Quiz the big guys. When John Markus, executive producer of CBS’s The Ultimate BBQ Showdown, is in search of barbecue, he doesn't ask just anyone. “I'll walk up to a guy who could stand to go on a diet,” he says. “Even better if he has a toothpick in his mouth.” And if nine out of 10 people suggest the same place, he'll go to the tenth. Most folks in Austin know Stubb’'s, but Markus likes lesser-known House Park Bar-B-Que (houseparkbbq.com) for brisket so tender, it explains their motto: “Need no teef to eat my beef.”
Don't get saucy. “It's not that those thick, syrupy liquids aren't delicious,” says Bob Kantor, who makes formidable food at Memphis Minnie's (memphisminnies.com) in San Francisco, of all places. It's just that barbecue is about the meat, so why obscure it with a blanket of sauce? “A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman, with or without minks and diamonds,” he says. Respectable spots use just enough sauce to enhance the meat -- and Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas (kreuzmarket.com), refuses to serve it at all.
Beware of new joints. Old places have a track record and possess the holy grail for 'cue hunters: a well-seasoned pit. Desiree Robinson of Cozy Corner in Memphis (cozycornerbbq.com) has been using the same cooker for more than 30 years. “If you take the grate out and lick it, it should taste like barbecue,” she says.
Search for smoke. Without it, there's no barbecue. “Smoke flavor is integral to Southern barbecue, and you can't fake it,” says Adam Perry Lang, author of BBQ 25 and co-creator with Jamie Oliver of Barbecoa, London's hot new barbecue spot. The tall stacks of oak beside Skylight Inn, in Ayden, North Carolina (252-746-4113), hint that their whole-hog barbecue has plenty of serious smoky flavor.
Chat up the man (or woman) behind the meat. Pit masters are traditionally gregarious. “You can only make barbecue with a hog that's 200 pounds when he's dancing,” quips Ed Mitchell at The Pit in Raleigh, North Carolina (thepit-raleigh.com). Listen closely, because there's wisdom in his rant: “I like meat that has some marble -- I'm a big guy, so I know that fat is flavor.”
ORDER UP THE BEST! Come home to a box of 'cue, straight from the source.
Texas brisket from Snow's BBQ ($50 for a 4- to 5-lb. brisket, snowsbbq.com)
Memphis ribs from Corky's ($82 for 2 slabs, corkysbbq.com)
Burnt-ends combo from Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue ($70 for 2 pounds, jackstackbbq.com)
Mutton from Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn ($6.50 for 1 lb., moonlite.com)
BBQ STYLE: A REGIONAL GUIDE
Gobbling pulled pork in Texas would be as incongruous as eating a slice of pizza in Shanghai. Get to know the regional specialties.
Sliced salt-and-pepper rubbed brisket
Try It: Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor (louiemuellerbarbecue.com)
Kansas City, Kansas: Burnt Ends
The crispy, fatty pieces from barbecue brisket, with molasses tomato-based sauce
Try It: Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue (oklahomajoesbbq.com)
Chopped sheep's meat, smothered in unctuous brown vinegar "dip" sauce
Try It: Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro (moonlite.com)
Memphis, Tennessee: Ribs
Pork ribs, both dry (caked in spices) and wet (slathered in tangy sauce)
Try It: Interstate Barbecue (interstatebarbecue.com)
Eastern North Carolina: Whole Hog
Whole pigs, chopped, with thin, vinegary sauce
Try It: Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro (wilbersbarbecue.com)
Western North Carolina: Pork Shoulder
Pork shoulder, chopped, with ketchup-and-chile spiked vinegar sauce
Try It: Lexington Barbecue in Lexington (336-249-9814)