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Barbeque report, and thanks

Liana | May 20, 200205:13 PM

Hi. I just got back from a road trip through the south with a friend, and I wanted to express my gratitude to everyone who has posted recently on where to find the best barbeque, especially Joe, whose "Absolute Last Word on the Best BBQ" (Feb. 16, 2002) turned out to be more reliable and accurate than all the barbeque entries in "The Southern Belly" and "Road Food" combined. Many, many thanks.

Although our trip wasn't necessarily designed as a barbeque tour, I figured that since we hit several of the most-discussed barbeque joints in the region you might find an edited run-down of where we ate more digestible than a full accounting of what-all we managed to consume: mind-altering soul food, catfish and oysters, Delta tamales, and what must be the best food New Orleans has to offer--not to mention the many home-cooked meals we were treated to one weekend when we were unexpectedly and inexplicably adopted by a bunch of prairie Cajuns who took it upon themselves to teach us all they could about real Cajun food, hog slaughtering, cockfighting, Cajun dancing, and life in general.

First barbeque stop: GA Pig, in Brunswick, for big meaty ribs and rough-hewn chopped pork in a thick and slightly sweet tomato-based sauce. Through the woodsmoke in the dining room we could barely make out the Elvis display on the wall next to the bathrooms, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

Next we went to Old Clinton BBQ, in Clinton, GA, which was, quite literally, forgettable. They did offer the lovely Red Rooster hot sauce on the tables (anyone know where the stuff can be had in New York?).

The next place we had barbeque was at McClard's in Hot Springs, Arkansas--our first taste of the real thing. After speeding crazily through the Ozarks to get there before it closed for the night, the cold beer and the ribs and the spicy-tomato sauce were truly transformational. My dear friend, I think, will never be the same after those ribs. The chopped pork was good, but go for the ribs and the black-bean-spiked tamales.

Speaking of tamales, we had one or two at Abe's, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, along with the pulled pork sandwich. The bland tamale paled in comparison to the ones fished out of the spicy sauce for us at White Front, in Rosedale, Mississippi, but the barbeque was okay.

Dreamland, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, followed. They serve ribs--and only ribs--and they're equal to McClard's, if in a somewhat different style (I prefer Dreamland; my friend refuses to choose): crusty and charred on the edges, tender and falling-apart inside, with a nice tart sauce.

We tasted the barbeue at the vastly overrated Bob Sykes, in Bessemer, Alabama. It was almost inedible. The chopped pork itself was very good, but the gloopy sauce they slapped up on it by the gallon was disgusting. It had exactly the texture and consistency of that duck sauce that comes in plastic packets with Chinese takeout. If you must go there for some reason, get a couple slices of the lemon pie for the road and leave the barbeque behind.

Looking at our map now, I think the next time we had barbeque was at Fresh Air, just south of Jackson, Georgia. I know the place is supposed to be one of the best around, but I found the chopped pork fairly uniform and uninteresting; the tomato-based sauce was too tart-vinegary--that's just the way I like it, but it's not to everyone's taste.

Twenty minutes later we pulled into the parking lot at our next barbeque stop and noticed that the place looked strangely familiar. We'd been here before--we were back at Old Clinton BBQ, and frankly we were a bit relieved that we weren't going to be eating barbeque for the second time before the cocktail hour.

Sheepish but undeterred, we eventually made our way to South Carolina, where we stopped at Sweatman's, in Holly Hill. I can't imagine that there is better barbeque in the state of South Carolina than the stuff we had at the inimitable Sweatman's, which serves whole-hog chopped pork (mustard sauce on the side), sweet rib meat pulled off the bones, and a weird and delicious orange hash over rice, among other pork products, from a constantly replenished buffet in an old farmhouse in the middle of a starlit cornfield.

Our very next meal was a large paper boat of the most sublime fresh-chopped whole-hog pork I've ever tasted, at Skylight Inn, in Ayden, North Carolina. (Thanks again, Joe, for the recommendation.) There are about seventeen different layers of flavor in the meat itself, a perfectly balanced combination of juicy lean and fatty meat from all parts of the pig and crisp-crunchy bits of skin. The peppery vinegar sauce (as at all the best barbeque joints, it's in a bottle on the table--not on the meat) was completely optional. Still, the sauce was amazing, so do try a forkful of that fine meat with a bit of sauce. Covering the meat pile was a slice of moist, heavy (in a good way) cornbread rich in porkfat, and on top of that was a small boat of coleslaw. Simply a brilliant meal.

Finally, we had excellent smothered backbones and a good pulled pork sandwich at Wilber's, somewhere near Greenville, North Carolina, if I'm remembering right, and unremarkable chopped pork at Mitchell's, in Wilson, North Carolina.

We're now trying to figure out how to work western North Carolina, Tennessee, and maybe even Texas barbeque (and a moonshine run) into our next trip.

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