There’s grilling, and then there’s meat slow-smoked for hours with indirect heat. Not to inspire any fisticuffs or enrage native Southerners, but here are some local outfits that can give you a taste of how they do it in some of the country’s barbecue capitals.
The meat Southerners may gnash their teeth, but what passes for a native barbecue culture in this town are the drippy, sauce-slathered, sloppy Joe–esque sandwiches served at this SoDo takeout window. The fans that line up each weekday afternoon will be thrilled to hear a second, franchised, location (with indoor seating) is in the works at the original Red Robin in Eastlake. Oh, and the original now takes credit cards, too.
The plate The Pecos Beef, aka a mess of shredded brisket smoked over alder wood and “spiked” with a hot link. It’s a good thing our Asian food culture has built up our tolerance for spice—the medium sauce is spicy as hell and the hot sauce will burn your face off. 2260 First Ave S, SoDo, 206-623-0629
Sweet Bones BBQ
The meat Owner Mike Sisneros is an Albuquerque native and will cheerfully tell you that he made up the term “New Mexico style,” a nod to his dry rub, which he custom blended from different chili powders, as well as his signature side dish of posole.
The plate Though New Mexico borders brisket-loving Texas, the St. Louis–cut spareribs, maybe with some rib tips, let those subtle chili flavors come through. When it comes to ribs, Sisneros believes that “falling off the bone” means overcooked. While Sweet Bones’ location in a gas station parking lot means indoor seating is nonexistent, the wooden deck is stellar in sunny weather. 13310 Interurban Ave S, Tukwila, 206-605-8814
The meat Beef is king throughout the Alamo State, and beef brisket the ultimate form of showmanship. A Texan will tell you good brisket is simply seasoned, yet so flavorful it needs no sauce. Brisket is a tricky mistress, though—there’s an art to transforming this tough, fatty cut with smoke, and pitmasters take pride in the smoke rings and rough exterior “bark” that signify both tenderness and flavor.
The plate King County’s complex regulations on Texas’s signature wood-burning, open pit makes brisket especially challenging. But Grant Carter pulls off an admirable version with his custom-built Ole Hickory smoker. Texans think good meat needs no sauce, but if you must, Bitterroot has four housemade versions—sweet, spicy, vinegar, and Carolina mustard. 5239 Ballard Ave NW, Ballard, 206- 588-1577; bitterrootbbq.com
Rainin’ Ribs BBQ and Smokehouse
The meat While Memphians are justifiably obsessed with barbecue (this town hosts the annual barbecue world championship), there are dueling ideas of whether true Memphis barbecue means baby back ribs or pork shoulder. Purists say fires should burn by charcoal, but good luck finding that in King County. Barbecue sauce is optional; if you want it, it’s a thinnish, tangy-sweet mix of tomato and vinegar.
The plate Dry-rubbed racks of baby backs spend eight hours in the triple-barrel smoker at this roadside cookshack with a charming lake view. Specify sauce on the side, but feel free to dabble with the mildly spicy ketchupped house version as the meat falls off the bones. The Who’s Your Mama sandwich is a callout to the Carolinian love of putting a pile of slaw on top of the meat in a pulled pork sandwich, but the practice is big in Memphis, too. 15030 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park, 206-362-7427; raininribs.com
Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen
The meat Thanks to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in the northern Alabama town of Decatur, the state has its own barbecue subculture, one that favors chicken over other animals and a white sauce that’s made with mayonnaise. Chickens are slow-smoked for at least three and a half hours and slathered in white sauce.
The plate The stylized meat and whiskey den is one of the few places in town that does Alabama’s signature barbecue condiment. Don’t be afraid, it’s thinned with cider vinegar and lemon juice, highlighting the tang of mayo but not the texture. It dresses the pulled chicken sandwich, but request it with the smoked chicken platter, where the sauce’s cayenne zing really comes through. 5309 22nd Ave NW, Ballard, 206-783-2668; kickinboot.com
The meat This is another region that loves its pulled or chopped pork shoulder, and pitmasters usually use a mustard-and-vinegar-based mop sauce during smoking to add moisture and another layer of flavor. It’s often administered with an actual tiny mop. Unlike barbecue sauce, slathered on at mealtime, a mop sauce is low in sugar so it doesn’t caramelize. However, South Carolina’s real signature is a sauce that packs a mustardy wallop—the better to stand up to fatty pork flavors. North Carolinians consider this blasphemy.
The plate Owner Gabe Gagliardi went to school in South Carolina and makes a mustardy BBQ sauce with a goodly amount of spice, though his pulled pork hits that delicate territory between too dry and too soft and doesn’t require much—if any sauce. A meal at this Southern-styled storefront doubles as a barbecue geography lesson; there are sauces reflective of Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, Kentucky, both Carolinas, and even the rare Alabama mayo version. 2008 NW 56th St, Ballard, 206-973-1970; ballardbbq.com
Smokin’ Pete’s BBQ
The meat A state history of hog raising means a tradition of pork. Preferably a whole pig, though the real roadside staple is smoked pork shoulder. But it’s the vinegar sauce that earns this barbecue either allegiance or scorn. It’s puckery and bracing—especially when amped up with hot peppers—but highlights the pork flavor rather than masking it. In the western half of the state, people prefer a version with a little tomato. South Carolinians consider either to be blasphemy.
The plate This place won’t win any awards for decor (unless you’re really into orange walls and old acoustic tile ceilings) but the pulled pork is full of tasty crisped bits and comes as a platter, by the pound, or in one of several sandwiches. The Carolina-style sour sauce is more liquid—vinegar—than condiment, sloshing about in the bottle, but its peppery bite is relatively gentle and it soaks nicely into the meat, which is served on the drier side. 1918 NW 65th St, Ballard, 206-783-0454; smokinpetesbbq.com
The meat This is what most of us outside of the barbecue belt think of when we think of barbecue. Pork dominates—especially ribs, smoked for up to 12 hours. But the real signature of Kansas City barbecue is a sauce that’s thick and sweet and sticky, with an ingredient list (brown sugar, molasses) that could almost double for pancake syrup if it weren’t for the tomato.
The plate A smoker expansion last year let this humble commissary in the old Winchell’s parking lot expand across the street into full-on, five-hour ribs territory. Pinky’s uses a cut of spareribs named for Kansas City’s neighbor to the east, St. Louis, best served with Sweet Sassy Molassy barbecue sauce—the runaway customer favorite and a prototypical Kansas City–style amalgam of tomato paste, mustard, vinegar, smoked garlic and onions, and a big hit of sweet from the molasses. 210 NE 45th St, Wallingford, 206-257-5483; pinkyskitchen.com