In Search of the World’s Best Barbecue

For most of the world food is more than just something to shove down your mouth to get energy it is the warm embrace that brings generations together, provides connection to our roots and a sense of belonging. We often forget its importance in our fast-paced society – it is truly a tragedy. One of my passions has always been cooking and when I was in high-school I worked as a sous chef at a French-California cuisine restaurant called Creme de la Creme. One night the chef walked out after a fight with the owner and I was given the task to lead the kitchen for the next 6 months. It was one of the worst experiences of my life – preparing, cooking and plating hundreds of dinners a night loses its cool quickly and so did I.

Anyway some of you may be wondering what any of this has to do with technology or security, well, nothing really, except that I travel a lot and I know many of you do as well. I also like meat, especially of the grilled over hot coals or low and slow variety, a taste that many of you share I am sure. I am in search of the world’s best grilled or barbecued meat, from Churrascarias in Brazil to lamb kabobs in the Himalaya’s to Satay in SE Asia to grilled gazelle in Zambia to some of the best sloppin’, smokin’, juiciness America has to offer I am out to taste my way across the world until I can lay back licking my fingers, while my eyes roll back in my head and I experience what can only be described as a spiritual experience.

I need your help, your guidance to lead me to the promised land of smokin’ meat Nirvana, so break out the memories of a smoky shack in a small Memphis town or a road-side diner serving up a plate of heaven. Tell me where I can find the best barbecue in your area or places you have been and I will collect em’ all and we can all share in the joy of a better tomorrow, minus the two-handed blazing guns (John Woo reference for those that didn’t catch it)

Bo’s Barbecue (here) located in Lafayette, CA (yeah that’s right Lafayette – stop laughing). The Owner, Bo McSwine (seriously stop laughing), provides some truly tasty brisket, ribs, and links and he recently expanded the joint to include some smoking live blues and one of the largest micro-brew collections this side of the Mason-Dixon. So for his meticulous attention to his roots, the finger-licking sauce, hot atmosphere and just being one hell of a guy Bo’s Barbecue is my first submission for those looking for barbecue here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be more to come as I collect up my thoughts, in the mean time let me know yours and provide the name, location and a brief summary on what you like.

12 thoughts on “In Search of the World’s Best Barbecue

  1. Ok, I’ll jump in…

    Here in South Africa (and all around the world where you find expats) we don’t call them BBQs, we have a braai (Afrikaans word for “grill” but used by all South Africas).

    You need boerewors – (lit. farmer’s meat) which is a sausage with herbs tucked inside. It is a lot thicker than a vienna so it takes quite a while to cook and there is a lot of good fat in the package too so the sausage fries as well as grills. And the herbs give off an (amazing) aroma that can be smelt all the way down the road. So, if your neighbours are braai-ing boerewors chances are you will soon because your mouth will start to water.

    Added to this should be some steak highly marinated and some lamb chops.

    For a typical South African braai you need some “pap” which is like mashed potato, only made with corn. And some tomato based gravy.

    Also, a range of salads.

    And because most days are sunny you need some cold beer (preferably SAB/Miller).

    Where can you get this? Any supermarket will have boerewors, most will have different kinds (different herbs). The Spar up the road from me also has what they call a “Texan Steak” which is about 1.3kgs and has been marinated forever.

    And real men use coals, not gas or electricity.

  2. Check out Uncle Franks on Old Middlefield in Mountain View. It used to be in East Palo Alto but is now in the back of Francesca’s Bar. Really good Louisiana style BBQ. The ribs are great, the brisket very good. Go for the hot sauce as opposed to the mild….

  3. Well I definitely need to make my way out to South Africa again. Seems to be the consensus so far that grilled meat must be cooked over coals and if you need the sauce make it hot – thanks guys!

  4. South of Austin, TX is the Salt Lick.

    Perfect day is swimming at Hamilton Pool and then going to the Salt Lick.

    Nirvana indeed.

  5. The best meat I ever put in my mouth was in Argentina. In Patagonia they cook almost all thier meat over hot coals in a fireplace in the middle of the restaurant. They have many varities of meat and the cuts of lamb are incredible down there.

    They have a sauce called Chimichurri which is a mix of herbs and oil. It was delicious but most of the time the meat did not need anything but a little salt and a fork.

    Washed down with the local Mabec Wine and you were in heaven after a long days hike.

    Go there and you will know what I mean.

  6. Boxborough, MA. My house.

    14 hour brisket. 6 hour moked pork baby backs. Prepared in my smoker. Or, if you prefer, Tuscan poterhouse with garlic-spiked sweet potato fries and a fresh Caprese salad.

    Sauce is a garnish/condiment, NOT an ingredient.

    By the way, just to be clear, most of what all of you have described is not BBQ, it’s grilling.

    BBQ is slow and low using low indirect heat or smoking techniques. Grilling is over an open flame.

    You BBQ ribs and grill a steak…unless you go to some chain where they pair-boil stuff, spray it with sauce and then grill it to death.


  7. The best BBQ I have ever tasted is Michelbob’s Ribs Restauarant, in Naples, Florida. They have excellent baby back ribs, and their “Feast” dinner special is enough BBQ to stuff 4 people.

    On their website ( you can order their ribs and their sauce to be overnighted to you. I had 10 racks shipped to me (since I live in NY) for a party last week, and they were gone in less than 15 minutes!

    Highly recommended. I go there every time I get a chance to go to Florida.

  8. I can’t believe no one’s mentioned bryant’s. Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City has got to be the best bbq in the world. New Yorker columnist Calvin Trillin wrote that it is “quite possibly the best restaurant in the world.

    It’s the real original Kansas City bbq. Charlie and his brother Arthur Bryant took over Henry Perry’s bbq business when he died. Perry is known as “the Father of Kansas City Barbecue.”

  9. Fresh-Air Barbecue in Jackson, Georgia. If you don’t mind getting a little lost in south Georgia, then walking in on a sawdust floor, you can experience the best pork barbecue in the Southeast. I recommend the barbecue sandwich, but the ribs are absolutely first-rate.

  10. MEMPHIS, Tenn. to LOCKHART, Texas—Sunday is a sabbath day for many barbecue restaurants, so that’s when I made my monster 600-mile drive from Memphis to Houston. It took me past Hope, Ark., right around lunchtime, so I pit-stopped in Bill Clinton’s hometown to hunt for sustenance. Clinton’s birthplace, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and a grim strip of cash-advance and fast-food places, was closed, but just outside of town I found Uncle Henry’s Smokehouse open for lunch. Arkansas styles itself very pure about its ‘cue, and owner Bobby Redman made me a totally unadorned sandwich: a pile of fresh chopped pork on a bun, with no slaw and no sauce. It was good, if a little dry and shy on smoke for my taste. Fleetwood Mac was singing “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” on the Uncle Henry’s radio, which seemed only fitting. That was Clinton’s 1992 theme song and my theme song for Sunday, because Monday was when I would make my hajj to barbecue’s most holy city: Lockhart, Texas.
    I had persuaded my carnivorous father to join me for the Texas leg. He met me in Houston on Sunday night, and on Monday morning we raced west, first on highways, then on farm roads, toward Lockhart, which is 150 miles from Houston and 30 miles south of Austin. It’s in the heart of the Texas Barbecue Belt. Start in Austin and drive 15 or 30 or 70 miles in practically any direction, and you are liable to find yourself at a world-class barbecue shop. (It will probably be advertising “hot guts.” Do not be alarmed. This is Texan for sausage.) When I was 19 years old, I drove through this part of Texas with a friend. Knowing nothing about the Barbecue Belt, we stopped at a roadside stand and ordered a few slices of brisket. That meal burned in my memory as the Platonic ideal of barbecue. It is my barbecue Rosebud. It is why I came back.
    Texas barbecue is like Texas itself: brash, arrogant, and beefy. In the Barbecue Belt, meat is seasoned with only salt, pepper, and a little cayenne, then smoked quickly over mesquite or post oak. It is cut in huge slabs in front of you and served on butcher paper with a pile of saltines or white bread. The best places serve no sauce. Some don’t even have forks. It’s pure longhorn showmanship: They are so sure of their meat, they don’t think you should eat anything else.
    The Texas idealism produces extraordinary barbecue fealty. Barbecue: A Texas Love Story, a charming new documentary, captures the cultlike nature of it, cruising with the University of Texas student barbecue club and worshipping at the New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, whose barbecue side business is so beloved it has earned the nickname “Church of the Holy BBQ.” Every few years, Texas Monthly magazine rates the best barbecue restaurants in the state, an announcement that is to Austin almost what the Academy Awards are to Los Angeles.
    When the latest Monthly rankings came out, two of its five “best of the best” were in Lockhart. A town of 11,000, Lockhart became Texas’ barbecue capital for three reasons. First, Germans and Czechs settled in this part of Texas starting in the mid-19th century, bringing the central European butchering and smoking techniques that made Texas barbecue. Second, Lockhart is where the Schmidt family settled. And third, the Schmidt family can’t get along.
    In 1948, Edgar Schmidt bought a German meat store in Lockhart from the Kreuz family. Over the next half-century, Schmidt’s Kreuz Market became the most beloved barbecue restaurant in the state. In 1999, nine years after Edgar’s death, his children squabbled. Son Rick Schmidt was running Kreuz Market, while daughter Nina Schmidt Sells owned the building. Nina wouldn’t renew the lease, so Rick took the coals out of the pits and hauled them five blocks down the road to the massive new Kreuz Market—a “barbefeud” that made the newspapers and even got a segment on 48 Hours. Nina and her son kept the old Kreuz and renamed it Smitty’s Market—thus turning the greatest barbecue restaurant in the world into the two greatest barbecue restaurants in the world.
    My father and I stopped at Smitty’s first. Entering feels like walking into an ancient shrine. You cross the threshold from the bright parking lot into a smoky darkness. The air smells indescribably delicious, smoke that you want to eat. As your eyes adjust, you can make out the men in white butcher coats hacking off huge slices of brisket on wooden blocks. Two walls are lined with the pits, long, waist-high brick boxes. Metal grates inside hold briskets, shoulders, sausages. At one end of the pit is an opening, and a fire of post oak logs burns on the floor next to it. It’s a simple but effective method. The smoke and heat of the fire are drawn through the opening into the pit.
    I tracked down Nina Sells’ son, who runs Smitty’s. His name is John Fullilove; a more perfectly named pitmaster could not be found. John is 31 years old, and wide, with a red face that is both fierce and incredibly sweet. He was a joy to be with, funny, friendly, hospitable, and passionate about his work. We asked him about the cuts of meat he uses, and John—who’s a butcher, too—demonstrated on his own body which parts of the cow we would eat.
    He piled up butcher papers with sausage, brisket, and shoulder—about 20 bucks’ worth, an enormous amount—and directed us out to the cheery dining room. (On Saturdays, this dining room and the overflow room would be jammed, with lines way out the door.) He grabbed himself a slice of prime rib, an avocado, and some Doritos, and joined us for lunch. There are no forks and no sauce at Smitty’s. You hack your meat up with a plastic knife and eat it off the knife or with your hands. (The beans and slaw you can eat with a spoon.) In the old days of Kreuz Market, before plastic cutlery and health inspectors, customers ate with communal knives that were chained to the wall. You can still sit at the old wood benches and see the chains.
    Smitty’s barbecue was unbelievably good, divinely good. The brisket, black and almost crunchy outside, was moist inside—a perfect mix of fat and salt and meat. The sausage—made with nothing more than beef, pork, salt, pepper, cayenne, and smoke, was incredible—so good that my father and I jury-rigged an improvised ice chest in order to buy a dozen links to bring home. Smitty’s meat didn’t need sauce or sides or even bread. It was perfect.
    I felt honored to be eating there with John, a man who loves his job and does it better than anyone, in a place that bears the burden of tradition so magnificently. I couldn’t imagine a better meal.
    We headed down the street—past Lockhart’s charming downtown, with a gorgeous library and confectionery courthouse—to the new Kreuz Market. We chatted for a minute with Keith Schmidt, who’s the general manager and the son of owner Rick. He was doleful and unwelcoming, a stark contrast to his cousin John at Smitty’s. We ordered a second lunch. The new Kreuz is cavernous—it can seat several times as many people as Smitty’s—and it has a USDA-approved kitchen so it can ship its meats nationwide.
    Unlike Smitty’s, it’s modern and sterile, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The menu is essentially identical to Smitty’s, except Kreuz has sauerkraut and potato salad and costs a little more. The food was wonderful—fantastic brisket and ribs, a great sausage. Technically, it was probably just as good as the meal I had eaten 15 minutes earlier up the street, but the atmosphere—antiseptic and unfriendly—suppressed my enthusiasm. I would much rather have eaten twice at Smitty’s.

    From: David Plotz
    Subject: What 15 Barbecue Meals in a Row Did to My Digestion
    Posted Friday, May 27, 2005, at 7:30 AM ET

    Today’s slide show: What 15 Barbecue Meals in a Row Did to My Digestion
    AUSTIN and LLANO, Texas—Here’s the amazing thing about Texas barbecue. Even a run-of-the-mill place around here is better than the best barbecue anywhere else. On Monday night in Austin, my father and I ate our third barbecue meal of the day at the Iron Works, a downtown joint with a modest reputation. It was great!
    There was a bit too much forced funkiness in Austin for my taste. We spent the night in the funky Austin Motel (“So Close Yet So Far Out,” read the sign), ate dessert at the funky ice cream shop across the street, read the paper the next morning in the funky coffee shop next door (but we didn’t get a funky tattoo at the funky tattoo parlor). After a tour of the fantastic Museum of Texas—where there was a lot of talk of longhorns, but none of barbecue—we headed west through the Hill Country to hunt for lunch. The barbecue in the Hill Country west of Austin is slightly different than in towns east of Austin such as Lockhart. Some Texans claim that West Texas—and thus the whole American West—starts in the Hill Country. The barbecue west of Austin has a slightly more cowboy feel. (It’s cooked over mesquite rather than post oak, for example.)
    In the Hill Country, the bluebonnets and other wildflowers were in bloom, and the sun finally decided to come out. It was a perfect day for driving. We cruised 100 miles through ranches and scrub land to the small town of Llano. We pulled up at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q, a place recommended by several of my barbecue rabbis. I realized, as we stepped out of the car, that Cooper’s was where I first tasted Texas barbecue on my road trip 16 years ago. I was so glad to return.
    At Cooper’s, you step right up to the outdoor pit and point at the meat you want. The pitmaster grabs it; slices off as much as you ask for; slaps it on a tray; pours a tiny bit of thin, vinegary sauce on it; and hands it to you. Then you take it inside and hand it to a cashier, who weighs it and dumps it on butcher paper—your plate. We ordered ribs, brisket, and two kinds of sausage, then returned for seconds of brisket and prime rib. Customers sit family-style inside, helping themselves from the buckets of jalapeños and loaves of Butterkrust bread on the tables. The place is less charming than Smitty’s—the walls are cinderblock and ceilings are low—but it’s friendly. The barbecue was superb. The brisket was stellar, and the ribs may be the best I’ve tasted. (It’s criminal that Memphis is recognized as the city of great ribs, because every rib I ate in Texas was vastly superior.) We also ate a mesmerizingly delicious blackberry cobbler. It was the first dessert I ate at a barbecue restaurant on the whole trip, and it made me wonder what I missed elsewhere.
    On our way out, we discovered that my father and President Bush, who don’t agree about very much, agree about Cooper’s ribs. A testimonial letter from Bush to the ribs hangs on the wall. He ate here when he was governor, and during the vote-counting after the 2000 election, Cooper’s catered a picnic at Bush’s Crawford ranch.
    We made our way back to Austin, sated. I had driven 1,800 miles in seven days, eaten 15 barbecue meals in a row, and finally found bliss in Texas. The four Texas barbecue meals I ate in 24 hours were better than any other barbecue I ever had in my life (save my one meal at Cooper’s in 1989). I had found my barbecue bliss, and I was done. My lower intestine had ground to a complete stop, and I had a slight pain in my chest. It was time to go home.
    At the Austin airport, I was singled out for a special security screening. The TSA agent fingering through my bag pulled out a jar of barbecue sauce I had bought at Gates in Kansas City. “What’s this?” she asked.
    “It’s barbecue sauce,” I said.
    “I know it’s barbecue sauce. I mean, what kind of sauce is it? I’ve never seen this kind before.”
    “It’s from Kansas City.”
    She grimaced at this. Holding the jar like it contained C-4 explosive, she showed it to another screener. “Look, this guy has some kind of barbecue sauce from New York City or something,” she told the other screener derisively.
    “Kansas City,” I weakly interrupted.
    She waved me off, then said in an ominous voice. “Now, why would you have that?”
    “I was on a barbecue tour,” I answered. “I started in Kansas City, and finished here.”
    “Did you go to Rudy’s?” she asked.
    I shook my head.
    “You came to Texas for barbecue, and you didn’t go to Rudy’s?” She turned to her partner. “He came to Texas, and he didn’t go to Rudy’s!” The partner shook his head.
    “What about the Salt Lick?” she asked. I shook my head no again. She made a face.
    The partner continued the interrogation. “How about the County Line?”
    I shook my head.
    “Well, where did you go?” the screener asked in an exasperated voice.
    “I went to Cooper’s in Llano. And I went to Smitty’s and Kreuz Market in Lockhart.”
    She lit up. “Well, why didn’t you say that to begin with?” She nudged her partner. “He went to Lockhart.” The partner nodded. The agent turned back to me, and handed me the bag and the sauce. “You can go ahead now.”
    David Plotz is Slate’s deputy editor. He is the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. You can e-mail him at

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