Every year since 2013, I’ve ventured with some friends on an epic road trip in search of some of the best BBQ the great United States of America has to offer. On this 9th trip, I decided to visit all the past champions from the previous eight years and have them all face off head to head for the best overall BBQ experience. When judging “Best Overall BBQ Experience” I took into account (3) major criteria: #1 – Appearance of the Food, #2 – Atmosphere of the Restaurant, & #3 – Overall Taste of the food. Criteria #1 & #2 are weighted at 25% each and #3 is weighted 50% on a scale of 1 to 5 to get a their respective BBQ Guru Index or “BGI”.
This years trip took place over Labor Day weekend and this post is all about the places we visited, the food we ate, our critique and thoughts about the food, and some fun highlights along the way. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts about each place that we visited!
Our first destination took us to the northwest region of Indiana and my “Best of Indiana” tour winner, Bombers BBQ. Since I last visited them in 2017 they’ve moved to a new location not super far from their original spot. On this trip, I ordered the sliced brisket, pork rib tips, macaroni & cheese, and a slice of jalapeno cheddar cornbread
When I’m judging appearance, I look at the plate (in this case a tray) as a whole and I ask myself “Do I want to eat everything on this plate or not?” Bombers BBQ did a really good job plating. First, you get a metal tray which is good vs. a traditional plastic basket, paper plate, Styrofoam container, etc…Secondly, everything is spaced nicely on the tray. The brisket slices you can see a smoke ring and a really solid bark. The rib tips are sauced, admittedly a little gloppy, but the sauce does provide a nice sheen look. The mac n cheese has a cornflake crumble on top which blends in a little bit with the dish but some burnt/charred noodles are visible. The jalapeno cheddar cornbread has some noticeable jalapenos in it. Overall, this plate scored really well on appearance.
The best thing on this plate was 100% the sliced brisket. I already mentioned it looked amazing and the taste didn’t disappoint. It was smoky, beefy, savory and the bark was AWESOME! It passed the pull test when it comes to tenderness even though I did notice the slices were a little thinner than I expected. I would definitely go back for their sliced brisket alone. The pork rib tips were OK/Good…just really depended on if the rib tip was mostly meat or mostly grizzle. If it was mostly meat then it was good if it was mostly grizzle it was OK. Flavor profile was great and they were tender, but I would’ve liked a little more consistent ratio of meat/grizzle on the tips. Both side dishes were great and I know heavy on the starches, but hey, it’s BBQ! The mac n cheese uses rotini pasta which was a nice twist on mac n cheese and the corn flake crumble on top added a really nice texture to the creaminess of the cheese sauce. The jalapeno cheddar cornbread was very balanced and every bite had cornbread, jalapeno, & cheddar cheese in it.
All in all, Bombers BBQ got the 2022 BBQ Tour started on a great foot and really set a high bar and everyone agreed that “We’re gonna have a lot of really good food this weekend!”
Our second destination took us to the windy city of Chicago, IL. After an afternoon touring the Navy Pier, going on a high-speed boat tour, and walking the riverwalk area for a couple hours, we visited my best BBQ Chicken winner from 2016 Smoque BBQ. This go around I ordered the half BBQ chicken, BBQ beans, mac n cheese, coleslaw, and pecan caramel bread pudding.
Looking at this plate it screams “I’m not leaving here hungry!”. This is a packed out tray of food! The half chicken just looks PHENOMENAL and that bark is and was super tasty. The beans you can see had some meat in it but it does look “soupy” for BBQ beans in my opinion. The mac n cheese looks tasty with a bit of a crust on top. The vinegar slaw had some red onions for a nice color contrast. The pecan caramel bread pudding looked a bit like a hodgepodge of earth tones but I’ll share later that it didn’t disappoint.
The half chicken was my main entrée as it won my best BBQ chicken and it was as good as I remembered. The skin got an excellent crust that was packed full of flavor and I’m sure my heart wasn’t super thankful but my tastebuds definitely were! When it comes to the meat itself, the dark meat was great! Smokey, moist, and tender. The white meat had a few parts that were a tad dry and it needed some sauce. White meat chicken is very difficult to keep moist so I understand the difficulty. I will be honest, that the beans and mac n cheese I wasn’t a big fan of. There was a spice or something in the beans that I can’t tell was super heavy. Could be cumin but there was a strong bitter taste in the beans that I had. The mac n cheese was traditional but not super creamy and the crumble on top didn’t quite provide the texture that the mac n cheese at Bombers BBQ did provide earlier this day. The coleslaw, which was vinegar based, was surprisingly good and provided a nice freshness to the meal. The pecan caramel bread pudding is an ABSOLUTE MUST HAVE! I will admit, I’ve become a little bit of a bread pudding snob/connoisseur and I usually try it every time I see it and this bread pudding was AWESOME! It is very rich (too rich according to one of my friends) but it’s a great balance of sweet and savory and the pecans add a really nice texture that take this dessert over the top.
Day #2 of the BBQ Tour took us to Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis, MO. Pappy’s has a lot of national recognition and is actually a (2) Time BBQ Tour champion winner winning my inaugural trip in 2013 with best ribs and my best of St. Louis trip in 2018. This year, we ordered what’s called the “Adam Bomb”. It consisted of a half-slab of ribs, a pulled pork sandwich, a brisket sandwich, a chicken sandwich, (3) ears of deep fried corn on the cob, a side of BBQ beans, and “frito pie” which is essentially corn chips with smoked sausage, beans, cheese, and onions. We also got a 1/4 pound of beef burnt ends. PHEW!
Looking at this spread of food everything looks delicious! You can see a nice shine to the ribs, the corn has a little character being deep fried, and the frito pie looks like a mess…a deliciously tasty & smoky one! I will knock Pappy’s that our plates were plastic baskets with butcher paper…this is just a personal peeve of mine. The BBQ sandwiches (Chicken, pork & brisket) were already cut in half which was a very nice touch as my friends and I were able to easily share the sandwiches.
Pappy’s is a place that I always have high expectations at. They’ve won twice on my BBQ trips and have lots of national recognition and me and my friends said the word that best describes the food at Pappy’s is simply “CONSISTENT”. Their food is just so darn consistently good it’s tough to beat! The ribs were of course the highlight of the meal. The ribs are sweet in flavor and a bit too tender to my liking but the flavor of the ribs definitely overcomes the tenderness. On one visit to Pappy’s I got to help them unload one of their smokers and carried a tray of about 20-25 racks of ribs to the kitchen…fun times! The sandwiches were mixed reviews among me and my friends. The pulled pork sandwich was probably the best of the three sandwiches straight up. The chicken was smoky but it was dry and needed sauce. The brisket was tender but wasn’t smoky and also needed sauce. The fried corn on the cob was AWESOME! Only knock on it is that it doesn’t come pre-buttered and I had to butter it myself LOL. The beans were very good and had some smoked meat in it which provide some next texture. The Frito Pie was just flat out great…crunchy, melted cheesy, smoky, BBQ goodness!
Day #2 of the BBQ Tour took us to Jack Stack BBQ in Kansas City, MO for dinner. Jack Stack BBQ won my Best of Kansas City BBQ Tour back in 2020 beating out other Kansas City, MO BBQ staples like Arthur Bryant’s, Q39, Slaps BBQ, & Joe’s BBQ. This visit to Jack Stack I ordered a 3-meat dinner which included pulled pork, pork spare ribs, and brisket burnt ends. I had sides of BBQ beans and potato salad. My friends and I shared a skillet jalapeno cheddar cornbread and a large slice of carrot cake.
When it comes to taste at Jack Stack it was across the board good to really good. I liken the word of “consistent” that I used for Pappy’s Smokehouse to be similar to the meats here at Jack Stack. We knew going into this trip that the meats were going to be good so a place really needed to bring it to score above average and the meats at Jack Stack were simply good to very good. The spare ribs were near fall apart tender which I personally don’t like but I get it. The flavor though was very good. Smokey, sweet wit a little bit of tang. The beef burnt ends were also really tender but not falling apart which is really good. They had a smoky flavor even though I couldn’t see much of a smoke ring on them. The pulled pork was also smoky, tender, & moist but it didn’t have any specific property jump out to take it over the top. The side dishes though…helped Jack Stack the most as they were very good to great. The beans have some of that tangy bbq sauce in it along with some smoked meats. The beans are also thick which is a big plus for me. The potato salad stole the show though for the side dishes. I usually don’t get cold sides but I knew the potato salad was good so I got it again. It’s creamy, rich, and the dry rub sprinkled on top makes it a little savory and really provides a nice balance to the dinner.
Now hold the front door open because the carrot cake ultimately stole the show! First it’s a massive carrot cake “slice” but it was flat out delicious. It was served warm which was a very nice touch and made the cake portion very filling. The frosting on top was killer good. The crumbled pecans added a nice texture to it and the fact that there’s some carrots in it makes me think I’m eating something healthy…ish HA! If you have room for dessert at Jack Stack BBQ you must get the carrot cake.
Day #3 of the BBQ Tour takes us to Memphis, TN and Central BBQ. Central BBQ is my most recent BBQ Tour champion winning my best of Memphis tour last year in 2021 beating out other BBQ joints like Rendezvous, The Barbeque Shop, A&R Barbeque, & Pig on Beale. Sadly, the location we went to last year was under construction/renovation so we had to visit another location, but nonetheless the food should still be as good even when you franchise. I ordered a 3-meat plate that consisted of pulled pork, pulled chicken, and baby back ribs. I got sides of potato salad and mac n cheese.
I will admit that. Iforgot to take zoomed in photos of my individual meats and sides but I did get a photo of the banana pudding. I also included photos of the plates that my friends got. Everybody got ribs but one friend went with turkey and one went with smoked sausage. The best thing I ate at Central this day was the ribs hands down! This was the first place that had competition style ribs where the tenderness isn’t fall off the bone so that was really good to see and the classic dry rub flavor of Memphis style ribs was on point. The pulled pork I got was really good. It was smoky, tender, flavorful and moist. The chicken though was dry and needed sauce. The chicken did have a nice smoke flavor though so that was good to taste. The sides were OK to good…the mac n cheese was traditional and the dry rub sprinkle added a nice pop of flavor. Same for the potato salad…traditional but nothing over the top. The rolls appeared and tasted like store-bought Hawaiian rolls. The banana pudding was super good and was a really nice sweet end to the meal. It was creamy, had some good texture of moist cake and crispy wafers, and plenty of banana flavor to go around.
Day #4 of the BBQ Tour took us to our last BBQ place on this trip, Red State BBQ, in Lexington, KY. I do want to put a quick plug that Lexington, KY had another past champion in Lyles BBQ which won my best of Dixie (Kentucky/Tennessee) trip but they sadly closed up shop due to the pandemic. Red State BBQ though endured and won my best pulled pork sandwich trip back in 2015. My visit this time featured the pulled pork sandwich with beer cheese grits. My group also ordered a 3-meat platter to sample their ribs, hot link sausage, sliced brisket, BBQ beans and corn pudding. My friends got a pulled pork sandwich with mac n cheese and the beer cheese brisket sandwich also with mac n cheese. We also split an order of BBQ egg rolls.
First glance at everything screams this is a table that’s going to eat good! Taking a closer look at the sandwich and side that I specifically got the main thing that jumps out to me is the amount of meat on the sandwich. I do like that the top bun is also slightly off the sandwich so the eater can see a large majority of the meat on the sandwich. The meat itself you can see some of the smoky end parts and the pulled strands appear to be moist and the bun is buttered with a slight toast which is a nice touch. The beer cheese grits I’ve never had before and it looked bland or in other words cheesy grits. The pre-packaged plasticware was also blah.
Even though the plating at Red State was less than desirable, the food was definitely worth it! The pulled pork sandwich was for the most part moist and needed no sauce but the array of sauces that Red State has provided plenty of complimentary flavors…the South Carolina mustard being my personal favorite. The beer cheese grits were actually really good! The texture was similar to a very creamy and cheesy mac n cheese but with the texture of well cooked grits. I like a creamy grit vs a rough one so it was an excellent beer cheese grits side. The ribs were good but needed sauce. The hot link sausage was tasty and had a really nice snap on the casing when you bite into it. I was disappointed in the brisket. It was overcooked and fell apart on us everytime and it was more like chopped beef. It lacked smoke ring but had a little bit of smoky flavor. The mac n cheese, BBQ beans, and corn pudding were good but nothing really made them jump out as super exciting. The BBQ egg rolls were a nice touch. Pulled pork, mac n cheese, wrapped up in an egg roll wrapper and deep fried. Definitely going to have to give it a try sometime.