In many circles, the mark of a great pit master is his—or her—ability to stick to tradition. For good reason, too. It’s hard to improve on hog cooked over real wood and dressed with a simple sauce. Across the South, though, are joints that dish up something different from the barbecue most of us know and love. Some of them are rogue defenders of their own styles, and others hold down distinctive but long-established corners of the barbecue world. They’re all worthy destinations for adventure-seeking lovers of smoked meats.
Coletta’s isn’t a barbecue joint at all. It’s a musty Italian spot, with checkered tablecloths and shrimp scampi on the menu. Nothing remarkable, were it not also the birthplace of barbecue pizza. Back in the 1950s, many Memphians had never tried pizza. They weren’t too interested in it, either, until Horest Coletta began heaping his flatbreads with smoked meat and barbecue sauce. The place hews to the local definition of barbecue, eschewing grilled chicken in favor of pork shoulder slow-cooked on a pit in the basement.
If you’re doubting Oklahoma’s Southern pedigree, consider the state’s foremost barbecue specialty: smoked bologna, which also goes by the tongue-in-cheek moniker Oklahoma Prime Rib. At Elmer’s, the pit masters slow cook hunks of John Morrell bologna over hickory until they’re warm, smoky, and ready to slice onto sandwiches and platters.
OLD HICKORY BAR-B-QUE
In western Kentucky, restaurants smoke mutton. The tradition dates back to a nineteenth-century wool industry, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the so-called “black sauce”—or “dip”—with which they dress their meat. To sample it, take a trip to Owensboro, where Old Hickory serves some of the best chopped mutton and dip in town.
Bluff City, Tennessee
Beachside barbecue joint meets East Tennessee smokehouse at Ridgewood Barbecue. Founder Jim Proffitt, who opened the place in the early 1950s, discovered barbecue on a road trip to Daytona Beach, but the menu owes plenty to its mountain surroundings. House specialties: baked beans, blue cheese dip, and smoked ham—sliced thin and dressed with a thick, sweet sauce.
TED PETERS FAMOUS SMOKED FISH
South Pasadena, Florida
The baseline protein of coastal Florida barbecue is smoked fish, not pork or beef. Oily mullet is a particular favorite in the Sunshine State, although fishermen elsewhere sometimes discard it as a trash fish. Eat like a local at Ted Peters, which has been a Tampa Bay institution for more than half a century. Smoked over native red oak, local mullet comes on a platter with sides of potato salad and coleslaw, and folded into a creamy fish dip.