Meet a new generation of pit masters who are doing right by barbecue tradition—and blazing new trails
PHOTO: LEANN MUELLER; SCOTT SUCHMAN
Bow & Arrow
Given his background—born in Alabama, raised in Texas—barbecue was personal for David Bancroft. “When I was growing up in San Antonio, everything was beef driven,” says the chef and owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Acre in Auburn. “Giant beef ribs and sausage, smoked meats. That food was the first thing I trained myself on.” So it seems only natural that for his second restaurant, Bancroft would take a decidedly meat-centric tack. He calls Bow & Arrow “a Texas smokehouse meets an Alabama potluck.” Meats are smoked over post oak and pecan wood on a turning grate custom-made by the Georgia grill maker Kudu, and sides are served family-style. You’ll find brisket, of course (lean or moist), plus turkey, pork shoulder, chicken, and jalapeño cheddar sausage.
B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue
Savannah & Atlanta, GA
The B in B’s Cracklin’, Bryan Furman grew up in a South Carolina farm family that raised and cooked pigs, and then became a welder before deciding his future lay in barbecue. He’s set himself apart quickly with touches such as heritage-breed pigs and his Georgia–meets–South Carolina peach mustard sauce. But it hasn’t been easy. His first restaurant, opened in Savannah in 2014, was destroyed the following year when a soda machine exploded (it’s open again). Then his second, in Atlanta, suffered a fire this past March. At press time, he’d signed a lease for a temporary spot while he looks for a new permanent space, and he’ll be cooking at pop-ups around the country and even the Meatopia festival in London this August. Furman doesn’t claim to cook any particular style, other than his own: “It’s all about being authentic,” he says.
Barbecue abounds around D.C. these days, and no one takes it more seriously than pit master Rob Sonderman. Though he wasn’t happy about having to go with gas-assist smokers for insurance reasons at his spot in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, he coaxes the most out of them, using as much wood as possible and turning out brisket with plenty of dark bark, plus pork (shoulder, belly, ribs and rib tips), chicken, turkey, and a rotating list of sandwiches, sides, and desserts. His ribs have earned such a following around D.C. that they even made a cameo in the last season of House of Cards. And Sonderman’s not done yet. A second location, with all-wood pits, is expected to open later this year in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Something beautiful happened when Erin Smith married Patrick Feges (pronounced fee-jis). Both are classically trained chefs. She worked at Per Se and Babbo in New York. He’s a veteran who earned a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq and took up barbecue while he was recovering, when another soldier gave him an old Brinkman smoker. “I like to do things the hard way,” Feges says. “It’s pretty fun playing with fire.” Together, they’ve created a barbecue spot that’s drawing fans to a food court in an office complex, the Greenway Plaza, and yes, they cook with wood, using a J&R Oyler smoke pit and very long vents. Feges cooks brisket, pork, and chicken, plus sausages, including boudin, while Smith’s creative sides (Moroccan spiced carrots, elote-inspired corn salad) almost overshadow the meat.
A lot of places have made good runs at bringing high-quality barbecue to Manhattan, Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke among them. But Hometown is hitting it out of the park in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn. A former security guard for celebrities and a Brooklyn native, owner–pit master Billy Durney spent two years traveling the South and beyond to study the barbecue craft. But what really make him stand out from the herd are the flavor inspirations he incorporates from Brooklyn’s diverse communities, from Jamaican jerk ribs to Vietnamese hot wings to Oaxacan wood-fired chicken.
That “la” is a nod to the feminine touch, but it also refers to the first name of owner LeAnn Mueller, the granddaughter of Louie Mueller and the daughter of Bobby Mueller, both Texas barbecue legends. And while those generations of handed-down expertise show, LeAnn is creating her own legacy with la Barbecue, which she runs with her wife and co-owner, Ali Clem. After starting with a trailer in 2012, it moved into a space at the Quickie Pickie convenience store in East Austin, where you can also get draft beer while you wait. But it’s the meat—brisket smoked over post oak, pulled pork, pork and beef ribs, and more—that keeps the lines out the door (luckily, you can also preorder).
John Lewis shook up the Lowcountry when he de-camped for Charleston in 2015, bringing a Texas pedigree with him. Lewis worked with Aaron Franklin in Austin and at la Barbecue, and his brisket is everything you’d expect from a pit master steeped in Lone Star tradition. His sprawling barbecue palace also includes true-to-Texas touches such as house-made “hot guts” (sausage), but don’t overlook the pulled pork either. With meats like that, it’s hard to save room on your butcher-paper-lined tray for sides. Just reserve a spot for the green chile corn pudding.
Peg Leg Porker
Carey Bringle has a sense of humor: Peg Leg Porker is his own nickname, acquired after he lost a leg to bone cancer as a teenager. A Nashville native, the pit master has deep roots in Tennessee barbecue. His uncle competed in the first Memphis in May contest, in 1978, and Bringle himself has competed for twenty-eight years. He opened his restaurant in 2013, adding a second floor and a rooftop bar last year. And while the pulled pork and chicken get high marks, the ribs are a thing of beauty: smoked over hickory, then finished with a dry rub and served with hot or mild tomato-based sauce on the side.
Chapel Hill, NC
Though he came to Chapel Hill to get his mathematics degree, Sam Suchoff now applies his skills to a different equation: using every bit of his locally sourced, pasture-raised pigs. That means you’ll find traditional pork barbecue, but also house-made hot dogs, fried bologna, and a pork cheek bánh mi. A former vegan, Suchoff also offers barbecue tempeh, tossed with spices and sauce, and country-fried tofu. The place is small, but with the help of star bar owner Gary Crunkleton, Suchoff opened Your Neighborhood Bar next door in 2018, with a pass-through window to the Pig.
Rodney Scott’s Whole-Hog Barbecue
Charleston, SC & Birmingham, AL
When the James Beard Foundation named Rodney Scott the best chef in the Southeast in 2018, it was a pit-shaking moment: It brought long-overdue recognition to the central role African Americans have played in barbecue. Scott started at his family’s small country store in Hemingway, South Carolina, drawing barbecue pilgrims from around the state and beyond. He opened his fast-casual restaurant in Charleston in 2017 with partner Nick Pihakis of Jim ’N Nick’s, and this year expanded to Birmingham. Scott specializes in whole hog cooked over wood (as his father did before him), but there’s more on his plates now, including ribs and fried catfish.
Sam Jones BBQ
Does Sam Jones need an introduction? He’s the grandson of Pete Jones, founder of the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. In Eastern North Carolina, that would make him Prince William if Queen Elizabeth wore leather gloves. After Pete’s death, Sam helped to revitalize the Skylight, but he didn’t stop there, opening his own restaurant in 2015—larger, modern, with beer and wine and an expanded menu that includes ribs, turkey, and salads alongside his revered whole hog. Now he’s planning to expand to Raleigh next year. May the sun never set on his growing barbecue empire.
The SmoQue Pit
Statesboro, about sixty miles from Savannah, may not be an obvious food stop, but Seni Alabi-Isama is trying to change that. Born in Nigeria and raised in Decatur, Georgia, by his Trinidadian mother, Alabi-Isama began attracting fans, including Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie, with his globally inspired cooking at his first restaurant, South & Vine, before deciding to try his hand at barbecue. First, he had to teach himself to make it: “I’m not a barbecue purist,” he says. “I didn’t grow up eating and cooking it.” So he began experimenting, combining traditional smoking with sous-vide techniques, resulting in crazy-tender brisket and ribs. “My favorite thing is watching people who eat barbecue their whole lives get blown away.”
Southern Soul Barbeque
St. Simons Island, GA
Another example of barbecue success rising from ashes: The building, a former gas station, burned in 2010. But owners Harrison Sapp and Griffin Bufkin set up a trailer and portable cookers and kept right on going, winning accolades and loyal community support. Today the rebuilt restaurant is a laid-back place. Meats are smoked over oak, and the menu holds lots of variety, including a Barbecuban sandwich with pulled pork and regional touches such as hoppin’ John and Brunswick stew.
Barbecue may be king in North Carolina, but not
so much in Charlotte. So local carnivores cheered when Lewis Donald and co-owner Laura Furman Grice opened their restaurant in an old gas station in the Belmont neighborhood near Uptown last year. Donald uses hickory, pecan, and peach woods for his pulled pork, ribs, and smoked chicken. The sauces cover a range, including a good rendition of Alabama white sauce for that chicken. Don’t miss the boiled peanuts and the two-dollar bags of pork skins, fried fresh daily.
ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque
That’s no typo: Real-deal Texas barbecue has come to Richmond. Chris Fultz and his wife, Alex Graf, started out catering and cooking on the weekends at Ardent Craft Ales, and the lines followed them when they opened their own spot in the Scott’s Addition district last year. Both are former architects, and Fultz, a native Texan, applies that same precision to his barbecue, keeping notebooks to track the consistency he gets from his offset smokers (designed by Charleston, South Carolina’s John Lewis and built by his father, John Lewis Sr.). ZZQ serves Carolina-style pulled pork, turkey, and pastrami, but the brisket, ribs, and sausage are what bring out fanatics.
PHOTO: FRED + ELLIOTT