A Yankee’s Guide to Finding Good Southern B-B-Q

The Northerner who finds himself below the Mason-Dixon Line would be remiss to pass up the opportunity to indulge in real Barbeque.  Real Barbeque takes all day to cook and the sauce can’t be found in a national chain grocery store.

Strip malls, converted gas stations, any building will do. Work trucks outside are a good sign.

If you are travelling on business, the kind that requires a tie and possibly entertaining clients, it is natural to try to wine and dine, ya know, go upscale.  Get this out of your head now.  Barbeque is at its core, finger food.

I'm not sure how big the kingdom is but I'm a loyal subject.

Here are some sure-fire ways to find great B-B-Q:

Look for racially and otherwise diverse clientel.  Nothing unites the races like great food.  Barbeque is the common denominator that makes people from all social or economic groups unite.  If the place seems to be all of one kind of folks or the other, this place is about something other than food.

Be wary of anywhere that has placed too much emphasis on decor or presentation, ie. cloth tablecloths, china, abundance of themed decor, servers in ties… or anyone in a tie.  Again, remember that barbeque is finger food and the extent of “looking nice” a person or a place should indulge in under such circumstances is an abundance of napkins.  If you want to be fancy, “wet naps” should be the extent of it.  Now many, or even most good joints will have some element of kitsch.  I have seen a fine collection of hot sauce bottles, possibly the world’s largest collection of trucker hats, and my favorite place does have a model train travelling around the ceiling, these things are acceptable in that they are the expression of an individual who owns the spot, and thanks to customer repeat business and high school aged cooks, now has time for another hobby.  But again, if the place is too much into decor, it’s about something other than the food.

the floor at the BBQ King may not be cool but it will hold up a table and chairs, and that's its job.

Pig in some or all of its forms will be on the menu.  Pulled pork, pork ribs, pickled pigs feet, B-B-Q is about the pig.  Beef and chicken may sneak onto the menu but will never take center stage.

Pulled pork with slaw on top is usually known as "Tennessee Style". Notice the cups of vinegar dressing, ignore the fries.

Skip the french fries, unless they are sweet potato fires.  Fries are a fast food staple, but any form of cooking that usually requires hours of smoking till meat can be cut with a plastic fork, should never be considered fast food.  French and Southern are like hot and cold, up and down, blue and grey, so one should expect to see hush puppies as the go-to space filler.  Ochra, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, or a sweet potato in any form (my favorite is mashed with brown sugar and pecans at Mutt’s) are all acceptable.  Grits are nice, but be wary of them being sweetened in any way, and be warned that if everyone in line before you has fries on the side, you have been duped.

Notice yellow sauce, and the "sweet potato crumble" was so good I almost cried.

Finally, and most importantly, look for the sauce.  It isn’t unusual to find a good restaurant selling large containers of their signature sauce somewhere near the door or counter.  Labels with a cantankerous looking older person, a pig, or any sort of cartoon are usually a good sign.  Containers larger than a gallon are a great sign.  Unless you are in Texas, St. Louis, or Kansas City, none of which are southern, the only red sauce you should pay attention too will have the words, “hot” or “fire” attached to it.

In North Carolina look for a vinegar based sauce.  It may look like Italian dressing but this tangy sauce will sink into a pulled pork sandwich and coat every last shred of meat with flavor.

The vinegar sauce on the left, the one with the spout that pours in stead of squirts, was the best. The red or "fire" sauce was great on the brisket.

Everywhere else look for yellow, or mustard based sauce.  It may be hot, or sweet, or both, but it will surely be taste bud heaven.  If mustard makes you think of French’s on a hot dog (remember what I said about French and Southern?), or even Gray Poupon on a commercial, you have a culinary deficiency that must be fixed.

The third choice is the aforementioned red sauce with the accompanying words “hot” or “fire”.  Any true Southern sauce that is red will be more pepper based than tomato.  Be warned that when something says hot in an independent eatery, it may actually be hot.  If it says fire it should actually make you sweat just by smelling it.  If you are not used to spicy foods skip the fire and possibly sample the hot.  High temperature food is great if one works their way up to it but it will ruin both your meal and your evening if not.  Look at the sauce marked hot and if you see lots of little flecks and chunks of spices, or other ingredients known as “stuff”, you are most likely in for a treat.  A good spicy sauce will not just be hot but flavorful, with peppers, molasses or brown sugar, and any number of other secret ingredients.

At the end of it all you should be a little messy, stuffed to the point of being uncomfortable, and just plain happy.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “A Yankee’s Guide to Finding Good Southern B-B-Q

  1. A fine primer on bar-b-que. I like a vinegar based one myself. Try Sauer’s sauce next time through Richmond. Outside of Williamsburg you can fine Pierce’s Pit. A lot bigger than the walk-up window I used to frequent, but still delicious.

    You forgot onion rings. Acceptable in my book!

  2. mmmmmm….. There will be no getting around it tonight. I shall have to have BBQ without the fries. Thanks!

  3. Jenna

    Great review – I love barbecue!!! And I don’t mean that big black rusty thing out on the back deck.

  4. James

    You are killing me with these recent posts bro… I love it up North, but I miss some of this food!

  5. kgskog

    You forgot to mention another sign of a great meal – when you indulge in so much pork, beef, or chicken that you get the meat sweats.

  6. linzdawn

    One of our patients brought us southern BBQ about a month ago and my mouth still waters thinking about it. Turns out he was trained at the same school as and worked with Emeril Lagasse. That was some good food. On a side note, the Famous Dave`s here burned on Saturday night. craziness.

  7. Lauren

    Haha, this is pretty good. If you don’t mind, I would like to make a clarification from my humble background as a born-and-bred Southerner. There’s a difference between home BBQ and restaurant BBQ. Both are good, and there is a lot of overlapping, but there is a difference. Out of all the family cookouts I’ve been to put on by folks who’ve BBQ’ed their whole lives and have even made a living from it, not once have pulled-pork sandwiches been on the menu. That’s something you stop at the BBQ shack (another sign of a good BBQ place is if it’s literally a little run-down shack) for, and a pack of greasy fries are a perfect compliment to a pulled-pork sandwich. Down South, that is fast-food. Now, when we start talking ribs and what-not, then you break out the big guns.

    Still, not a bad run-down… for a Yank.

  8. The “rusty thing in the back yard” is a grill. I say, IMHO, that grilling and barbequeing are not the same thing but the words are often mixed up.
    Burgers on the backyard grill are a personal favorite, but something like pulled pork is hard to keep from falling through onto your coals (thats a joke).
    Notice the greasy fries in two of the above meals, even after I complained about them… Hush puppies are better, but I am not a native southerner… though I did marry one.

  9. Granny aka Margaret B

    The great eatery of the south. At last you found it. Hope the ghosts of Southern Past didn’t scare it out of you. Beware of old churches and graveyards after sundown in the south.
    Only one section of North Carolina serves the vinegar based sauce and that is eastern NC. Western NC has a tomato based sauce. You should shake the vinegar based before you put it on your food.

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