American Barbecue is one of our country’s greatest contributions to the culinary world. But in a nation spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Canadian border to the Mexican, diversity is the name of the game when it comes to grilling and smoking.
There are four iconic styles that are the unofficial godfathers of American BBQ: Kansas City, with its thick, tangy sauce; Texas and its dry-rubbed beef, slow-cooked to perfection; and Memphis and Carolina styles, which are both heavy on the pork.
But let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known, unsung heroes of American barbecue. From Alabama white sauce to Kentucky mutton dip, here are seven regional barbecue styles worth seeking out (and salivating over).
Alabama White Sauce
Folks who grow up in Decatur, Alabama know that barbecue sauce is one color: white. That’s right, white like the mayonnaise base from which this unusual sauce draws its signature shade. First dreamed up by “Big Bob” Gibson in 1925, this stark sauce might not have grown to dominate grocery store shelves in the way that its brick red cousins have, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t also made its mark. Aziz Ansari missed a flight back to New York on an episode of Master of None because he was hunting this sauce down (though it was attributed to Nashville), and Momofuku even produces its own bottles full of the stuff.
Signature dishes: Chickens are split and slow roasted over hickory wood for three and a half hours before taking a dunk in a white sauce bath to produce the most famous Alabama barbecue dish. But pork shoulder and ribs also pair well with Gibson’s white gold.
Kentucky Mutton Dip
About 500 miles north of Alabama, you’ll find a homegrown barbecue style that looks nothing like the Decatur classic. Here in western Kentucky, mutton dip draws its color from its signature worcestershire sauce component, earning the sauce the nickname “Kentucky Black.” Frequent cross-regional barbecue components like ketchup, apple cider vinegar and brown sugar often round the sauce out. Unlike some barbecue sauces, Kentucky Black is used both as a blasting sauce during cooking and as a finishing sauce once it’s time chow down.
Signature dishes: This black sauce is the perfect tenderizer for – as you might have already guessed by the name – mutton, which comes from mature sheep. Pickled eggs and slaws are frequent side dishes here.
Santa Maria Style
You’d be forgiven for not closely associating The Golden State with grilling, what with all of the juice cleanses originating from here, but the very specific Santa Maria barbecue style is nevertheless a Cali tradition through and through. Beef tri-tip is seasoned with a minimalist blend of garlic salt, salt and pepper before hitting a hand-cranked iron grill heated with red oak wood coals. If the rules for making Santa Maria barbecue sound quite specific to you, know that it’s for a good reason. This regional style of grilling has the unique distinction of being copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce since 1978.
Signature dishes: Tri-tip steals the limelight here, but it’s the rarefied pinquito bean that makes the whole meal sing. These hybrid pink-white beans grow only in the Santa Maria Valley, and are a must at any grill gathering.
Maryland Pit Beef
Though the Chesapeake Bay’s crabs usually take top billing when it comes to Maryland’s culinary claims to fame, the state can also barbecue with the best of them. When the winter months roll in, and crabs have burrowed for the season, pit beef sandwiches take over the space left vacant on restaurant menus. Top round roast is cooked over charcoal, before being thinly sliced and served on white bread or a bun. Pit beef traditionally gets doused in a horseradish sauce, but plenty of bbq joints have crimson tomato-based finishing sauces on hand for those that prefer mixing styles.
Signature dishes: A pit beef sandwich wouldn’t be quite the same without a side of gravy-soaked Boardwalk fries.
Oklahoma Barbecue Bologna
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Alternatively known around the state as Smoked Bologna or Oklahoma Prime Rib, this is how The Sooner State does BBQ. Whether you like it sliced thin, thick, or even cubed, one thing you should never do is assume that smoking bologna is easy work. “It you don’t do it right, it puffs up from the heat and has a tendency to explode,” Keith Jimerson tells Tulsa World. If you start with a good, high quality bologna, there’s no need to season the meat before it is cooked. But it’s perfectly acceptable to douse the finished product in a mustard-and-brown sugar-based sauce.
Signature dishes: Smoked Bologna is a dish best served with those quintessential barbecue staples: coleslaw and a bun.
Hawaiian Barbecue Plate Lunch
When Korean immigrants first began arriving in Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century, they brought with them some serious barbecue knowhow, though they didn’t call it exactly that. Staples like bulgogi beef and galbi both took a turn over barbecue pits after being bathed in sweet garlic marinades. The practice looked an awful lot like the traditional imu ovens, made from volcanic rock and earth, that Hawaiians had been cooking with for centuries. The islanders quickly adopted both the cooking method and the flavors into their own cuisine, along with diverse influences and ingredients from Japan, China, the Philippines, Portugal and Puerto Rico. Popularized by the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue chain of drive-in restaurants in the 1970s and 80s, Hawaiian barbecue can be enjoyed across much of the American West and Southwest today.
Signature dishes: Barbecue chicken and beef are served up alongside dishes as varied as fried shrimp, chicken katsu and loco moco, a hamburger patty topped with brown gravy and a fried egg. Hawaiian barbecue proteins are usually paired with a scoop each of white rice and macaroni salad.
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Sometimes called Texas’ other barbecue, the history of this barbecue style was slowly drawn out over hundreds of years and multiple countries like Barbados, Portugal and Mexico. But don’t ever call this style a barbecue runner-up, because both the name and barbecue method of cooking are derived from barbacoa. In Mexico, and some parts of Texas, meat is slow-roasted in a pit topped with maguey leaves (better known as agave, stateside). Once tender, the meat is chopped and served alongside onions, lime, and sometimes sauces like mole or various salsas.
Signature dishes: Beef is the primary protein used in barbacoa dishes on Tex-Mex menus, but traditionally, it’s either beef head or goat used in the dish.