Six Essential Historic Southern Barbecue Joints You Should Know
Here are six great BBQ joints in the South that have had an impact on the barbecue world.
This week’s guest article is written by John Tanner, founder of John Tanner’s Barbecue Blog. John is based in Washington, D.C., and has been writing about barbecue joints, events, and notable people in BBQ since 2015.
While hardly an expert, I’m interested in historic barbecue places. I’ve been eating barbecue since before you were born, and I have a deep affinity for the old places, the places where the meat has long been cooked low and slow over wood coals. I especially treasure places that exemplify an area’s barbecue traditions or that broke ground for a new and enduring tradition. But what makes a barbecue place historic?
Countries don’t sign treaties at barbecue places, although perhaps they should. Battles aren’t fought, beyond some trash talk, and no famous people have been born in barbecue places, at least so far. The history-making barbecues were those that featured wood-cooked meats and rivers of strong drink to persuade voters before elections. Those barbecues gave us the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and, ultimately, James Madison. (Madison first lost an election by withholding free barbecue, but then saw the light.) We don’t do that any more, and look what we’ve got.
And barbecue places, indeed restaurants in the U.S., tend not to be that old, nowhere near that 878-year old Wurstkuchl in Regensburg, Germany. The United States has enjoyed a dynamic economy and a uniquely fluid, restless population, moving from place to place and starting new businesses. Look at the explosion of new restaurants in the aftermath of World War II and Korea, and the current explosion of “City” barbecue places.
So, what makes a barbecue place historic? Let’s look at some places around the South that I see as historic.
Time obviously is one factor. The oldest barbecue place I’ve visited is The Golden Rule in Irondale, outside Birmingham. It opened in 1891, and it still offers essentially the same food — pork shoulders cooked directly over hickory coals in a masonry pit — pork cooked the traditional way.
The Golden Rule did move into a new building, but that was a good 50 years ago, time to build a nice barbecue patina, and it displays that array of football photos and posters that characterize Alabama barbecue places.
The actual oldest barbecue place seems to be the Southside Market in Elgin, Texas, but I’m under the impression that they started out as a sausage place, not a “large meat” place. The Kreuz Market in Lockhart opened in 1900, but their huge new place doesn’t yet have a historic feel.
The Original City Market in Luling, Texas, on the other hand, although it opened “only” 65 years ago, is a step into history. It hasn’t changed a bit since then. It has the traditional smoke room in which the meat is cooked, cut, and served — on butcher paper with no supporting tray. You get drinks and sides and eat in a separate room. You need a knife to slice the sausage rings, but a plastic fork is fine to cut the brisket. More than any other barbecue place, the Original City Market exemplifies the Texas barbecue tradition.