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Barbecue Roundup on our Great American Road Trip

A recent road trip across eleven states proved to be an ideal opportunity not only to enjoy the sights, sounds and the cultures of both the Mid-West and the South, but it was a perfect chance to explore and taste the different barbecue styles of several locales. Map in hand and taste buds ready, we were off on our great American road trip.
The first stop on the quest to savor the different meats, sauces and dry rubs that are used in preparing barbecue was in Independence, Missouri, a short drive from Kansas City. Kansas City-style barbecue had its beginnings in the early 1900’s and offers a variety of different meats, both pork and beef, that are slow smoked and smothered with a thick molasses and tomato sauce. As a family who avidly watches the Food Network, Man versus Food and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this helped to narrow the field of what restaurant was up to the challenge. The choices were many. My husband, Phil, and I decided to try some pork spare ribs and baby back ribs at Smokehouse BBQ. The idea was to share so we could both were able to enjoy the different flavors and meats.
Both the spare ribs and baby back ribs at the Smokehouse BBQ were scrumptious, the fall-off-the bone and melt-in-your mouth variety. They were served with spicy beans, coleslaw, white bread and pickles. Yes, pickles. Not wanting to expose ourselves as virgin barbecue connoisseurs, we asked about the purpose of serving pickles with the meal. While most of our servers danced around the origins of pickles and barbecue, the best explanation we received was that the purpose was to help cleanse the palate. Since Phil isn’t much of a pickle fan, he generously offered to share them with me. As we quickly discovered, the enormous platters were too much for one person to eat alone. We both agreed that while the meat was very good, we weren’t so sure about the sauce. While it was delicious, it was heavy and overpowered the taste of the meat itself. “I couldn’t taste the meat for the sauce,” Phil said.
Our next rib stop was Memphis, Tennessee, home of rock and roll and barbecue locations at just about every corner. Trying to decide what barbecue location to try was difficult as the choices were many. Mr. Rudy Williams, a famous fixture on Beale Street, was playing his trumpet and took a moment from his music to convince us that The Pig on Beale was definitely worth a try. Walking into an old established yet small restaurant, the aromas of the barbecue wafted through the air, making our mouths water. Competition is big among barbecue restaurants, and it was evident that competition was taken very seriously as soon as you walked into the unpretentious eatery. Trophies lined the wall, touting their awards for First Place in Ribs in the World Championship BBQ Festival. Barbecue eating is often messy and sticky. Small formica tables were supplied with rolls of paper towels and handi-wipes, ready for their patrons to dig into the delicious barbecue. Memphis style ribs are typically smoked with a mild, dry rub. According to one of the waitresses, the meat is smoked and then glazed. The ribs were cooked with a dry mustard rub. The meat is smoked on site at the restaurant itself. Still remembering how we stuffed ourselves at the Smokehouse BBQ hundreds of miles ago, we decided to just share a small sample of charred pork baby back ribs. The dry rub was delicious as the meat had very little sauce with just a bit of crispy crust, allowing the flavor of the meat to come through. Luckily, we were hungry for more as we meandered down the road to Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que.
Parking at Neely’s was scare as a lunch-time crowd packed the restaurant with diners who came to enjoy the cuisine at the award-winning restaurant, having earned the Memphis Best of Barbecue coveted prize. The menu was packed with a large variety of choices, making the decision difficult. The idea was to explore as many options as possible, so Phil opted for beef and pork ribs, and I chose a good old-fashioned pork barbecue sandwich. The sauce itself has a bit of a zing to it, giving their beans a zesty appeal. The beef spare ribs were very tender with a succulent taste. The pork baby back ribs were covered in the same sauce and literally fell off the bone as soon as your teeth sank into them. The sandwich came topped with coleslaw, and the sauce was plenty but not overpowering. We soon found that barbecue taste is very personal as some people enjoy the sweet sauce, some the vinegar and mustard sauce, and some simply like the dry rub. It was a tough decision, but so far on this road trip, hands down, at this point in our taste-testing travels, The Pig on Beale was in the lead for the best barbecue.
We meandered across the state full as a tick towards our next stop in Nashville, Tennessee. The terrain itself began to change from the flat land of Memphis to the more familiar rolling hills. In the heart of downtown Nashville was the famous Broadway, with stores and restaurants at every turn. Hearing the roar of a crowd, we turned and looked across the street to the home of the Tennessee Titans, LP Field. The stadium was packed as the Titans were playing the Denver Broncos. With some suggestions from local folks on the street, we wandered over to the award-winning Wildhorse Saloon on Second Street, ready for yet another barbecue meal. With the help of the waiter, we decided to share the Stampede platter that offered dry rub pork loin ribs, shaved beef brisket and hickory smoked pulled pork. The barbecue beans were a mixture of both black and kidney beans with a tasty sauce. In a twist from the norm, I found the vinegar mustard sauce the most delectable, while Phil preferred the red house sauce. The combination of the meat, dry rub and sauce on the side was truly a barbecue delight. Chef Laurie Potts came to visit us while we were dining, and explained some of the tricks that make her entrees so delicious. According to Potts, the meat is heavily smoked for several hours. “You get the most smoke in the first couple of hours,” Potts cheerfully informed us. The temperature is then turned down as the meat continues to cook slowly. The platter was more than enough for two people, and we again left with our bellies full and our taste buds dancing with happiness. There was no discussion and no contest; The Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville, bar none, had the best barbecue we had ever eaten.
Across the many states we traveled, there were endless choices of barbecue restaurant locations. If you have the opportunity, it’s definitely worth a trip to travel across Tennessee, from Mountain City to Memphis, to explore the state’s three unique and distinct regions, food and its people.