How to Find Good Barbecue

It’s not easy to accurately judge a book by its cover, but your friends at BBQ Jew are always willing to try.  Our goal is to prevent you from wasting too much of your valuable time–or too many points on your cholesterol level–eating mediocre barbecue.  You deserve better.  Below are our tips (commandments?) for separating the wheat from the chaff meat from the gristle when it comes to finding good barbecue joints.

Viva le wood!

Viva le wood!

– If there is a wood pile outside it’s worth going inside. The wood pile may be tucked away in the back, it may be right up front, but it must be somewhere if they cook with it. Once you find the pile, check for signs that it has been used recently and isn’t just there for decoration (this trickery has been reported, though if the BBQ Jew was king such deception would be a criminal offense).

NEW IS OLD NEWS – Be very suspicious of a barbecue joint if the building it is located in was built less than 20 or so years ago. Sure, there are some good joints that challenge this rule of thumb, but a shiny new building is at best a honkin’ big red flag.

PARKING LOT PARADISE – Glance around the parking lot. Ideally, there will be a diverse mix of beat up pickup trucks, vans with commercial tags, compact cars, lawyer mobiles (Mercedes, BMW, etc.) and more. If all those different people think the ‘cue is worth eating, you probably will too.CURB APPEAL – Speaking of parking lots, if the barbecue joint has curb service (I don’t mean a drive-thru, but genuine, old fashioned honk-your-horn-and-a-server-will-magically-appear curb service) then give it a shot. Curb service is pretty rare these days and most of the joints that still offer it have proud barbecue histories that are worthy of your patronage.

SEEK THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED – For the most part, you should avoid barbecue joints that are within a mile of an Interstate (business routes excluded), as most of the good joints pre-date I-40/I-85/I-95/et al.’s appearance. Look favorably upon joints near roads like US Highways 70 or 64 or other roads that date back to the golden age of ‘cue.

DON’T FOLLOW THE SIGNS – The owners of top notch barbecue joints usually don’t bother to promote their businesses with billboards.  These pit masters seem to work under the assumption—right or wrong—that barbecue wise men will find their holy ‘cue by following the north star (or GPS). As always, there are some notable exceptions to this rule.

IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS  – If the joint looks like a bit of a dive on the outside but clean on the inside, this is almost definitely a good sign. If it looks like a hole both outside and in, this may be a bad sign, but may not be.  Unlike the barbecue joints in some southern states, NC’s joints are typically not dirty shacks. Most NC joints are typical family restaurants and are quite tidy inside. You might not want to eat a meal off the floor, but you should be comfortable bringing your whole family.

DINING UNDER THE INFLUENCE – If there is beer available at the barbecue joint, proceed very carefully. If there are imports or microbrews available, let alone wine or liquor, leave immediately. Alcohol and barbecue don’t mix unless you are at a pig pickin’. I know, this is sort of a strange rule of thumb to comprehend if you ain’t from ’round here, but just trust us on this one.

OBEY THE SABBATH – If the barbecue joint is open on Sundays, be wary. There are some notable exceptions, especially among some of the larger establishments that draw a large post-church following and/or cater to out of towners, but most reputable joints take the Lord’s Day off.

NO NIGHT OWLS – If the barbecue joint is open past 9:00 p.m., be on the alert. It takes a long time to make real barbecue, and most good joints close relatively early so the proprietors can get up the next day and start the process all over again.

LESS IS MORE – Be wary of barbecue joints that serve too large a menu, as many of these places give the ‘cue short shrift.  Be especially wary of any joint that offers multiple types of barbecue. It’s hard enough work just making real NC barbecue, and joints that also serve brisket, pork and beef ribs, etc. are unlikely to be worth the visit. Note that joints that focus on pork plus barbecue chicken or turkey are excluded from this warning.

Although there are exceptions to all of the above rules, abiding faithfully by them will steer you toward good barbecue and away from the other stuff more times than not.  Drop us a line at or leave a comment if you have other tips we should consider when seeking good ‘cue.

15 Responses

  1. 2 key signs along these lines seem to be 1) gravel parking lot, and 2) animal heads or other taxidermy on the walls.

  2. And don’t forget the anthropomorphic pig logo. The more “humanoid” the pig looks and the less pig-like activity it is engaged in, the better the ‘cue. Conversely, if the pig looks authentically porcine, keep driving.

  3. Ove the years, my BBQ loving friends and I have come up with a list of signs of good BBQ restaurants. There is no substitute for smell and signs of smoke staining to the pit chimneys. Gravel Parking lots (at least the overflow lot). Overweight waitresses. Cinderblock buildings (at least the pit house). Old Tobacco advertisements for decorations. Texas Pete on the table. Owner’s wife or mother at the cash register with tacky ceramic or wooden pigs on shelf behind her.. As much as I love beer and love it with BBQ, I have to agree with you that the best BBQ usually comes from “family” restaurants which by defintion means no alcohol.

  4. […] Looks Like the Real Deal, If you choose to ignore the propane tank that looms behind the building (which, of course, you should not), Byrd’s has the look of a gem of a BBQ joint.  Located just outside the city limits, it occupies a rural setting that is appropriate to good ‘cue.  The modest wood frame building looks the part too.  And the parking lot welcomed a steady stream of pickup trucks, plumbing/electrician vans and utility company vehicles, all good signs.  Even the method of ordering–open the front door and walk through the porch-like dining room that is separated by a storm door from the counter where you place your order–is encouragingly odd.  The knotty pine floor, red-checked tablecloths, ceiling fans and potted plants complete the look.  But looks can be deceiving, despite Byrd’s displaying most of the superficial signs one looks for in a BBQ joint.  […]

  5. Beer and BBQ dont mix? They mix perfectly, please elaborate. I dont think Ive ever been at a BBQ or BBQ joint and not had a beer with my meal, Since I was too young to drink anyway 🙂 I am actually put off by places where I cant get a drink with a meal.

  6. JeffM I grew up in the Pedimont North Carolina area and I think I can explain this one. Good family folks run good BBQ places in N.C. and good family folks don’t look kindly on drinkin’. There a still a few dry counties hanging around North Carolina and a lot of folks will take a drawl off their Camel and swear nothing as terrible as alcohol will ever touch their lips.

  7. JeffM – This is to avoid masking bad bbq with diminished judgement. If you are inebriated, the bbq place can get away with serving you bad bbq, and you’ll never know the difference. Good bbq joints will attract customers without beer.

  8. The beer rule is the gospel truth in NC, and sets it apart from most other BBQ states. Trust me, I’m Jewish.

  9. Speaking of BBQ and beer….

    I recall about a decade ago accompanying 5 out of town friends from NJ (think Sopranos types) to Cozy Corner, a family establishment just north of downtown Memphis (a sign on the wall there says “No Illegal Smoking”). They ordered one of everything…. literally – rib tips, cornish game hen, shoulder sandwich, smoked sausage sandwich, bbq bolgna, etc. etc. etc.

    When their beer order was denied, they immediately whipped out flasks and asked for Pepsi set-ups. The look on the staff faces was priceless.

    Good times.

  10. Beer doesn’t equate to bad bbq. Bad bbq equates to bad bbq.

    The point here that I think is the most valid is the operating hours. Good BBQ won’t have all their meats ready available all day unless it’s a huge place like Cooper’s in Texas where they can afford to smoke all day.

  11. One of the best blogs I’ve come across in a while. Perhaps I ain’t been searchin’ hard enough. But, if you’re talkin’ BBQ. I’m all ears. Be back soon with some friends.

  12. I love this list of things to look for in a BBQ restaurant. I have personally noticed that the newer the building, the less you can typically trust that it is good BBQ. The older looking, beat-up, buildings are the ones that I feel like I can get the best BBQ at. I will have to use these other tips to find the best BBQ joints.

  13. My family and I love going to BBQ restaurants. It is hard to find authentic BBQ, especially if you don’t know the area well, but these tips are very helpful. I hadn’t thought about how the location or hours could indicate a good BBQ. We’ll be sure to look out for the restaurants that close a little early in order to take the time to go through the whole cooking process, as you explained. Thanks for sharing!

  14. I’ve always loved barbecue, and I just moved to a new place without my favorite restaurant. I really like the tip of whats on the inside that counts! My old favorite place looked like a small little dump, but the inside was perfect! I’ll have to try my luck finding a new place around here!

  15. I do like how you mentioned that barbecue joints that serve too large of a menu can be considered as a red flag at times. That is something I would be sure to remember when looking for a good barbecue joint near our new area. Personally, I’ll try to learn how to barbecue so that I can host our next summer family reunion and 4th of July celebration properly. Thanks for the tips which would surely help me in finding the best barbecues!

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