The Most Influential BBQ in America

Forget about “the best”—what smoked-meat temples have changed the way America thinks about barbecue? An all-star cast of writers and judges weighs in.
Tim Carman  Aug 10, 2016

Not long ago, while talking about his new barbecue project at a small brewery in Lucketts, VA, celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio blanched at the notion he might one day produce smoked meats as memorable as those by Aaron Franklin, the founder and trailblazer behind Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

“He’s next level,” balked Voltaggio.“That’s incredible stuff. I know I’m a good cook. You know what I mean? I’m proud of what I do. But I’m not Aaron Franklin when it comes to barbecue.”

Voltaggio wasn’t erecting a wall of false modesty with his comments. He was just stating the facts as he sees them: Voltaggio may create fine-dining tasting menus that flash both flair and technical brilliance, but he’s a mere a potato peeler compared to Franklin in barbecue circles. And yet, when you taste Voltaggio’s brisket at the Vanish brewery, it mimics some of the qualities you’ll find at Franklin: a lean, pepper-heavy rub, no sauce, quality beef, all-wood cooking.

If he hasn’t directly influenced dozens of startup pitmasters, from Virginia to Texas to Brooklyn, Aaron Franklin has certainly challenged them all: to think bigger, to aim higher, to put their own stamp on barbecue. Since he got into the game, Franklin has been rethinking almost every facet of barbecue, from the grade of meat used to the holding times, and in the process, he has become the very definition of influential.

But who else has left his or her mark on the sometimes insular, always competitive world of American barbecue? It’s a question we put to a group of heavy hitters, people who have been writing and thinking about the subject for years. Their picks spanned generations and almost every regional style, proving something important: Influence comes in many forms. There are the innovators, such as Franklin and formally trained chefs, who continue to redefine barbecue, sometimes looking outside U.S. borders for inspiration. But there are also the traditionalists who adhere to methods developed decades ago. Both have a long line of followers behind them.

Just as important, the panelists had widely divergent opinions on what qualifies as “influential.” One focused on a once little-known joint that, with some timely press from Texas Monthly, practically invented the idea of “destination barbecue.” Another contributor stayed local, noting how one barbecue restaurant keeps its community rooted in place amid all the upheaval of modern society. Our aim here isn’t to quibble over the varying definitions, or even to fight over who serves the best ribs or brisket. (We’ll leave that for another time.) Rather, we set out to find the places and pitmasters that truly have shaped the legacy of American barbecue.

Our panel of contributors:

  • Snow’s BBQ

    Address and phone: 516 Main St., Lexington, TX (979-542-8189)

    JC Reid Houston ChronicleReid says: “The idea of traveling across the state—or country, or world—to eat barbecue barely existed before 2008 when Texas Monthly named Snow’s BBQ the best in Texas. But soon after that consecration, Kerry Bexley’s barbecue joint in the tiny cow town of Lexington started drawing food and barbecue fanatics from all over the world, who would line up in the early hours of every Saturday morning to eat and Tweet pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz’s classic Central Texas ‘cue. “Destination barbecue” had arrived.  Fueled by the rise of social media and food television, bloggers and Instagrammers made their pilgrimages to the shrines of Texas barbecue and sent out their reports to the masses. Snow’s commitment to the old-school traditions of craft barbecue gained a cult-like following, setting the stage for Aaron Franklin to take destination barbecue into the mainstream.  Today, standing in line to sample the smoky goods at Snow’s, Franklin Barbecue, or Louie Mueller Barbecue is a rite of passage for any barbecue aficionado or would-be TV personality.”

  • Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque

    Address and phone: 1727 Brooklyn Ave, Kansas City, MO (816-231-1123)

    Adrian MillerMiller says: “Few restaurants have defined a regional barbecue style the way Arthur Bryant’s has. The main reason is its pedigree. The restaurant’s barbecue method and recipes (especially the sauce that’s sold nationwide) trace back to Henry Perry, an African American who is generally credited with jumpstarting the Kansas City barbecue scene in the early 1900s. Perry hired Charlie and Arthur Bryant to help run his restaurant, and the brothers eventually took over the operation. The Bryant brothers carried on Perry’s smoked meat legacy for decades until Arthur died in December 1982. For years, Arthur Bryant’s product was the reference point for evaluating the barbecue served at other Kansas City joints. Over time, several presidents (Truman, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama), numerous celebrities and hordes of people have stopped by Arthur Bryant’s for the restaurant’s signature ribs, brisket, burnt ends, and hot link sausages wrapped up with French fries, pickles and white bread—all doused with that famous sauce. No wonder Kansas City native and essayist Calvin Trillin felt no shame in designating Arthur Bryant’s as ‘The Best Restaurant in the World.'”

  • Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

    Address and phone: 52 S Second St, Memphis, TN (901-523-2746)

    John Shelton ReedReed says: “When Charlie Vergos opened the place in 1948, he served his pork ribs rubbed with a spicy powder instead of a sauce. He really started something. Today in Memphis, “dry” ribs are at least as popular as ordinary “wet” ones, and “Memphis dry ribs” are found on menus from sea to shining sea—and overseas, for that matter (at Hang Fire Southern Kitchen in the Vale of Glamorgan, for instance). No other restaurant I know has single-handedly invented a major regional style of barbecue. Incidentally, Memphis dry rubs are likely to include herbs such as oregano and thyme, reflecting Vergos’s Greek heritage. Lots of barbecue restaurants have been run by Greek-Americans; what Vergos did established a Hellenic presence not just in management, but on the table.”

  • Hometown Bar-B-Que

    Address and phone: 454 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY (347-294-4644)

    Elizabeth Karmel BBQKarmel says: “Billy Durney, owner and pitmaster of Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook, New York, is a hometown boy—and his hometown is Brooklyn. That is the explanation behind the name of his restaurant. Durney is one of the masters of “new barbecue,” and his interpretation of the age-old craft has expanded the way the culinary community views the tradition. Durney’s New York “melting pot” roots are evident in his menu, which includes pastrami bacon (pork belly), jerk-style ribs, and a lamb-belly bahn mi sandwich. He has taken traditional barbecue techniques and applied them to his world of flavors. It is not Southern barbecue, it is world barbecue. Durney has expertly elevated barbecue from a regional specialty to a global cuisine. But he doesn’t eschew the rules completely. In an homage to Wayne Mueller, Durney demonstrates his deep knowledge of fire management and turns out some of the best Central Texas beef ribs that I have ever eaten. The ribs are served sliced off the bone, their interior glistening and tender, with a fuchsia smoke ring that contrasts with the craggy near-black crust. But as good as his beef ribs are, the pastrami bacon is worth the trip alone to Red Hook.”

  • Patillo’s Bar-B-Q

    Address and phone: 2775 Washington Blvd, Beaumont, TX (409-833-3154)

    Daniel VaughnVaughn says: “Only three barbecue joints in Texas are older than Patillo’s Bar-B-Q in Beaumont. Jack Patillo, the illegitimate son of a former slave owner, began selling his all-beef links in 1912. The joint moved a dozen or so times, finally settling in the building that currently houses Patillo’s on Washington Boulevard, where Robert Patillo, Jack’s grandson, carries on the legacy. For more than 100 years, they have used the same recipe for those links. Beef (usually brisket) is ground with garlic, chili powder, cumin and plenty of beef fat before being stuffed into beef casings. The links never gained popularity in the rest of the state, but there are still at least a dozen joints in Southeast Texas that make their own version of the Patillo’s original recipe. Some call them grease balls or garlic bombs, and a few in Houston use pork casings in the style of Matt Garner. (Likely influenced by the links sold by Jack Patillo, Garner brought a taste of Beaumont to Houston when he moved there in 1938.) Southeast Texas barbecue joints aren’t known for their sliced brisket like those in the middle of the state, which is why, borrowing a term from the business card of Nick’s Bar-B-Que in Port Arthur, I call it the “Land of Links.” While national media tends to focus on brisket, these beef links harken back to an important—and often overlooked—tradition of Black barbecue in East Texas. Nick’s, Gerard’s, Broussard’s, and plenty of others still make a great version of these beef links, but it all began with Jack Patillo.”

  • Q39

    Address and phone: 1000 W 39th St, Kansas City, MO (816-255-3753)

    Ardie DavisDavis says: “When Arthur Bryant’s was the most influential barbecue joint on the planet, Bryant didn’t go for frills. No catsup. Miller and Bud on tap. Free brisket trimmings. When pressed to blow smoke about the greatness of his joint, Bryant humbly asserted, “It’s just a greasehouse.” Kansas City’s most influential barbecue restaurant today is not a greasehouse, although it stays true to Kansas City’s Texas/Tennessee/Down South heritage. Chef and pitmaster Rob Magee’s influence comes from his Culinary Institute of America pedigree and his remarkable success on the competition circuit. Consider Magee’s white bean cassoulet with house-made chipotle sausage, a barbecue interpretation of dish from the south of France. The restaurant boasts sit-down service with ceramic plates, silverware, and cloth napkins, a departure from the counter service and disposable dishware of traditional barbecue joints. Although upscale table service in barbecue restaurants isn’t new—Johnny Harris in Savannah, and Jack Stack in Kansas City, for example—Q39 is arguably the first in the USA to combine full service, open scratch kitchen, with chef-driven, competition quality barbecue and sides. The staff is literate in barbecue and beverage pairings, whether the meats are paired wine, craft beer or cocktails. And just to prove he’s ground in tradition, Magee serves burnt ends, a nod to Arthur Bryant’s and its famous offering. Is it any wonder Q39 attracts picky Kansas Citians and tourists alike.”

  • Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn

    Address and phone: 2840 West Parrish Ave, Owensboro, KY (270-684-8143)

    Wes Berry BBQBerry says: “Mutton is Kentucky’s distinctive contribution to American barbecue—even though only 10% of the state’s barbecue places serve it regularly—and when Kentuckians think of mutton, they think of Moonlite. The most famous barbecue restaurant in the Commonwealth, Moonlite has served up hickory-cooked meats since the 1950s. In 1963, Pappy and Catherine Bosley, a husband-wife team who’d been working for local distilleries, took over the restaurant, and Moonlite remains a Bosley family enterprise, employing more than 120 people in various departments. The restaurant seats 350 people, and it has an USDA-inspected processing plant. (The 9,000 pounds of mutton cooked up at the “world’s largest picnic” and political carnival in Fancy Farm Kentucky in 2011 came from Moonlite’s plant.) They have a catering department and a wholesale division for placing barbecue and sauces in stores in a four-state region.I bet there’s more smoked mutton and burgoo consumed in Owensboro annually than in any other place in the United States. Moonlite alone sells about 10,000 pounds of mutton weekly. It slow cooks on huge masonry pits, fired by hickory wood. During the long cook, pit tenders baste the meats with Owensboro’s distinctive spicy, vinegar-based black dip. Even though Kentucky’s barbecue fame lags behind our bourbon, horses, and franchise chicken, people are waking up to our diverse regional barbecue styles and to Kentucky as a hotbed destination for 100% wood-cooked barbecue. Moonlite, with its long success and long-smoked mutton, has kept the flames and spread the fame.”

  • Stamey’s

    Address and phone: 2206 W Gate City Blvd, Greensboro, NC (336-299-9888)

    Robert MossMoss says: “When it comes to influence in the barbecue world, you have to look to the great mentors such as Henry Perry in Kansas City and Matt Garner in Houston, who trained entire generations of pitmasters and helped codify their cities’ signature styles. Perry’s and Garner’s pioneering restaurants are long closed, but the legacy of the most prolific barbecue mentor of all lives on at Stamey’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. Warner Stamey was instrumental in spreading the Piedmont North Carolina style, which he learned working for Jess Swicegood at one of the first commercial barbecue stands in Lexington. Over the course of his career, Stamey operated restaurants in Shelby, Lexington and, finally, Greensboro. Cooks who got their start working for Stamey went on to open dozens of now-classic Piedmont North Carolina joints, including Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Lexington Barbecue, and Bar-B-Q Center. Warner Stamey is also credited with introducing an old fish camp favorite, hushpuppies, to the region’s barbecue menu. His grandson Chip carries on the family legacy at Stamey’s, where they still cook pork shoulders on closed brick pits the same way Warner Stamey did.”

  • Franklin Barbecue

    Address and phone: 900 E 11th St, Austin, TX (512-653-1187)

    JC Reid Houston ChronicleReid says: “The 1990s were something of a lost decade for Texas barbecue: The rise of automated, all-gas cookers (“gassers”) and chain barbecue restaurants had diminished the grand traditions of Central Texas smoked meat purveyors. But by the early 2000s, the backlash had begun as nascent barbecue engineers began tinkering with old-school techniques in their backyards during off hours between temp jobs. One such tinkerer was Aaron Franklin. Starting at his family’s barbecue joint in Bryan and later during a stint at John Mueller’s first joint in Austin, Franklin crafted the perfect pits and cooking techniques to vault Texas barbecue into the 21st century. He opened his own barbecue trailer in 2009, and the lines have only gotten longer after moving to a bricks-and-mortar location in 2011. In addition to his pitmaster chops, Franklin’s laid-back, Keep-Austin-Weird disposition has been a magnet for national and international food media, culminating in a James Beard Best Chef Award in 2015 (the first for any pitmaster). Backyard barbecue warriors and competition cooks had found their guru. Rarely does a Texas-style barbecue joint open somewhere without a mention of Aaron Franklin.”

  • Scott’s Bar-B-Que

    Address and phone: 2734 Hemingway Hwy, Hemingway, SC (843-558-0134)

    Robert MossMoss says: “Scott’s Bar-B-Que is way off the path in Hemingway, South Carolina, but it has achieved tremendous influence in the barbecue world nonetheless. It did so in a simple way: by not changing a darn thing. Rodney Scott carries on the old Pee Dee-style of whole hog, burn-barrel cooking that he learned from his father, Roosevelt Scott. From a quality perspective, Scott’s pulled pork—dressed in a pepper-laced vinegar sauce so fiery it will leave your lips tingling—is as good as any joint’s in the country. In recent years, Rodney Scott has become something of an international ambassador for wood-cooked barbecue, traveling from New York to San Francisco and as far away as Australia to introduce curious diners to the wonders of this old South Carolina tradition. To top it off, Scott’s has inspired a new generation of cooks to take up the art of whole hog cookery, and countless pitmastershave now made the pilgrimage to Hemingway to check out the big burn barrels and cinderblock pits at Scott’s Bar-B-Que.”

  • Kreuz Market

    Address and phone: 619 North Colorado St, Lockhart, TX (512-398-2361)

    Elizabeth Karmel BBQKarmel says: “Visiting Kreuz Market in Lockhart is a history lesson in Central Texas barbecue. One of the oldest and most influential barbecue joints in the country, Kreuz is now located a stone’s throw from the original restaurant. When Rick Schmidt moved from the centuries-old building near the town square, it enabled him to build a restaurant big enough to accommodate the long lines. The enormous structure also houses a USDA kitchen for making Kreuz’s famous (and my favorite) jalapeno-cheddar sausage and other post-oak smoked barbecue that’s shipped each week to homes and restaurants nationwide. But that is the only thing that has been modernized. Rick’s son and third-generation owner, Keith Schmidt, and long-time pitmaster Roy Perez cook the meat just as it was in the original place (now called Smitty’s, which is run by Schmidt’s cousin). A walk around Kreuz’s signature fire pits will show you how meat was cooked in the old days—in a long coffin-shaped pit made from bricks with a roaring firebox at one end. The meat is rotated from the high-heat close to the firebox to the low-heat at the end of the pit, using a thick 18-inch stainless-steel needle that has been around for 100 years to move meat. Brisket, beef clod, sausage and pork chops are the specialties, and the smoked prime rib special is a treat.”

  • Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que

    Address and phone: 3002 West 47th Ave, Kansas City, KS (913-722-3366)

    Tim Carman Washington PostCarman says: “Back in the mid-1990s when they were scouting locations, Jeff and Joy Stehney thought the small retail space inside a Kansas City, KS, gas station would be ideal for their debut barbecue restaurant. The spot was not far from their home and, what’s more, a liquor store was located next door, perfect for carryout customers and, presumably, restaurateurs who put in a long day behind the counter. But over the years, the original location of Oklahoma Joe’s (as the restaurant was called before changing its name in 2014) has attained a kind of trial-by-fire status: The place is a test of devotion for true believers, who routinely stand in a line that snakes out the door and onto a sidewalk that’s exposed to whatever the gods throw at them, maybe the bitter chill of a Midwestern winter or the ferocious heat of a Kansas City summer. Their reward is to sink their teeth into a smoky rack of ribs that rate among America’s best. Critics, in fact, called them the best ribs in America in 2013. Anthony Bourdain once listed Joe’s among the 13 places to eat before you die. The restaurant has developed such a solid reputation that one of Joe’s founders—a guy who hadn’t been involved in the business since 1997—decided to use his rights to the Oklahoma Joe’s name and launch a chain of barbecue restaurants under that brand. The chain, of course, is trading in part on the fame that the Stehneys have earned over the years.”

  • Louie Mueller Barbecue

    Address and phone: 206 W Second St, Taylor, TX (512-352-6206)

    Jim ShahinShahin says: “Whereas Louie Mueller Barbecue, located in the ‘50s movie-set of a town known as Taylor, is an exemplar of the Central Texas beef-centric style, and whereas it has launched a thousand pitmasters who have globalized the style, and whereas they represent the top-of-class, and whereas tracing their lineage is downright Biblical—Louie begat Bobby, who begat John, whose restaurant begat former employee Aaron Franklin (albeit not without a disclaimer of no-influence, but still…), whose restaurant, in turn, begat the celebrated John Lewis, now carrying the message of the bovine to pork-worshipping South Carolina, and Bobby begat LeAnn and her acclaimed La Barbecue (Lewis’s springboard to fame), and Bobby begat the Louie Mueller fire-tender Wayne, who begat a fruitful multitude, from Daniel Delaney in Brooklyn, who helped begat that city’s Texas outbreak, to Tony White at Jack’s BBQ in Seattle, to Craig White at White Smoke in Tokyo (alas, now defunct but replaced by a Texas brisket commercial business) to Thomas Abramowicz  at the Beast in Paris—and whereas Louie Mueller pitmaster Wayne himself  was chosen by the State Department to travel the world proselytizing for the American way of barbecue, and whereas Wayne’s gargantuan and impossibly tender beef rib catalyzed the current national standard for barbecue decadence, and whereas the Texas barbecue craze is arguably the most significant development (for better or worse) of regional-barbecue-gone-wild, and whereas no other joint has turned out as many influential acolytes as Louie Mueller, I hereby proclaim that, in the mythos of barbecue, Louie Mueller Barbecue be, if not the most influential barbecue joint, accorded its rightful place among the smoke-scented clouds of Olympus.”

  • Abe’s Bar-B-Q

    Address and phone: 616 State St, Clarksdale, MS (662-624-9947)

    Wright ThompsonThompson says: “Most places on this list have influenced the way we cook or eat or think about barbecue, but my favorite barbecue restaurant does something that, to me, is more important: Abe’s in Clarksdale, Mississippi, influences the town around it, serving as the center of a cultural universe and as a way for people to feel tethered to something sturdy in the shifting sands of modern society. The chopped pork sandwich with a touch of sauce and vinegary slaw always tastes the same, and the Big Abe chili cheeseburgers never change, as permanent as the pig mural on the wall or the ZZ Top posters hanging nearby. There will always be a member of the Davis family behind the register, and the flattop is as connected to the soul of the Delta as the fields just up the road. Abe’s has influenced generations of Clarksdale families, always there on the corner, promising something simple and affordable and delicious, serving up something that tastes just like home.”

  • Johnson’s Boucaniere

    Address and phone: 1111 St. John’s St, Lafayette, LA (337-269-8878)

    Robert CarrikerCarriker says: “Boucaniere is Cajun French for “smokehouse” and Johnson’s Boucaniere in Lafayette, Louisiana, is a truly influential, family-run Cajun barbecue spot. Owner Greg Walls designed and built this place, and each day he pulls pecan- and oak-smoked briskets, pork shoulders, chickens, and various regional sausages from his smoking cabinets. The meats will spend up to half a day in the smoker; they feature homemade rubs and their own thin and tangy sauce. Johnson’s impact on the state’s BBQ scene began in the 1940s when, at their grocery store in Eunice, Louisiana, they became the first folks to commercially sell boudin (a unique Cajun sausage of rice and pork). Today, from Alexandria to Lake Charles, over to Baton Rouge, and down to New Orleans, Johnson’s is credited as the leader in the state’s relatively new movement into the painstakingly rigorous craft of making traditional slow smoked BBQ. Many who have been encouraged by Johnson’s BBQ are also inspired to imitate some of their most creative sandwiches, and for good reason. The Begneaud Special combines brisket with flattop-crisped garlic sausage, the Campos Special pairs pulled pork with pork sausage, and the OJA Special merges chicken with mixed sausage and a barbecue ranch sauce. The Parrain Special (homemade Cajun boudin and barbecue sauce in a smashed grilled cheese) is one of the area’s most copied sandwiches.”