America’s relationship with barbeque is older than the nation itself. In fact, the tradition dates back to the 16th century, where it was born out of cooking practices adopted from indigenous populations and the offerings of international explorers. In 1540, the Chickasaw Tribe — indigenous to territories that now lay near Tupelo, Mississippi — held a feast with Spanish conquistadors. Through the meal, each side sized up the other, deciphering whether the counterpart was an untrustworthy adversary or a strategically poised ally.
As with much of American history, the process of “barbeque” is, in this case, a melting pot of practice birthed out of diversity in its purest form.
The Chickasaw brought their communal feasting practices — a foreign concept to the Spanish explorers; the Spaniards brought livestock and spice, commodities unbeknownst to the longstanding tribe. Together, a practice of slow-roasting food over open heat was spawned: the barbeque.
Don Harrison Doyle’s famous Faulkner’s County even covers this historic, identity begetting event recalling how “a clash of cultures ensued.”
By the 18th century, the practice had endured. The soon-to-be first President of the United States, George Washington, recorded in his private diary denotations of multiple events of “barbecue” in Alexandria, Virginia — a now-suburb outside of the nation’s capital.
Now, nearly 500 years after that first feast in Mississippi and 300 years after President Washington’s own love affair with the practice, barbeque has become nearly as diverse in its practice as the parties seated for dinner on that 1540 evening.
While the porcine barbeque is the traditional form, the practice and animals vary across the country and have for a while. In 1793, an ox was barbecued in Washington, DC after the laying of the Capitol building’s cornerstone. Each region of the United States brings its own livestock preferences, serving traditions, and spices.
Below are some of today’s hottest spots for barbeque — a tradition that exemplifies the unity in diversity of America itself.
Location: Lexington, TX
What Makes It Hot: Texas is the westernmost point of “the barbeque belt,” and this stop is renowned Chef Gordon Ramsey’s favorite. Lexington, a town of a mere 1,100 people, has always been known for its Saturday BBQ, and they’ve risen to fame for opening up and sharing their delicacies with the rest of the country, too.
Location: Sunny Slope, AZ
What Makes It Hot: It may be called ‘little,’ but this Arizona BBQ is outfitted with big flavor, deli-style and sliced right in front of you. They source from a single, trusted rancher and then slow roast over Arizona white oak, pecan, pistachio, and mesquite firewood.
Location: Charleston, SC
What Makes It Hot: The food comes with an unparalleled sense of hospitality and family dining at Rodney’s. “Spreading food, spreading love, and spreading fun” is the mantra of this BBQ spot, whose focus is Whole Hog Barbeque — a delicacy that owner Rodney Scott has been perfecting since he was a mere 11 years old.
Sam’s Bar-B-Q, Austin, TX
Location: Austin, TX
What Makes It Hot: Well, to start: the name, which takes a unique southern twist on the overworked shorthand for barbeque. More importantly, this 1957 joint was founded by a native Austinite and has been passed down through the generations. It was a staple of the community 64 years ago, and while its East Austin neighborhood has changed dramatically since then, it remains a staple today.
Izola’s Country Cooking (300k+ TikTok followers)
Location: Hinesville, GA
What Makes It Hot: BBQ may be old, but not too old for new tricks. This Georgia kitchen has made itself known in the United States and even throughout Europe and Australia following quickly-found fame on the emerging social platform for short-form video, TikTok. The restaurant represents a new model of business marketing: social media. Through their over 300,000 followers, they are spreading joy through the American tradition of BBQ.
Feast BBQ (sells regular meats & BBQ tofu)
Location: Louisville, KY
What Makes It Hot: Just like the shift from porcine BBQ to beef broiling, Feast is breaking into the world of vegetarian and tofu barbeque. It wasn’t around when George Washington was “barbecue-ing,” but vegetarian options for BBQ are on the rise, and Feast offers a handful. They do not, however, offer vegan options. “Sorry, kind of; we are a barbeque place, after all,” reads their site.
Location: Kansas City/Raytown, MO
What Makes It Hot: Frivolity is the antithesis of true barbeque, and this shop knows that. Harp doesn’t use any “fancy ovens” as they call them, just a giant brass offset and kitchen full of BBQ masters to make their Missouri cooking as authentic as possible. Harp has gained critical acclaim from major outlets like Food & Wine, Thrillist, and Texas Monthly.
Location: Nashville, TN
What Makes It Hot: Founder Larry Bringle lost his leg to cancer as an adult. “You can sit around and mope about having cancer and losing your leg,” he says, “or you can put up a big fight and move forward.” For Bringle, that meant creating an exceptional small business, filled with heart that spreads food and joy to Nashville (with, of course, a witty name). Although the BBQ has received rave reviews too, the real selling point of this place is its background in courage and perseverance in the face of fear and uncertainty.
Location: Cincinnati, OH
What Makes It Hot: Unlike some other BBQ spots, Eli’s began in 2011 solely by word of mouth. He was serving coleslaw in a popular city square, and his location that weekend would be noticeable to those looking at a small, illuminated outline of a pig hanging above his stand. Quickly, Eli’s took off and has now expanded to four locations in Ohio and one in Kentucky. They offer the full suite of BBQ, but coleslaw remains their bread and butter.