If you want to taste the country’s top barbecue, your best bet is to find a festival. At many professional competitions, teams aren’t allowed to sell directly to the public because of health regulations. But many have dedicated sampling hours, and all have local vendors ready to sell you a sandwich or rack of ribs. Looking for hog heaven? Here’s where to go.
This competition in southern Alabama has live bands, a kids’ cooking contest, and an outdoor kickoff bash on Friday night with music and food. There’s also a chance to sample competitors’ barbecue (you get a People’s Choice ballot on the back of your ticket) for a few hours on Saturday.
Owensboro sits right on the edge of the Ohio River, so you get a view with your ‘cue. The highlight of this festival is the Mutton Glutton, where competing teams serve up traditional barbecue, mutton, chicken, and burgoo (a meat stew famous in Kentucky) to visitors.
Hundreds of teams—with clever names like Suspicious Rinds and Notorious P.I.G.—compete in this huge contest on the banks of the Mississippi River. Guests can get barbecue at famous local vendors and take free tours that include cooking tips and up-close visits to booths.
New York, NY
Where better to go hog wild than New York City? For two days in June, top pitmasters from across the country take over Madison Square Park in Manhattan, where attendees sample barbecue and listen to bands at the base of the famous Flatiron building.
It is a competition in the nation’s capital, but no, you don’t get to vote. While pros judge the competing barbecue teams, visitors can snag free samples for a few hours on the weekends. Or pork over cash for some good eats on Restaurant Row, featuring local restaurants and vendors.
The best part about this ribs-only competition? Free admission. With the bones you save, you can buy dishes from vendors. Then visit the rides in the kids’ area or watch competitive eaters in the rib-eating championship.
There’s live music and a cooking stage with demonstrations in addition to the professional pitmasters. During the People’s Choice sample event, visitors can buy $1 tastes from participating pro teams.
Kansas City, MO
Kansas City is mecca for Midwest barbecue, and this competition—which includes the KC Masterpiece Invitational for 100 qualifying teams plus an open contest with 500 more—is epic. Cooking demos, a barbecue expo with goods for sale, and cowboy (and girl) activities for the kids are all on the agenda.
This town claims to be the barbecue capital of the world. Visitors can decide for themselves—the vinegar-based barbecue is sold at special tents throughout the festival—in between browsing local crafts and watching the pig-themed sand sculpture competition.
Teams don’t just compete in the typical pork shoulder/ribs categories; there’s also an “anything but” contest (think fruit, vegetables, and non-pig critters). Once you’ve had your fill, you can chill out and listen to live blues.
Known as “The Jack,” this competition is considered one of the most prestigious. Qualifying is tough, so serious fans get to watch the very best go head to head (or butt to butt, depending on how you look at it) for the big prize.
Moove over pigs; in Texas, there’s beef on the menu, too. Get your fill of brisket, ribs, and sausage from area barbecue joints. (And if you overdose on barbecue, Austin’s got plenty of Tex Mex.)