While college football is an undying staple of crisp fall Saturdays in the southeastern states, not much embodies the spirit of Southern culture quite like its food. Ask the rest of America about the South and that is what most often comes to mind.
And as far as southern cuisine goes, there may be no better example than a heaping plate of barbecue, slow-cooked and served with delicious sides and a tall drink. Regional diversity, affordability, simplicity and the sense of community a barbecue engenders all make the dish quintessentially southern.
These days, the South is in no short supply of hog restaurants. Thousands of BBQ joints litter its towns, cities and back roads. And if you plan on making any football-centric road trips this season, you’re bound to come across plenty of tasty stops in your travels.
The only tough question: Which to choose?
SEC Country has consulted its sources around the conference to provide a definitive, 100 percent objective compilation of the SEC’s best barbecue restaurants. You cannot argue with this list, folks, it is pure science.
Part one covers Athens, Auburn, Baton Rouge, College Station, both Columbias and Fayetteville. Part two will be published later this week.
Dig into which ones made the cut, or just skip ahead to bellyaching about which ones weren’t mentioned in the comments section. Cheers to the BBQ!
Dawg Gone Good BBQ (Athens, Ga.)
Housed in a small former barber shop in the heart of downtown Athens, the biggest advertisement for this place might be the sign out front, which features a picture of owner William “B.J.” Hardy, a phone number and the slogan “you can taste it, before you buy it.”
Whether you try before buying or after, Dawg Gone Good does not disappoint. Buy a plate with two sides — the mac n’ cheese is especially good — or order by the pound/slab. As a bonus, it’s open past midnight on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, making it the perfect chaser for all your weekend drinking activities.
Don’t let the unassuming exterior fool you: Dawg Gone Good packs a punch on the plate.
What they’re saying: “I follow (my grandma’s) recipe all the way. Find something that’s working, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Hardy told The Red & Black. “My grand-momma told me, ‘I don’t care what another man tells you about barbecue, just do it my way, and you won’t have any problems.’”
Honorable mentions: White Tiger Gourmet, Butt Hutt, Pulaski Heights
— Ronnie Bratcher (@ronniebratcher) April 25, 2015
Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q (Auburn, Ala.)
You might smell Mike & Ed’s before walking in the front door. Or at least that’s what their T-shirts imply (“You can smell our butts for miles”).
The place sets itself apart in its diversity, as the menu features everything from smoked pork, ribs and chicken to chicken fingers, buffalo wings, salad and even homemade peanut butter pie. But the standout is the Boston butt, which comes in one of three cuts: shredded, cubed,or thinly sliced.
Mike & Ed’s is an all-around good, affordable BBQ pit stop — a pork sandwich is just $2.99 — that offers tailgating specials during the fall, which may prove useful for those of you traveling in big groups.
What they’re saying: “Most barbecue places tend to specialize in one thing — doing one thing better than the rest of the menu items — but that isn’t necessarily the case here; Mike and Ed’s does everything on the menu well, and they do it consistently. That goes for the ribs (which are St. Louis style), their smoked chicken, their turkey, chicken fingers (yes, top-notch chicken fingers at a barbecue place) and, especially, their pork — which is a Boston butt.” — Tom Green, oanow.com.
Honorable mention: Byron’s Smoke House
— Opelika-Auburn News (@oanow) April 8, 2016
Pimanyoli’s Sidewalk Cafe (Baton Rouge, La.)
The name, an amalgam of husband-and-wife owners Piman and Yolanda (nicknamed “Yoli”), is interesting enough. What makes the food so interesting, though, is its incorporation of traditional Louisiana cooking elements.
For instance, you can get a smoked brisket po’boy with cheese and grilled onions, or a brisket BLT. You can order a dozen or half dozen tamales filled with smoked pork and beef.
Onto the traditional BBQ foodstuffs. They’ve got your standard assortment of brisket, ribs, pulled pork and chicken, a well-acclaimed homemade vinegar-based sauce that has 21 ingredients (beat that, KFC), and a wide array of sides. The brisket is considered the standout, and the made from scratch mac-n-cheese and baked beans top most lists of favorite sides. If you’re still hungry after all that, you can ask for homemade desserts such as fruit cobbler and cheesecake. Yum.
What they’re saying: “The pork was great, tender and smoky with a good texture. Often I find that pulled pork can be kinda ‘stringy’ and dry, but this was done right… Pimanyoli’s resists the urge to take the easy path and serve up the quick boxed mac and cheese variety, and rather makes theirs daily from scratch using an old school recipe handed down from the owner’s mother. It’s one of the best examples I’ve tasted in the area.” — cuisinerouge.com.
Honorable mentions: TJ Ribs, Smokin Aces
Fargo’s Pit BBQ (College Station, Texas)
Though technically about five miles down the road in Bryan, Fargo’s should be well worth the short drive. It’s no-frills, like a lot of these places, and the small menu’s emphasis is squarely on the meat.
But boy, that stuff looks good. Ribs, brisket, lean brisket, sausage, chicken — all of the cash-only joint’s tender meat is sought after by residents of the Bryan/College Station area. There are weekly specials, and if you’re especially hungry (or need to feed a lot of people), you can buy a $65 family combo that comes with a pound of ribs, brisket, sausage and a whole chicken.
By all accounts from reviewers, pitmaster Alan Caldwell has been incredibly protective of his barbecuing methods. But a recent blog post revealed at least one reason behind Caldwell’s secretive ways: his pit has a longhorn welded onto it, and he was worried that might drive away his Aggie-heavy customer base.
Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Good BBQ trumps all, and this may be the highlight of part one in our SEC breakdown.
What they’re saying: “The spareribs are hefty (Fargo’s uses a larger than normal rack), and the well-seasoned pork and layers of expertly rendered fat come away from the bone more easily than you’d expect for such a large rib. As for the brisket, well, rarely will you find a deeper smoky flavor or a thicker smoke ring. Beneath a bark that almost crackles is juicy meat with just enough salt to keep you coming back for more. The brisket from the flat can be spotty (sometimes cut too thick, sometimes a bit dry) when compared with the consistently high quality of the fatty slices, so go lean with caution. But you can safely waive all caution when confronted with the chicken. The hard-to-attain combination of moist, smoky meat and crispy skin is on target, and the addictive seasoning makes this bird hard to put down.” — TexasMonthly, which tabbed Fargo’s as the 12th-best BBQ joint in the state.
Honorable mentions: BBQ 13-0, Rudy’s Country Store, C&J’s
— Good Bull Hunting (@GBHunting) May 1, 2015
Shotgun Pete’s BBQ Shack Columbia, Mo.
This is basically the consensus top spot for ‘cue in Missouri’s Columbia, and we have to appreciate it if only for its college football ties.
The name “Shotgun Pete” is a reference to the owner Philip “Pete” Peters Jr.’s father, who earned the nickname while playing on the West Virginia football team. And the first iteration of the family restaurant was truly a shack — 8×16 feet — before it moved to another location.
The menu features standard BBQ fare, including $8 sandwiches with the option to add slaw for $1, but of special interest are the BBQ nachos and the “BBQ sundae” — the latter consists of “layered pit smoked baked beans, BBQ meat, BBQ sauce… topped with tater salad or slaw.” Ten points to Pete’s for creativity, and bonus points for a strong beer selection that features options from local breweries.
What they’re saying: “Philip’s personal favorite is a pulled-pork sandwich topped with vidalia onion vinaigrette cole slaw, some southern mustard sauce, a touch of the hell-fire sauce and a side of the pit-smoked baked beans. In addition to a varied menu, there are around 27 different kinds of beer to choose from and one-half of the featured brews are made here in Missouri.” — Andrea Kszystyniak, onemissouri.com.
Honorable mentions: Dickey’s, Lutz’s
Southern Belly (Columbia, S.C.)
Now for the other Columbia. The cozy atmosphere of Southern Belly houses more of a new age BBQ spot than your traditional meat-and-sides establishment, and they sure have fun with that variety.
Southern Belly places heavy emphasis upon its sandwiches, which feature toppings like bacon, jalapeno and even grilled pineapple, and cooks make sure to pile them high.
The restaurant also features seven different house-made sauces that hit everything from regional standbys (Carolina sweet, Kansas City tangy, Alabama white) to international fusion recipes, such as “an Asian infused funky remoulade” and a spicy tomato-vinegar sauce “inspired by South American and Afro-Caribbean recipes.”
If you’re daring, try the Wookie, a $14.75 behemoth that features double meat, three cheeses, bacon, onion and three slices of bread. Somone ask Obi-Wan to bring the Peptobismol, too.
What they’re saying: “Perhaps the best Columbia BBQ can be found at Southern Belly. The original location is less than mile from Williams-Brice Stadium on Rosewood Drive. The sauces are awesome, so are the sandwiches, which are done with a slightly different twist. But they also serve beer. That helps make up for the lack of side item choices.” — Hale McGranahan, SEC Country
Honorable mention: Midwood Smokehouse, Maurice’s
D'jango (Wookie sized) from Southern Belly Bbq: Pulled pork, bacon, pepper jack, grilled onions, roasted red pepper… pic.twitter.com/sH4SQTi9mv
— Only Food (@Only_Food) August 3, 2016
Sassy’s Red House (Fayetteville, Ark.)
You would hope the home of the Hogs has good BBQ, and that’s the case with Sassy’s.
The menu offers a good bit of variety — there are burgers, BBQ tacos, catfish, wraps and other sandwiches — but the meat and especially the sauce are what really draws the crowd. According to the restaurant web site, founder Sassy Jones’ grandfather Jasper came up with the sauce recipe in 1895. Today, you can buy the three varieties (original, hot, hickory) in gallon and half gallon jugs.
The portions are large, well-priced and some of the best you’ll find in northwest Arkansas.
What they’re saying: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema called it the best BBQ joint in the conference at SEC Media Days. Some of his recruits even dine there. Enough said, really.
Honorable mentions: Herman’s Rib House, Penguin Ed’s
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for part two to drop later this week and discover the BBQ standouts from the other seven SEC towns.