From Carolina to California, every state has at least one place that stakes a claim to having "the best BBQ in the world." Here are 16 that can actually look you in the eye when they say it.
DeValls Bluff: Craig's Barbecue
DeValls Bluff is barely a dot on the map, but it happens to have some of the meanest Memphis-style barbecue around. Craig's Barbecue, in an unassuming white stand-alone building, has been serving its pork, ribs, and smoked chicken since the '40s. The local favorite: a sandwich with pulled pork dressed in a mild, medium, or hot red sauce and then topped with coleslaw. For dessert, those in the know head across the street to the Family Pie Shop (locals call it Miss Mary's), a stucco shack with some seriously delicious coconut and chocolate pie. Hwy. 70, 870/998-2616, sandwiches from $3.50.
Pacifica: Gorilla Barbeque
Lamenting the lack of decent BBQ options in the Bay Area, local pals Jeff Greathouse and Rich Bacchi took matters into their own hands. In 2006, they bought a bright-orange train car and outfitted it with a small counter and a giant smoker to open this boxcar shop, 15 miles down the coast from San Francisco. With just a few seats inside, there's always a cadre of locals parked in their cars chowing down on spicy dry-rub pork ribs, pulled pork, and the Philly cheese steak sandwich made with BBQ beef brisket. Gorilla Barbecue seems to do everything well, which explains why regulars often opt for the three-meat combo—a plate of beef, pork, and chicken, (the vinegary BBQ sauce, meant for dipping, is served in a separate container) with beans, rice, and cornbread—at $20, it easily serves two. 2145 Coast Hwy., 650/359-7427, dinner plates from $11.25.
Chicago: Fat Willy's Rib Shack
This homey spot in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood pays no heed to barbecue's regional rules and traditions: Texas-style beef brisket is topped with caramelized onions and a horseradish sauce, Carolina pulled pork is served on a (gasp) baguette, and there's even a smoked portobello mushroom. Baby back rib dinners come loaded with coleslaw, garlicky grilled Texas toast, and a choice of hearty sides like baked beans and collard greens. The 8-year-old restaurant has quickly established its fare as some of the best big-city BBQ around, though it's a bit of a splurge, with sandwiches priced from $12. 2416 W. Schubert Ave., 773/782-1800, rib dinners from $14.
Owensboro: Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
The massive buffet table at this roadside eatery takes up nearly an entire room. The centerpiece is western Kentucky's signature dish: hunks of mutton slow-cooked over a hickory-log fire and topped at the table with a tangy, tomato-based sauce. Buffet plates are rounded out with vegetables of the delicious and decidedly non-healthy sort—hearty helpings of creamed corn, buttery mashed potatoes, and cheesy broccoli casserole. The restaurant plays host to the International Bar-B-Q Festival every second weekend in May. It's most likely the world's largest mutton feast; some 20,000 pounds of it is slow-cooked there each year. 2840 W. Parrish Ave., 270/684-8143, buffet from $10.
New Orleans: The Joint
A year before Hurricane Katrina hit, husband-and-wife owners Pete and Jenny Breen outfitted an abandoned building in New Orleans's Bywater neighborhood with wooden benches and a giant black smoker. After the storm, the duo reopened right away, trucking in meat to cook free meals for neighbors. Today, they're still pleasing locals with spicy, Cajun-style sausages and rapidly gaining a reputation as one of America's best stops for BBQ pork ribs, rubbed in spice and smoked for hours until they gain a crisp, caramelized coating and fall-off-the-bone texture. End the meal with a traditional Southern specialty, extra-creamy peanut butter pie. 801 Poland Ave., 504/949-3232, ribs plate $10.
Detroit: Slows Bar B Q
Motor City is perhaps not the first place you'd expect to find this trendy new spot, which gives classic barbecue technique a modern foodie twist. The restaurant slow-cooks beef brisket and pork butt from Niman Ranch and tops its sandwiches with surprising extras like onion marmalade, smoked Gouda, and Applewood bacon. The eatery, set in a once-dilapidated 1880s building rehabbed in 2005 with brick walls, swanky booths, and an open, three-sided bar, has helped revitalize the Corktown neighborhood and draws more of a hipster crowd than your typical smokehouse. Traditionalists will be appeased by classics like St. Louis–style dry-rub spare ribs. 2138 Michigan Ave., 313/962-9828, sandwiches $8.
Clarksdale: Abe's Bar-B-Q
Lebanese immigrant Abraham Davis opened this roadside BBQ shack in the heart of Deep South blues country in 1924. Word caught on, and more than 80 years later, crowds come from all over the country to sample Abe's legendary pecan-smoked pork (now cooked up by his son, Pat Davis). The meat is piled high on a double-decker "Big Abe" sandwich, or stuffed inside cornmeal and boiled in corn husks as part of a traditional Mississippi hot tamale. 616 State St., 662/624-9947, "Big Abe" pork sandwich $5.25.
Ballwin: Charlotte's Rib
This St. Louis-area eatery is one of the most revered stops for eastern Missouri's signature sopping-wet barbecue. In addition to the namesake ribs (which are called baby backs, but are truly huge), a local favorite is the hand-cut pork steak, a fatty cut of shoulder meat seared over high heat for a crispy exterior, then cooked low and slow for hours. The meat, doused in a sweet-and-smoky hickory sauce, is so tender that it nearly falls apart. 15467 Clayton Rd., 636/394-3332, closed Mondays, dinner plates from $9.50.
Snead's is especially known for its "brownies," also known as burnt ends. Juicy little nuggets cut from the tips of brisket or ham, brownies are crispy, smoky, and utterly delicious. They're served with slices of white bread—true KC style—French fries, and a handful of dill pickles. Be careful when you reach for the extra sauce on the table: Locals know that the bottle with the rubber band around it is mild, but the other one is absurdly hot. Unlucky newcomers can be in for a painful surprise. 1001 E. 171st St., 816/331-9858, brownies from $10.
Kansas City: Arthur Bryant's
KC's "king of ribs" has hosted everyone from Harry Truman to Jack Nicholson, but has never grown too big for its britches. Guests chow down in the original cafeteria-style dining room, choosing from the grub that has made Bryant's famous—most memorably the pork rib sandwiches lathered in the restaurant's signature sauce: a thin, red-orange vinegar concoction with a sharp, spicy finish, whipped up from a closely guarded recipe. Arthur Bryant's has expanded with two additional Kansas City–area locations—make sure to visit the original Brooklyn Avenue spot. 1727 Brooklyn Ave., 816/231-1123, rib sandwich $10.
Ayden: Skylight Inn
Over in eastern North Carolina, pork is still king (in fact, it's the only meat on the menu here), but instead of just shoulders, the Skylight Inn smokes the whole hog and forgos a ketchup-y sauce in favor of a straight vinegar finish. The replica of the U.S. Capitol dome was added to the roof after National Geographic called Skylight the "Bar-B-Q Capital of the World," but the humble brick building still holds just a few small tables. The restaurant has used the same recipe since opening in 1947, and prices have barely budged since then. Cardboard trays of pork come with a side of all-white coleslaw and a slab of fried cornbread that includes a piggy touch—crispy bits of pork are stirred into the batter. 4618 S. Lee St., 252/746-4113, pork trays from $4.
Lexington: Lexington Barbecue
With just 21,000 citizens and more than 20 barbecue restaurants, Lexington may have the highest BBQ-to-people ratio in the world (and probably the most napkins, too). Open since 1962, this carhop-service restaurant may be the definitive stop for classic western-North-Carolina-style barbecue—sandwiches consisting of extra-tender chopped pork, a spicy pink slaw (don't call it coleslaw—no mayo is used), and a thin, salty vinegar-ketchup sauce, all mixed together to make every bit perfectly moist. For the full N.C. experience, save room for crunchy cornmeal hush puppies, an oversize cup of sweet tea, and a plate of peach cobbler. 10 Hwy. 29-70 S., 336/249-9814, sandwiches from $3.50.
Bartlesville: Dink's Pit Bar-B-Que
Steer horns and cowboy paraphernalia line the walls in decidedly non-ironic fashion at this smokehouse an hour north of Tulsa. Everything from brisket to chicken to pork is smoked over hickory in an outdoor pit, lathered in an intensely tangy red-brown tomato-vinegar sauce, and then served with a comically half-hearted nod to vegetables: a single whole green onion on each plate. The restaurant is renowned by Oklahoma barbecue fans for its "hot pig special," a pork tenderloin sandwich topped with coleslaw and jalapeños. For one of the country's unlikeliest mashups, visit June 11 to 19, during Bartlesville's other claim to fame—the OK Mozart Festival—and sit down for barbecue next to an A-list classical musician. 2929 E. Frank Phillips Blvd., 918/335-0606, dinner plates from $8.
Memphis: Cozy Corner
From the street, this greasy spoon on the ragged edge of Memphis's downtown looks run-of-the-mill. But inside, the massive smoke pit signals that this is the real deal. The family-owned establishment barbecues anything and everything: There's barbecued corn, barbecued spaghetti (both served as sides), and even a barbecued bologna sandwich. Patrons will tell you not to miss the crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside barbecued Cornish game hen, served on a no-nonsense Styrofoam plate and saturated in a spicy hot sauce. Stop by for lunch; Cozy closes at 5 p.m. 745 N. Parkway, 901/527-9158, Closed Sundays and Mondays, Cornish hen platter $11.75.
Lexington: Snow's BBQ
Started by former rodeo clown Kerry Bexley so that his teenage daughters could get some work experience—before they left for college, you'd find them there taking orders every Saturday—Snow's has won people over with its ribs, pork steak, and brisket, which has a smoky, charred crust and a tender-throughout interior. Pit master Tootsie Tomanetz, who is in her mid-70s, comes in at 2 a.m. to tend to the already-smoking meat (it cooks for a good eight to 10 hours before the place opens at 8 a.m.). Time your visit carefully: Snow's is open on Saturdays only, and as soon as the food sells out—usually around noon—the doors close. 516 Main St., 979/773-4640, entrées from $9.
Lockhart: Black's Barbecue
Pine walls are adorned with Texas license plates, longhorns, and hunting trophies at this 78-year-old restaurant—the longest-standing of Lockhart's four vaunted BBQ joints, which collectively draw some 250,000 annual visitors to this tiny town not far from Austin. Operated by the same family since 1932, Black's has all the standards—100 percent Angus beef brisket, fall-off-the-bone pork spare ribs, and giant whole BBQ chickens—but for most visitors, the smoky, house-made sausage rings laced with jalapeño and cheese are what set Black's a notch above. Meals end with hot-from-the-oven rolls, the perfect vehicle for sopping up any extra sauce. 215 N. Main St., 512/398-2712, sausage sandwich $4.