Part of the fun of obsessing about barbecue is arguing which region produces the best product. Debating the merits of Texas brisket versus Carolina whole hog versus Tennessee pulled pork provides as deep a topic of conversation as proclaiming which promising college coach should replace Tom Herman after every disappointing Texas loss.
Producing a definitive ranking of regional styles is quixotic at best — the region of one's first taste of barbecue probably plays too big a role — but the internet provides fertile ground for anyone looking to weigh in on the topic. Robert Moss, the contributing barbecue editor for Southern Living, is the latest to tilt at this particular windmill. On September 10, Moss published his updated list of the South's 50 best barbecue joints.
The criteria are a little squishy, but they include "first and foremost, the quality of the food itself. Nothing else matters if the barbecue isn’t delicious," Moss writes. "The overall dining experience carries a lot of weight, too: the physical setting, the aroma from the pits, the sauces and dishes served alongside." He broke ties by asking, "If these two restaurants were located right next door to each other, at which would you choose to eat?"
As in previous versions, the Carolinas dominate the overall rankings with 16 restaurants split evenly between North and South. Tennessee and Texas earn 10 spots each.
The Texas restaurants will be familiar to anyone who read Texas Monthly's 2017 ranking of the state's 50 best barbecue joints; all 10 of Moss' Texas picks made that list, too. Moss tweaked his rankings slightly compared to TM's. For example, Snow's drops from No. 1 to the fourth spot while Louie Mueller goes up from five to two.
In the big cities, Austin earns three places courtesy of Micklethwait Craft Meats (No. 38), Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ (No. 18), and, of course, Franklin Barbecue (No. 7). The Houston area gets two spots on the list: Spring's CorkScrew BBQ (No. 30) and Tomball's Tejas Chocolates + Barbecue (No. 11). Dallas' Cattleack Barbeque, Texas Monthly's third-ranked joint, drops down to a mildly disappointing No. 13 on the Southern Living list. Surprisingly, not a single San Antonio spot made the list. (This isn't the first time Southern Living left out a key Texas city. In the 2015 version of this list, Moss skipped both Houston and Dallas.)
A devoted barbecue pilgrim could plan multiple trips using Moss' picks as an itinerary. It covers all the big name spots, from classics like Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama (No. 34) and Lexington Barbecue (No. 8) to new-school darlings like Charleston's Rodney Scott's Whole Hog Barbecue (No. 16, a James Beard Award winner in 2018) and Lewis Barbecue (No. 9), which features the talents of former Austin resident John Lewis (Franklin Barbecue, la Barbecue).
While this list will provide a fertile topic of conversation, don't take the individual rankings too seriously. Moss certainly didn't. "It’s safe to say that if two restaurants are ranked within four or five spots of each other on this list, they effectively finished in a tie," he writes.