Slate's Well-Traveled: BBQ, with Critique on the Side David Plotz of Slate chats with Alex Chadwick about where to find the best barbecue across the country. It's a highly subjective matter, but Plotz says that for great meat, go to Texas... and avoid Memphis.
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Slate's Well-Traveled: BBQ, with Critique on the Side

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Slate's Well-Traveled: BBQ, with Critique on the Side

Slate's Well-Traveled: BBQ, with Critique on the Side

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, we'll head to Vietnam to learn how some American veterans of the war there have gone back to help make former war zones safe again.

First this. Dear listeners, I sit here hosting a radio program on Memorial Day in a studio. This is how I picture you: listening to me outdoors in your backyard as you prepare to put something really choice on the grill. Am I close? Well, clearly I'm thinking about barbecue today, and so is Slate's David Plotz. David has just completed the barbecue lover's equivalent of a religious pilgrimage. He spent a week driving between the nation's most storied barbecue restaurants trying to find the best. David Plotz joins us now appropriately from a barbecue joint in his native Washington, DC, to tell us what he found.

David, just first say where are you?

Mr. DAVID PLOTZ (Slate Magazine): I am in Capital Q, which is a great barbecue restaurant in downtown Washington. I'm finishing up a brisket sandwich.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, let's begin with the definition, if you will. In your series, you call barbecue America's greatest contribution to global cuisine. What exactly do purists mean when they say barbecue?

Mr. PLOTZ: What they mean when they talk about barbecue is meat that's cooked slowly over a low temperature with smoke providing this great flavor infusion. What they are not talking about is what most Americans refer to as barbecuing, where they stick some steaks or burgers on the grill. That's grilling. It drives barbecue purists nuts when they hear someone refer to someone barbecuing a steak.

CHADWICK: You have the fire doing down there, but the thing is really being cooked by the smoke that's coming up and the heat that's generated.

Mr. PLOTZ: Right. It's being cooked by the smoke and the low heat. So usually, you know, 200 degrees, 250 degrees, sitting there for hours and hours just getting smoky and delicious and mesmerizingly good.

CHADWICK: All right. Going on, there are, according to your expert articles, four main barbecue regions of the country. What are they and how are they different?

Mr. PLOTZ: The four are Texas, which is a primarily beef and ribs, and it's cooked over mesquite and sort of at rather high temperatures for barbecue with no sauce served with it. Then there is Kansas City, which has a mix of beef and pork and usually a tomatoey kind of sauce with it. Then there's Memphis, where the specialty is ribs, usually dry cooked with a seasoning powder on it. And then finally, there are the Carolinas, which do whole hog and pork shoulder and often with a kind of vinegary sauce served with it.

CHADWICK: You started in Kansas City, you go to Memphis, and then you end your trip in Texas, you skipped Carolina because you've been there so often on other trips. So what are the highs and the lowlights of this trip?

Mr. PLOTZ: Well, the highlight is the entire state of Texas. Basically, you could throw a rock anywhere in Texas, you would hit a barbecue place, and it would be better than any barbecue joint you would eat at probably anywhere else in the whole world. It's like you've died and gone to meat heaven when you go to Texas.

CHADWICK: But I just have to ask you this, David, you say that there's no sauce in Texas barbecue.

Mr. PLOTZ: Often there's no sauce. That's because Texans--you know Texans. They're beefy, they're brash, they're arrogant. And they believe that their meat is so good just with the smoke and the salt and pepper they put on the outside of it that it requires no sauce. They don't even give you forks at most places. You just sort of stab the meat with a knife and shove it in your mouth. And you know what? They're absolutely right. It requires nothing but the smoke and the salt and the pepper and a great cut of meat.

CHADWICK: OK. Texas is number one. What else?

Mr. PLOTZ: Well, I'm afraid to say that the lowlight was the city of Memphis, which is perpetrated as some kind of barbecue scam on the rest of the country, passing off sort of not very good ribs as great barbecue. And it was really disappointing to spend a couple days in Memphis and just eat bad barbecue after bad barbecue.

CHADWICK: Plotz, ladies and gentlemen, P-L-O-T-Z. He works for Slate, not DAY TO DAY.

Go on, David, what else?

Mr. PLOTZ: Well, I'm sure you're going to ask me, Alex, what is the greatest barbecue restaurant in the whole country?

CHADWICK: I mean, that's the key thing, right?

Mr. PLOTZ: Well, fortunately, this is not one of those questions where there's no answer. There is an answer to this question. There is a single-greatest barbecue restaurant in the United States. It's a place called Smitty's. It's in a town called Lockhart, Texas, a small town, which has four of probably, you know, the 10 best barbecue restaurants in the entire country are in this small town. And Smitty's is this old German meat market. You go in there. It's like entering, you know, a barbecue temple. It's dark. It's smoky. There's men in white butcher coats hacking up these enormous pieces of meat. And it's heaven.

CHADWICK: Heaven right here in America at Smitty's in Lockhart, Texas, opinion--and let us stress that word--from Slate deputy editor David Plotz, who is at a barbecue joint in Washington, DC. You can find his series called An American Barbecue Pilgrimage at

David, thank you and happy eating.

Mr. PLOTZ: Thanks, Alex.

CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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