It’s time for the next round of the “Best of Southern BBQ” awards, which recognize the outstanding people, places, and flavors that make Southern barbecue such a delight. (You can find Round 1 here). These awards go a little further than just declaring the best brisket or most life-affirming ribs, for the world of barbecue is filled with all sorts of unexpected pleasures. From the signs and slogans that adorn the walls to the beverages served alongside, there’s much to celebrate in Southern barbecue.
Mike Mills, 17th Street Barbecue, Murphysboro, Illinois
There are lots of whole hog cooks in the barbecue world, and I’ve seen some really impressive presentations in Eastern North Carolina, the Pee Dee of South Carolina, and out in West Tennessee. But, for my money, the prettiest pigs in all of barbecue are the ones turned out by Mike Mills and his team at 17th Street Barbecue up in Murphysboro, Illinois. They wrap the ears in aluminum foil to keep them standing perfectly straight and uncharred, and they give the same treatment to the trotters and the curly tail, too. When the pig comes off the pit, it gets a thorough buffing until its mahogany brown skin literally shines. It’s almost so pretty you don’t want to eat it. Almost.
Geographic Note: Yes, Murphysboro, Illinois, is not officially in Southern Living’s definition of the South. But it IS in southern Illinois, and it’s closer to the equator than Kansas City, Missouri, and Louisville, Kentucky, both of which fall within Southern Living’s official parameters. And that’s good enough for me.
Most Efficient BBQ Roadtrip
Austin to Lockhart
Visiting Austin and thinking about camping out in the four hour line at Franklin BBQ? Here’s an alternative. You can drive from Austin out to Lockhart in around half an hour, thanks in part to the 85 miles per hour speed limit on Texas State Highway 130 (a.k.a., “The Pickle Parkway,” named for former Congressman Jake Pickle, not the sliced condiment frequently served alongside central Texas barbecue.) Once you’re in Lockhart, three of the South’s most famous brisket joints—Kreuz Market, Black’s Barbecue, and Smitty’s Market—are found within a half mile of each other, and the latest (Kreuz) opens its doors at 10:30 am. That means you can eat three stellar meals and still get back to Austin before those tourists at Franklin’s have even gotten to the counter.
Best Repurposed Location
Full Service BBQ, Maryville, Tennessee
It’s no secret that barbecue entrepreneurs can be downright creative when it comes to converting other businesses—defunct fried chicken franchises, drive-ins, even cabooses—into barbecue joints. But something about the way the guys have done it at Full Service BBQ in Maryville, Tennessee, is particularly appealing. That’s “full service” as in the type you used to get at gas stations, which is what the location once was that now houses Full Service BBQ. You order, pay, and pick up your food at the little kiosk where customers once paid for their gas, and you can dine al fresco at the folding table and chairs set up under the old pump canopy while wisps of smoke roll by from the metal pits arranged around the parking lot. Fill ‘er up.
Best Barbecue Dish That Never Came Anywhere Near a Pit
Traditionally, New Orleans was not a barbecue town, but it does have barbecue shrimp. Unlike oven-baked barbecue chicken or that bane of my middle school cafeteria, barbecue beef on a bun, barbecue shrimp isn’t an attempt to simulate barbecue without the benefit of fire and smoke. Invented in the 1950s at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant, it doesn’t even use barbecue sauce or seasonings—just whole heads-on shrimp simmered in a butter sauce spiked with lots of black pepper. How it adopted the barbecue name I have no idea, but it sure is a delicious concoction.
Best French Fries
The Original Ridgewood Barbecue, Bluff City, Tennessee
People typically don’t pay much attention to the french fries served at barbecue joints. At most places the spuds arrive pre-sliced and frozen and are simply shaken into the deep fryer. Not so at the Ridgewood. They cut their fries by hand each day, the peel still on, and fry them golden brown. Order the barbecue pork platter, and the meat arrives buried beneath a big mound of those crisp-fried beauties. I’m not saying the fries eclipse the barbecue, necessarily. Thin-sliced with rich smoky flavor and great charred brown bits around the edges, the pork is still the star of the show. But those fries are a really strong opening act.