There's a swath of our country that's built upon the foundation of meat plus smoke plus sauce.
What a beautiful formula. It's too wide of a swath, however, to cover in three days, which was the amount of time I had set for a barbecue road trip.
My goal: drive to some of the barbecue joints of the Midwest and South deemed essential by aficionados, the restaurants with championship trophies on mantels and blue ribbons on walls.
Having been exposed to subpar ribs and brisket in my brief lifetime, I owed myself a visit to the Midwest and South, regions where barbecue is not just a cooking method but an ethos. Certainly, I will receive flak for not hitting enough holy grails — Kansas City, Texas, the Carolinas were too far off course — but this was by no means a comprehensive trip through barbecue Americana. I just wanted to find good food.
Did I ever.
1. 17th Street Bar & Grill, Murphysboro, Ill.
In his book "The Man Who Ate Everything," Vogue food critic and Iron Chef judge Jeffrey Steingarten described the pork ribs from pit master Mike Mills as "profoundly delicious, satisfying every need that the human body and soul have for food." Mills now serves these very ribs at his flagship restaurant, 17th Street Bar & Grill, in Murphysboro, 90 minutes southeast of St. Louis. The ribs? Glorious. These baby backs are pull-apart tender, giving a bit of resistance without "falling off that bones" (most barbecue lovers hate that phrase). It has just a light slather of mustard-colored sauce (containing bacon and apples) that accentuates rather than overwhelms the applewood-smoked meat. One of the finest ribs I've had the pleasure of tasting.
Four locations in the area, but the mother ship is at 214 N. 17th St., Murphysboro, Ill. 618-684-3722, 17thstreet barbecue.com
2. Dexter Bar-B-Que, Sikeston, Mo.
I've never been a fan of pulled pork. I might go as far as using the word "hate," because most versions are stringy bits of flavorless protein. After visiting Dexter Bar-B-Que in southeastern Missouri and trying the pulled pork, though, I was won over. Served with thick slices of Texas toast, this version was chopped rather than pulled from the bone, with a pork-intensity verging on cured bacon. The hot sauce-spiked vinegar dip (a splash is all you need) pairs perfectly with the hickory-smoked pork shoulder, luscious and tender.
Three locations in Southeast Missouri, one in Jonesboro, Ark. 124 N. Main St., Sikeston, Mo.
3. The Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis, Tenn.
The idea of barbecue spaghetti sounds like some Southern gimmick. But it's much more than replacing tomato with barbecue sauce. At Midtown Memphis' The Bar-B-Q Shop, the dish begins with a sauce base that's smoked on the hickory pits for 12 hours. Spaghetti is then added; it sops up the smoky sweetness, giving the noodles a burnt orange color. Chopped smoked pork shoulder goes on top, along with a squirt of spectacular house barbecue sauce — tangy, spicy, with notes of hickory smoke. I may never eat spaghetti again without barbecue sauce.
The Bar-B-Q Shop, 1782 Madison Ave., Memphis, Tenn. 901-272-1277; dancingpigs.com
4. Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, Decatur, Ala.
The year was 1925. Big Bob Gibson, a strapping 300-pound man who stood 6-foot-4, was known for one thing when he began serving barbecue in his hometown of Decatur, Ala.: white sauce. It's a peppery, mayo-based sauce that transforms smoked whole chicken into something ethereal. To this day, chickens are smoked skin-side down for four hours (crispness, they say) before getting dunked in a vat of white sauce upon removal from the pit. As is, the chickens have a terrific charred flavor, moist and smoked to the bone. The white sauce, with an apple cider vinegar and horseradish base, gives the hacked chicken a rich tanginess, similar to coleslaw dressing.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, 1715 Sixth Ave. SE, Decatur, Ala. 256-350-6969, bigbob gibsonbbq.com.
5. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, Owensboro, Ky.
Along the south shores of the Ohio River is Owensboro, Ky., a town that prides itself on a barbecue meat singular in style: mutton. That would be sheep, and it's an acquired taste: not necessarily gamey, but a more assertive flavor than lamb. The pungent hickory smoke takes some of that edge off, and the result is a succulent meat that needs no sauce and falls apart at the nudge of a fork. I know of many people who were leery of mutton, tried it and are now converts.
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, 2840 W. Parrish Ave., Owensboro, Ky. 270-684-8143, moonlite.com