Forget apple pie. Barbecue is America’s real sweetheart. We love giving everything from chicken, to pork, to lamb, to steak to fish the “low and slow” treatment and there are thousands of dedicated cook-offs and festivals held across the country each year to prove it. It’s passed down through generations. Different regions have developed signature styles of smoking and roasting meat over time. And while it’s generally agreed that there are four major types of BBQ in the U.S. (Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas), there are many micro-regions within them that boast distinct and delicious ways of roasting, smoking and saucing meat.
The Tar Heel State is dominated by two styles of barbecue: Eastern-style, found primarily east of Route 1, is pit-roasted whole-hog that uses a simple sauce of mostly vinegar and pepper. Then there’s the Lexington-style, named after the town that dubbed itself The Barbecue Capital of the World during its ’70s BBQ heyday, when the ratio of residents to barbecue pits was 1:1,000. The signature dish is their salted, pit-roasted and fine chopped, rough chopped or sliced (but not pulled!) pork shoulder that’s served with a tomato-based “dip” that also sauces the omnipresent coleslaw the meat is served alongside. A classic Eastern-style plate is a little bit of everything since they use the whole-hog method, while a Lexington-style rough chopped sandwich piled high with “red” slaw is the prized local delicacy.
South Carolina is best known for its “Carolina Gold” mustard-based barbecue sauce found slathered on roasted pork throughout the middle part of the state. It hosts two other styles as well, however: a vinegar-pepper sauce on the eastern coast that is often indistinguishable from its Eastern-style cousin in N.C. and a tomato or ketchup-based sauced found in the west, near the Tennessee border. Whole-hog is their preferred method, though they do have a particular penchant for pork butt in the East.
Memphis-style sets itself apart by its “dry” rub, where the meat gets thoroughly rubbed with a fragrant mix of spices including cumin, paprika, cayenne and garlic powder that form a thick crust while being smoke-cooked. It’s most famously applied to pork ribs and shoulders, which are sprinkled with more of the dry rub before being served. The city also serves a less popular “wet” with a tomato, vinegar, Worcestershire and molasses-based sauce but the dry method really lends itself to Memphis’ “Grit and Grind” motto.
The Gateway City is known for its pork ribs and, to a lesser extent, its pig snouts—known as “snoots.” An order of Crispy Snoots is a bunch of pig nostrils cooked over an open grill before being generously doused in sauce and served. The hallmark of this style is a heavy covering of a thick tomato, molasses and vinegar-based gravy. There’s also the eponymous St. Louis-cut for the ribs, served with the rib tips removed.
The smorgasbord of meat that gets the Kansas City-style treatment is astonishing. The wide variety is likely due to the city’s history as a Midwestern meatpacking epicenter. Ask any local, though, and they’ll tell you the burnt ends (the fatty points at the end of a brisket) are the reason almost everyone loves this type of barbecue. Their sauce is also a thick, tomato and molasses-based one, the wood most often used is hickory and you should definitely order the meaty AF beans because what pairs better with protein besides more protein?
When people talk about “Texas BBQ,” they almost always mean Central Texas BBQ, where meat like brisket and beef ribs is roasted over indirect fire to keep the temperature extra low to allow the animal to cook extra slow, with no saucy dousing before serving. But it’s not the only Lone Star state style of BBQ. Eastern-style uses pork and beef chopped and piled high on a bun and squirted with a deluge of tomato-based sauce, so it’s a lot more like the other styles found around the South and Midwest. The Western corner of the state likes to use mesquite wood and direct heat, while Southern Texas has both Mexican-influenced barbacoa and a thick, mostly molasses-based sauce that keeps everything on the plate wet and sweet.