our experience, people are eager to share the names of their favorite barbecue joints. Just make sure their barbecue palates are similar to yours. (If they like their ribs to be fall-off-the-bone tender, beware.) Before the days of Google and Yelp and their ken, Steven and I were known to contact food writers from local publications (including newspapers) for their informed opinions. But today, online recommendations and testimonials are worth seeking out.
First, trust your senses: Let’s say you’re in the parking lot. Do you see a barbecue pit? Do you smell wood smoke? If you do, that’s a good sign you’re going to have an authentic barbecue experience. There should be a pile of wood outside. And hopefully, not just for show. Although, local codes often prohibit wood-burning equipment. So it’s possible the restaurant might have to rely on propane smokers. Not a deal-breaker, necessarily. But it could be a sign the food is cooked off-premises. (Have you ever eaten at an airport-based barbecue establishment? Ya. Like that.)
You can learn a lot from menus: Here again, the internet comes in handy. Many restaurants post their menus online. You can extract a lot of information from them. As Steven says, “Beware of large menus. The best barbecue joints are laser-focused, offering only a few options.” A big check-plus to restaurants who mention the provenance of their meats, whether beef, pork, or chicken. It shows they care about the quality of their ingredients. Beware of prices that seem too good to be true. Beef prices, for example, have risen nearly 20 percent in the past year, according to the Consumer Price Index. Budget barbecue is unlikely to be great barbecue.
From the menu, you can also see what sides the restaurant offers. Baked beans, cornbread, collard greens, mac and cheese, creamed corn, coleslaw, and even banana pudding all point to an authentic barbecue restaurant. Although we always give a high-five to fresh vegetable sides. And many restaurants are now offering plant-based options, which we also applaud.
If the restaurant posts closing times, that’s a red flag: The best barbecue joints simply close when the meat is gone. And that can be before lunchtime.
When you get there…
Long wait lines? Yes, wait lines are a good sign. Anyone who’s visited Aaron Franklin’s eponymous restaurant in Austin, Texas, knows that for a fact. Aaron has succeeded, he says, because he focused on doing one cut of meat, such as brisket, really well—mastering it, actually, before he moved on to the next. (See Steven’s “laser-focused” comment above.)
Observe the take-out customers: Are they carrying Styrofoam containers? That indicates, in Steven’s mind, a lack of respect for the environment.
Is the restaurant too bougie? Steven appreciates good old-fashioned counter service that sells meat by the pound. A hostess stand and an extensive cocktail menu is usually a bad omen. Although if a few well-chosen brews and/or bourbons are available, that could be a reason to relax stringent standards. Plain décor is okay. If the food is served simply on butcher paper or rimmed sheet pans (plates optional), Steven is all in.
Easy on the sauce: In certain parts of the country—Texas, for example—barbecue sauce added to brisket or ribs is an abomination. Pitmasters from Kansas City or the Carolinas would strenuously disagree. Do be aware, however, that barbecue sauce can be used to hide sins. Ask for it on the side.