Upgrade your barbecue sauce with help from six legendary pit masters.
Memphis-Style Barbecue Sauce (pictured above)
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous (52 South Second St.; 901-523-2746) is famous for its spice-rubbed ribs, and John Vergos, son of founder Charlie, still smokes them the way his father did when he opened the place in 1948: He cooks the pork ribs over oak charcoal briquettes, bastes them with a mix of vinegar and water, and seasons them with a paprika-heavy spice blend before serving with the sauce on the side. “Our sauce is not too heavy,” he says. “I like the little mustard and vinegar bite.” The recipe is a long-held family secret, but chefs in Food Network Kitchens ordered a few bottles and reverse-engineered the recipe.
South Carolina-Style Mustard Barbecue Sauce
South Carolina’s distinctive yellow mustard barbecue sauce is by no means ubiquitous — you have to go to Lexington County to get the real deal — and it’s not a universal favorite, either. Barbecue junkies are as divided on this one as they are on politics. Jackie Hite of Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Q in Leesville (467 East Columbia Ave.; 803-532-3354) has been barbecuing in his corner of South Carolina for 60 years, and he’s a trusted source for honest-to-goodness mustard barbecue sauce. He smokes his pork over hickory, pulls it off the bone, then flavors it with his famous sauce. If you’re ever in town, stop by for a Friday pig pickin': He roasts a hog for 22 hours and then lets everyone have at it.
North Carolina-Style Vinegar Barbecue Sauce
If you ask pit master Keith Allen what makes barbecue barbecue, he’ll always tell you: It’s the sauce. “Before that,” he says, “it’s just hickory-cooked pork.” Keith, owner of Allen & Son (6203 Millhouse Rd.; 919-942-7576) in Chapel Hill, N.C., fires up his pit at two o’clock every morning and smokes 700 pounds of pork a day, dressing it with a traditional eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce. His famous sauce is tart and spicy yet light enough to let the taste of the long-smoked pork stand out. “It takes 12 hours to cook this meat,” he says. “I surely don’t want to cover that up.” His recipe is a closely guarded secret, so our test kitchens ordered a ton of the stuff to come up with this close match.
Texas-Style Barbecue Sauce
Any Texan will tell you that barbecue isn’t about the sauce — it’s about beef and smoke. Wayne Mueller, of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas (206 West Second St.; 512-352-6206), agrees, to a point. “My grandfather [founder Louie] told me that if someone leaves talking about how good your barbecue sauce is, you’ve failed.” So Wayne smokes his beef ribs and brisket over oak with nothing more than a salt-and-pepper rub. But he serves sauce on the side, for dipping. He wouldn’t call it a traditional barbecue sauce — just a thin, oniony tomato dressing that complements the beef. “I’ve never tasted any other sauce like it,” Wayne says.
Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce
L.C. Richardson was born in Mississippi, but he has been making quintessential K.C. ‘cue since 1986, the year he retired and started doing what he really loves: smoking meat with hickory wood. The specialty at LC’s Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Mo. (5800 Blue Pkwy.; 816-923-4484), are the burnt ends — fatty, blackened edges cut from smoked brisket — doused in his Kansas City-style sauce. It took L.C. years to perfect his sweet and tangy tomato-based concoction. “I threw it out by the barrel until I got it right,” he says.
Kentucky-Style Mutton Dip
Even some serious barbecue junkies haven’t heard of mutton dip: It’s a highly localized western Kentucky specialty, designed to pair with barbecue mutton (sheep). Patrick Bosley, of Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Ky. (2840 West Parrish Ave.; 270-684-8143), has been smoking mutton and making mutton dip all his life. His grandparents bought the Moonlite in 1963, when it was a tiny run down bar with a barbecue pit in the back, and Patrick’s business is still going strong, to the tune of 1,000 orders a day. The tangy house dip is acidic enough to cut through the rich, gamey meat, and the mutton gets a double dose: It’s basted while it is being smoked, then again when it’s served. (The dip tastes great with any strongly flavored meat.)
(Photographs by Andrew Purcell)