A Truly American Cuisine
What U.S. city boasts the best barbecue? Traditions overlap and communities often bring a wild mix of cultural influences into their grilled meats, ensuring lively debate over platters of pulled pork, ribs and sometimes lamb, chicken and seafood. If anything is an indicator of a truly American cuisine, it is this.
For many, Texas barbecue means one thing: beef brisket, a cut so tough that it takes up to 24 hours of cooking. The fatty, flavorful meat is served sparingly with a ketchup-based sauce. Though born in Texas and currently based in Tennessee, Reinhart Knoxville regional chef David Quick remains Texan at heart, marveling at idiosyncrasies between Lone Star cities.
“In San Antonio, you’ll find the best pork ribs, smoked on mesquite and served with a Tex-Mex flare,” he says. “In Austin, the meats are smoked in post oak and served with pinto beans, mac and cheese, slaw and pickles; and Houston is more traditional with some New Orleans flair added on, including Cajun-style boudin sausages.”
In Kansas City, Mo., the focus falls on spare ribs and beef brisket served with a sticky, spicy sweet sauce. Barbecue is so ingrained into daily culture here that it’s widely declared as America’s barbecue capital. It also lays claim for ”burnt ends,” the fatty, burned, top-edge brisket pieces first made famous in the 1970s by Arthur Bryant’s, which passed it out as a treat to people waiting in line at the restaurant.
“When I moved here,” recalls Reinhart chef Yvette Marie Hirang of the Kansas City region, “I went to Arthur Bryant’s, and it was an awakening.”
Memphis positions itself as a formidable challenger to Kansas City as a true barbecue epicenter. Ribs, both wet and dry, as well as shredded pork define the landscape here; the sauce is traditional tomato and vinegar.
Chef Melissa Cookston, owner of Memphis BBQ Co., contends the rub is the main flavor.
“It’s sweet, salty, sultry and acidic with a little kick, from the tip of your tongue to the back of your throat,” she describes.
Favoring pecan wood, which produces a very light smoke, Cookston sees Memphis as the most varied barbecue style. “Think of the regions,” she explains. “We’re in between Texas, North Carolina and Kansas. We bring all of those together for a full flavor profile.”
Possibly the oldest style in America, Carolina barbecue is known for pork smoked over oak or hickory, though it depends on where you are as to whether the whole hog is smoked, then chopped together (eastern North Carolina) or if shoulder-only is preferred (western North Carolina and South Carolina).
Even New Orleans, with a rich culinary identity all its own, boasts a well-known tradition in its storied barbecue shrimp. Chef Julius Russell, owner of A Tale of Two Chefs, a Chicago-based experiential culinary company that often focuses on the Big Easy, jokingly dismisses the idea. “Look, you are New Orleans, you are not allowed to have barbecue, you can’t have everything,” he says.