Part of the fun of obsessing about barbecue is arguing which region produces the best product. Debating the merits of Texas brisket vs. Carolina whole hog vs. 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 with an updated list of the South's 50 best barbecue joints.
As in previous versions, the Carolinas dominate, with 16 restaurants split evenly between North and South. Tennessee and Texas earn 10 spots each. The No. 1 spot goes to Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina.
The Texas restaurants will be familiar to anyone who read Texas Monthly's 2017 ranking of the state's 50 best barbecue joints, since all 10 of Moss' Texas picks made that list, too.
Moss tweaked his rankings slightly compared to TxMo's; for example, Snow's drops from No. 1 to No. 4, while Louie Mueller goes up from No. 5 to No. 2.
Only one Dallas restaurant makes the list: Cattleack Barbeque, which comes in at No. 13, and is lauded for its brisket, whose "tangy, pepper bark and superb texture" make it "as good as any in Texas."
Cattleack owner Todd David gets praise for becoming "a barbecue ambassador" for other regions thanks to his habit of cooking Carolina-style whole hog one Saturday a month.
No sign of local favorites such as Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum or Meshack's BBQ Shack in Mesquite. Maybe they need to start cooking Carolina-style whole hog, too.
The Houston area gets two spots: Spring's CorkScrew BBQ and Tomball's Tejas Chocolates + Barbecue at a highly placed No. 11. Three Austin spots make the cut: Micklethwait Craft Meats, Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, and, of course, Franklin Barbecue at No. 7.
Still, that's a solid improvement from the 2015 version of this list, when Moss skipped both Houston and Dallas.
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?"
A devoted barbecue pilgrim could plan multiple trips using the list as an itinerary. It covers all the big-name spots: from classics like Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, Alabama and Lexington Barbecue, to new-school darlings like Rodney Scott's Whole Hog Barbecue (a James Beard Award winner in 2018) and Lewis Barbecue, 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.