As a self-proclaimed sauce connoisseur and fan of barbecue varieties specifically, I was more than stoked to take part in a food tour of the Deep South. Savannah, Charleston, and even Hilton Head boast a bevy of award-winning barbecue joints, but it was my ultimate goal to find the best of the best, and write a love letter (in the form of an article) about my personal champion. But after sampling plates of meat from three famous spots, the winner in this battle is, err, somewhat complicated.
While the signature sauces themselves were too similar (Kansas City– or Memphis-inspired with tomato and brown sugar as its base) or too different (each establishment offered a few varieties, including vinegar-based in South Carolina) to make a true comparison, the types of smoked meats, aka, the stars of the show, were consistent across all menus.
At the end of the day, all proteins served were marinated and smoked to perfection, but it was the intricacies of time, rub ingredients, wood types, and cooking devices that played a significant role in their final outcome. And while each location’s dishes were lip-smacking delicious, some meats stood out more than others and were fantastic for very particular things.
Check out my final thoughts below where I ultimately award three blue ribbons in three different categories.
The Best Rubs for Any Type of Meat
Looking to host a backyard barbecue? Check out our favorite rubs and get grilling!
Best for Brisket: Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, SC
John Lewis’s brisket is best described in one word: legendary. The pitmaster has concocted custom-designed smokers to produce a sliced beef that is melt-in-your-mouth tender with a smoky and well-seasoned crust. The result: meat sweat heaven. Accompaniments like pickles, slaw, potato salad, and onions also help to jazz up a platter, but the protein can truly live on its own, sans all the Southern sides and even their signature sauces. If you’re not a fan of red meat, the rotisserie-style turkey slices are also a silent star. Get ‘em!
Best for Pulled Meat: Sandfly Bar-B-Q in Savannah, GA
Whether it’s chicken or pork, this steamliner-turned-restaurant has got a pecan- and hickory-smoked pulled variety that tastes good on practically anything. Bread? Of course. Mac ‘n’ cheese? Knock yourself out. By itself? Absolutely. Like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, there’s no wrong way to eat it. In fact, I took some pulled pork to go and it was still juicy and flavorful three hours later—a true testament to the marinade and smoke imparted during the cooking process. Savannah may be a slow-moving town, but Sandfly is worth the rush to have a meal.
Best for Ribs: One Hot Mama’s in Hilton Head, SC
It’s all about the char, baby! When our waitress refused to let us leave without sampling the baby back ribs, we knew that we were in for a treat. Frankly, ribs don’t excite me as much as pulled pork or sliced brisket, but I’ll never turn down a menu item that has been dubbed as “the best.” And we were more than pleased with the outcome. There is a crunch to these bad boys that separates them from ribs at a typical barbecue chain, and while I usually complain about the need to use an unhealthy number of mouth wipes, the drool-worthy char kept the tender meat in tact, making it a cleaner experience that was less about the sauce and more about the pork. (This is something I’m not entirely used to since I can chug barbecue sauce straight from the bottle.)
Surprised by the outcome? This just proves that when it comes to barbecue, there is truly something for everyone.
Looking to take a road trip to try all three locations? It can be done! Check out our list of the best bars and restaurants in Savannah, Hilton Head, and Charleston.