When it comes to barbecue, there are as many opinions about who makes the best as there are sauce-stained napkins. Across the southern U.S. and even into the Midwest, pitmasters showcase rich and diverse regional styles, from beef brisket to whole hog—and everything in between. And as any barbecue lover knows, eating your way through these smoke-tinged joints to create your own personal list of favorites is part of the fun. Read on to discover five spots scattered throughout the country worth charting a course for on your own journey of ’cue discovery. Each offers a delicious taste of the patchwork quilt of great American barbecue.
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
In Kentucky, the barbecue faithful flock to Owensboro for one thing: mutton, or sheep typically aged one to five years. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why one region or another cooks in different ways, it often boils down to the resources on hand. You cook with what’s available locally instead of imported ingredients. And, likely because of tariffs protecting American-made goods in the early 1800s and a robust wool lobby, sheep farming in Kentucky was once a booming business. What did they do with sheep too old to produce quality wool? Cook them, over low heat for extended periods of time to yield a unique Kentucky barbecue. Mutton might be waning in some parts of the Bluegrass State, but Owensboro still clings tightly to its culinary roots. You’ll find several spots where it proudly serves this lesser-known meat. And the smoky version at Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn reigns supreme. Open since 1963, Moonlite dips each piece of mutton several times in a vinegar bath and cooks the meat for 12 hours over a hand-built hickory pit to slowly tenderize it. By the end, the mutton has the texture of roast beef with a rich hickory flavor. Step inside the 350-seat restaurant—huge by barbecue standards—where you’re greeted by walls lined with photos and memorabilia of its 56-year run. Once you’re seated, you’ll be given a menu or asked if you want the buffet. Go for the buffet. Here, alongside a mind-boggling assortment of sides, salad fixings, and desserts, you’ll find mutton chopped, sliced, and even folded into a hearty Kentucky version of Brunswick stew. It might just be the best way to try this regional specialty in all its incarnations. 2840 W. Parrish Ave.; 270-684-8143; moonlite.com; lunch for two, $24*
City Butcher and Barbecue
In Springfield, Missouri, you’ll find a top-notch ode to Central Texas–style brisket at City Butcher and Barbecue. But it’s the joint’s burnt ends—a Midwestern specialty that combines crusty bark (the caramelized layer that forms on the outside of the brisket) with beautifully melted fat in a nugget-size beef bite—that makes it worth the drive to the Ozarks. You may ask how the owner, Cody Smith, succeeded in producing one of the tastiest versions of this Midwestern staple. It could actually be because he’s originally from Texas, where brisket is the main event; after all, burnt ends start with brisket, specifically with the deckle (or fattier) end of the beef.
City Butcher makes its burnt ends with top-quality Black Angus beef from Creekstone Farms, out of Arkansas City, Kansas. Then it trims the deckle, seasons it generously with salt and pepper, and smokes the meat over a blend of white oak and hickory for 10 to 12 hours. After a long rest (about three hours), it cubes the meat into bites marked by a smoky, beefy flavor and a rich bark. While burnt ends typically arrive on your plate swimming in sauce, this version stands on its own—no sauce needed. Convinced? You’ll find City Butcher in a shopping center, a newish spot (opened in 2014) that welcomes diners with long wooden communal tables where rubbing elbows and making new friends while eating off butcher-paper-laden trays is part and parcel of the experience. (It is the Midwest, after all. Friendliness comes standard.) But get here early. Doors open at 11 a.m., and once City Butcher is sold out for the day, it closes shop. 3650 S. Campbell Ave.; 417-720-1113; citybutchersgf.com; lunch for two, $22
San Antonio, Texas
In southern Texas, pitmaster and San Antonio native Esaul Ramos gives the Lone Star State’s beloved beef brisket a Tex-Mex spin at 2M Smokehouse. His father originally hails from Jalpa, in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, and he remembers going every December to his grandparents’ place, where he would help his grandfather in the butcher shop and spend many hours assisting his extended family in making birria (a spicy stew) and carnitas (a simmered pork dish). He credits that upbringing for his love of barbecue. And at 2M, he combines the state’s brisket obsession with the flavors of his childhood. He and his team start with whole briskets that they rub thoroughly with mustard (to help the rub stick) and pickle juice (to make sure those spices are evenly distributed), and then they coat the massive hunks of beef in salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic powder, and onion powder. They smoke that slowly over post oak. But instead of plain white bread, a barbecue house staple, he serves flour tortillas.
The result is clearly a winner—2M goes through about 400 pounds of meat a week. Yes, there’s a barbecue sauce, a sweet-heat sort of sauce flavored with maple syrup, honey, lemon, and lots of cayenne. But you also have the choice of freshly made salsas and pico de gallo. You’ll find pickled nopales (cactus), pickled serrano peppers, and chicharoni macaroni (mac made with Oaxacan cheese and covered with crumbled pork rinds) among the sides, and tres leches cake for dessert. And on the first Sunday of every month, Ramos cooks traditional barbacoa by smoking beef cheeks and then wrapping them in banana leaves to braise in their own juices on the smoker. 2731 S. WW White Rd.; 210-885-9352; 2msmokehouse.com; lunch for two, $30
Rodney Scott’s BBQ
Charleston, South Carolina
Rodney Scott is South Carolina’s undisputed pork king. In fact, he’s one of only two barbecue men to ever win a coveted James Beard Award. (Aaron Franklin in Austin is the other.) He grew up in Hemingway, South Carolina—about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach—where he earned his chops at his family’s temple of whole-hog cookery, Scott’s BarBQue. There, he mastered the art and science of rendering a 100-pound pig supple and swoon-worthy over open pits fueled by freshly cut wood (often sliced by his own chain saw). Now he has brought everything he knows to downtown Charleston, where his hickory and oak smoke perfumes upper King Street, beckoning like spectral fingers. Inside, 120 seats stay full during the lunchtime rush when folks pack in for silken bites of pork, served from major parts of the pig: belly, shoulder, and neck. Scott cooks his pigs at about 200 degrees for 12 hours and then mops them with a vinegar sauce flecked with black, white, and red pepper. For Scott, whole-hog cookery is a patient, slow process, and learning when to add more heat to the pits is the key to getting it right. He judges his work by the speed at which fat drips from the hogs onto the fire, the “hot drip.” If it’s dripping slowly, like a water leak, he knows the pig and pit are in perfect harmony. One way he has made the Charleston joint his own is by introducing a deep menu of sides. Of course, there’s cracklins—meaty with a satisfying top hat of crispy fat and a dusting of rub spice. But there’s also gooey mac and cheese, baked beans, stewed collards, coleslaw, and corn bread that all have their own local following. 1011 King St.; 843-990-9535; rodneyscottsbbq.com; lunch for two, $21
In a quiet corner of northern Georgia, about an hour’s drive from Atlanta, the larger-than-life 74-year-old Phil Beauvien has been serving the gamut of hickory-smoked barbecue for 30 years. The wooden shack started as a basic 8-by-8-foot box and has expanded over the years with closed-in porch additions. Even so, it’s not big enough for its fans, who fill the 12 seats inside then move to the outside lot to feast there—or even off the hoods of their cars, if there’s no other room. While other parts of the country typically have singular specialties, Georgia-style barbecue tends toward a delicious Dr. Frankenstein creation that champions the best of everywhere. Here you’ll find fat-laden pulled pork, meaty pork ribs, slow-smoked chicken, and brisket. And Beauvien does it all on a self-made cooker (he’s also a metal fabricator and mechanic; his first rig was a 55-gallon metal drum) that goes low and slow for hours to produce meat with the deep smoke ring (a thin layer of pink just under the crust prized by pros) and juicy perfection to satisfy any carnivore. Double down on your order with his pulled-pork sandwich, served on a lightly toasted bun with sliced dill pickle and a dash of the tangy house-made vinegar tomato sauce, and succulent ribs that have the right amount of pull (rib meat that falls off the bone is overcooked) and are kissed with an unorthodox sprinkling of cajun spice. Don’t miss the barbecued beans that incorporate the drippings from Beauvien’s smoked pork shoulder with a mound of home-style cracklins folded in. 3605 Thompson Bridge Rd.; 770-503-5235; facebook.com/thehickorypigbbq; lunch for two, $12
RCI® affiliated resorts near some of the featured destinations include:
Sports enthusiasts can try their hand at the championship-level golf course, tennis courts, and swimming pools. 2380 E. Hwy. 76, Branson, MO
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Units here can sleep up to 10, so why not bring the whole gang along? 17545 FM 306, Canyon Lake, TX
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Lie out on a private beach for hours. When hunger strikes, an on-site café serves all the meals of the day. 19320 W. San Luis Pass, Galveston, TX
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Guests can take a complimentary shuttle to the shore or relax at the resort’s pools. 1220 U.S. Hwy. 17 N., Surfside Beach, SC
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Other vacation options near some of the featured destinations include:
21c Museum Hotel
Rotating—and interactive—art exhibits fill the luxe 91-room property, where playful touches and high design coalesce with old-fashioned Southern hospitality and supreme comfort. 700 W. Main St., Louisville, KY; 502-217-6300; 21cmuseumhotels.com; doubles from $180 a night
Oceanfront studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom condos conveniently set near Myrtle Beach’s downtown attractions. 2000 N. Ocean Blvd., Myrtle Beach, SC; 855-707-8384; camelotresort.com; doubles from $247 a night
Take advantage of the ocean-facing dining options and explore the resort’s 18 water features. 2701 S. Ocean Blvd., North Myrtle Beach, SC; 866-987-8952; baywatchresort.com; doubles from $227 a night
Shipwatch Villas at Wild Dunes
Set between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, so every room has a water view. 1400 Palm Blvd., Isle of Palms, SC; 855-441-4404; wyndhamvacationrentals.com; doubles from $300 a night
From the on-site live music venue to the lush Malin+Goetz toiletries to the key cards that look like old university IDs, this bright boutique hotel oozes effortless cool, much like the college town it calls home. 295 Dougherty St., Athens, GA; 706-549-7020; graduatehotels.com; doubles from $106 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Summer 2019