Sunday, April 12, 2009

Living the Dream

I absolutely love barbecue. I'm addicted to it. I love making it, I love eating it and I love talking about it. For ten years I thought about taking a trip to visit the best barbecue places in the southeast. I read books, magazines and websites and got advice from everyone I could talk to about where the best places were.

In August of 2008 I quit my job in Arizona to try to open a brewery with a friend of mine in Richmond, VA. On my way across country, I decided to fulfill my dream of doing the great American barbecue roadtrip.

For nearly three weeks, I would travel from Texas to Memphis to North Carolina, sampling some of the best barbecue our country has to offer at 19 different places. In Texas it was brisket, sausage, ribs and random blocks of cheddar cheese. In Memphis it was ribs(wet and dry) and pulled pork sandwiches and in North Carolina it was shoulder, slaw and hush puppies.

Along the way, I would meet some of the legends of industry, often getting a personal tour of their pits and a behind the scenes look at where the magic happens. I would talk with the locals to get a sense of the pride and passion they have for their revered locale. Every person had a story and over the years those individual stories had become interwoven to create the legend of each barbecue shrine.

Finding the "best" barbecue place is simply not possible, because barbecue is much more than just the food. It's a combination of flavors, sights, smells, sounds, people and stories. So as I recount my gluttonous journey across the southeast, I do my best to tell the story of each place, offer what my favorite places were, and encourage you to try them all for yourself. Trust me, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

My BBQ Obsession

I've been a barbecue fanatic since college, when my roommate Adam brought home some of his father's ribs from Cleveland, TN. Danny Marr's ribs were legendary among our group of friends, and I quickly bought my first smoker to start experimenting. Soon after we went to the World Barbecue Championship in Memphis, and my eyes were opened to a whole new world of barbecue.

Imagine the smell of your neighbor's charcoal grill. When the wind is right, the scent travels halfway down the block. Like Pavlov's dog, your mouth starts to water and no matter how long it’s been since you last ate, you're instantly hungry. Now imagine hundreds of smokers lined up on the Mississippi River, all of them full of ribs, pork shoulder and chicken. Wipe the drool.

Before the health department cracked down on samples, you could walk with beer in hand through row after row of bbq teams and meet friendly, well marbled folks eager to let you try their best barbecue. I imagine a similar setup behind St. Peter’s pearly gates.

After Memphis, I did a lot of small road trips in search of legendary barbecue spots. Trips to Alabama (Dreamland, Big Bob Gibson's, Golden Rule), Kentucky (Moonlight BBQ), Tennessee (Rendezvous, Interstate, Carl's Perfect Pig, Jack Daniel's BBQ Competition), North Carolina (B’s, Lexington #1, Bill Ellis). Mississippi (Leatha's Bar-B-Que Inn), Texas (Salt Lick) and Kansas City (Bryant's, Gates, LC's, Oklahoma Joe's, Fiorella's Jack Stack, Guy and Mae's). Each time I would do a day trip or a weekend jaunt, I kept thinking how great it would be to do a barbecue tour across the country. To see the different regional styles and savor the local flavor of each town and city.

Some people dream of doing a baseball stadium tour. Others want to climb the highest peaks in each continent. Me, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to my own personal mecca...the hallowed halls of the legendary barbecue spots.

Buzzie's Bar-B-Q in Kerrville, TX

After years of making my list of places and talking about making this trip, I was finally on my way. My first stop on the tour was Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q in Kerrville, TX. Buzzie’s was voted Top 50 in Texas by Texas Monthly magazine, but at only sixteen years in existence, it was a mere pup compared to most of the places I would visit.

In college basketball parlance, Buzzie’s was the Athletes in Action of the barbecue tour. It was an exhibition game before the regular season started, providing a nice little warm-up for the real competition ahead.

Make no mistake about it, Buzzie’s serves good barbecue. I had the brisket plate, which came out with a nice smoky flavor. However the meat was pretty dry, a theme I would find with most brisket. The potato salad was amazing, with egg, onion, pepper and pimento all working together. A fire burned down the original location, so the place had a very modern, almost sterile feel to it. If you happen to find yourself in Kerrville, I would certainly head over to Buzzie’s, but don’t go out of your way to make the trip.

City Market in Luling, TX

A few hours later, I found myself in Luling, TX. A quaint little town south of Austin, Luling is famous for the Watermelon Thump and the City Market. As I walked inside the restaurant, I was filled with a sense of validation. I was in the presence of greatness.

You walk inside and the place looks exactly like you think a classic barbecue joint should. Part general store and part butcher shop, the wooden walls hold the smells of decades of barbecue.

The most unique part of the famous Texas barbecue spots is that they have separate rooms for ordering meat and sides. The pit is usually kept sealed off in the back, so you go in, order the meat you want and watch them open the pit to pull out the brisket, sausage and ribs. They slice it right in front of you and weigh it by the pound. From there they put it on butcher paper and ring you up, and you go out into the seating area to find a table and order your drink and sides at another counter. Wonderfully odd.

As I walked into the pit room at City Market, it was like entering heaven. The smell of smoked meat was overwhelming, and I felt like a kid looking at his first Playboy when they opened the pit to reveal hundreds of pounds of smoked goodness.

The four men working the pit stood proudly, like kings of the castle. When I told them I had driven in from Phoenix, they simply nodded, basically telling me “that’s cute son, let me know when you’ve crossed an ocean”.

Despite the blow off, I happily ordered a pound of brisket and a sausage link (I arrived too late for ribs) and walked out into the seating area. I went up to the front counter and ordered a Lone Star and some white bread. That’s when I noticed the small blocks of cheddar cheese laid out in 50, 60 and 75 cent increments. Proudly unrefrigerated and wrapped in plastic, this was definitely a new thing for me. As was the barbecue sauce in an old hot sauce bottle sitting open on the counter. I ordered a $0.60 piece of cheese and took the bottle of orange, spicy, mustard flavored sauce to my table.

If you walked into a normal restaurant and saw open sauce bottles and warm cheddar cheese on the counter, you would probably walk right out. But here it just seems to make sense, adding to the character.

The sausage had a crisp casing and popped with juice when you bit into it. Not overly flavorful, it had a unique taste that was much different than the smoked sausage I grew up on. The brisket was the real deal. It had a dark, flavorful outside and a wonderful smoke ring all the way around. While a couple of pieces were dry, others were tender, juicy and quite simply wonderful. An amazing combination of smoke and meat that left no doubt in my mind why this place was famous.

Happy and quite full, I left to scout out the next day’s locales.


The next day I picked my friend John Purcell (JP) up at the Austin airport. JP and I were roommates in grad school and we try to get together for a road trip once a year. JP lives in Houston, so the plan was to meet in Austin, spend two days eating bbq and then head to Houston.

I picked JP up at the airport with a couple of tall boy Budweiser Cheladas. Don’t ask why. We had a half hour drive on Texas backroads, so it just seemed like the right thing to do. A mixture of Budweiser, Tomato and Clam Juice, it tasted like a can of stewed vomit. I had two sips only because I needed to prove to myself that the first taste really was that bad. Somehow JP finished his.

Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX

Kreuz Market (pronounced Krites) has been in business since 1900 and the current pitmaster has not taken a day of vacation in 21 years. Waiting behind the counter, a nice lady who looks like a grandmother from Central Casting takes your order. She’s exactly who you hope to find at a place like this. She let me know that in 1999, a family feud led Rick Schmidt to take the name Kreuz to this location, while sister Nina kept the original location and named it Smitty’s.

The new Kreuz Market is a Texas sized dining hall, with two huge seating areas (seats 560) and a pit room with two giant pits. If you’ve ever sat in a big church when no service is going on, you know what JP and I felt like at Kreuz. The lady at the counter told me they do almost 50% of their business on Saturday, so on our Thursday afternoon visit we had the place almost to ourselves.

JP and I ordered a half-pound of brisket, a half-pound of ribs and two jalapeno cheese sausage links, which they pulled out of the giant smoker and sliced in front of us. Then we went into the dining room and ordered two Lone Stars and a small block of cheddar cheese.

The brisket had a smoky, peppery flavor to it. Similar to City Market, some pieces were dry, while others were juicy, tender and simply fantastic. The ribs, while a little dry, had a great smoke flavor to them. Having been smoked for hours with post oak, they were completely pink all the way through. The jalapeno cheese sausage was the best sausage I had on the trip, full of flavor and smoke. I invented a cardiologist’s dream sandwich by pouring sauce on some of the drier brisket, piling on chunks of cheddar cheese and sausage and smushing it all between white bread. I was pretty proud of myself.

All in all, Kreuz lived up to its reputation. JP and I walked out quite full, having just learned a valuable lesson in portion control.

Smitty's in Lockhart, TX

Five minutes after finishing at Kreutz, we pulled into the parking lot at Smitty’s. You enter in the back, and as you turn the corner into the pit room, you could very easily plant your foot in the fire used to heat the smoker. It’s a large pit of smoldering oak just lying open on the ground, radiating heat in all directions.

When I asked if they were worried someone might step in it, the lady laughed and said “honey, if you feel that fire on your leg and still step in it, that’s your own damn fault”. Excellent point.

Aside from the open flame, the pits at Smitty’s looked exactly like Kreutz’: giant, black, iron pits full of brisket, ribs, sausage and shoulder. When I ordered some of all of it, I’m pretty sure I heard John’s stomach whimper.

Unfortunately Smitty’s barbecue did not taste as good as it looked and smelled. The brisket, ribs and beef shoulder (I thought it was pork when I ordered) were all really dry and the sausage was fairly plain, especially after the jalapeno cheese links we had just eaten. Everything had a good smoke flavor, and I imagine if we had gone during lunchtime it would have been a much different experience. This place normally has a line out the door, and I don’t imagine it’s because they have dry meat.

The pitmaster was very accommodating. We talked for a while and he walked me through how he works the smoker. He explained that they start with the meat near the oak fire and then work it slowly over away from the heat, letting it sit on the far end in a holding pit of sorts when it’s ready to be sliced. They don’t use thermometers or a timer. After years of doing this, they just know when it’s done.

I would definitely give Smitty’s a second chance if I were in the area again, but my vote goes to Kreutz in this family feud.

Hurricane Ike

No trip would be complete without some type of natural disaster, and on the second night of tour, it seemed likely that a hurricane brewing in the gulf would touch down near Galveston and Houston. Hurricane Ike was picking up strength, and as evacuation warnings were issued, folks started pouring into Austin.

Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX

The next day we drove into Taylor, TX, home of the famed Louie Mueller Barbecue. I would say that this place is straight out of a movie, but there have been at least three already filmed there (most recently “The Rookie”), not to mention multiple visits by the Food Network, a Stevie Ray Vaughn album cover and an MGD commercial. The place is both vintage Texas and vintage barbecue.

While the City Market’s atmosphere was impressive, this place was better. Classic beer neons adorn the wall, along with pictures of famous people and other Texas relics. There’s a classic jukebox in the corner. It was timeless Texas and infinitely cool. The kind of place you could spend all afternoon lifting longnecks and listening to Johnny Cash.

Louie Mueller’s has their pits out in the open behind the counter, which added a whole ‘nother level of barbecue goodness to the place. As we made our way up to order, the nice man behind the counter informed us that they were out of everything but brisket and chopped beef sandwiches due to the influx of Ike evacuees. This would not be the last time Ike would interfere with my trip.

The guy behind the counter turned out to be Wayne Mueller, the third generation owner. Wayne and I bonded over the fact that he also used to work in sports marketing, most recently for the Houston Rockets. I told him about my trip and he told me that he had started getting back into the family business a few years ago, working weekends to get a good feel for the business. He said his grandfather Louie started the place in 1949 and his father Bobby took over in 1974. He then told me that his father Bobby had passed away unexpectedly the previous weekend, so it looked like he was going to be running the place sooner than he imagined. I was amazed at how nice and accommodating he was, especially given the circumstances.

Wayne was a great guy, and I imagine he’ll utilize his marketing experience to ensure that nothing skips a beat in terms of customers. He also mentioned that someone had been apprenticing under his father on the pits for ten years, and that “he’s ready”. Can you imagine that? Working ten years as an understudy to learn how to barbecue meat? To an average person, that probably seems absolutely ridiculous. But that’s what makes these places famous.

When I tasted the brisket, I instantly appreciated the ten years of hard work that led to quite possibly the finest piece of beef I’ve ever eaten. Seriously, if you offered me a medium rare bone-in ribeye from Ruth’s Chris or a pound of brisket from Louie Mueller’s, I’d take the brisket hands down. And that’s coming from a guy that salivates over Ruth’s Chris.

The brisket had a dark peppery crust and a deep smoke ring. The meat was tender and juicy with just the right combination of meat, smoke and a little fat. Each bite I took validated why Texans feel so strongly about brisket.

The other great thing about Louie Mueller’s was the hot sauce sitting on the table in giant old-timey Listerine bottles. Only at a famous barbecue joint would you find something as inimitably endearing as hot sauce in a mouthwash bottle.

Louie Mueller would turn out to be my favorite in the brisket category, 2nd favorite in atmosphere and 2nd favorite overall.

Southside Market in Elgin, TX

After Louie Mueller, we (really I) decided that we should head down to Elgin, TX and Southside Market, the home of the hot sausage. I know, “home of the hot sausage” just sounds wrong.

Southside Market was the anti-Mueller. It was a huge, mass produced place that had the feel of a cafeteria. It did have an impressive butcher shop with all kinds of meat, but the building lacked the character of the four previous stops.

I figured “when in Rome” and stepped up to order a hot sausage. The lady pulled something out of the holding pit that would make an adult film star blush.

“Uh, do you have anything smaller?” I awkwardly asked.

What the lady put on my plate resembled a long piece of animal feces, causing JP and I to break into the Anchorman “I will not eat cat poo” routine. Luckily it tasted better. Actually it tasted pretty awesome, and had I not stuffed myself beforehand I’m sure I would have enjoyed their other offerings.

As it were, we decided to head on back to Austin, and proceeded to spend several hours in traffic with the Ike evacuees. Later that afternoon, my selfish fears came true, as the folks at Snow’s informed us that they’d made the decision not to open the next day due to the torrential rains and hurricane force winds that were projected for Lexington on Saturday morning.

Snow’s is only open on Saturday mornings from 8:30 until they sell out, usually before noon. Texas Monthly rated it as Texas’ best, so this discovery was a crushing blow to the trip.

The Broken Spoke in Austin, TX

If you are in Austin, TX and want a change of pace from Sixth St, please visit the Broken Spoke, an old school country-western dance hall. JP saw that Texas legend Gary P. Nunn was playing, so we made the jaunt down there (no, I didn’t have a clue who he was). You walk through the restaurant to the dance hall, where the stage is at one end, a giant wooden floor is in the middle and tables fill either side.

Like Louie Mueller, this place is also straight out of a movie. JP and I took our chicken fried steak, chicken nachos and pitcher of Lone Star to our table and watched in awe as folks walked in all decked up in country attire. We were the only guys not wearing cowboy boots.

When Gary P. Nunn took the stage, almost everyone in the crowd got up and took the dance floor. I’ve never seen anything like it. Couples old and young got up and line danced, two-stepped and swing danced their way through the evening. They wore cowboy hats, boots, button down shirts tucked in and large belt buckles. Whatever picture you have in your mind right now, I guarantee there were two of them at the Broken Spoke. Hell, there were even two Texas flag button-down shirts.

Of particular note was the 80 year old couple that had been doing this every Friday for over 50 years. The old man in his cowboy hat, bolo tie and Texas belt buckle appeared to have been taken from God’s waiting room for the evening, but once he got out on the dance floor he danced his wife effortlessly across the room all night long.

The other great thing about these types of places is that guys go up to girls and ask them to dance and they actually say yes. It’s the damndest thing. JP became the beneficiary of this custom, as after several pitchers of Lone Star I convinced him to ask the cute brunette two tables over to dance. Turns out she was an Ike evacuee from Houston and she joined us in closing the place down. JP and Jody are still dating six months later. God Bless Texas.

The Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX

While we didn’t go there on this trip, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX. Go when the weather is nice and experience one of the coolest bbq atmospheres around. The place is out in the country and there is usually a line. When we went, we waited nearly two hours. Normally this would be a huge negative, but at Salt Lick it’s actually a positive. There is a giant outdoor waiting area with picnic tables amidst huge oak trees. And, wait for it….the place is BYOB. That’s right, you can bring your own cooler full of beer and hang out with friends outdoors, listening to live country music as the smoke builds your hunger. It’s like having a cookout in your backyard except there is awesome people watching, live music and the food is much better than yours, likely.

The bbq is served family style. Don’t get the peppers if you want to feel your tongue. All you can eat barbecue this good should be a crime. Brisket, ribs and sausage stole the show the night we were there. I’ll be making a trip back to Austin to go to Snow’s in the future, and I’ll be sure to visit Salt Lick as well.

(photos taken from web)

Peggy Sue BBQ in Dallas, TX

With Ike having blown through Houston, JP was left homeless as inbound traffic was blocked through at least Monday. With no other real choice, he decided that the best thing to do would be to “telecommute” and continue on with me to Memphis. There was a slight feeling of guilt we had about enjoying our gluttonous voyage while so many were having their homes ravaged by devastation. But the human mind has an amazing capacity for shallowness when things are out of sight, and this was the case as we eagerly headed toward the land of pork barbecue.

En route we visited JP’s family in Dallas, ending up at a Purcell family staple, Peggy Sue BBQ. Peggy Sue was an unexpected addition to the tour, a sponsor’s exemption if you will. Set just outside of SMU’s campus, it has a small town feel in the middle of the richest area of Dallas.

We had a mix of brisket, ribs and chicken. All of them were very good, but none would make the favorite list at the end of the trip.


I could barely control my excitement when I thought about the Memphis leg of the tour. The phrase “puppy with two peters” comes to mind. I had grown up on Memphis-style barbecue and pork barbecue in general. While I loved some of the brisket in Texas, it’s just a different flavor than what my mind conjures up when I hear the word barbecue.

I decided that at each place we would go with the house specialty, and in cases where they did everything, we would try the ribs half & half (dry & wet) and either a pulled pork sandwich or just pulled pork. There’s great debate in Memphis over wet or dry ribs. To me, the best ribs are dry with a little bit of sauce added to taste at the table.

Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Q in Memphis, TN

Even if you haven’t heard of Interstate Bar-B-Q, you probably have heard of the Neely Family or seen the Neelys on the Food Network and the Travel Channel. It all started with Jim Neely in 1972 at Interstate Barbecue. A successful insurance agency owner, Jim bought a grocery store in a bad neighborhood and transformed it into a barbecue institution. Over the years, his nephews started Neely’s Barbecue in Memphis and Nashville Tennessee, and he opened Jay Bee’s BBQ in California. Then nephew Pat and his wife Gina (Neely’s Bar-B-Que) got a TV show “Down Home with the Neelys” and the family name became nationally known.

But it all started at Interstate Bar-B-Q, and that’s the first place we headed on our tour of Memphis.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I had planned on doing Neely’s on the second day, but let’s just say JP and I had a little fun when we first arrived in Memphis. Here are two pieces of free advice:

1. Cozy Corner is located at 745 N. Parkway, not 745 S. Parkway. JP and I drove around for an hour trying to find Cozy Corner at the latter. If you have seen the scene in Vacation where Chevy Chase pulls up for directions in St. Louis, you have an idea of how we felt at the mythical 745 S. Parkway location.
2. Cozy Corner and Payne’s are closed on Mondays. It’s quite frustrating when you drive around for an hour risking your life at the wrong location, only to arrive at the right address and find it closed. It’s downright crushing to drive another twenty minutes or so to another location to find it closed as well. Live and learn.

When we pulled up to Interstate, I could have eaten the ass end of a rhino. Luckily they were serving delicious, delicious barbecue, so I was spared that experience.

Interstate is what barbecue should be about. Pickups and BMWs in the parking lot is always a good sign. Not to wax sentimental on you, but one of the great things about barbecue is that it brings people from all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds together. My nose welcomed the smell of pork barbecue, and we quickly sat down and placed our order of pork sandwiches, ribs and Interstate’s original, barbecue spaghetti.

The walls are adorned with pictures of celebrities and local civic leaders. We saw blues legends like BB King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mike Tyson (pre-facial tattoo) and our favorite M.C.Hammer.

The food came out and I was in heaven. The ribs are served wet, which isn’t a bad thing considering how good Jim Neely’s sauce is. While they were a little tough, they had a great flavor. The BBQ Spaghetti is an acquired taste, with probably a little too much sauce for the average person. But you have to try it, because it’s on the menu.

The star of the show is the pork sandwich, which comes with sauce and slaw on it. I can’t describe how good the combination of the smoky meat, slightly sweet sauce and crunchy slaw tastes. It’s otherworldly. It’s also pretty huge, so brace your self.

After we ate, I awkwardly poked my way around in the serving area to talk with Jim Neely, hoping to get a photo. After talking for a minute, I hesitantly asked if I could see his pits (the ones he cooks meat on). To my surprise, he graciously spent the next 20 minutes showing me and JP around the back of his restaurant. He proudly showed us the pits he had built specifically for the restaurant. He has two inside and more outside. He showed us the new additions to the restaurant and talked in generalities about the secrets to his success…how his pits keep the moisture locked in with the vapors from the dripping grease.

For a barbecue geek like me, having a personal tour of Interstate led by the Godfather of Memphis Barbecue is about as good as it gets. I know. I’m a little off.

Interstate had the best pork sandwich of the tour. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Bar-B-Q Shop

On our tour of Interstate’s inner workings, I asked Jim Neely about the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown. He said it was one of the few places he recommended folks go other than his family’s shops. When you get a positive recommendation from a barbecue owner about another place, you should go. Don’t ask questions, just go.

So that’s what we did, leaving Interstate immediately and heading to Midtown Memphis. The Bar-B-Q Shop has been around for years, and exists as a very well kept secret to folks outside of town. But if you are ever in Memphis, you simply must go there.

As you walk in, you see the interior is full of dark wood and red painted walls, which creates a warm, cozy feel in the place. Then you notice that the wooden benches they use for tables are old church pews. And a close look over to the bar will cause most Catholics to do a double take, as the back of the bar is a converted confessional unit. Absolutely brilliant.

It’s under that backdrop that owner Eric Vernon and family have been serving what I believe is the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. Eric bought the restaurant from his parents after getting his MBA from the University of Memphis. Unlike some of the owners I met on the tour, Eric was incredibly friendly from the beginning. I told him about what I was doing, and I showed him some of the pictures from the places I had visited. He told us about the history of his restaurant and how he came to owning the place after a venture outside of the family business.

Eric took us on a tour of their pits. They have an old pit up front where they keep some of their meat, and a new Southern Pride smoker in the back that has made life a lot easier for their pitmaster. Eric personally makes all of their sauce by hand, and it’s ridiculously good. He makes hot and regular, and I would caution against taking a heaping tablespoon of the hot before your drinks have arrived (trust me). I tried like hell to get him to tell me what was in the sauce, but he artfully dodged my questions with the ambiguity that would make a White House press secretary proud. Just as he should have.

We ordered half and half ribs and pulled pork, and as I anxiously waited for the food I took my first sip of sweet tea. That’s when I had to cry “uncle” for the first time in 20 years of drinking the sugary, Southern goodness. Most people say that sweet tea isn’t right unless there’s enough sugar to make the spoon stand up in the middle of the glass. At the Bar-B-Shop, the spoon might not even make it through the ice. The outgoing waiter saw my reaction, laughed and generously offered to make me a glass of ½ sweet, ½ unsweet. He explained that many of the regulars love the sweet tea, but a lot of folks take it ½ and ½. The new concoction was perfect, but I must admit I felt a bit of shame at my request.

The food arrived looking like a picture out of a magazine. I went first for a dry rib with a little bit of sauce, and I wanted to fall out of my chair…er, pew. It was the perfect combination of smoke, meat and spice. The dry rub formed a slightly crispy crust that gave way to succulent, smoky goodness. The smoke ring permeated the meat almost to the bone, and the ribs were meaty and delicious. It was barbecue heaven. The wet ribs were also fantastic, but I’m partial to the flavors and texture of the dry ribs with a little bit of sauce.

The pulled pork was phenomenal. It was pure gossamer, the most tender meat I’ve ever put in my mouth. The smoke flavor and spices all worked together to make my stomach forget that this was the second full meal in an hour. Like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I couldn’t help myself. I had to have more. Luckily JP has a human-size stomach, so I was able to throw down a good portion of his share as well.

There are certain times in life where you find yourself in the presence of greatness. For some it may watching the Northern lights or standing on the beach at sunset. For others it might be seeing their newborn child for the first time. For me that day, it was eating the dry ribs and pulled pork at the Bar-B-Q Shop. Yes, I have a problem.

I bought two t-shirts and promised Eric that I would do my best to steer all of my friends his way. Now that I have seen the light, I can’t imagine ever making a trip to Memphis without visiting the Bar-B-Q shop.

I hope you find your way to this hidden jewel on the Memphis barbecue circuit. Since the tour I have been a second time, and it lived up to the ridiculously high bar that I set for it.


Towards the end of our meal, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet JP’s friend Tommy. They met several years ago while interning together, so when JP decided to come along to Memphis he called Tommy to see if we could crash with him.

I will be forever grateful that he did. If someone ever made this trip into a movie, Tommy would be the cameo character that steals the show. A late-twenties guy working for Federal Express, Tommy’s life is one big juxtaposition of wonderful curiosities.

A jovial and fun loving guy, Tommy lives by himself in the close suburbs of Memphis. His apartment should be listed in wikopedia under the definition of how not to impress a woman.

It’s not that his place is dirty or that it’s not nice. Far from it. Tommy has two cars parked out front. One is a 7 series BMW and the other is a 90’s Ford Taurus that he drives in town. He has a 60 inch TV that takes up an entire wall, but he doesn’t have cable. His fridge is baren but for some beer, condiments and frozen vegetables. On his walls are a map of the US, a couple of pictures of Fedex planes and a Memphis Grizzlies’ mascot growth poster. It’s the type of décor that necessitates a woman being near blackout drunk in order not to notice as she’s quickly being led up to the bedroom.

Of course at that point she would bump into the empty beer keg at the foot of the bed that currently serves as an armoir. That’s assuming she made it over the bunker of dirty clothes that would protect a sleeping Tommy from all but the most tenacious of intruders.

The crown jewel of the apartment is undoubtedly the ceiling of the shower. When Tommy said “there’s a little bit of paint peeling off the ceiling”, I knew I was in for a real treat. It did not disappoint. The ceiling looked like someone had thrown thousands of paint chips on a canvas of glue and then hung it upside down. JP took a video of the apartment for posterity sake. It will go down in the bachelor hall of fame. Bud Light should do a commercial in honor of Tommy. His story needs to be told.

Tommy served admirably in his role of host, and he couldn’t have been more accommodating for our little foray. If I’m ever back in Memphis, I hope he’ll join me again for barbecue.

Cozy Corner in Memphis, TN

Cozy Corner is another of Memphis’ legendary barbecue haunts that lives in the shadow of Rendezvous and Corky’s. Unless you’re a local, you probably haven’t heard about it, and that’s fine with the folks who frequent this barbecue jewel.

I first read about Cozy Corner in Smokestack Lightning, a book that is a must read for any barbecue lover. I remembered it because the author raves about the smoked Cornish game hen, and at the time I thought that seemed little crazy. But Eric at the Bar-B-Q shop recommended Cozy Corner, and he agreed that the Cornish game hen was a must.

When you enter the Cozy Corner, the first thing you see is the pit. Rather than the closed cast iron pits that most places had, theirs has an open glass front, which if not for the stain from decades of smoke would allow you to see into it. It’s a surprisingly small pit for such a popular spot, with the ribs, sausage, chicken and pork proudly displayed for people waiting in line. Cozy Corner isn’t the type of place that welcomes you with open arms on your first visit. They’re not rude, but they definitely have an edge to them that says “locals spot”.

I ordered the Cornish game hen and bbq spaghetti, and JP ordered a smoked sausage sandwich and bbq corn on the cob. The Cornish game hen was awesome. Well smoked and quite hot with spice, I definitely had a little sweat going when I was done. Cornish game hens are tiny little things, and there’s a great photo of me with the tiny leg in my circus freak hand that looks absolutely ridiculous. The bbq spaghetti was better than Interstate’s, with a little more meat and less sauce. Eric recommended the smoked sausage sandwich and JP was glad he did. This sausage is different than the kind in Texas. It’s not homemade, but it comes packed with flavor and smoke taste. It’s like the Hillshire Farms version you find at the grocery but with about 4 hours of hickory smoke added to it.

A look around the place showed a cop on what seemed to be an awkward lunch date with a cougar, a table of businessmen that seemed quite familiar with the good ole boys system of Memphis politics, and a group in the back that probably didn’t leave very much. Most everybody else that came through got it to go, likely because there office wasn’t very close to this place.

At the end of lunch I befriended the guy at the counter and got him to open up the door to the pit. He told me that they had used this pit for years, and that they are still using the same techniques used by founder Raymond Robinson. That’s a good thing, as judged by the legions of Memphis folks who swear by the Cozy Corner.

Payne's in Memphis

From Cozy Corner we headed to Payne’s. Having been to both of our lunch stops the previous day, we made much better time. Payne’s is under the barbecue radar even for a lot of Memphians, and as you pull up you’ll know why.

It’s a cinder block building in the middle of an industrial area of town. The building is painted white with Payne’s in red and a small red awning next to the entrance. When you walk inside, you see that they certainly didn’t blow the budget on decorating. There is a counter that you order from, and just to the left is the pit that is built into the wall. There are a few tables and mismatched chairs for dining in, but it’s unlikely that many people exercise that option. The Monet print on the wall is a nice touch.

I heard about Payne’s from a guy I met a guy in Colorado that was from Memphis, and during our 45 minute barbecue conversation he kept coming back to Payne’s over and over as a place I had to go. So under his direction we anxiously entered Payne’s.

The lady that greeted us had a smile that I wish I could have taken home for a rainy day. She had an infectious personality, happily talking about how they have been smoking their shoulders over hickory in this pit for years and how they chop your pork right when you order your sandwich.

I ordered one sandwich that the two of us were going to split. After waiting a couple of minutes, two sandwiches appeared on the counter, which JP and I took as a clear sign to take off our skirts and grow a pair.

Unfortunately the barbecue style at Payne’s just wasn’t my cup of tea. The pork was chopped with the skin, giving the meat a crunchy texture that I just couldn’t get into. The slaw that came on top was overpoweringly sweet and took away from the smoke flavor of the pork. After a couple of bites, we both decided to take our sandwiches to go, which was our nice way of not throwing away half of it in front of our kind host.

You win some and you lose some when you’re on a barbecue tour. While for many folks Payne’s is a W, for me and JP it fell in the L column.

Rendezvous in Memphis, TN

The Rendezvous is one of the more famous barbecue restaurants in the country, on par with Arthur Bryant’s and Lexington #1 in their respective regions. A common question in Memphis is Corky’s or Rendezvous? For me, the answer has always been the Rendezvous.

My love affair with Rendezvous started as a senior in high school when I was on a visit to Rhodes college. I went with a family friend who had been going there for years, and we drank pitchers of Michelob (all they serve on draft) and threw down cheese plates and ribs. This is a good night anytime, but when you’re eighteen years old and drinking in a restaurant for the first time, it instantly shoots up to legendary status.

Rendezvous is set in an alley across from the Peabody Hotel. As you walk down Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Alley, the smell of charcoal, pork and Rendezvous’ spice mix wafts through the air. It’s an unforgettable smell.

If you go on a Friday or Saturday, you’ll likely have at least an hour wait, which is amazing because the place is absolutely enormous. Luckily they have an upstairs level where you can grab a pitcher of Michelob and sometimes even a cheese plate. You could also walk over to the Peabody for a drink and sit next to the famous duck fountain, but make sure you’re back in time.

Once your name is called, you walk downstairs to the main dining room and are overwhelmed by the sights, smells and sounds. Make sure you look back over your right shoulder to see the charcoal pits filled with loin back ribs. The décor on the walls is an eclectic mix of random pictures and well, just random crap. It looks like someone went into a vintage junk store and bought one of everything to hang on the walls. Its pretty cool.

The waiters are a Memphis tradition. Legend has it that the jobs are handed down through family connections and that most make six figures. This seems ridiculous at first, but when you start doing the math, you start to think it might be possible. Most of the staff has been there forever and all but one has an initial gruff greeting that says “hurry up and order”. They seem to be testing you out a bit. If you roll with it and your group is out to have a good time, they soon drop the attitude and become quick with a joke…and even quicker with your next pitcher of Michelob.

Then there’s Percy. He just can’t help but smile all the time. You hope he comes to your table often because he’s the kind of guy that helps white people loosen up and tap into that inner soul that we all long to let loose. His infectious personality also leads to you ordering one more pitcher of Michelob than you need, but that’s a problem for in the morning.

While they have other things on the menu, the only thing I’ve tried is the cheese plate and the ribs. The cheese plate is simply long rectangles of cheddar cheese, smoked sausage and dill pickles covered with a dusting of Rendezvous rub. The recommended method is to put some cheese and sausage on a Saltine, pour a little bit of their sauce on it and try to cram it all in your mouth at once. It’s fantastic.

Rendezvous serves only dry ribs. They cook the ribs over charcoal for a couple of hours, baste them with a hot vinegar and water mixture, and then apply a generous amount of rub. I recommend adding sauce to them. The sauce and rub have a very distinctive flavor that can become addictive.

Ten years ago, I thought Rendezvous’ ribs were the best in the world, and many people still feel the same way. But as my barbecue horizons have been broadened, I’ve come to realize that Rendezvous doesn’t really serve barbecued ribs. They serve slow grilled ribs with a great rub and sauce. It still tastes very good, but it lacks the true smoke flavor that ribs like the Bar-B-Q Shop have.

On this visit, Tommy JP and I joined my friend John and we polished off several pitchers of beer, a couple of cheese plates and four full orders of ribs. John has been in Memphis for over 15 years, and he agreed with my sentiment that Rendezvous is a great experience, but nowhere near the best barbecue in town.

Rendezvous is a must if you’re going to Memphis. It had the best atmosphere of any place on the trip and I’ll likely go back every time I visit because it’s always a good time. I’ll just make sure I hit the Bar-B-Q shop for lunch.

Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, TN

The next day JP and I reluctantly bid adieu to Tommy and his shrine to bachelordom. After thirteen meals of barbecue in six days, my body needed a break. What it needed was a salad and a treadmill, but what it got was Prince’s Hot Fried Chicken.

Prince’s is a Nashville institution. They fry their chicken in cast iron skillets, adding the requested level of spice to each order. The heat ranges from mild to extra hot and they cook each order from scratch, which often takes 30-45 minutes. They have vending machines for drinks and a few tables at which you can dine.

I will always remember my first trip for three reasons. First, its location is just off Dickerson Road, which at the time was notorious for hookers. We passed two on the way.

Second, as my friend Bill and I walked up to the line of people waiting, we asked innocently enough “is the chicken really that hot?” A grizzly looking man in camouflage scowled at us city boys for a minute before begrudgingly responding “you bet yer dick it’s hot”. To this day Bill and I still use that line.

The third reason I’ll remember Prince’s was that the chicken wasn’t just hot, it was incendiary. Bill ordered a full bird “as hot as you can make it”, which we would later realize was just plain dumb. When it arrived the lady at the counter looked at us and said “boy you gonna get the mud butt!”. Within minutes I had sweat pouring down my face and snot dripping from my nose. The heat became so overpowering that I actually thought my lips might be peeling away. I remember that the only relief came from Bill’s intermittent deep exhales, which would blow cool air on my face. When you are in desperate situations, it’s amazing how you take comfort in the most awkward of pleasures.

I called ahead as we drew close to Nashville, ordering two medium breast quarters to go. When we got home and unwrapped the almost crimson colored treat, it proudly sat on top of two pieces of white bread, which soak up the grease and spices. As I bit into the crispy chicken, my mouth was met with a mix of salty, spicy, pan fried goodness. Then the heat hit me. I explained to JP that the levels of heat were kind of on an “ish” scale, and that today’s medium was definitely trending towards hot. As sweat started beading up on my forehead, I knew we were in for the taste bud equivalent of an ass kicking, and we got a good one. The burn kept building with each bite, but with a lot of milk and water, we made it through, right down to the bright orange, grease soaked piece of white bread goodness.

After you eat Prince’s chicken, your body goes into a state of shock. Your stomach has turned into a volcano of fiery acid, you’re bloated from the ridiculous amount of water and milk you drank to cool the flames, and you have this crazy rush of endorphins from the peppers. In a sadistic kind of way, I really like the feeling.

If you’re ever in Nashville, I recommend making a jaunt to Prince’s, or better yet, come in the summer for the Hot Chicken Festival and sample all of the Nashville area’s best hot chicken.

Fat Matt's Rib Shack in Atlanta, GA

After bidding adieu to JP and taking a four day break from the tour, I headed to Atlanta to visit some friends and try some Georgia barbecue. This wasn’t a planned stop on the barbecue tour, but I figured I might as well sample a few places while I was down there.

For being the largest city in the southeast, Atlanta is a relative disappointment on the barbecue scene. There are no legendary barbecue spots, so we made do with the best of what we could find.

Fat Matt’s is a really cool place near Buckhead. My friend Owen, his wife Amy and I headed there to drink some beer, catch up and throw down some ribs. Owen was the one who introduced me to Rendezvous back in high school, so our history of beer drinking goes back a ways. The décor at Fat Matt’s has that cool, bluesy feel to it, and on weekends they’re known to have some local musicians entertain the crowd.

Fat Matt’s serves up spare ribs as the specialty of the house. A lot of folks don’t like spare ribs because they have more fat and the top part has those weird ligaments that you awkwardly bite down on and then have to figure out what to do with. But like most things with a little extra fat, they have a great flavor. I ordered a half slab, which is more than enough for most people.

The star of the show at Fat Matt’s is the sauce. It’s the kind of sauce that makes you go looking for a piece of bread to sop everything up once you’re done and it works really well on the ribs. The ribs need the sauce because they’re slow grilled rather than smoked, thus not having a really good smoke flavor.

While Fat Matt’s isn’t going to win over any barbecue purists, its great for what we went for, which was drinking beer and catching up over some good food in a cool place.

Harold's in Atlanta, GA

Harold’s looks like a real hellhole on the outside, which made me optimistic that Owen found a real gem in the middle of Atlanta. We went there for lunch the next day, and I tried the ribs and pork, with a side of Brunswick stew.

I’m not a big Brunswick stew fan, but I figured there must be a reason that Georgians rave over the stuff. I will say that of the Brunswick stew I have had, this was the best. Granted, it’s a pretty low bar, but this stuff was good. But I just can’t for the life of me figure out why people think Brunswick stew goes well with barbecue.

The ribs at Harold’s were tough and fatty, but the pork had a very good smoked flavor. Harold’s has been around since 1947, and I imagine it’s not because their ribs are bad. I’ll chalk it up to a bad batch, and would certainly give it another shot if I lived in Atlanta.

All in all a good place for barbecue. Just not winning any awards on this trip.

North Carolina

My friend Chris joined me in Atlanta for the final leg of the barbecue tour, which by that point I had narrowed down to Lexington, NC. When I first started planning, I figured that I might spend three or four days roaming North Carolina, making another 8-10 stops. But by the time I rolled through the state line, my body just didn’t have much gas left in the tank. Plenty in the colon, but not much anywhere else.

North Carolina barbecue is distinctively different from other barbecue styles. While some North Carolinians will argue vehemently over the difference between Eastern and Western North Carolina styles, most places offer chopped pork with a vinegar based sauce. In the “west”, which really means central, they usually smoke shoulders and put varying degrees of tomato paste/ketchup in their sauce, while in the east, which means pretty close to the coast, they smoke the whole hog and their sauce is mostly vinegar with some spices.

That much you can find out pretty easily. But you should also know that you can order it coarsely chopped instead of the finely chopped, nearly minced variety that comes when you order normally. This gives it a little more texture, which if you’ll appreciate if you grew up on pulled pork. More importantly, you can order the outside brown instead of the inside white. If you like the smoky flavor and are willing to give up a little bit of the juiciness for it, the outside, brown, or outside brown is the way to go. My personal preference is outside, coarsely chopped because I think you get more barbecue flavor and you’re better able to taste the meat. Some folks call the outside “Mr. Brown” and the inside “Ms. White”, but I think I’d kick my own ass if I ever used those terms.

Dillsboro Smokehouse

We took a really scenic drive up towards Asheville from Atlanta, and after driving for a while we came to a sleepy little town called Dillsboro. It’s exactly how you would picture a quant little southern town in the mountains. The railroad runs through the heart of it, which is adorned with beautiful old buildings. It’s the kind of town where time slows down and people aren’t quite in such a hurry to do much of anything.

There was a sign touting the Dillsboro Smokehouse, so we took a detour to check the place out. It had everything you’d want in a North Carolina barbecue place, except good barbecue. The chopped pork sandwich was unpleasantly dry, which was a huge disappointment given how unique the surroundings were. The people were nice, the décor was authentic, but the food was regrettably bad. But I’m glad we went, because I always would have wondered about it if we’d kept driving.

So we headed on to spend a couple of days checking out breweries and mountain biking in Asheville, a town with surprisingly little to offer in the way of barbecue.

Gut Check

As we made our way into Lexington, I was running on fumes. It had been nearly three weeks of barbecue, beer and catching up with friends. Late nights, little exercise and a diet that keeps cardiologists in business had left me lethargic and longing for a gym and some vegetables that weren’t deep fried.

The easy thing to do would have been to go through Lexington, stop at Lexington #1 for a chopped pork tray, call it a day and head to Richmond happy that I made it this far. But that’s like making it to the Final Four and being content not to win it all.

Yes, I was tired. Yes, I was near my breaking point and yes, I was oozing pork fat from my pores. The poor little button on my shorts could certainly vouch to that fact I could snap at any second, my body shutting down in a fat induced catatonic state.

Simply put, I was a crossroads and it was time to find out what I was made of. In the words of my high school basketball coach, this was “nut cutting time”. I had always wondered what that phrase actually meant, and I think I found out that day in Lexington.

I knew what had to be done, and I knew that if I were going to do it right, we couldn’t waste a second. When I originally mapped out the trip, I wanted to eat at four places in Lexington, and I was still determined to meet that goal.

Lexington, NC

Lexington, NC is a town of 17,000 people that proudly boasts the title “Barbecue Capital of the World”. The reason they can get away with this claim is that they have 17 barbecue restaurants in Lexington proper, and at least four more within spitting distance of the city limits. Every October they hold a barbecue contest and festival that draws over 100,000 people, which puts it on par with the Memphis and Kansas City events.

When we walked into the chamber of commerce to get a map, we were met by some really nice folks. They handed us a map of all of the barbecue places in town, and generously told us about the town’s history. But when we asked them to name the best places, they froze up like a parent asked which is their favorite child.

While they wouldn’t answer which is the best, we were able to get enough info by asking “which place do you go to most often” and “if you had friends in town, where would you take them”. That seemed to be an easier way for them to give their personal opinion. I had known coming in that Lexington #1, the most famous restaurant in town, would be a definite stop, so we headed there first.

Lexington #1/Honey Monks/Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, NC

Lexington #1, also called Honey Monks or Lexington Barbecue, is the most famous barbecue restaurant in Lexington. Wayne Monk opened Lexington #1 the day after Thanksgiving in 1962, and they’ve been smoking ever since.

I ordered a barbecue tray, which comes with slaw on one side and hickory smoked shoulder on the other. Another basket holds your hush puppies. That would become my order at all of the places.

I ordered brown, coarse chopped because the traditional minced is a little too fine for my Tennessee blood. The meat was well smoked, though a little tougher (there are trade offs for the smoke flavor) and the vinegar sauce added the distinctive flavor that the region in known for.

The barbecue was very good, but I wasn’t ready to hand over the crown for best in Lexington just yet. In fact, this was my second time to Lexington #1, and each time I found it good, but not necessarily great. Chris agreed with me, noting that he was pretty close to stuffed.

The friendly wait staff kept coming by routinely, and I’m guessing that’s probably because we were the only males under the age of 50 in the place. When our waitress dropped off the check, I explained to her about my trip, and I asked her recommendation on another place in town.

That’s when things got weird. She froze, looked at me like I was absolutely nucking futs, and said “well, I …I don’t know…I mean, I’ve never….I’ve never eaten anywhere else. It was as if she was part of some type of religious cult and I had just asked her to consider that some people believed in something different.

She awkwardly excused herself and went up to the counter, where she called several coworkers over to discuss the blasphemy that she had just heard at her table. Chris got a good picture of the group huddled at the counter, each person looking over to get a view of the pagans who had asked where they could find false idols to worship.

Finally, the man in charge of the restaurant gave a “I’ll take care of this” look and started walking our way to try and show us the light. He turned out to be Rick Monk, the son of founder Wayne. Rick was really a nice man, and our conversation took the tone of a father/son discussion where the father’s advice falls on deaf ears. After trying to steer us away from other places, Rick realized in the end that we had to learn our lesson the hard way, so he reluctantly suggested Speedy’s, the Barbecue Center or Smiley’s, which apparently used to be Southern Barbecue. He gave these recommendations with the caveat that he couldn’t guarantee they’d be good because he didn’t know anyone that had eaten there, but that they all still used the traditional pit method.

We made our way to the parking lot, and as we did I poked my head around to see if I could get a look at the pits. A nice young guy that was in charge of takeout orders asked if I’d like to get a tour, and he led me and Chris inside to one of the pitmasters who was busy chopping the pork that had just been pulled off the shoulder.

I stood in awe as he effortlessly separated out the meat to get it ready for the kitchen. He showed us the giant pits with what seemed like hundreds of shoulders smoking for the next day. There is a big firebox in the middle where they put the hickory logs, and once they burn down he shovels the hot coals underneath the pits to smoke the shoulders. These pits were similar to the old fashioned ones used in Texas. Huge pits with lids on a pulley system smoking enormous quantities of meat.

The smell in the pit room was amazing. Pork, hickory and smoke. Simple, but delicious.