Maybe the most important sign of seriously smoked barbecue is that curious pink line that the process leaves behind at the edge of the meat. You can easily taste the wood smoke in righteous 'cue. In my first bite of brisket at Smitty's Meat Market, a short drive from Kreuz in Lockhart, Texas, that smokiness was so strong, it changed my idea forever of what barbecue could be. This style of heavily smoked beef may take some getting used to but for me it is the zenith of the Q universe.
That doesn't mean I don't love the pork barbecue that other regions excel in. But Smitty's is a temple of purity, a dark brick cave of making, with its stark black steel-doored smokers and taciturn pitmen who stand in the heat of the post oak logs, pull out a piece of brisket and ask you if you want it sliced from the lean or the fatty end. I go for the fatty end -- more juice -- and don't mind that Smitty's is really just a specialized meat market. For sauce and cutlery, you go through a door from the darkness of the pit area to a bright-lit concession. The transition is something like the shock Plato tells us his cave-dwellers experienced when they emerged into the sun.
Purists in Lockhart eat with their hands and don't mess with sauce. I'm on their side when it comes to sauce, but if you can't do without it, you can't go wrong in a world where top-flight places serve anonymous brews ranging from sweetened ketchup to peppy vinegar, and anything in between.
I suspect Mr Sokolov is feeling lonely, as he asks for e-mail with suggestions about where he can go next. His choice of Wilber's over Starlite or Allen's will get some criticism, for example.
The map included with the article also mentions the Slows BarBQ in Detroit, Q4U in Salt Lake City, and several other places.
The most famous barbecue venues tend to be big, souvenir-sauce-selling places coasting on their owners' fame as contest winners or on raves from the small coterie of barbecue critics. I trekked to Decatur. Ala., to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a multiple first-place winner at Memphis in May, and found the pulled pork mushy and the much-touted sauce underwhelming. I had a passable lunch at Mike Mills's 17th Street Bar & Grill in the cheerless southern Illinois burg of Murphysboro. Mr. Mills uses applewood in his smokers, which is too mild for my Lockhartian taste for post oak.
The most famous of all barbecue restaurants is Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Mo. Put on the map by Calvin Trillin who in the 1970s called it "the single best restaurant in the world" in Playboy, Bryant's is now a minichain in Kansas City. I found the barbecue serviceable but unexciting.
Tennessee may qualify as the capital of the most basic kind of barbecue, pork shoulder "pulled" or shredded by hand. Shoulder, like other barbecue cuts, is not a luxury meat -- it's tough -- but benefits from the slow braising of the pit.
At Bozo's BBQ in Mason, east of Memphis, you don't need to sauce up the perfect squills of pork shoulder. Outside this unassuming family operation, a lonely whistling freight train rumbles by. The bright lights of the high-security federal pen next door cast an ominous shadow on the humble former farmhouse. Within, all is good cheer restrained by the confident reserve that comes from knowing you can pull pork so that each strand comes away long and perfect, like hanks of moist beige yarn.
This is the Memphis style at its apogee, 40 miles out from Graceland, and all the other sights and sounds of downtown. Bozo's does not serve ribs. Don't ask for brisket either. In this shrine of the shoulder of the sow, aficionados know that "barbecue" signifies only one cut of meat, from high on the hog.
For a serious challenge to this fare, you'd have to head to the Raleigh-Durham airport and scoot down to Wilber's in Goldsboro, N.C. You are now in whole-hog territory. Vinegar is the basic condiment underlying the pulled pork, which Wilber's variegates with meat fragments from all up and down the succulent swine. You could have this as a sandwich topped with chopped, vinegary cole slaw, but I prefer the unadorned piggy perfection. The southern-fried gizzards are also A-one and offer a crunchy counterpoint to the silken, mildly peppery main event. At Dillard's Bar-B-Que in the city of Durham, they offer a similar, if smokier pork in a dandy coleslaw sandwich.
Texas is another state with a high Q factor. In particular, I mean the woodsy hill country surrounding Austin, the state's capital of politics and intellect. Beef is the main meat here, beef ribs and brisket and piquant sausages that mix local German and Mexican ideas. Lockhart is the Vatican of this persuasion, with its rehabbed turn-of-the 20th-century downtown. This was where we found Smitty's, in a former Shiner's brewery, and Kreuz, pronounced "Krites" and referred to locally as the Church of Kreuz.
From there, we drove north to Oklahoma. Leo's in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma Style Bar-B-Q and Wilson's in Tulsa all offer hickory-smoked sliced brisket of very high quality. They also serve a regional specialty, bar-b-q bologna, segments of lunchmeat sausage smoked as if it were brisket or ribs, and a side dish of pickled mixed vegetables.
Then we headed home, literally and figuratively, to the three cities we have the closest ties to. In each of them, the menu represented, with great fidelity, barbecue styles originating elsewhere. Slows (no apostrophe please) in Detroit, where I was born, is a treasure-house of Q eclecticism. Its ribs were about as good as any we encountered anywhere.
The East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., is rightly famous for its scholarly re-creation of pit barbecue, although we think even the first-rate eastern North Carolina pulled pork relies too much on its excellent vinegary sauce (probably because the kitchen thinks its customers wouldn't appreciate the meat on its own). And in New York City, the Cue millennium came to town last month in the form of Hill Country, a very skillful rendition of Texas barbecue based directly on Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Barbecue expert Elizabeth Karmel consulted on the operation, which imports its sausages directly from Kreuz and burns post oak in its three smokers.
The Q evangelists behind this barn of a place should think about extending their mission to the barbecue wilderness of Los Angeles. We ate in the local standbys Woody's and Phillips, but found their meats overcooked and undersmoked. What Tinseltown most needs these days is authentic Lockhart brisket followed by a rough-and-tumble banana pudding from Carl's Perfect Pig.