What’s better than tasty, affordable and classic American fare? Not much — which probably explains why barbecue is one age-old cuisine that’s spread (as rapidly as the fire it’s seared over) from Southern secret to national craze. More than just throwing a slab of meat on the grill, barbecue involves cooking all different kinds of meat over indirect heat (usually a wood fire) for a while (sometimes, up to 18 hours) — two factors that differentiate it from grilling. But the resulting combination of smoky, juicy and spicy flavors can’t be beat.
And for those who avoid meat or fiery flavors, there are also plenty of side dishes and desserts — from potato salad, cornbread and coleslaw to mac and cheese, baked beans and apple tarts — that reflect barbecue’s Southern roots and offer a subtler taste of the typical cuisine. Before you get your hands dirty eating the many kinds of meat that make up this backyard summertime staple, read up on five quick facts about this country’s cuisine of choice:
1. Origins in the Spanish & the South
The origins of the term “barbecue” are shaky, but it is thought to be attributed to the Spanish, who — upon landing in the Caribbean — used the word “barbacoa” to refer to the natives’ method of slow-cooking meat over a wooden platform. Barbecue was a go-to favorite for American Southerners by the 19th century, with pork serving as the popular and primary meat because of its prevalence in the region.
2. It takes all types
There’s more than just one style of cooking barbecue. The four main styles — Memphis, Tennessee; North Carolina; Kansas City; and Texas — are separate and distinct, and named after their places of origins. Memphis’s main event — eaten as a stand-alone dish or as part of a sandwich — is a pulled pork-shoulder bathed in sweet tomato-based sauce. The North Carolina style consists of a smoked whole hog in a vinegar-based sauce, and the Kansas City style features ribs cooked in dry rub. Unsurprisingly, beef takes center stage in the Texas style: while Eastern Texas favors pulled pork (due to its proximity to Tennessee), Western Texas likes a mesquite-grilled “cowboy-style” brisket.
3. Bold flavors — always
All types of barbecue have one thing in common, and that’s bold flavor, brought about by seasonings, sauces and cooking techniques. Salt and black pepper act as the foundations to most seasonings and barbecue rubs, which also usually contain paprika, brown sugar, garlic powder and onion powder. Cayenne and other chile peppers can add some spice to rubs for fans of blistering hot barbecue. Luckily, there seems to be a rub or seasoning for the preference of every palette.
4. More than just a sauce
Barbecue sauce is most frequently used as a marinade or topping for meat cooked in the style of the same name, but is also used to flavor other types of foods. Vinegar and mustard-based sauces are popular in the South, with tomato-based sauces particularly well-known in the North. Although many variations exist, the most popular sauces include ingredients like liquid smoke, mustard, black pepper, sugar and molasses. The Georgia Barbecue Sauce Company made the first commercially produced barbecue sauce in Atlanta in 1909, with large companies like Heinz and Kraft Foods following their lead over the course of the 20th century.
5. Hot and ready
Barbecue doesn’t just refer to the food or flavor — it also refers to the cooking techniques. The original technique, known as “smoking,” consisted of using smoke at lower temperatures (below 300 degrees Fahrenheit) for many hours. Grilling is done over direct, very hot and dry heat (over 500 degrees Fahrenheit) for just a matter of minutes, while braising combines direct and dry heat on a ribbed surface.
Where to find it
This is one food trend you can get anywhere at (almost) any time. And even if you’re not a meateater, many restaurants also offer traditional Southern side dishes and desserts that are just as mouth-watering as BBQ. Whether you’re in NYC, SF, LA, Chicago or Boston, you’ve got lots of Reserve restaurant choices serving up the smoky, soul-satisfying cuisine:
The Promontory, an American restaurant and bar in Hyde Park, serves a Kalbi beef short rib starter with fried garlic, cashew, scallion, ginger soy glaze and pickled shishito peppers for an updated take on a traditional BBQ dish.
Chicago q Near the North Side, this barbecue mainstay has it all: classic sides include cornbread, baked beans and potato salad, while Southern starters of corn dogs, hush puppies and a BBQ flight (consisting of American Kobe brisket, pulled pork and pulled chicken) are also on offer. But diners flock to Chicago q for the main event of BBQ classics — such as brisket, pulled pork and baby back ribs — accompanied by cornbread, coleslaw or fries (and, of course, the house-made sauces). Plus, the eatery offers their signature mac and cheese with various BBQ toppings.
Contrary to most expectations, BBQ does exist in the Big Apple. This Midtown steakhouse serves up baby back ribs and a variety of potato sides for a taste of Southern cooking in the big city, and a warm apple and plum tart for dessert serves as a sweet ending to an otherwise smoky meal.
In Cambridge, this Southern spot serves up classic sides and Southern fare that pair well with any BBQ dish. House-made biscuits and cheddar grits can be ordered on the side, along with other favorites like collard greens, garlic mashed potatoes, apple fennel coleslaw and jalapeño mac and cheese. For dessert, local indie bakery Petsi Pies offers up handmade pies and pastries.
This South End steakhouse offers BBQ in a variety of ways, from expected accompaniments to inventive add-ons. A 14-ounce double-cut pork chop is served with BBQ sauce, Carolina dry rub, braised greens and fresh cornbread. Sour cream and horseradish mashed potatoes, along with pork belly mac and cheese, make for creative side dishes. But diners can make any meal Southern by adding BBQ sauce to grilled and roasted house steaks and filet mignons.
In the Financial District, this elegant New American tavern features a menu surprisingly punctuated by BBQ favorites both inventive and classic. Served with Worcestershire sauce and garlic herb toast, the BBQ shrimp dish makes a bold starter. House-smoked St. Louis ribs come with Texas Jack BBQ sauce, corn muffin and coleslaw in one epic entrée that seems to have it all.