Walk into any barbecue joint in Memphis and you’ll immediately realize that you’re in swine country. “They’re all about pork—butt, shoulder, baby back ribs,” says Myron Mixon, a champion barbecue competitor and the author of Everyday Barbecue ($24, amazon.com). But you’ll have some hard decisions to make in Memphis. The legendary smoked ribs are offered up wet (basted and served with a sweet, sticky sauce that boasts a hearty dose of molasses) or dry (cooked with just a spice rub, which often includes paprika, chili powder, onion, garlic, oregano, and celery seed). The choice depends on your palate and your tolerance for messy fingers.
However, if you’re a Memphis resident, you might skip the ribs altogether in favor of a somewhat surprising local obsession—barbecue spaghetti. Smoked pork shoulder is mixed with a barbecue sauce that’s sometimes cut with a traditional red sauce, then tossed with spaghetti for a unique meal that you’re probably not going to find anywhere too far from the greater Graceland area.
The meat mecca of the Midwest has become synonymous with a distinct style of barbecue sauce. It’s typically a flavorful, hickory, ketchup-based sauce—and locals can be pretty liberal with the pour when saucing their ’cue. More often than not, that splash of sauce is accompanying spare ribs or brisket right off the smoker. (Kansas City is also home to the world’s largest organization of barbecue competitors, so rest assured that these pieces of meat are being taken quite seriously.)
There’s one other Kansas City staple that inspires instant drooling among those in the know: A true local delicacy, burnt ends are the crunchy, crusty end bits from a beef brisket that have been cooked with a hearty dose of sauce before they hit your mouth, packing intense amounts of smoky flavor in each bite. “They’re basically cubes of delicious goodness,” says Mixon.
North Carolinians tend to go whole hog, literally, when it comes to barbecue. Restaurants in the eastern half of the state serve up whole-hog barbecue cooked directly over hot coals to feed the hungry masses (unlike pitmasters in other parts of the country, who smoke their meat over offset heat). “They break it down all at the same time, and the combination of all the different meats is what makes their ’cue special,” says Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, the author of Slow Fire: The Beginner’s Guide to Barbecue ($23, amazon.com). Meanwhile, over in western Carolina, folks are lining up for pork shoulder. But no matter where you are in the state, you can safely bet that your pork is going past “pulled” to finely chopped.
If you’re looking for thick, hickory-flavored sauce to top off your pork in North Carolina, you’ll be hunting for a while. The locals prefer a sauce that’s far more thin and vinegary (and usually containing white apple cider vinegar with some chili peppers); this helps cut through all that fat and grease. In the western part of the state, you’ll find some ketchup in the sauce, but it still packs a zing.
Tip: You don’t need to bother with road signs to know when you’ve traveled from North to South Carolina—just look at the barbecue. “You cross over the state line and they add yellow mustard to everything,” says Lampe. The sauce in South Carolina is the most notable difference—it still has the strong vinegar base that the northern neighbor favors, but the added mustard gives it a uniquely different tang. (Other than that, the meat is remarkably similar in both states.)
Whole-hog barbecue is also very much a part of life in South Carolina, where the pig is undeniably king. For a more refined ’cue experience, try the barbecue hash that the South Carolinians can’t get enough of: Think pork, beef, onions, potatoes, and barbecue sauce all simmered together and served over white rice. With mustard, of course.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and favorite meat sources are no exception. Texans really, really, like their beef—especially in the form of barbecued brisket. Traditionally a tough cut of meat, the brisket is seasoned simply (some pitmaster purists rely solely on salt and pepper), then cooked low and slow until it’s fork tender and sporting a hint of a tasty smoke ring. You’ll also be able to enjoy ribs (beef and pork) and sausage at any Texas barbecue establishment, but the almighty brisket is the star of the show.
Sauce can be a controversial topic in the Lone Star State. Many feel that the meat should have enough flavor to stand on its own. “Hopefully you don’t need sauce. But if you do, make it good,” says Aaron Franklin, the pitmaster of the celebrated Franklin Barbecue, in Austin. For those who like to moisten their meat, you’ll generally find a ketchup-based sauce that’s not too sweet, with a little kick of spice. And if you’re in central Texas, odds are pretty good that your meat will be served up old school–style—sliced onto big pieces of butcher paper for casual-dining deliciousness. Just add a fork and you’re ready to chow down.