If you’re a foodie who is sitting at home daydreaming about a trip that includes delicious barbecued delights, you should pick up a copy of Johnny Fugitt’s recently published book “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America.” In the 257-page paperback, the author discusses how he ate his way through 48 states to provide food lovers with a comprehensive list of the yummiest places to find the most-desired dishes.
Fugitt decided to write the book after researching top barbecue restaurants online - and finding the results disappointing. “What I found were a lot of the same top 10 lists,” he exclusively told Headlines & Global News. “I’d been to a lot of those and thought some of them were good and worth the reputation. I visited others and thought they were living off their reputation and not producing great barbecue even if they had at one point in time. I wanted to see a list from someone who had traveled extensively, visited little local mom and pop restaurants as well as some of the big, more famous ones. I was surprised that no one had done something like this and it sounded like a great adventure, so I started traveling.”
Fortunately, Fugitt was able to leave his job to pursue his interest full-time. To make sure he hit the most important barbecue destinations, between October 2013 and October 2014, he drove more than 31,000 miles in his Subaru Outback and also flew to a couple of cities, staying with friends or camping at national parks between trips.
The native Missourian then wrote the book over the course of several months. Once finished, Fugitt chose to self-publish the tome - via Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing - to get it out to the public as soon as possible because “every single day, the barbecue and the restaurant world changes.” In addition to selling “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” on Amazon, some of the restaurants featured in the book sell it in their stores. “I’ve been really pleased with the response,” said Fugitt. “I’m really happy that I went [the self-publishing] route.”
Want to learn more about barbecuing and Fugitt’s journey to find the top restaurants in the United States? Read more of HNGN’s interview below.
First of all, how do you define barbecue?
Barbecue isn’t defined by barbecue sauce and it’s not just using a grill - that’s grilling, not barbecuing. It’s not a particular kind of meat - if you cook ribs in your oven at home, that’s not barbecue because you are cooking, not smoking. It’s really a smoke, with low-end direct heat that makes barbecue barbecue. There are some restaurants that will mix charcoal and wood, or there are some restaurants that will cook their wood off to the side in a separate fire and then just cook with those coals, so they’re wood coals not charcoal, but they prefer to use that instead of a live flame. Every place has different techniques of how they stack their wood that makes a difference for air flow and things like that. There are so many different variables with wood - some places like to use freshly-cut wood, some like to age it or season it for a certain amount of time. Keep the bark on or take the bark off? And, of course, the kind of wood is a big thing. I saw one restaurant in Ohio that only uses whole rounds from the trunk - they don’t split it and they don’t use branches. Everyone has their own practices and beliefs on that.
Can you explain the different styles of barbecuing?
I started out as a Kansas City barbecue fan because that’s where I grew up. A lot of people will say the best barbecue is the kind you grew up with. Through the course of my travels though, I’m now a Texas barbecue convert. I don’t think any place in America does it as well as Austin, Texas. Kansas City is largely a meat town, but there is some pork and ribs, and it’s largely heavily sauced with spicier, tomato-based sauces. Texas is dry-rubbed. The philosophy in Texas is, if you have to put sauce on your meat, then you’ve messed up - the meat should be so good that you don’t want to put sauce on it. After having some of Texas’ best barbecue, I agree with that. Memphis is known for ribs, both dry-rubbed and wet, or sauced, ribs, and sauces there are all across the board - a little bit sweeter, sometimes with honey or molasses or a brown sugar sweetening agent. Carolina is known for pork. There’s an eastern Carolina style and a western Carolina style, and then South Carolina is different with their mustard sauce. In North Carolina, you have some places that do hog shoulders, which turn into pulled pork. Some places like to do a whole hog and chop that up. All of those places add vinegar to [their sauces] that varies across the state. I actually really like those heavy vinegar sauces, but I didn’t love the pulled pork - it was a little mushy, a little chopped to oblivion. I didn’t quite connect with that style as much. I like things from different regions and, in my book, I tried to include all of that. Just because I don’t like North Carolina barbecue as much as Texas barbecue, I feel like they are fairly represented. Of course, it’s my own take and preference, but I did try to include a lot of different styles in the top 100.
How old were you when you first discovered your love for barbecue?
I lived in Kansas City for a few years as a kid and I also lived in North Carolina for a few years, so I’ve been around barbecue my entire life. I have always considered myself a casual barbecue fan. I also went to college in Kansas City, and my friends and I would go visit barbecue places. I got a smoker that I kind of dabbled with when I lived in St. Louis for a few years. It’s always been one of my favorite foods and a year of barbecue hasn’t changed that, although now I have less patience for average barbecue. I still love really, really good barbecue, but I don’t enjoy eating passable, average barbecue any more.
— barbecuerankings (@barbecueranking) February 17, 2016
Did you pick out which restaurants you would visit in advance or did you just go to different cities and ask around?
It was a mix. From the very beginning, I knew there were famous, well-known places that I had to visit. Then, whenever I was going to a town, I would do a little bit of research - most local newspapers have done a “best of” list for their areas. I also liked to ask people when I was in town, which led to some off-the-beaten-path type places. I tried to maintain some flexibility whenever I traveled to try those hole-in-the-wall places as well.
Did some of the places you heard about beforehand that received high praise disappoint you?
Sure. There are quite a few big names in the barbecue world that I didn’t include in my top 100. Those are the kinds of places that are living off their reputations and no longer produce great barbecue, which is probably how they got that reputation to begin with. Dinosaur is one. It started in New York, and I heard that years and years ago, it was amazing. It started upstate and, by the time it reached New York City, it became too corporate and it wasn’t the original people making the food. That’s the same thing with Famous Dave’s. I heard the original was amazing, but now it’s just another corporate thing that barbecue people don’t really consider barbecue. Had I done this list 20 years ago, it would have been completely different. If I do it in another 20, it will be completely different because places improve and change over time.
Are you against barbecue chains?
I’m not against them. I fully support them creating successful businesses. I don’t begrudge them for that. But I don’t think that’s where you’re finding the best barbecue.
What is the oddest thing that you tasted while traveling?
I enjoyed trying a lot of the regional specialties. In South Florida, for example, I visited a barbecue restaurant that had alligator and sides of fried plantains. I visited a restaurant in D.C. that put Old Bay seasoning on their meat, which was a nod to all the seafood that you eat in D.C. and Maryland. In California, I saw salads topped with barbecued meat. Things like that, you don’t see in places like Mississippi. It really does vary around the country. The most unusual thing, I might have to go with barbecue fish and chips, which I found at a restaurant in Pennsylvania. I do not recommend it though. This version was an interesting idea, but what I had was not worth trying.
What’s the most unusual food you have seen barbecued?
I haven’t met many things that are not better with smoke - I think it adds a great flavor to all kinds of foods. I visited Vernon’s in St. Louis and they always have smoked seasonal fruits. They had smoked strawberry, which they put on top of their sweet corn bread with some homemade whipped cream. They also put a little bit of smoked strawberry juice in too. It was delicious! The smokiness added a little bit of character to it that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I’m willing to give just about anything a try.
What are your thoughts about putting condiments - like ketchup and mustard - on barbecued meats?
Oh, that’s a travesty! You should never do that! If you have meat that you have to put ketchup or mustard on, [whoever cooked it] really failed.
What are the latest trends in the barbecue industry?
There’s a trend of trying to make food really sweet, which I’m not a huge fan of. A lot of restaurants will just make things as sweet as possible, especially with glazes on ribs. I don’t particularly like that. I think it has a place in barbecue, but those are not necessarily my favorites. The same is true with sauces - a lot of the really popular sauces now are extremely sweet instead of spicier tomato sauces or vinegar heavy. Sweetness is kind of taking over.