It’s easy to think you know what barbecue is: Meat cooked over fire, kissed with smoke, best consumed in the summer heat. But look deeper and you’ll discover distinct schools of grilling all across America.
Derived from the Spanish word, barbacoa, barbecue refers to cooking over heat, sans vessel. But that means a lot of things, depending on direct or indirect heat, technique differences, available meats, spices, and even accompanying sauces.
Not to mention endless cultural variations. In Korean traditions, barbecue refers to an interactive, tabletop cooking experience. Portuguese and Brazilian styles also incorporate a large stick and crackling fire—though that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Ultimately, barbecue comes down to three major factors: feast, fire, and friends. Here are some of the best interpretations of barbecue that star all three, in addition to places you can tear into 6 satisfying styles.
Texas-style barbecue is anything but a monolith, split into four sub-categories: Central, West, East, and South. All have their own distinctions when it comes to wood type, heat proximity, and sauce. The most consumed style is Central, dry-rubbed and cooked low and slow over mesquite, hickory, or oak wood, lending the meat a distinctly deep and smoky flavor, creating a coveted pink smoke ring and a gorgeous black bark. Bovines take top billing in Texas, from beef ribs and beef sausage to brisket, considered the standard-setter for any Central Texas barbecue spot worth its salt.
Where to try: Ferris Wheelers Backyard and BBQ in Dallas (TX), Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood and Round Rock (TX), and Blood Bros. BBQ in Bellaire (TX).
Hogs rule in both the Carolinas—but the barbecues riffs here branch out geographically. Lexington style, found west of Raleigh, North Carolina, specializes in pork shoulder. In eastern North Carolina, the Piedmont, and all of South Carolina, it’s whole hog or bust. The neighboring states also squabble over sauce: South Carolina is known for a golden, mustard-based version—so beloved it’s dubbed Carolina Gold—while a tomato sauce dominates North Carolina. The common denominator is vinegar, giving both sauces a lighter body and tang you won’t find in Kansas City.
Where to try: Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston (SC), Birmingham, and Homewood (AL), and Atlanta (GA), Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley (NC) and Initial Q in Spartanburg (SC).
Sometimes, one part of the pig is all you need to claim your fame. In Memphis, Tennessee, it’s the ribs, dry-rubbed with a spice blend that includes paprika, garlic powder, chile powder, and brown sugar, and grilled on charcoal briquettes. Ribs can also be served spiced and straight off the grates, or doused with a sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce. Other meats, including beef, chicken, turkey, sausage, and bologna are also grilled on hot coals, paired with local specialties such as a mustard-laced slaw and barbecue spaghetti with pork.
St. Louis barbecue is typically associated with neat, square-cut racks of ribs that bear the same name. Their tidy shapes come courtesy of tip, cartilage, and sternum removal. They’re grilled over wood, then sauced in a red barbecue concoction similar to Kansas City’s signature condiment. But St. Louis’s version is thinner and vinegar-tinged, offering a sweet-and-sour balance, unlike KC’s molasses or brown sugar-forward take.
Where to try: Carson’s Prime Steaks & Famous Barbecue – Chicago in Chicago (IL) and Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Montgomery (AL), Tallahassee (FL), and parts of Georgia. Try Kansas City-style barbecue at 18th & Vine Barbecue in Dallas (TX).
When it comes to Korean barbecue, it’s hard to tell who the true stars are—the meats or the prolific side dishes. The banchan—appetizers such as pickled radishes, cucumber salad, noodles, kimchi, and more—are attractions in their own right. But the unlimited meat options are a delight. Korean-style barbecue consists of thin cuts of soy-marinated meat of your choice, charred on a built-in grill at your table. Signature meats include galbi short ribs, sweet beef bulgogi, brisket, flank steak, and pork belly, but you can expect chicken—and even seafood—at most places now.
Brazilian barbecue, aka churrasco, refers to a style of South American cowboy or gaucho cuisine. It features heavily salted meat cooked on huge, horizontal skewers over charcoal and open fire. When eaten in restaurants, though, it’s typically served all-you-can-eat style, which means staff members parade the goods from table to table and sliver slices directly onto your plate. A churrascaria’s DIY salad bars, which consist of composed salads, fresh vegetables, and even some hot dishes, are standalone meals themselves. But you’re really here for the cavalcade of meats: opt for the signature, juicy picanha (rump cap) steak, lamb, Portuguese linguiça sausage, bacon-wrapped chicken, and more.
Su–Jit Lin is an Atlanta-based writer specializing in travel, food—including groceries, cooking, and reference guides—and their impact on bringing people together in shared joy and experience.