With each passing year, the Southern barbecue scene just keeps growing stronger. The recent wave of craft barbecue has continued to surge, as more and more pitmasters cook on real wood-fired pits with a fanatical focus on technique and quality. Popular independent restaurants are now expanding to multiple locations, and some are building sprawling multi-state empires. All the while, plenty of old-school classics have kept plugging right along, maintaining the distinctive styles of their own regions—styles they helped define decades ago.
This year’s readers’ picks for the South's best barbecue joints reflect the current state of Southern barbecue, offering a blend of continuity and change. Half the restaurants on this year’s list are repeat winners from the 2022 poll, but the other half are new. Some are adherents to the 21st century’s craft mode, and the vogue of Texas-style smoked brisket continues to spread far beyond the Lone Star State. Surprisingly, though, a great many of our readers’ picks represent the older, more traditional styles of their respective regions.
Roll all these favorite joints together, and our readers have mapped out a tempting sampling of the best Southern barbecue in all its tasty variety.
1. Alabama: SAW’s BBQ
Mike Wilson, the classically-trained chef who founded the much-beloved SAW's, passed away in September 2020 at the much-too-young age of 46. His restaurants have kept right on going, though, and six locations now dot the greater Birmingham area. All serve hefty sandwiches loaded with pulled pork and tangy red sauce or smoked chicken drizzled with Alabama’s signature white sauce. The original Homewood location just south of Birmingham adds meaty pork ribs with an excellent char beneath a thick, sticky red glaze. Throw in crowd-pleasing extras like creamy deviled eggs, loaded baked potatoes, and “goodness & greens” (pork or chicken served with greens over cheese grits), and it’s no wonder SAW’s has won over so many loyal fans.
sawsbbq.com, 205-879-1937, 1008 Oxmoor Rd., Homewood, AL 35209 (multiple locations)
2. Arkansas: Wright's Barbecue
In the space of just six years, Jordan Wright has built a burgeoning craft barbecue empire in Northwest Arkansas. In 2017 he moved from a food truck into a small white house in Johnson, just west of Fayetteville, then added locations in Bentonville in 2020 and Rogers last year. All three feature Texas-style platters groaning with thick-sliced brisket, meaty spareribs, and outstanding turkey and sausage. Hearty treats like gooey mac-and-cheese and peppery bacon burnt ends round out the offering. Southern Living’s readers have taken notice, naming Wright’s the best barbecue in all of Arkansas.
wrightsbbq.com, 479-313-8618, 2212 Main Dr., Johnson, AR 72704
3. Florida: Tropical Smokehouse
West Palm Beach
A remarkable barbecue revival is underway in the Sunshine State, as a new generation of cooks put unique local spins on traditional barbecue. This year sees a relatively new player land at the top of the Florida list. Owner/pitmaster Rick Mace opened Tropical Smokehouse in 2021 with the explicit goal of creating a distinctive Florida style of barbecue. That means turning to the sea and to Caribbean flavors, too, with spicy smoked wahoo dip, mojo-laced pulled pork, brisket-stuffed empanadas, and slabs of splendidly flaky smoked salmon, all cooked on a big Primitive Pits offset smoker.
eattropical.com, 561-323-2573, 3815 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, FL 33405
4. Georgia: Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q
Twin brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox blend the traditions of their native Texas with the flavors of their adopted home state of Georgia. The result is “Atlanta style” barbecue, in which slow-smoked prime brisket and jalapeño sausage mingle with pulled pork and bowls of Brunswick stew on the broad menu. There are plenty of creative mashups, too, like tater tots smothered in brisket chili and “chicken fried” ribs with white BBQ sauce.
foxbrosbbq.com, 404-577-4030, 1238 DeKalb Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA 30307
5. Kentucky: Moonlite Bar-B-Q-Inn
A perennial reader favorite, Moonlite is the place to sample Kentucky’s classic barbecue specialties: slow smoked mutton and tangy burgoo. The Bosley family has been barbecuing mutton over hickory coals since 1963, and they cook more of it than anyone else—some 10,000 pounds a week. Moonlite’s savory, peppery burgoo is a splendid example of the iconic Kentucky stew, which has been a staple of Bluegrass barbecues since the 19th century. Guests can eat their fill of mutton and burgoo along with plenty of beef, pork, chicken, and tasty accompaniments from the restaurant’s two all-you-can-eat buffets.
moonlite.com, 270-684-8143, 2840 W Parrish Ave., Owensboro, KY 42301
6. Louisiana: The Joint
Down in the heart of the Bywater neighborhood, they're always smokin’ at The Joint. The restaurant occupies a funky brown-and yellow-striped building at the corner of Mazant and Royal, and big rotisserie smokers out back produce a parade of tender brisket, juicy ribs, pulled pork, and locally-made chaurice, a coarse-ground Creole sausage. Finish it all off with a slice of homemade key lime, pecan, or peanut butter pie.
alwayssmokin.com, 504-949-3232, 701 Mazant St., New Orleans, LA 70117
7. Mississippi: The Shed Barbeque & Blues
At the age of 24, Brad Orrison talked his 19-year-old sister, Brooke, into helping him open a small barbecue and blues joint just off I-10 near Ocean Springs. Two decades later, it has grown into a sprawling compound of tin-roofed sheds and wooden buildings adorned with old license plates and assorted bric-a-brac. Loyal “ShedHeds” come back again and again for platters of pecan-smoked ribs, brisket, and pulled pork served with plenty of cold beer and live blues music.
theshedbbq.com, 228-875-9590, 7501 MS-57, Ocean Springs, MS 39565
8. North Carolina: Lexington Barbecue
Founded by Wayne Monk in 1962, Lexington Barbecue is the standard bearer for the Piedmont region’s signature style. There’s no slow-smoked brisket, no ribs, and not even barbecued chicken on the menu. In Lexington, barbecue means pork—specifically, pork shoulders cooked on big brick pits over glowing hickory coals then chopped, sliced, or coarse chopped and dressed in the thin vinegar-based sauce that locals call dip. Served in a tray with hushpuppies and tomato-tinged red slaw, it might just be the perfect barbecue meal.
lexbbq.com, 336-249-9814, 100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, NC 27295
9. Oklahoma: Leo's BBQ
In October 2021, Charles Smith, the current owner of Leo’s BBQ, moved the restaurant his father founded in 1974 into a new Homeland grocery store in northeast Oklahoma City. The current counter service format in a gleaming supermarket is a dramatic departure from the restaurant’s former low-key setting, but on the barbecue front the Oklahoma-inflected offering remains the same. Hefty pork ribs are the marquee item alongside brisket, hot links, and smoked bologna. And, yes, there is Leo’s famous strawberry-banana cake for dessert—an Oklahoma City tradition.
405-669-3468, Inside Homeland, 625 NE 36th St., Oklahoma City, OK 73105
10. South Carolina: Rodney Scott’s BBQ
In the space of just six years, Rodney Scott has built a multi-state whole hog empire, with three locations in Alabama, one in Atlanta, and another on the way in Nashville. It all started in 2017 at the flagship on King Street in downtown Charleston, where Scott introduced city diners to the Pee Dee style of “burn barrel” cooking he learned at his parents’ restaurant in the small South Carolina town of Hemingway. Those diners can order ribs, chicken, or even beef brisket if they choose, but the original pit-cooked whole hog, mopped with a tongue-tingling vinegar and red pepper sauce, is what made Scott a Southern barbecue star.
rodneyscottsbbq.com, 1011 King St., Charleston, SC 29403
11. Tennessee: Peg Leg Porker
In the heart of The Gulch in downtown Nashville, Peg Leg Porker pays homage to the West Tennessee-style of dry-rubbed ribs and slaw-topped pulled pork sandwiches. The yardbird — juicy smoked chicken generously dusted with red spices — is an unexpected gem, and there are plenty of distinctive Southern starters like pimento cheese and bright red Kool-Aid pickles to kick things off. Whiskey lovers can finish the night at the fully-stocked bar, which features owner Carey Bringle’s own line of hickory charcoal-filtered Peg Leg Pork Tennessee whiskey.
peglegporker.com, 615-829-6023, 903 Gleaves St., Nashville, TN 37203
12. Texas: Franklin Barbecue
Aaron Franklin burst onto the Austin barbecue scene in 2009, and his meticulous craft aesthetic has inspired an entire generation of pitmasters. Though a parade of impressive new players have entered the Texas scene in recent years, Southern Living’s readers are sticking with craft barbecue’s original star. Hardcore aficionados line up alongside curious tourists, waiting three or more hours for the full Texas barbecue experience. Flawless prime-grade brisket with a sweet, tangy glaze remains the anchor, and it’s accompanied by the now-essential Texas line-up of tender pork ribs, smoky turkey, pulled pork, and snappy jalapeño cheddar sausage.
franklinbbq.com, 512-653-1187, 900 E. 11th, Austin, TX 78702
13. Virginia: Pierce’s Pitt
Pierce’s Pitt was opened in 1971 by Julius “Doc” Pierce, and its eponymous cinderblock pits are housed behind the restaurant in a metal-walled building with tall chimneys rising high above. The rich aroma of hardwood smoke wafts from those chimneys across the large parking lot, and that smoke infuses the juicy strands of the restaurant’s signature pulled pork, too. The splendid pork is generously dressed in Doc Pierce’s original sauce, a unique sweet and tangy blend of tomato and vinegar. Thick red-glazed ribs, smoky pulled chicken, and the requisite brisket round out the offering along with crinkle cut fries, coleslaw, and hushpuppies.
pierces.com, 757-565-2955, 447 East Rochambeau Drive, Williamsburg, VA 23188
14. West Virginia: Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill
In 2010, Adrian “Bay” Wright, a former running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, moved back to his home state of West Virginia and launched a barbecue truck. It proved such a hit that he moved into a small downtown storefront and then, after a few years, hopped across the street into a much larger turquoise building. Hefty slabs of ribs, cooked over oak on big metal grills and dressed in sweet, tangy sauce, are the star players. They’re backed up by smoky pulled pork with hearty from-scratch sides like mac and cheese, dirty rice, and sweet potato casserole.
dem2brosgrill.com, 304-400-4977, 423 Virginia St. W, Charleston, WV 25302