Barbecuerankings.com: the PigTrip Interview
Barbecuerankings.com is a new website that chronicles Johnny Fugitt's cross country tour of the country's best 'cue in an attempt to hit 365 barbecue restaurants in 365 days and determine the 100 best for his upcoming book The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America. Naturally, I took great interest not only in his findings for Northeast barbecue joints such as BT's Smokehouse, Salvage BBQ and Redbones, but also in his process.
Pigtrip: Where are you based?
Johnny: I am from Missouri and have lived in both St. Louis and the Kansas City area. I recently relocated to the Washington DC area, but I'll be on the road most of the time through October.
Tell me about your website and your book.
The book was always the purpose of the project, but the website was created to document my journey. I noticed that most cities have a "Best of" or "Top 10" list written by a local reporter or writer. These lists are, while subjective, generally pretty good because the authors actually visit most of the local spots before putting together their list. I looked for lists of the best barbecue restaurants in America and wasn't happy with what I found. Most lists are either the most historic places in America or the best marketed places in America. Many do not even give an author because they are simply thrown together to generate clicks and advertising dollars. Others compile a list by getting a recommendation from a writer in KC, a writer in Memphis, a writer in NYC, etc. I wanted to see a list from someone who had used the local model at the national level. I couldn't find it. I wanted to see a list from one person who had visited hundreds of barbecue restaurants all over the country in a relatively condensed period of time and I couldn't find it. I decided I would be the one to do it!
How does your process work? Did
you "nominate" joints to visit ahead of time, or do you take it day by day? Do you visit each one only once? Do you chat with the owners before or after eating? Do they know ahead of time that you're coming?
I get asked these sorts of questions a lot and plan to have an introductory chapter in the book that answers questions like these. I will try to answer some of them in short form now, though. The first place I look for restaurants are the lists put together by local writers and reporters. I also like to ask around for the recommendations of locals. I've asked random people at gas stations, city parks, etc. Probably 75% of my visits are scheduled in advance, as I like to meet with the owner, manager or pitmaster to hear what they have to say. I want to give them the opportunity to share their story and make their pitch on why they should be considered one of America's best. I often get to see the pits this way, which I really enjoy. I can learn a lot about the place by seeing their kitchens and preparation processes. One of my questions is always about their signature dishes or their most popular items and this helps me know what to be sure to try. There are a few disadvantages to do it this way. I don't know that what I'm getting is exactly what a customer would get, for example. I have found, however, that I'm able to get a much better read on a place when I get to meet with someone and ask questions.
Do you determine that a joint is in the Top 100 on the spot, or do you say it's in the running and then narrow over time?
I have a very detailed spreadsheet with a working rankings on it. I also have a big list of "Maybe" spots that will fill whatever space is left at the end of the trip.
Have you developed a sense for being able to tell whether a barbecue joint will be good or bad before you even sit down?
I try not to be too biased going in, but sometimes I pick up hints from the website, outside of the restaurant or things like that that tip me off. For example, I was at one place recently and around back they had empty 5 gallon buckets of an inexpensive, commercial sauce. That wasn't a good sign. I want a place that makes their own sauces. I can also get a read on a place just by looking at the food.
What's your ordering strategy?
I like to try whatever the restaurant considers to be their best items. When in doubt, I go with the regional items.
Is there pressure to include, say, the best BBQ joint in Rhode Island over the 16th best in Texas even though it might not be as good for the sake of geographical representation?
Geographic spread is an interesting question. Your average place in Memphis, KC, Texas or the Carolinas may be better than some of the better places in the rest of the country. I have found, however, excellent barbecue all over the place. The list will be heavy on the geographic centers of barbecue, but other areas will be represented too. There will not be one restaurant from every state, but there will be some from every region - not in any attempt to be fair, but just because I thought that there were really good spots in each region.
To what degree have regional stereotypes been proven or disproven over the course of your journey? What were some of the biggest surprises?
I have found barbecue to have become much more homogeneous than I expect it was 50, 25 or even 10 years ago. You can find brisket all over Birmingham, Alabama; mustard sauces in Memphis and pulled pork in Portland (Maine and Oregon!). I think this is largely due to food shows on TV, people traveling more, our transient society, competition barbecue and the growing interest in barbecue. While regional differences still exist and each area is proud of their history and styles, the barbecue world has largely become flat. I'll talk much more about this in the book!
How have your taste buds and personal changed with repeated exposure?
I'm much pickier than I was 9 months ago. I think there is a lot of good barbecue out there and I could still eat that for lunch just about every day. It takes a special place, though, to really make me say "Wow! This is awesome!" I started out as more of a pork guy and, while great pork is still good, I think one of the best briskets is my ultimate. I don't have much patience for average brisket, though.
Have you developed a taste for any of the barbecue staples you hadn't liked previously, or gotten tired of anything you loved?
I wasn't a big fan of potato salad before this, but I've had so much of it now that I don't mind it. I am a bit tired of sauces that are super sweet, but they were never my favorites. I was always a bit more of a spicy sauce guy.
What are some of the logistical, biological and psychological challenges involved with eating so much barbecue?
I get an oil change about once a month rather than about once every three months, just because I'm on the road so much. The travel has its joys. I enjoy seeing new parts of the country, try to see some sights along the way and get to reconnect with friends, but it also has its drawbacks. It's a lot of time by myself and eight hours of driving is just another day! I have not put on any weight during this project. I run and stay active when possible. My non-barbecue diet is much healthier than it was a year ago. I've cut back on sweets and eat more greens than ever before. My juicer normally travels with me and I'll replace meals with a fresh juice when possible. The only psychological challenge I can think of is that I really care for the people I meet and want to help them any way I can, but I can't say that every place is really great. I plan to visit at least 365 restaurants by late October (1 year from when I started), so only about one quarter of my visits will make the book.
Looking forward to reading that book. Until then, we can monitor your progress on barbecuerankings.com. Thanks for sharing.