Tailgating is one of the great joys of football in the fall. It’s hard to beat the smell of wood smoke and sizzling sausages mixed with the anticipation of kickoff. But what if that’s replaced with lighter fluid and burnt burgers? Suffering through your brother-in-law’s bad cooking with a forced smile takes the shine off of a good Saturday. Chances are that there’s better barbecue at a joint near the stadium, and the probability only increases in the South.
If you’re reading this from a crowded parking lot in the shadow of the stadium, it’s probably too late. Here’s hoping you’ve got some cooking skills, or befriended someone who does. If not, we’ve got some tips on a few great barbecue joints in great football towns. Stop in to fill up before the game, or better yet, be the tailgate hero with a hefty take-out order. The trick is to order whole cuts of barbecue, like a brisket, a few racks of ribs, or a full pork shoulder. Keep the barbecue hot in a cooler until it’s time to eat, Pack a knife, a cutting board, and a folding table. Serve it up hot and fresh, and let everyone assume you did all the cooking.
Home of Georgia Tech – There’s plenty of good pork barbecue to be had in Georgia, but it was Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q that first blessed Atlanta with great smoked beef. They smoke a mean brisket, but it’s the beef rib that’s most impressive. A huge hunk of peppery smoked beef comes barely clinging to a bone the size of your forearm. It’s a good idea to share one. They know pork too. Just try the tender spare ribs or the unique fried pork rib appetizer. For some real Georgia flavor, you can’t go wrong with a side of fried okra and classic Brunswick stew.
Home of the University of Texas- It’s a little south of downtown, but Valentina’s Tex-Mex Barbecue makes one of the finest barbecue breakfasts in the country. Juicy brisket, eggs, and cheese come wrapped in tortillas so pillowy, you’d think clouds were the secret ingredient. Go bigger with the Holyfield that adds bacon, beans, and fried potatoes. They’re perfect for an early game, and the spectacular queso is great anytime. Closer to the stadium, and great for a later kickoff is Stiles Switch Brew & Q. They’re known for massive beef ribs, tangy pork ribs, and some of the best banana pudding you’ll find. With plenty of TV’s, it’s not a bad spot to watch the game either. Sit back with one of the local drafts, or grab a bottle of Bloody Mary mix, made by the owner’s wife, for the tailgate.
Home of the Ohio State University – Ohio isn’t exactly known for barbecue, but Ray Ray’s Hog Pit is trying their best to make a name for smoked meats in the capital city. James Anderson runs the food truck on High Street. Just look for the smoke wafting from the hulking smoker in the parking lot where folks line up for meaty baby back ribs. Spare ribs, brisket, and chicken are also available, but pay attention to the special board. There may be a whole hog from Anderson’s heritage breed pig farm east of town, or their famous Meat Corn. The thoroughly original creation packs a solid coating of chopped brisket onto an ear of butter-doused sweet corn. It’s a full meal on a stick, and is definitely better than it looks.
Home of Texas Tech – Texas is full of legendary barbecue joints, but there’s plenty of new blood too. After only a couple years in business Evie Mae’s Barbecue is known statewide, and that’s saying something in Texas. After outgrowing their food truck, their new building sits in Wolfforth, just outside the Lubbock city limits. The weekend lines can get crazy, so order ahead if possible. The beef ribs and brisket are hard to beat, but it’s the pork ribs you won’t be able to put down. They’re smoky, tender, and a final glaze gives them an addictive sweet side. There’s not a dud on the menu, so feel free to add some smoked turkey or green chile sausage. Cheese grits and greens are some of the best sides in Texas, and don’t forget dessert. There are usually a half dozen to choose from including banana pudding and, when in season, a heaping strawberry pie.
Home of Arizona State University – When dozens of Arizonans are willing to wait in the desert heat for barbecue, you know its good. The line at Little Miss BBQ is long, but moves quickly. Most folks already know they’re getting some brisket because it’s some of the best you’ll find outside of Texas. They also make their own juicy sausage links. One special to look for is the smoked lamb neck. The tender meat pulls off the bone with no effort, and it’s richer than any pulled pork. If you’ve already endured the heat outside, the jalapeno cheese grits won’t be a problem. And if the brisket and ribs aren’t smoky enough for you, finish things off with a slice of smoked pecan pie.
Home of the University of Alabama – The roar of the stadium can probably still be in heard in Northport just outside Tuscaloosa. It’s the home of a classic Alabama barbecue joint. Decades of grease drip down the massive brick chimney, at Archibald’s Bar-B-Que, and the smell that hits you as soon as the car door opens is ribs – pork spare ribs, to be precise. Order from the counter inside, and take a seat at one of the few stools to watch the show in the pit as dozens of rib racks are flipped and prodded until they’ve reached their peak. There’s more on the menu, but don’t let the rest distract you from the pile of spare ribs doused in the tart and spicy barbecue sauce ladled over top. The smell of vinegar and tomatoes hits before the first bite. The meat isn’t tough, but it’s not falling off the bone either. The edges are a little rough, and maybe a tad crunchy, if you’re lucky. Let the ends marinate in the pool of sauce that’s accumulated on the plate, and use the white bread to sop up a little sauce for a mid-course snack. Once you’re left with just a pile of bones, it’s perfectly natural to want another rack to go.
Home of Texas A&M – College Station has the university, the football, and all the game-day traffic, but head a few miles north to Bryan for the best local barbecue. Fargo’s Pit BBQ just moved into a new, bigger location, and brought their wood-fired smokers with them. Just don’t ask to see them. Pitmaster Alan Caldwell keeps the pit room off-limits, maybe because the magical things he does to pork spare ribs are trade secrets. The ribs are seasoned just right. They’re salty, but don’t have the heavy black pepper of Central Texas-style barbecue. Ribs this meaty are often tough, but these are juicy and tender. Quite simply, they’re some of the best in Texas. A few slices of fatty brisket or a smoky half chicken won’t hurt either. If you have a craving for sides, make it the mac & cheese, and please save room for the homemade peach cobbler.
Home of East Carolina University – Samuel Jones carries on a whole hog barbecue legacy at Sam Jones Barbecue. Just a few miles north of his family’s legendary Skylight Inn (since 1947), the hogs are still cooked the old way, over wood coals. Ask for a pit room tour before the meal and feel the heat coming off the enormous brick chimney where the coals are made. Inside the dining room, you can hear the cleavers at the massive chopping block where the finished hogs are seasoned and readied for service. Get the freshly chopped pork on a plate with their famous cornbread and slaw or on a sandwich. There’s plenty more on the menu that’s also wood-cooked like the juicy chickens and the meaty spare ribs. Finish it all off with some banana pudding, or ask for strawberry pudding when in season.
Home of the University of Houston – Texas barbecue is known for the trinity of meats: beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage. Some menus don’t get any bigger than that. At The Pit Room in Houston that’s only the beginning. Chef Bramwell Tripp has gotten more inventive with items like chicharrones and house made bacon. There’s a trio of house made sausages, including a venison version. Tacos come on thick tortillas made with smoked brisket fat. Then there’s the massive pickle bar. Garnishes are usually a barbecue afterthought, but The Pit Room provides pickled carrots, onions, and jalapenos, oh, and some fine dill pickles too. In the pit room of The Pit Room, you’ll find a pair of wood-fired steel smokers. Given the added expense of all the ventilation equipment required to use them in the middle of the city, they show owner Michael Sambrooks’s dedication to wood-cooked barbecue. The barbecue community thanks him.
Home of Vanderbilt University – This may start fights in Tennessee, but the best Memphis-style, dry-rubbed ribs can be found in Nashville. A thick layer of the rust-colored powder is layered on the baby backs at Peg Leg Porker. Served uncut in a whole slab, the ribs pull apart easily. The same dust gets sprinkled on the excellent chicken wings, and to wash it all down, try a few sips of Peg Leg Whiskey, a bourbon line from owner Carey “Peg Leg” Bringle (who lost a leg to cancer). Another stop in town for great dry-rubbed ribs is Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. But the specialty at their locations all over town is whole hog. Owner Pat Martin is passionate about the West Tennessee style of whole hog cooking. It’s a little smokier than its North Carolina cousin, with less of a vinegar tang. Get it as a sandwich with slaw, or more appropriately on top of a cornbread hoecake in a Martin’s signature “Redneck Taco.”
Home of the University of Washington – Jack Timmons missed Texas, and he missed the barbecue even more when he moved to Seattle. After decades of success in the tech industry, the Texas A&M grad quit his job, bought a smoker in Texas, and stopped at the Texas A&M campus to have it christened before the long trip to Washington. He first built up his catering chops, then Timmons opened Jack’s BBQ in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. The operation is a slice of Texas in the Northwest. Brisket, jalapeno sausage, and pork ribs – smoked over a mix of mesquite, post oak, and hickory – are menu highlights. Timmons also offers other Texas touches like queso, chili con carne, and brisket enchiladas; items not often found at Texas barbecue joints. Come on Tuesdays for the beef rib special. These monster short ribs pair perfectly with a smoked old fashioned from the bar.