American cuisine would be nothing without the mouthwatering flavors and tantalizing aromas of barbecue. Regions across the country agree that low and slow is the tempo, but you won’t get the same plate of slow-smoked meats and secret sauces in Kansas City as you will in West Texas.
As part of this year’s Best Of Travel Awards, passionate readers like you chose these regions for their mastery of barbecue, distinct styles, cooking methods, preferred meats, and signature sauces. Follow along on a flavorful adventure through the heart of American barbecue as we explore the best regions in the U.S. that are guaranteed to leave you licking your lips!
1. Kansas City (Winner)
It is official — renowned for its versatility and bold flavors, Kansas City is the best region for barbecue in the country! Here, the focus is on slow-cooking a variety of meats — including ribs, pork shoulder, and burnt ends — over hickory wood. The meat is typically slathered with a thick, sweet tomato-based sauce, and the finishing touch often involves a light dusting of spices. Kansas City barbecue is also known for its inventive side dishes, such as cheesy corn, baked beans, and coleslaw.
Memphis-style barbecue is all about the rich, smoky flavor derived from slow-cooking over a mix of hardwoods (usually oak and hickory). The signature meat in this region is pork — particularly ribs — which are dry-rubbed with a blend of spices, including paprika, garlic, and cayenne pepper. While Memphis-style barbecue can be served dry, it’s also customary to enjoy it with a tangy, thin tomato-based sauce on the side. Pair your ribs with classic sides like collard greens and fried okra for a true Memphis experience.
3. Central Texas
Home to Lockhart, “The BBQ Capital Of Texas,” Central Texas is famous for its traditional, no-frills approach to barbecue. Here, it’s all about the meat and the wood. Central Texas barbecue is characterized by large cuts of meat, like brisket and sausage, smoked low and slow over post oak or mesquite wood. The seasoning is simple, usually just salt and pepper, allowing the natural flavors of the meat to shine. Accompanied by pickles, onions, and “Texas napkins” (aka white bread), this style of barbecue is all about savoring the pure taste of the perfectly cooked meat.
4. New Orleans
While New Orleans is renowned for its Cajun and Creole cuisine, the city also boasts a distinct style of barbecue. New Orleans barbecue combines elements of Creole and southern traditions, resulting in a unique blend of flavors. Here, you’ll find dishes like smoked sausage, pork, and chicken, often marinated in a spicy, tangy Creole-style sauce. The meats are then slowly smoked to perfection, creating a mouthwatering fusion of smokiness and spicy goodness.
5. The Carolinas
Like North and South, The Carolinas are divided into two primary barbecue styles: eastern and western. The latter originated in Lexington (in the Piedmont region of North Carolina) and is therefore called Lexington-style or Piedmont-style.
In eastern Carolina, the focus is on whole-hog barbecue, where the entire pig is slowly cooked over hardwood coals, then chopped or pulled, and dressed with a vinegar-based sauce. Western Carolina, on the other hand, favors pork shoulder, which is also slow-cooked and served pulled but with a tomato-based sauce that adds a touch of sweetness to the tangy vinegar base. Both styles are typically enjoyed with classic Carolina sides like hush puppies and collard greens.
According to TravelAwaits contributor and South Carolina resident Penny Zibula, South Carolina has four basic sauces. “The bright yellow, tangy, and slightly sweet mustard-based sauce, common in the central part of the state, is the best known,” she explains. “The sauce of the coastal region follows the main recipe used in eastern North Carolina but omits the sugar. Influenced by North Carolina’s Lexington style, a light tomato sauce can be found in South Carolina’s Piedmont and upper Midlands. If you prefer a heavy tomato sauce, you’ll find it in western and northwestern parts of the state.”
6. St. Louis
St. Louis-style barbecue is a unique blend of flavors influenced by various regional styles. Pork spare ribs take center stage in this region, where they are slow-cooked and slathered in a sticky, tangy sauce. The ribs are typically grilled rather than smoked, resulting in a slightly different texture. St. Louis-style barbecue also includes other cuts of meat like beef brisket and chicken, and the use of sweet, tomato-based sauces is a distinguishing characteristic.
7. West Texas
West Texas-style barbecue is all about the simplicity of smoked meats and fire-cooked flavors. In this region, you’ll find a strong emphasis on beef, particularly cuts like brisket and beef ribs. West Texas barbecue showcases the true essence of the meat by using a direct-heat method, often with mesquite wood, which imparts a distinct smoky flavor. The meat is typically seasoned with a simple rub of salt, pepper, and perhaps some garlic powder, allowing the natural flavors to shine through. Sauces are minimal or even nonexistent, with the focus solely on high-quality, expertly cooked beef.
Whether you prefer your barbecue sweet, tangy, smoky, or spicy, these barbecue regions in the U.S. offer an array of flavors and techniques that will satisfy any carnivorous craving.