Barbecue is as Southern as SEC Football. It is so engrained in our DNA that we take for granted how amazing and regionally specific it is. For example, in New York City, one of the biggest BBQ joints is called Dallas BBQ. Now, I’m not sure how much you know about barbecue, but Dallas ain’t a hub. It isn’t even in a top 10 list of best barbecue cities. In the North, barbecue is anything cooked over the grill. To us it is food that tells a story, brings a community together, and celebrates a culture.
But, what if you don’t live in a barbecue city? How can you know that what you will get is down-home, smoky-sweet goodness? Of course, you can check review sites like Yelp, but there are a couple of intangible things you should always look for. Finding these will generally guarantee you a good BBQ experience.
1. Think Regionally
Barbecue is regionally specific and each region has it’s speciality. The Texas Hill Country specializes in brisket. Memphis loves it’s dry rub ribs. North Carolina goes all-in for pit roasted whole-hog. Sure, you could get brisket in North Carolina, but you’ be missing out on a world of good eats.
2. Look for Wood
The best barbecue is slow cooked over wood fires. If a restaurant doesn’t have a stack of wood outside or if you see an “On/Off” switch on the oven, heel-turn and walk away. Gas grills cannot achieve the same quality of meat as a wood fire, no IFs, ANDs, or BUTs about it.
3. Check the Floors
This may sound crazy, but the quality of the food in a barbecue joint is directly tied to the cleanliness of the floors. The dirtier the floor is, the better the food will be. For one reason or another, great barbecue cannot be served in a shiny restaurant. Probably because people who love barbecue care more about what’s going on in the kitchen than on the floor.
4. Respect the Reputation
Great barbecue restaurants don’t collect franchises, or even trophies. They collect stories. Great barbecue stops have pictures of the owners on the walls with their friends and local celebrities. The folks behind the counter can tell you about the time Jimmy Carter came by with the secret service or how Michael Jordan used to come through everyday for lunch after practice. They don’t need a marketing scheme or trophies on the wall–they have a reputation.
5. Stick with the Long Line
We typically want to be seated immediately and eat quickly. Forget that. People wait for great barbecue. The great spots run out of their best meats before the lunch hour is over, so you have to get there early and wait, hoping to get lucky or get what’s left. Good barbecue is worth the wait.