An online magazine called Chef’s Pencil (no, I’ve never heard of it before, either) stirred up a cauldron of controversy involving a cuisine that many people have strong opinions about: barbecue. The magazine analyzed TripAdvisor ratings of the barbecue restaurants in America’s 75 largest cities, and compiled a list of what they claim are the ten best cities in the country for barbecue. This was accompanied by a map showing where those cities are, and here it is:
The map, and the analysis that it was based on, made a lot of people angry. This Newsweek article sums up the controversy pretty well.
I won’t try to enumerate all of the things wrong with this map, because many people have already done that. (Matt Mitchell’s video is a good example.) I’ll just point out a couple of things.
The biggest outrage is that Texas is completely ignored. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not objective about barbecue. Of course I’m biased: I was raised on Texas-style barbecue because my father was born in Dallas, and he loved to make that kind of barbecue in his backyard grill. He was always tinkering with the sauce recipe and the way he cooked the beef brisket, in the hope of duplicating the sort of barbecue served in east Texas restaurants. He was never completely satisfied with the result, but I certainly enjoyed eating the meals that he produced. So it’s difficult for me to believe that no city in Texas made it into the top ten.
Some of the cities that did make it seem bizarrely inappropriate. Seattle, Newark, and Miami do not come to anyone’s mind when you ask them where they would go for great barbecue. As Matt points out, New Orleans has incredibly good food, but barbecue is not what it’s renowned for.
And Charlotte? Really? I grew up in the Charlotte area, and I’ve eaten in the city’s restaurants countless times. If it has some of the best barbecue in the country, I sure didn’t hear anything about it. And maybe I wouldn’t, but you can bet that Dad would have known about any good barbecue restaurant in Charlotte, and he would have taken the family to eat there. I don’t think that ever happened. (Maybe the excellent barbecue places in Charlotte only appeared after he died. Okay, I’m game. What are their names? I’d love to try them out. Update: According to TripAdvisor, these are the best barbecue restaurants in Charlotte.)
I think this project was doomed from the start, because its methodology was wrong. If you want to find the best barbecue in the country, why would you look only at the biggest cities? It’s not an urban cuisine. In my experience, some of the best barbecue is to be found in small towns and even rural settings. You’re more likely to find great barbecue at an Alabama church potluck than in any metropolis.
I can’t claim to know where the best barbecue in the country is. But the best I’ve ever tasted was at Bodacious Bar-B-Q in Longview, Texas. Longview isn’t a metropolis by any standard; it’s only the 47th largest city in Texas (81,653 residents in 2019). So the Chef’s Pencil analysis would have ignored it completely. And that’s why the map they produced is meaningless. If you’re only looking in big cities for great barbecue, you don’t understand barbecue at all.
Postscript: I notice that the barbecue analysis, including the top ten list and the map, has disappeared from the Chef’s Pencil website. I can understand why.
Mom and Dad did take us to eat barbecue in Charlotte, at a place called Spoon’s. It appears still to be in business. I don’t know how good it is, but it was apparently good enough that Dad found it acceptable. (Although we do seem to have stopped going there, since my only memories of that place must be from the early ’70s.)
But I certainly agree with your larger point, and I’d go further. As far as I’m concerned, it’s meaningless to compare foods called “barbecue” in different parts of the country at all. There might be similarities in cooking techniques, but Texas smoked brisket and North Carolina pulled pork are two different meats cooked in different ways with different sauces. (The same can be said about regional “barbecue” wherever it exists, I’m sure.) I see no reason to compare them, any more than you’d compare pizza and sushi.
Now that you mention it, I do vaguely remember Spoon’s. But as you said, we didn’t keep going there for long. That suggests that it fell somewhere between “acceptable” and “worth a trip to Charlotte.”
But if it’s still in business, maybe I’ll give it a try the next time I’m passing through.
Yes, I remember Spoon’s, too. But when Dad discovered that there was an El Cancun in Charlotte, he came home raving about it. And when he learned that one was going to open in Rock Hill when they remodeled and got all the appropriate licenses, etc, he could hardly wait, as you both no doubt remember.
Mom, I don’t suppose you remember when I took you and Dad to Max’s Speed Shop in Charlotte, which claimed to have Texas-style barbecue? They were relatively new after I moved to Charlotte. Dad said it was the best he’d eaten in the Carolinas, which was not surprising, as it’s the only restaurant I’m aware of that attempted Texas beef barbecue, as opposed to Carolina pork barbecue.