I met Jeff Frederick at the historic 3rd Annual Beer Snob Pig Picking in Lumberton, North Carolina, back in April. Jeff is Dean of the School or Arts and Sciences at UNC Pembroke, a noted historian, an expert on Alabama politics, and a real good guy. He’s also an Auburn fan, which is a fine thing to be 364 days of the year. Maybe 365 if everyone has been digging into a whole hog and is therefore overcome by the Pork of Human Kindness on the most important day of the year, the fourth Saturday in November (see video).
Jeff alerted me to an article in Al.com, the electronic debris of once-daily newspapers in Alabama, about what Yelp considers the best barbecue places in Alabama. I found it, but these days Al.com’s links just take you to the top of the current web page, not to the article or even the page on the day the article was published. I found a usable link on It’s a Southern Thing that has Yelp’s version of the best barbecue place in each Southern state, here, with links to each place.
I’d never hear of any of the places. I know I need to get out more, but Yelp has its issues, too, and we’re not here to talk about my shortcomings.
You need to understand right off that Yelp’s algorithm has an overbroad definition of “barbecue joint,”* and, for that matter, of “barbecue.” Basically, if a restaurant sells what is something arguably identifiable as barbecue, it is a barbecue place to Yelp. It’s like the Southern definition of “vegetable.” It covers a lot, but only rarely includes things vegetarians can eat.
Take Yelp’s best barbecue place in Virginia, Sam’s Texas Sub Shop in Norfolk, Virginia, which is, well, a sub shop. I did a command-F on their website and it doesn’t even mention “barbecue” or “bbq.” They do mention “brisket” and, of course, “Texas”, and I guess that’s enough for Yelp. You can get a slow-roasted (not barbecued) brisket roll-up there. Their “California Reuben” contains turkey, guacamole, lettuce, and mayonnaise. Sam apparently is from a parallel universe, or perhaps California. Or Sam is from Texas and is making fun of California.
Sam’s is an extreme case, but many of the places on the Yelp list aren’t really barbecue places. Bully’s in Jackson, Mississippi, and Julie Belle’s in Florence, South Carolina, are meat and threes — apparently really good meat and threes. Sign me up. Smokemaster’s Ribs and Pollo in Lilburn, Georgia, gets a high rating for their great Peruvian chicken. I love Peruvian chicken. When we had our kitchen redone, we ate a ton of the Peruvian chicken from the Tenleytown Crisp and Juicy here in DC. You should try it. And get some of their sweet potatoes, which contain as much butter and sugar as a sweet potato casserole at any meat and three in the South. Delicious.
Pollo Bandido in Frankfort, Kentucky, reportedly serves great pupusas, empanadas, potato balls, and Mexican (probably Salvadorean) barbecue. Sounds good. I’ll have to try it when we go to Frankfort. Pioneer Pit Beef in Catonsville, Maryland, serves Pit Beef, which is explained in this review of Chappy’s in Baltimore. Pit beef tastes pretty good, especially with horseradish, but it’s not barbecue.
The other places actually appear to serve barbecue. Note, though, that two of the places, Haywood Smokehouse in Dillsboro, North Carolina, and Delauder’s in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, are about feeding visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their reviews mention large portions a lot, enough for a family to share, which is right on target for National Park visitors: I’ve been there, folks. If you’re in the Smokies, you might as well eat at one or both, but if you want the best barbecue arguably within reach of the National Park, drive a few hours to Red Bridges in Shelby, North Carolina, which serves some of the best barbecue you will ever find.
Yelp’s algorithm judges the best barbecue place in Alabama to be the Meat Boss in Mobile. I’ve never been there, so I looked at their web site. It’s one short step away from automation. You complete an order form, hand it in, and the Meat Boss’ minions assemble your sandwich or plate or stuffed potato. On the plus side, you can get Conecuh Sausage as a side, which I guess means you can count it as a vegetable. Animal, vegetable, or mineral, definitely get the Conecuh Sausage.
On the negative side, the Meat Boss makes you pick your sauce in advance. Now, I don’t have a fear of commitment. I’ve been married to Nancy going on 44 years, and I’m looking forward to signing up for 44 more. But the Meat Boss is asking for a marriage commitment before a blind date, and that can lead to trouble. Also, some of the topping options make my hair stand up on end. A distracted or addled customer, or a distracted or addled or fed up Associate Sandwich Assembler, could end up putting ketchup, sour cream, and jalapeño jelly on some innocent barbecue, and slapping it all on a (gulp) sweet bun.
Issues of real importance shouldn’t be left to such vagaries. It’s like leaving major life decisions to Florida election officials.
Now, I like Yelp. I use Yelp a lot while traveling. If a place has over 100 reviews and a four star rating, the food is probably okay. But you really have to read some of the actual reviews, not just the number of stars. If everyone is excited about something you don’t like, beware. Not everyone would award five stars for all-you-can eat chicken wings every Tuesday. If you don’t take into consideration the numerous comments about the GREAT service (in all caps), it’s a good bet that the waitstaff is visually interesting, and you’ll end up saying, “Hey, honey, Hooters has 4.2 stars.”
I imagine that all of the “best barbecue” places are good places to eat, in their ways, but don’t look to them for the best barbecue. And do use Yelp, but be careful: it may be loaded.
* I refer to barbecue “places” rather than “joints.” The latter term implies that the place is disreputable, something rarely if ever deserved. The use of “joint” can be a signal of class prejudice, sometimes tinged with race, one way or the other, so I eschew it.