FOLLOW THE BARBEQUE TRAIL
From North Carolina to Texas
No food seems more quintessentially American than barbecue. To fully immerse yourself in barbecue, sample the fare and flavors on offer at a few favorite towns and fests where grilled beast--be it smoked, rubbed, pulled, slathered in sauce, or massaged with spice--is the main draw. If you're truly a 'cue fan, string the recommendations into a road trip. But beware: After five barbecue feasts in as many days, you may be in need of a giant salad.
Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri. If there is a center of the American barbecue universe, it may well be Kansas City, straddling the Kansas-Missouri state line. As a staging center for western exploration, Kansas City was home to early meatpacking operations and stockyards; barbecue naturally followed. But it wasn't until the 1920s that fellow named Henry Perry opened the first barbecue pit. Among the best loved of the city's more than one hundred barbecue joints are Gates (800-662-7427, www.gatesbbq.com), where you'll be greeted with a shouted "Hi, may I help you?"; Fiorella's Jack Stack (816-531-7427, www .jackstackbbq.com), for white tablecloth service; and the dignitary must-stop Arthur Bryant's (816-231-1123, www.arthurbryantsbbq.com); all have several locations around town.
Lexington, North Carolina. Lexington stakes its claim as "barbecue capital of the world" thanks to the 1919 establishment of the town's first pit-cooked barbecue tent. The furniture-manufacturing operations that were once the centerpiece of Lexington's economy have waned, but the town of 20,000 remains beloved for its coziness and two dozen barbecue restaurants, famed for pork--sliced, chopped, or pulled--served with coleslaw and hush puppies (beef and chicken dishes are also offered at some). Most are open any day you land there, though some are closed on Sunday. One of the largest and best known is Lexington Barbecue No. 1 (10 Hwy. 29/70 S, 336-249-9814).
Lockhart, Texas. Located some 25 miles south of Austin, this tiny town of 14,000 on the historic Chisholm Trail boasts less than a handful of barbecue restaurants, but collectively they serve up 5,000 meals per week. Barbecued pork sausage is the specialty here, though you'll find chops and brisket as well. All the barbecue joints win raves, but if you must choose only one, make it Kreuz (pronounced krites) Market (619 N. Colorado St., 512-398-2361), where smoky brisket, peppered pork ribs, and jalapeño-cheese sausage win raves. Don't ask for
sauce--they don't have it; but the sauerkraut is divine.
Memphis, Tennessee. Debating where to find the best barbecue here is something of a city sport. With more than a hundred 'cue joints, there's plenty to choose from. Often mentioned are Rendezvous (52 S. 2nd St., 901-523-2746), famed for its ribs since 1948; Central BBQ (2249 Central Ave., 901-272-9377), known for its slow-smoked ribs, pulled meat, and hot wings; Corky's (5259 Poplar Ave., 901- 685-9744), seasoned with a dry rub, slathered in sauce, and slow cooked; and Neely's (670 Jefferson Ave., 901-521-9798), made famous by the Food Network's show Down Home with the Neelys. Also recommended? The funky Blues City Café (138 Beale St., 901-526-3637), where the ribs are flavored with a wet rub and slow cooked at 225°F, then drenched in a sweet barbecue sauce. They're worth every last calorie.
St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis is known for its barbecued spare ribs and reportedly leads the world in per capita consumption of barbecue sauce. The sauce is sweet; the ribs are trimmed to remove the fatty portion off the rack. But as far as the locals are concerned, you...