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Places to enjoy Southern barbecue

In the South, there’s a mathematical formula for deliciousness: meat + smoke + time = awesome.

Hundreds of versions of this recipe exist, of course, involving varying cuts of meat, dry rubs, smoking woods and sauces. But wherever you go in the South, you can count on finding a smokehouse that makes barbecue the old-fashioned way.

Though you’ll meet pit masters in many parts of the country, make no mistake about it: The South is the homeland of barbecue. It is the universal food of the region, beloved by both residents and visitors, and prepared with pride in Southern cities large and small.

For traveling groups, a barbecue stop is a great way to experience the culinary soul of the South. If you have food aficionados in your group, a barbecue festival or even a ’cue-themed tour will highlight the subtle variations and secret recipes that make the meaty treat one of Dixie’s favorite delicacies.

Consider including one of these barbecue destinations on your next group trip through the Southern states.


Durham’s Barbecue Scene

Durham, North Carolina

In North Carolina, Durham considers itself a serious food town, and the rest of the culinary world is starting to take notice — Southern Living named Durham the “tastiest town in the South” last year.

Durham’s food scene comprises fine dining, food trucks, international cuisine and lots of great barbecue.

“Durham’s oldest operating restaurant is a barbecue restaurant called Bullock’s,” said Sam Poley, spokesman for the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The restaurant has been in business for 63 years.

“Tommy Bullock is a beloved old-school barbecue guy. Interestingly, he doesn’t cook over wood — he cooks over gas. He makes a fine, fine plate of barbecue. Everybody in Durham has been to Bullock’s.”

That original restaurant set the stage for a series of successful barbecue joints in town. The Original Q Shack, near the campus of Duke University, was opened by a young Texas chef who graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

“They do pulled pork and barbecue chicken, but he really represents Texas barbecue,” Poley said. “His brisket is, in my personal opinion, the best thing on the menu.”

Last fall, Raleigh barbecue maven Ed Mitchell opened an outpost of his fine-dining barbecue restaurant The Pit in Durham. The restaurant combines tablecloths and fancy cocktails with tried-and-true barbecue techniques.

“He elevates the food, and does more interesting versions of barbecue,” Poley said. “But you can still get your old favorites — they’re just going to be better.”

This year, Mitchell will open another fine-dining barbecue restaurant called Cue overlooking the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The wide selection of barbecue restaurants gives visitors the opportunity to try both styles of North Carolina barbecue: Eastern style features a light, vinegar-based sauce; while “western style has a heavier, sweeter flavor.

“The only unifying component is that it’s diverse,” Poley said. “You’ll be able to get both eastern and western North Carolina styles of barbecue in these restaurants.”


Saw’s BBQ

Homewood, Alabama

In a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, Saw’s BBQ owner Mike Wilson has joined the growing ranks of classically trained chefs who have opted for opening down-home barbecue restaurants instead of working in fine-dining kitchens.

Wilson grew up eating barbecue in his native North Carolina before attending Johnson & Wales University in Colorado. After graduating, he returned to his home state to work for high-end retail food purveyor Dean and Deluca, then went to Birmingham to take a chef position in the test kitchen of Cooking Light magazine.

During his time at the magazine, Wilson experimented with smoking meat and whipping up sauces as a hobby. He must have hit on something good because word of his work spread through the culinary community in Birmingham, prompting Wilson to open Saw’s BBQ in 2009.

Saw’s takes its name from an unflattering moniker Wilson earned in high school in North Carolina. Diners will taste the hometown influence in the restaurant’s North Carolina-style, vinegar-based sauce, served atop pulled pork or slabs of smoked ribs.

The restaurant also serves a smoked chicken, which comes with a signature white barbecue sauce. Visitors can also get baked potatoes stuffed with ingredients such as bacon and pork, broccoli, onions, chicken and, of course, barbecue sauce. 


Paducah’s Barbecue Celebration

Paducah, Kentucky

In the southwestern corner of Kentucky, Paducah has become known for its thriving arts community. But residents of the commonwealth also know it as a hot spot for western Kentucky barbecue, a regional variation on traditional barbecue methods.

“If you think about Memphis barbecue, it’s very saucy,” said Fowler Black, sales director for the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Here in western Kentucky, it’s less saucy and more characteristically dry, but there is still sauce involved. That brand of barbecue is a way of life here.”

Paducah has a number of old-fashioned restaurants peddling this variety of barbecue, among them Backwoods BBQ and Harned’s Drive In. Among the most celebrated is Starnes Barbecue, a family-owned establishment that was featured on “Good Morning America” last summer.

“At Starnes, they smoke pork butt on a pit for 12 hours,” Black said. “They shred it and put it on two pieces of bread with a special sauce, and then flatten it with an iron. It’s a really unmistakable look.”

Paducah’s barbecue culture kicks into high gear each year during Barbecue on the River, a three-day festival that takes place in late September in the city’s historic riverfront downtown. Dozens of teams from restaurants and community organizations around the region gather to celebrate, compete and raise money for good causes.

The festival makes a great time for a group visit to Paducah, and Black said it has become a popular itinerary item for family and class reunion events.

Groups visiting the area at other times of the year can get a taste of the festival flavor at BBQ & More, a store opened by the organizers of the barbecue festival. In addition to having food and culinary merchandise, the store has a demonstration kitchen where groups can gather for barbecue lessons with champion pit masters.


Johnson’s Boucaniere

Lafayette, Louisiana

Louisiana puts its own signature spin on every element of Southern culture, and barbecue is no different. In Cajun-heavy Lafayette, Johnson’s Boucaniere applies a smoky treatment to some of Louisiana’s favorite meats, including the popular boudin sausage.

“People come from all over for the boudin,” said Greg Walls, who started the restaurant in 2008 and uses a 1940s boudin recipe. “Boudin is a pork and rice and liver sausage with onion, celery and bell peppers. It’s formed into links, and then people eat it out of the casing.”

The recipe comes from Johnson’s Grocery, a country store owned by Walls’ father-in-law that was the first in the area to sell boudin commercially. Walls named Johnson’s Boucaniere in honor of the country grocery and the area’s Cajun heritage; “boucaniere” means “smokehouse” in French.

Groups that visit Johnson’s can try the boudin and a number of other foods smoked on the premises. Favorites include pork sausage, turkey sausage, beef jerky, pulled pork and smoked brisket. Many locals enjoy Johnson’s smoked country ham, smoked ribs and chicken-and-sausage gumbo.

The restaurant boasts two signature dishes that feature combinations of barbecue flavors.

“We do a smoked brisket sandwich with a smoked sausage on top,” Walls said. “We also have a special that is a fried boudin ball smashed inside a grilled cheese sandwich. We put our own homemade barbecue sauce on it. It’s based off of a Kansas City sauce, but I’ve modified it to make it a little bit spicier and tangier.”

Groups that visit the restaurant will find that it pays homage to the old Johnson’s store with lots of regional materials and old-time paintings on the walls. The store features music by area performers and has an open-air covered porch that can serve as special seating for groups.


Jones Bar-B-Q Diner

Marianna, Arkansas

Few barbecue joints in the South boast the long heritage or the prestigious accolades that Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has.

Sixty-eight-year-old James Jones has been working in the diner all his life, but the restaurant long predates him.

“This business is over 150 years old,” Jones aid. “My granddaddy’s uncle started it. I’ve been working here since 1964. I started when I was 14 years old helping my granddaddy and my daddy.”

Jones now owns the restaurant and has received a lot of recognition. The Southern Foodways Alliance has named it the oldest African-American-owned restaurant in continuous operation in the South. The diner has been featured in Saveur Magazine and on “CBS This Morning.”

In 2012, the restaurant received one of the highest honors in the culinary world: It was designated an American Classic by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

“We flew up to New York for that, and they rolled out the red carpet for us,” Jones said. “We were on CNN and CBS. They came and did the interview right here in the restaurant.”

Jones continues to work in the small restaurant, which seats a maximum of 10 diners and serves smoking pork shoulders, Boston butts, turkey, ham and ribs over hickory wood.

“That’s what they used when I was a little fellow, and we continue to use that,” he said.


Dukes Barbecue

Walterboro, South Carolina

If you ever find yourself traveling on the interstate through central South Carolina at midday, follow the crowds to Dukes Barbecue in Walterboro for great meal.

“People tell me that they plan their trips down Interstate 95 so that they make it to Walterboro by lunchtime,” said Dukes owner Terry O’Quinn. “I actually have customers who land their planes at Walterboro’s private airport and then take the courtesy car to come eat at Dukes.”

What is it that attracts so many people to Dukes? O’Quinn said it’s “just good ol’ Southern home-cooked food like your mom would fix.” The recipes all come from the Dukes family, who are longtime residents of South Carolina. O’Quinn bought the restaurant from a Dukes family member 14 years ago.

Dukes’ namesake dish is its pulled pork, which is cooked over hickory smoke. About 90 percent of customers choose to splash their meat with a traditional South Carolina sweet mustard sauce. Dukes also serves hot mustard, vinegar and “smoky” barbecue sauces.

Barbecue may be the star, but there’s much more Southern fare on the Dukes buffet, including coleslaw, fried okra, onion rings, pork skins and banana pudding. O’Quinn said visitors rave about the homemade fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese.

The restaurant also serves a signature local dish called “rice and hash.”

“It’s very popular in lower South Carolina,” O’Quinn said. “It’s a meat, potatoes and onions product that is served over rice.”


Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.