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Huntley combines all three sauces for the Carolina Pig Pucker sauce at his food truck. “It’s one-third apple cider vinegar, one-third tomato paste, and one-third ‘yeller’ mustard,” he says. He barbecues fresh Boston butts in a cooker his father-in-law built in 1978.
A sweeter tomato-based sauce, and often a paprika rub, is indicative of Memphis-style barbecue, in which pork ribs and pulled pork are prominent.
At Cozy Corner in Memphis, an “aquarium” smoker by the front door allows diners to see the ribs, sausage, pork, Cornish hens, and chicken being prepared. “There’s a barbecue shop on almost every corner,” says Desiree Robinson, owner of the 35-year-old establishment. “It depends on what you have a taste for.”
Cozy Corner is known for its sweet tomato sauce. Its smoker, which uses charcoal to barbecue, has no temperature gauges. “We look at the food and know when it’s ready,” Robinson says. The ribs are $20 for a slab, and sliced pork on a hoagie bun runs $4.95.
Influences from this cooking style are in the Memphis BBQ Burger at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants. The cheeseburger features vendor-provided pulled pork and sweet barbecue sauce, along with fried onion strings.
“It has been one of our best-performing limited-time offers,” says Bruce Frazer, senior vice president of product marketing and research and development for the chains’ parent, CKE Restaurants. He says it is likely to make return appearances.
A white sauce was concocted in the 1920s at Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Que in Decatur, Alabama, to go with barbecue chicken. It has spread to other meats and eateries.
“It’s mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and lots of freshly ground black pepper,” says Mike Wilson, owner of Saw’s restaurants in Avondale and Crestline, Alabama, which offers both red and white sauces for its chicken, pork, and Boudin, a Cajun sausage.
Beef brisket is the main barbecue ingredient in Texas, although Southern-style ’cue, barbecued sausage from German immigrants, and Mexican-style beef barbacoa are also popular in the state.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit offers several of these Texas varieties, but half of its sales are from brisket, “the quintessential Texas barbecue meat,” says Dickey, whose grandfather, Travis Dickey, opened his first restaurant in Dallas in 1941.
Spices, pepper, and salt are rubbed on the beef, which is cooked 14 hours over hickory in a pit smoker inside the restaurants. Guests can’t avoid a whiff of hickory smoke.
“The brisket has a nice crust, which is where much of the favor is,” Dickey says. The meat is sliced or chopped, and guests can add any of several tomato-based sauces.
The chain has grown to 300 units in 43 states, and Dickey says the barbecue’s quality is key to the company’s success. “Authenticity is what really matters,” he says.
Carolina, Memphis, and Texas styles are melded together in Kansas City barbecue. The meat is generally smoked with a dry rub, and the table sauce is a tomato- and molasses-based mixture that is thicker and sweeter than in other areas.
“We are the melting pot where all the regional styles came together,” says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the largest organization for barbecue and grilling enthusiasts.
Kansas City is also known for burnt ends, which is the top of brisket that is removed after 17 hours of cooking and then returned to the smoker for several more hours.
“There’s a lot of fat in it, and while most is rendered out, it leaves a velvety inside, with the caramelized rub on the outside,” says Doug Worgul, director of marketing at Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Que. “It’s really quite remarkable.”
Oklahoma Joe’s, founded in 1996, has three locations in the Kansas City area. It uses Missouri white oak for smoking ribs, pork, brisket, turkey, ham, and sausage. The restaurant is known for pulled pork, but its most popular item is the Z-Man, with brisket, smoked Provolone cheese, and crispy onion rings on a Kaiser roll for $6.79.
The idea of bringing various regional styles together at one restaurant has popped up at quick serves all over the country. One is Columbus, Ohio–based City Barbeque, which has grown to 20 units in three states. It features Texas-style brisket, Western North Carolina pulled pork, and smoked ribs that bring together the Memphis and Kansas City approaches. “We just happen to be in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana,” says Rick Malir, chief executive and lead pit boss.
City Barbeque also smokes chicken, turkeys, and other meats. This year, during Lent, it also offered barbecued salmon.
No matter the meat, the cooking style makes it unique, Malir says. “Like blues and jazz are American musical styles, barbecue is one of the few things among America’s great foods,” he says.