by Chris Price | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Barbecue. The sights, the aromas, the flavors. There may not be a style of cooking more associated with the South than food slow cooked for hours by low heat, generally about 225 degrees, and flavored by hardwood smoke. Much like the settling of the region, barbecue moved east to west from the Atlantic Coast. As it did, the meats, cuts and sauces used evolved. While pork is generally recognized as the go-to barbecue meat across Dixie, where the earliest Spanish explorers released pigs into the wild as a fast-reproducing, huntable food source, beef takes precedence in the western states, especially Texas, where drought-resistant cattle were driven north to stockyards to be shipped to the northeast.
While love for barbecue unites Southerners, what and how to cook it, not to mention which style of sauce to use – or if a sauce should even be used, can be a highly sacrosanct and, ultimately, divisive issue.
In this barbecue primer, AY magazine is exploring regional styles and sauces and presenting a bucket list of Arkansas’ can’t miss barbecue restaurants. Dive in and get messy!
While barbecue is generally cooked with charcoal or a flavor-providing hardwood, there are strong feelings about whether to apply direct heat or to offset the meat, cooking it with indirect heat and smoke. Just as contentious can be the choice of what wood – hickory, pecan, mesquite – or liquid – water, fruit juice, beer – is used to add flavor to the meat.
North Carolina, considered the traditional home of American barbecue, is known for two distinct styles. Eastern-style barbecue uses the whole-hog with a distinctive vinegar and cayenne, black or red pepper-based sauce, while Western, also known as Lexington or Piedmont, barbecue uses the pork shoulder, flavored by a sauce made of apple cider vinegar mixed with a dollop of ketchup for a sweeter taste.
Memphis-style barbecue primarily uses pork shoulders, ribs and butts, however, beef and chicken are usually on the menu, too. In Blues City, meats are flavored with a rub of spices, cooked “dry” over hickory and, sometimes, served with a tangy vinegar and tomato-based sauce on the side. When pulled pork is topped with coleslaw and served on a bun, it’s called “Memphis-style.”
Kansas City barbecue uses pork, beef, chicken, turkey, lamb or sausage that is dry rubbed with a mix of spices and basted with a sweet, thick vinegar, molasses and tomato-based sauce before, during and after cooking. The most popular commercially, when most people think of barbecue sauce, Kansas City-style is what generally comes to mind.
Texas is known for four styles of barbecue. East Texas-style is typically cooked over hickory and served with a sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce. In Central Texas, meats are rubbed with salt and pepper and cooked indirectly with oak or pecan. No sauce is needed as the flavor of the meat and wood is all that is needed. South Texas-style uses a think molasses-based sauce before cooking that locks in the meat’s succulent juices. West Texas barbecue is cooked directly over mesquite wood without much seasoning if any at all.
Arkansas Barbecue Bucket List Lucky for us here in the Natural State, there is not a dominant style. While pork is more readily available at most restaurants and roadside joints, Arkansans are not tied to a particular dogma and may find several varieties of barbecued meats and sauces on the menu of their preferred establishments, including pulled pork, pork ribs, burnt ends, smoked sausage, beef brisket, beef ribs, smoked chicken and turkey, and sometimes fish. Here is AY’s bucket list of Arkansas barbecue restaurants, listed alphabetically by location.