Barbecue is one of those foods that's fiercely regional: beef in Texas, sweet sauce in Kansas City, and so on. But thankfully, there are plenty of chains out there that bring amazing barbecue all across the country, and we've rounded up 10 of them.
Chains tend to get bad raps in general, largely because they rely on production lines and cost-cutting measures to deliver food that's as inexpensive and quickly-made as possible (think pizza chains versus an actual pizzeria). But when it comes to barbecue, there's really no corner-cutting. Because if you cut corners with barbecue, using low-grade meat, for example, or not smoking it for long enough, people will know. And not only will they know, they'll get angry. You can screw around with burgers or pizza, but you can't screw around with barbecue.
A Minnesota-based chain founded by a Chippewa Indian might be a surprising place to find great barbecue, but Dave Anderson really knows his stuff. Since starting the company in 1994, he’s opened more than 200 locations and is also a formidable contender on the competitive barbecue circuit. Anderson has mastered just about every variety of barbecue, and it’s all on display on his menu. Texas beef brisket is dry-rubbed and hickory-smoked, Georgia-style chopped pork is smoked for 12 hours, Memphis-style rib tips are coated in a spicy dry rub, and the St. Louis-style spare ribs are smoked for four hours, slathered in a sweet and sticky sauce and grilled until it’s caramelized. Don’t leave without trying the brisket burnt ends; however, they’re tender, smoky, and caramelized in a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce that you can (thankfully) bring home a bottle of.
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With more than 400 locations in 43 states, Dickey’s is the world’s largest barbecue franchise. Founded by Travis Dickey more than 70 years ago, each location pit-smokes its meat on-premises, and free kids’ meals are still offered every Sunday. While it’s certainly old-fashioned, that’s more the result of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Meats are served by the pound, and include Southern-style pulled pork, hickory-smoked brisket, honey ham, spicy cheddar and Polish sausages, pork ribs, chicken, and turkey breast. There are no frills at Dickey’s, just solid, honest-to-goodness barbecue.
Photo Credit: Dickey’s BBQ Pit
Founded 25 years ago in Arlington, Va. by a group of Southern transplants looking for good barbecue in DC (including former RNC chairman Lee Atwater and former Tennessee Governor–House member Don Sundquist), the chain today has additional locations in Maryland, Texas, New Jersey, Missouri, Michigan, and North Carolina. The restaurants have a distinctly Southern vibe, with menu items including fried Delta catfish and chicken fried steak, but it’s the barbecue that’s been the secret to its success. St. Louis-style ribs are served wet, dry-rubbed, or sweet; pulled chicken and pork are hickory-smoked low and slow; brisket is served sliced or chopped; housemade sausages are smoked and grilled; and thankfully sampler platters are available so you can try a little bit of everything.
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What started as a honky tonk-style rib joint in Syracuse, N.Y. in 1988 has exploded in popularity over the years, offering some of the best barbecue available in the Northeast. Today there are locations in Rochester and Troy, N.Y., Newark, N.J., Stamford, Conn., Harlem and Brooklyn, N.Y. and long waits to get in every night of the week. What do the crowds line up for? Brisket pit smoked for 14 hours, both classic and Carolina-style pulled pork, homemade hot links, smoked chicken, and slow-smoked St. Louis ribs for those looking for classic barbecue; and killer burgers, pulled pork poutine, smoked wings, peel & eat shrimp, and sandwiches including the Chopped Melt (chopped brisket tossed with barbecue sauce, sautéed onions, and melted cheddar pressed in a Cuban roll) for those looking for something different. Dinosaur is a fun, rollicking kind of place with plenty of live music, an extensive beer and cocktail list, and thankfully you can also buy bottles of their legendary dry rub and barbecue sauce.
Photo Credit: © Flickr / Sharon Drummond
If you’re going to open a chain of barbecue restaurants in the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Colorado, you better make sure that your product is on-point. A visit to Jim N’ Nick’s, which was founded in 1985 by a father-son duo in Birmingham, Alabama and now has 30 locations, will show you that this is the real deal. Perennial exhibitors at best-of-the-best showcases like New York’s Big Apple BBQ Block Party, they’re smoking their own pork (sold pulled or chopped with a vinegary Carolina-style sauce), spare and baby back ribs, house-cured bone-in ham, legendary housemade pork hot links, chicken, turkey breast, and beef brisket, all served with a big dose of Southern hospitality. They also offer a killer hickory-grilled burger and pimento cheese sandwich, but honestly, you’re going to want to reserve all the room in your stomach for this crazy-good barbecue.
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All the owners of the chains on our list keep this fact close to heart, and it comes through in the food they serve. In order to assemble our ranking, we looked at dozens of barbecue restaurants with multiple locations all across the country, and ranked them according to the following criteria: local renown, consistency of the food across all locations, adherence to traditional barbecue techniques like "low and slow" on-premises smoking, atmosphere, and, most importantly, if the food tastes good.
Choosing a favorite type of barbecue is a subjective matter, but I think we can all agree on the fact then when done right, there's nothing on earth that's more delicious. And while some of these chains might specialize in Texas-style barbecue and others focus on St. Louis, we should be mighty thankful that they've decided to expand and grace parts of the country that might otherwise not have access to great barbecue with their presence. So strap in and get ready to learn about the 10 best barbecue chains in America.