This blog post was updated on June 24, 2022.
As the barbecue grills of summer start to heat up across backyards around the U.S., there’s a collective growl in the stomachs of America. From the Texas brisket to the Memphis ribs to the vinegary Carolina ‘cue, the South holds court over American barbecue. Arguably, you could simply take a random road trip through the Southern United States and find the best of American barbecue.
But in case you’d like some focus, we’ve narrowed things down for you. If you salivate over the idea of cooking meat low and slow, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some of the best Southern barbecue to road trip for this summer.
Kansas City: Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-QueIf you’re craving top-notch burnt ends and pulled pork sandwiches, check out some cheap flights to Kansas City and stop by Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. In 1990, Jeff and Joy Stehney opened up the eatery on the Kansas side of Kansas City. The beloved barbecue joint is set up in the unlikely location of a gas station and was formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s. When you go, make sure you get there early as hungry customers tend to…’cue up…as soon as the restaurant opens.
Kansas City: Gates BBQ
Pork. Chicken. Turkey. Mutton. It’s a meat lover’s paradise at Gates BBQ. Whether you’re interested in double-decker sandwiches or thick deli slices, cut and wrapped by the pound, you can fill your belly here. The only thing better than the meat is the award-winning barbecue sauce that gets slathered on top. Other menu items include beans, slaw, potato salad, and onion rings. Some locations also offer special or seasonal items such as chili cheese fries or “burnt end” hoagies.
Gates BBQ has perfected its barbecue recipes and made them available for travelers everywhere, with multiple locations in the South and Midwest. It even has an online shipping business! So, if you enjoy the spices, sauces, or seasonings you sampled, you can have them delivered to you anywhere in the country.
North Carolina: Lexington BarbecueThe Carolinas boast a unique barbecue style, usually heavy on the vinegary sauces. Lexington Barbecue is a good place to begin your barbecue road trip through the South for a taste of North Carolina ‘cue. Started in 1962 by Wayne Monk, Lexington Barbecue grew from a small café to a nationally recognized barbecue eatery. Pork shoulders are cooked solely over oak or hickory coals for nearly half a day. The sauce features a mix of tomato ketchup and vinegar, producing that sweet and classic Carolina barbecue flavor.
Memphis: Central BBQMemphis has long since established notoriety for its barbecued pork, usually of the rib and shoulder variety. Central BBQ in Midtown Memphis is consistently ranked as one of the best in town. Meats are rubbed with a secret combination of dry spices and then marinated for 24 hours to lend mouth-watering barbecue grub.
Memphis: Cozy Corner BBQ
Memphis is one of the barbecue capitals of the south, and once you’re settled in front of a 1/2 slab of ribs at Cozy Corner BBQ, you’ll understand why. The restaurant has been featured in everything from Food & Wine magazine to bucket list books like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. What makes it such a standout? For starters, it has a killer “meat menu” with everything from ribs and wings to sliced pork sandwiches. Aside from the barbecue, it also offers good old-fashioned southern classics like baked beans and coleslaw. You can even order some banana pudding or sweet potato pie for dessert! That is, if you have room for it.
Another great thing about Cozy Corner BBQ is its commitment to authenticity. It’s been in business since 1977 and has barely changed throughout the decades, and for good reason. Even now, there are still vintage Coca-Cola signs on its front doors. If you’re looking for a true staple of Memphis’s famous barbecue culture, this is the place to get it.
Austin: Franklin BarbecueAaron Franklin opened up Franklin Barbecue in 2009 and already this place is among the best Southern barbecue for your summer road trip. People wait for hours in the hot Texas sun just to try some of the juicy brisket, ribs, and sausage. Best of all, Franklin uses smoked oak to cook the meat. The food comes out so tasty, that all Franklin needs to do to season it is add a little salt and pepper. Before you go, just be aware that the “sold-out” sign usually appears by 1 PM or so.
Alabama: Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-QWant to sample quintessential Southern BBQ? Head on down to Decatur, Alabama, and stop by Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. This barbecue destination has kept the tradition all in the family across four generations since its opening in 1925. In true Alabama barbecue fashion, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q hasn’t just mastered the famous Alabama-style white sauce. These folks invented it. The sauce features a peppery, vinegar, and mayo taste that complements the barbecue very nicely.
Mabel’s BBQ (Cleveland, Ohio)
A classier kind of barbecue joint, Mabel’s BBQ offers finger-licking fare. It’s housed in a chic industrial building with long, dimly-lit bars and exposed brick ceilings to give it a trendy aesthetic. Don’t let the upscale atmosphere fool you, however. The barbecue is just as down-home delicious as anything made in the South; it’s just served on nicer plates. Menu options include pork belly, spare ribs, beef brisket, kielbasa, and more. Healthy eaters can opt for sides like leafy greens or summer squash salads. Indulgers can dig into cheesy fried potatoes or pork-and-jalapeno baked beans.
Another noteworthy aspect of Mabel’s BBQ is its vision. It aims to popularize Cleveland-style barbecue served with wood-smoked meats and special blends of spices. While not quite as famous as other styles of barbecue, it’s definitely on the rise! Ultimately, Mabel’s BBQ is proof that you don’t have to get messy to enjoy a barbecue. You can enjoy a fun date night in a lively bar that just so happens to serve the best beef ribs this side of the Mason-Dixon.
South Carolina: Scott’s Bar-B-Que
Scott’s Bar-B-Que is the kind of hole-in-the-wall establishment that will blow your mind on the first bite. How does something so good come from such a tiny, old-fashioned diner? The answer lies in its barbecue pits. Almost everything on the menu is slow-roasted to perfection, including chicken, pulled pork, and ribeye steak. Its signature smoky flavor is combined with various spices and dry rubs to give the meat an amazing look and taste.
Other things to purchase at Scott’s Bar-B-Que include boiled peanuts, skin off the hog, pecans, candy, cane syrup, and bottled sodas. You’ll have a truly vintage experience as well as a mouthwatering lunch or dinner. If you’re really in the mood to be adventurous, ask about their whole pit-cooked barbecue hogs!