Texas Living

American Barbecue Styles (and Where to Find Them in Texas)

By Peter Simek 2.24.23

We all know the best barbecue in the world is found in Texas, but that doesn’t stop out-of-staters from claiming that their regional style can somehow rival Texas’ greatness.

In Texas, we don’t argue about whether Texas barbecue is the best — we spar over which style of Texas barbecue is king. That’s because Texas’ barbecue roots and tradition run so deep you can find innovative variations of the best barbecue in the world depending on where in the state you are.

From the classic Central Texas brisket capitals like Lockhart to the direct-heat Hill Country style to the rich and tangy East Texas sauce, you can spend your whole life exploring the richness of Texas barbecue and never wonder what all the fuss is about over KC burnt ends.

But, I suppose, once in a while, it is nice to see what our smoking neighbors are up to. We are living through a barbecue renaissance in which young and seasoned pitmasters alike are rethinking how they approach classic barbecue. It is not surprising that, in our hyperconnected world, this has meant that regional styles are crisscrossing and cross-pollinating. New takes on Texas tradition and flavor profiles of other regional styles can be found throughout the state.

We want to celebrate this fecundity of flavor by calling out the best of the best types of barbecue outside of Texas — and where you can find it in Texas.

Regional Barbecue Styles

As Texas barbecue lovers know, it is impossible to pin down a singular style. Just as Texas barbecue draws influence from the history and culinary traditions from throughout the state, barbecue styles within Tennessee, the Carolinas, the Deep South, and the Midwest can deliver fantastic results.

We love the mustardy barbecue sauces of South Carolina and Arkansas-style barbecue and the rich smokiness of Georgia barbecue. And we can’t leave out the succulent whole-hog pig roasts of Hawaii that blend Anglo and Polynesian culinary traditions.

In fact, part of what makes the different types of barbecue so delicious — and fascinating — is that it is a cuisine that reflects the cultural melting pot of American history, with each town and county across the country telling its own story and historical experience through its approach to smoking meat.

Carolina Barbecue. Photo by Ben Sassani Photography

The Major Barbecue Styles

No matter where you go in the U.S., you’ll likely meet a smoke aficionado who touts their own homegrown barbecue style. And it is true that if you drive from eastern to western North Carolina or cross the border from Georgia to Alabama, you’ll find variations and deep-rooted smoking traditions. However, there are four regularly acknowledged major styles of barbecue.

Kansas City: Sweet and saucy brown-sugar rubs and rich ketchup-and-molasses-based barbecue sauce are the defining hallmarks of KC-style barbecue. The signature meat is burnt ends — those fatty and flavorful bits trimmed from smoked brisket. Another influence is the hickory wood used for smoking.

Memphis: Pork takes centerstage in this signature Tennessee barbecue tradition. Ribs and pulled pork sandwiches are staples. In the Mississippi River town, ribs are prepared wet and dry: Wet ribs are basted and smoked in a rich sauce, while dry ribs are left to cure in their flavorful rubs.

Carolina: The southern East Coast can lay claim to some of the oldest barbecue traditions in the country, and Carolina’s style still reflects its roots in whole-hog pit-smoking, which is the origin point of all barbecue traditions. The sweet pork meat is basted in a vinegar-forward mop sauce while smoking. This sauce often accompanies heaps of pulled pork.

Texas: Brisket is king in Texas, but so are delicious hot links, Texas-sized beef ribs, and plenty of other cuts of meat. In the Central Texas style most associated with Texas barbecue, sauce is used for mopping but is not often served with the meal. A chile-forward rub helps give Texas barbecue bark its tang, and the variety of smoked sausages found throughout the state can be traced back to German and Czech immigrant influence.

Photo courtesy of 18th & Vine Barbecue

Where to Find Barbecue Styles in Texas

In Texas, Texas barbecue reigns, so it’s not surprising that it can be challenging to find other styles of barbecue around the state. Challenging — but not impossible. If you are looking to try the flavors of the rest of the country without leaving home, here are our picks:

Kansas City-Style: 18th and Vine, Dallas
Chef Scott Gottlich has a pedigree cooking for high-end restaurants with his French culinary training, but he walked away from all of that to bring Kansas City-style barbecue to Dallas. As you might expect, burnt ends are the star here, but you must also try a brisket sandwich.

Memphis-Style: King Jerry Lawler’s Memphis BBQ Company, Houston
It’s not surprising that a barbecue joint founded by a former professional wrestler is upfront and in your face about its claim to barbecue greatness. “Memphis barbecue is the best,” Lawler’s website proclaims. “Say anything else and those are just fightin’ words.” Lawler backs up his claim with a delicious one-two punch of wet and dry ribs.

Carolina-Style: Truth BBQ, Houston
Let’s get this disclaimer out up front: Pitmaster Leonard Botello IV is a Texas barbecue master who smokes one hell of a brisket and beef rib at his popular Houston restaurant. But on Saturdays, Botello brings the Carolina tradition to Texas with a whole hog smoked for 10-plus hours.

As he told Eater, learning how to approach Carolina traditions was like learning a new art form. “I think if you spend more than 10 hours on anything it becomes art,” Botello said. “It’s the same way with whole hog. The Carolinas are so passionate about their whole hog and it’s kind of like the same journey for that cook, just a different animal and a different process.”

Want to put your skills to the test trying different types of barbecue? Try out these barbecue rub recipes from four Texas pitmasters — or try out one of the best Texas barbecue sauces.

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