Chasing BBQ – Part One: 76 BBQ Joints in 38 Days
with Mike Johnston
My chase will be have me driving more than 5,000 miles through 14 states in order to make it to and through the 7 recognized regions of American barbecue.
By the time you are reading this I am already on the road—chasing barbecue. 76 barbecue restaurants in less than 6 weeks, to be specific. To complete a chase of this magnitude, I will need a lot of things to go right, which I will get into later, but first I’ll attempt to explain why the heck I’m chasing barbecue to begin with!
A Big Idea?
Would you believe me if I said I’m doing it entirely for you, our Savory customer? Probably not, but (mostly) that is true! Ok, to be totally honest, this is bucket list stuff! I could have done this barbecue road trip without as many stops and still accomplished the original goal: to prepare for our 2016 American regional barbecue summer promo. But being who I am and having the mom I do (one who cooks enough food for twenty when there are only four coming over), I couldn’t just pick one or two stops in each region. On top of that, there is incredible transplant barbecue to be discovered and I couldn’t just drive by without trying it. There are a lot of miles between the 7 regions of American barbecue!
Another driving force behind my chase is the recently released book by Johnny Fugitt—The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America. Johnny hit 365 barbecue restaurants in 365 days to determine his top 100. That’s impressive! He will probably be responsible for a lot of middle age barbecue enthusiasts hitting the road on their own barbecue quests. Here’s to you, Johnny!
It’s one thing to want to do this chase, but entirely another to be able to actually pull it off. So before I go any further and because I couldn’t go any further without them, I want to thank everyone at Savory for affording me this opportunity. Without you guys covering me, this couldn’t happen.
Of course, next is my incredibly understanding, smart, and beautiful wife/partner, Janet. Without her blessing this doesn’t happen. So, thank you dear.
The Plan Comes Together
My chase will be have me driving more than 5,000 miles through 14 states in order to make it to and through the 7 recognized regions of American barbecue. The 7 regions are Central Texas, East Texas, Memphis, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kansas City (on both the Missouri and Kansas sides).
Just like a good meal, achieving such an aggressive chase requires many ingredients: I need to be well planned, have an exact route, be willing to eat barbecue multiple times on most days (many days for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), good fortune (both weather and vehicle wise), and my body and taste buds to hold up.
I can’t control the weather, but the rest of my recipe for the perfect trip is coming together. I’ve recently had a physical that says I’m in good health (cholesterol levels right where they should be!). I’ve had my oil changed and tires checked. I have a plan to run 5 to 8 miles every morning (well at least every morning that I don’t need to get to another joint very early). And even though I’m a fan of the sides that a great barbecue joint has to offer, I will try to avoid glorious hush puppies, mouthwatering cornbread, the cheesy wonderfulness of mac & cheese, and other tasty fried and starchy offerings in the interest of completing the chase without gaining 25 pounds (or not being able to complete it because of cardiac arrest!). However, I am a big fan of coleslaw and greens, so I’ll be on the lookout for which places offer the best, in my opinion.
It Takes All Kinds
Opinions are part of the barbecue experience. You know the shtick: people from (insert region) think their barbecue is best and other isn’t even “real barbecue”. This makes for great conversation and debate. While I’m up in the air on how much personal opinion I’ll disclose (can you blame me, a lot of these guys use a lot of spice and there could be some business to gain!) I did use other people’s opinions to compile and narrow down my list of where to go.
Johnny Fugitt’s book was one of my resources and right off the bat I knew that he and I didn’t see eye to eye on some rankings. One of the places that I’ve tried makes his top 25 but I can’t see how he even has them in his book yet alone the top 25. In his top 15, there are three places that when you read the reviews on Yelp and/or TripAdvisor has me asking the same question. But again, that is the beauty of barbecue. Maybe even more importantly than opinions and debate is the power of your own taste buds. What a bore food would be if it all tasted the same or if we didn’t allow ourselves to be individuals and like what we like. Heck, Savory Spice thrives because of that primary premise. People, in general, don’t want their food to be the same every meal. That gives me hope that even though I’ll be eating a ton of barbecue over the next 5 to 6 weeks, because of the regional differences, I will still enjoy it as much at the end as I do at the beginning.
I mentioned Yelp and TripAdvisor; additional online resources I used include:
Where I’m able to stop and try barbecue on my chase was derived not only from opinions I read but also by route and hours of operation. Janet was kind enough to let me go on this once-in-a-lifetime trip but I have be back by September 25 to fulfill other commitments. So I had to have the most direct route possible, which did eliminate a few places that I really wanted to try.
Part of the dream of owning a business is that we can determine our own hours, or perhaps even better know before we open that everything we had to sell that day was going to be sold. In many cases, barbecue joints have that luxury. So some of the places that I really wanted to try just weren’t going to be open when I was in the area.
A very high percentage of the 76 places that are on my chase I have not been to before. Of the places I have been to, Franklin Barbecue currently stands head and shoulders above the rest. I’ve stood in Aaron’s line three times, four hours each time. The reward of his mastery of the pit is always worth the wait. (Here’s hoping he reads this and I get a chance to talk with him about his barbecue!) It’s not just my opinion either, as he was recently honored with the James Beard award for best chef, Southwest 2015.
That said, being from Chicago, the barbecue influences I grew up with were more Memphis driven. In fact, to this day I’m always on the lookout for rib tips and I’m pretty excited about my Memphis stop.
On the other hand, when it comes to barbecue sauces, I love me some vinegar. Carolina sauces, both with and without mustard, just work for me and I’m looking forward to trying more when chasing down barbecue in the Carolinas.
Thanks to our longtime employee, Shantelle Stephens, we have a great recipe for white barbecue sauce. So I’ve already tried it but I’m really looking forward to enjoying it at the place that is credited with its creation, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama.
I know that for some purists real barbecue isn’t about the sauce and it isn’t about the seasoning. To them it is about the quality and cut of meat, wood selection, smoking time, pit of choice, and cooking temp. I’m a spice guy so while I can appreciate and acknowledge the importance of all of those things, to me the sauce and seasonings are just as important to my barbecue experience. My current fave, Franklin, only uses salt and pepper to season meat for barbecuing; he serves it sans sauce but also makes some very tasty sauces. While I’ll enjoy a few slices of his perfectly smoked brisket without it, I must admit that I like it even better dipped in one of his sauces.
There are too many places that I’m excited about to even try to mention them all, but I do want to mention one other area as I think it has been overlooked when it comes to the 7 regions of barbecue. This is tough for me a Chicago Cubs fan but that city is St. Louis. On one hand, they do have a cut of ribs name after them; but on the other, they aren’t acknowledged as one of the regions of American barbecue. During my research of locals’ opinions of their city’s barbecue, St. Louis had more highly rated barbecue joints then any other city. So I’m excited to taste some for myself and see if their barbecue is more transplant barbecue or if we need to start a petition for St. Louis to be recognized as the 8th American barbecue region!
The Beginning of Something Big
As word has spread around our Savory community and my personal friends that I was doing this crazy barbecue chase, I heard some interesting comments ranging from health and weight concerns to trip envy to gals sharing with Janet that they would love it if their significant other would take a 6-week vacation! But one on my friends asked a more business savvy question: what is the point of all this? Admittedly there is some machismo going on here with me trying to chase down this many barbecue joints in such a short time (my 2-1 ratio is twice as fast as Johnny’s 1-1…take that Johnny!). But what it really comes down to is a quest to learn more about the different types of barbecue and sharing that with you through firsthand experiences. I hope to talk with as many of these Pitmasters as I can, knowing that they have a business to run and it may not be possible. Hopefully I’ll pick up some nuggets that lead you and me to produce better barbecue in our own backyards.
So off I go, at 185 pounds and with my taste buds intact. I know I’ll have a few special guests joining me along the way. If you are interested in following my chase, search #ChasingBBQ on your social media sites. I will also be posting regularly to our national Facebook page and many of our Savory locations will be sharing the info on their social media pages, too. Better yet, click HERE for my itinerary and join up with me at one of my stops so that we can do a little chasing barbecue together!