- North Carolina
- South Carolina
As passionate and opinionated as people are about barbecue in the United States — and they are very passionate — there’s one thing everyone can agree on:
There’s no single overarching style of barbecue in the USA. Instead, most barbecue falls into one of four regional styles: Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. While you really should sample all varieties to make an informed decision about your favorite, feel free to take our word for it and just gorge on eastern Carolina barbecue with a heaping side of slaw. (We weren’t joking when we wrote that Americans are passionate and opinionated about their favorite barbecue.) What’s so special about eastern Carolina barbecue? Read on to learn more about it and other popular barbecue styles around the USA.
What you’re eating: In North Carolina and South Carolina, it’s pork cooked over hardwood, usually hickory. In the western Carolinas, it’s served with a tomato-based vinegar sauce; in the eastern Carolinas, it’s a vinegar sauce with pepper (no tomatoes). The dividing line between east and west is roughly Raleigh, North Carolina. Usually the barbecue is served with a side of vinegar-based coleslaw as well. In South Carolina, don’t be surprised if the sauce is mustard based.
Classic cut: In the eastern Carolinas, it’s the whole pig, mixed together and chopped up, skin and all. In the western part of the states, it’s the shoulder.
Bit of trivia: It shouldn’t be too surprising that Carolina barbecue is all about pork. After all, North Carolina has more hogs (10 million) than people (9.9 million).
Where to sample it: Lexington, North Carolina, claims to be the barbecue capital of the world. Home of western Carolina-style barbecue, the city’s claim may have merit. And every October its barbecue festival draws around 200,000 people.
Sam Jones beside the fire at the Skylight Inn, Ayden, North Carolina
What you’re eating: More than a particular meat or cut, it’s the sauce that gives Kansas City barbecue its distinct character. It’s a thick tomato and molasses sauce, based on one originally from Memphis, Tennesee, but sweeter and darker.
Classic cut: While pit masters in Kansas City aren't as loyal to a specific cut as are their counterparts in other regions, burnt ends — charred fatty edges of brisket (cow’s breast) that often get smoked a second time — originated here.
Bit of trivia: Originally pit masters gave away the ends of brisket or used them in stews, figuring the meat was too fatty to serve by itself. But once the pieces earned a dedicated following, burnt ends became a staple in Kansas City barbecue restaurants.
Where to sample it: Named after the man who created the sauce the city is now known for, Arthur Bryant's has been serving barbecue since the 1920s.
Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Missouri
What you’re eating: Pork, but whether it’s wet or dry is up to you. Wet means your barbecue — typically ribs — comes with a tomato-based sauce that was added after the meat was smoked and basted. Order it dry and you’ll get barbecue that was covered with herbs and spices, like onion, garlic and paprika — called a rub — before being smoked.
Classic cut: Pork ribs and, to a lesser extend, pork shoulder are the mainstays.
Where to sample it: Central BBQ’s three locations in Memphis serve smoked ribs (wet or dry), pork, chicken, turkey, beef brisket, sausage and chicken wings (wet or dry). Or, for a different type of barbecue, try the barbecued bologna.
Central BBQ in Memphis
What you’re eating: What’s traditionally thought of as Texas barbecue is beef brisket smoked with mesquite or oak. However, barbecue preferences can vary wildly throughout Texas — no surprise, given the state’s size. In Texas, the focus is on the meat, rather than the sauce; an emphasis some sources credit to the state’s ranching history while others attribute it to central European butchering traditions settlers brought to the state. Rubs are more prevalent. If a sauce is used though, it’s likely tomato-based.
Classic cut: Brisket that just about falls of the bone on its own.
Bit of trivia: The movie “Chef” filmed a scene at the storied Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
Where to sample it: Proclaimed the barbecue capital of Texas by the state Legislature, Lockhart is home to Black’s BBQ, which has been serving meat cooked low and slow since 1932. It currently serves nine different types of smoked meat with its signature rub and local post oak wood. And its current pit, which is 66 years old, can hold 500 pounds of meat at one time.