Is Seattle Barbecue Really Among the Nation’s Best?

You might not expect an international food website started by a Dutch chef in Sydney to have strong opinions about American barbecue. But last week, Chef’s Pencil stirred up controversy with its list of Top Cities for BBQ in the U.S. After analyzing TripAdvisor review scores for more than 2,000 restaurants with barbecue on the menu, it proclaimed New Orleans the best BBQ city in the country. Bizarrely, it included both Newark and Miami in its top ten, put Kansas City outside the top 30, and left out the state of Texas entirely. And perhaps just as shocking, it named Seattle barbecue as the seventh-best in America.

Reaction to Chef’s Pencil’s maps of the best and worst BBQ cities was swift. TripAdvisor disavowed the rankings, saying on Twitter that they were “very concerned” about how the data was presented and that they “did not make those wild BBQ maps.” Texas Monthly replied “LOL,” and the official City of Houston account seemed to have an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

So what went wrong? There are at least three reasons why these lists didn’t match the expectations of smoked-meat aficionados around the U.S.:

  • First, Chef’s Pencil wasn’t evaluating the quality of the barbecue in the restaurants it included in its survey. Instead, according to an article about the list on the Matador Network, its methodology was to rank the cities based on their average TripAdvisor rating. So what it was actually measuring wasn’t how good a city’s barbecue is, but how good the people who rate it think it is. Maybe diners in New Orleans are just happier about the meals they eat there than eaters in other places.
  • Second, the survey might have used an expanded definition of barbecue that means that comparing one city’s ratings to another’s isn’t very meaningful. It’s impossible to tell without seeing exactly which restaurant ratings the website included in its dataset, but several people commenting on the survey on Twitter suggested that Newark’s ranking might be explained by its excellent Portuguese BBQ, and Seattle’s by its well-regarded Korean BBQ restaurants.
  • And third, the perils of the survey’s algorithm also likely skewed the results. Any restaurant with barbecue on their menu was included if it had at least five TripAdvisor reviews. We don’t know exactly how many establishments were analyzed for each location, but the difference between the second-ranked city (Oklahoma City, 4.26), and seventh-ranked city (Seattle, 4.23) might amount to a single person’s bad review score. It wouldn’t take much for a city with a few low-rated barbecue restaurants to fall down the leaderboard. And even Houston (3.93, seventh worst) and Ft. Worth (3.94, tenth worst) might have made the top 10 with just a few more good ratings.

With so many different styles of barbecue, and nearly everyone having a strong opinion about their favorite, naming the country’s best BBQ cities might be a fruitless exercise. But most people would probably agree that Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and North Carolina should be well-represented on any list. So I think it’s safe to say we can throw out this survey entirely. (And Chef’s Pencil seems to have done so as well: the page announcing its BBQ rankings is no longer available on its website.)

One more reason it makes little sense for Seattle to be in the top 10 of any ranking of the best BBQ cities in the U.S. is that it lacks its own distinctive style, one representing a local tradition that’s shared by a number of restaurants. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any good barbecue here. Here are some of the top Seattle barbecue spots that represent a few different regional styles.

  • For Texas-style brisket, I like Jack’s BBQ, with locations in SoDo, South Lake Union, and Algona. The meat served here is rubbed with salt and pepper and served with pickles and white bread, but without sauce, as is typical in central Texas.
  • For Carolina-style pulled pork, I like Bitterroot BBQ in Ballard. The succulent meat is accompanied by a choice of sweet, spicy, or mustard-based sauce. (Lovers of eastern North Carolina barbecue would insist on a vinegar-based sauce, however.)
  • My next Seattle barbecue meal will probably come from Briley’s BBQ in Lake City. It describes its menu as “NW style,” with a selection of housemade sausages, Kansas City-style pulled pork, brisket, and baby back ribs. Eaters who miss their favorite Southern specialties can also order hush puppies, Brunswick stew, banana pudding, and more.
  • At Woodshop BBQ in the Central District (and at their food truck around town), you’ll find both brisket and pulled pork by the pound, as well as racks of dry-rubbed, St. Louis cut pork spare ribs.
  • Emma’s BBQ in Hillman City is a family-run restaurant offering ribs, chicken, and pulled pork, among other barbecue specialties. The owner, Tess Thomas, named the restaurant after her mother, who grew up in Arkansas.
  • The smoked meat that comes from Lady Jaye in West Seattle doesn’t fit a single regional style, but the daily specials include pork belly burnt ends, smoked New York prime steak, and smoked dry aged Delmonico cheesesteak, as well as giant smoked “dino” beef ribs.

What are your favorite spots for Seattle barbecue, and which regional styles do you think are sorely missing here? Leave a comment below and let me know!

Want to connect on social media? Follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

More from SeattleFoodHound: 

What I Ate: Homemade sous vide brisket from Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Serious Eats recipe

Seattle barbecue probably shouldn't be ranked in the top 10 in the U.S., even if my brisket was pretty great

Eater Beware: How to Avoid Being Duped by Food Fraud

The shocking New York Times story about alleged sexual harassment and abusive workplace culture at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island overshadowed another serious allegation, that the restaurant committed food fraud by routinely misleading diners about the sourcing of its ingredients. Former employees said that although Chef Blaine Wetzel claimed to only use locally foraged, fished, and farmed products, supermarket vegetables stood in for local beets and broccoli, chickens came from Costco, and Pacific octopus was delivered frozen from Spain and Portugal.

If these accounts are to be believed, the Willows Inn’s substitutions are one of the most high-profile examples of food fraud that’s come to light over the past decade. Seafood, olive oil, certain spices, and even Bagel Bites are among the food products you could have purchased without realizing that what you were actually getting might have been deceptively labeled – or even completely fraudulent.

Did you think something was fishy about your last sushi dinner? You may have been right. A 2019 report by the seafood conservation group Oceana found that 21 percent of the fish samples they tested were deceptive, with 26 percent of restaurants selling mislabeled seafood. Imported fish was frequently passed off as local, and more than half of all the sea bass was actually something else. Italian research published the same year estimated that 15 percent of all swordfish being sold was actually shark. And a 2013 episode of This American Life noted the similarity between fried calamari and hog rectum, alleging that some restaurants were substituting a pork-based product for squid. (However, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service never reported any examples of mislabeled “imitation” calamari.)

Olive oil is another product under scrutiny for deceptive labeling. In a 2010 study by the University of California Davis Olive Center, nearly 70 percent of imported extra-virgin olive oil failed to meet the quality standards required to have that label. The Olive Center suggested that poor-quality oils were often being passed off as extra-virgin, and that cheaper refined oils such as hazelnut oil that are difficult to detect were sometimes mixed in. Later that year, the USDA adopted new standards for grading olive oils, although not all manufacturers follow them.

Spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, and saffron are also rife for fraudulent substitution. Real Ceylon cinnamon, which usually comes from Sri Lanka and elsewhere in southeast Asia, has a more delicate flavor than cassia cinnamon, which is often grown in southern China and contains higher amounts of a harmful toxin called coumarin. In addition, ground cinnamon can contain fillers like coffee husks. If you’re buying vanilla extract, know that it’s sometimes not made from real vanilla beans, but from a synthetic compound called vanillin. And saffron, derived from the flower of a species of crocus and said to be the world’s most expensive spice, has sometimes been forged with dried flowers or corn silk threads.

Of course, not every example of food fraud is found in nature. Just last week, a Wisconsin woman sued Kraft Heinz Foods, the maker of Bagel Bites. She claimed that the company mislabeled the product as having “real” mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, when it’s actually made from a cheese blend and a sauce with “non-tomato extenders and thickeners.”

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to avoid being duped by imitation food. You don’t have much recourse if a restaurant is flat-out lying to you, although the more questions you ask, the more likely you are to discover the truth about what’s happening in the kitchen. (You probably don’t need to find out the name of your chicken, as was brilliantly parodied in the restaurant sketch from the first episode of Portlandia.) Although I can’t say for sure that all of the ingredients used in my dinner at the Willows Inn came from Lummi Island, I did tour the expansive garden near the restaurant, and recognized some of the items, like squash blossoms and nasturtium flowers, that were apparently used in dishes I ate the night before.

For seafood products, your best strategy is to be sure and ask your local restaurant or fish market about their sourcing practices. You can also frequent establishments, such as Mashiko in West Seattle, that are transparent about where their fish comes from and that have shown a commitment to sustainability. And you can avoid ingredients like sea bass that have a higher chance of being something else entirely.

When you’re buying olive oil, look for labeling on a bottle that shows certification from either the California Olive Oil Council or a similar international organization. (Italian olive oils, for example, will have a “DOP” logo showing that the product was prepared using traditional methods.)

For spices, buy only from reputable grocers, and read the label carefully to make sure you’re getting what you think you are. Whenever possible, buy whole spices, like cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans, instead of processed versions. And let price be your guide – for example, an inexpensive container of saffron threads isn’t likely to be the real thing (and if you buy it, you might later realize that you’re mad about saffron). You can also test your purchase by adding a few threads into a container of water. Real saffron will slowly turn the water yellow while maintaining its own red color.

And if you’re concerned about the actual mozzarella and tomato content in your Bagel Bites? You probably have bigger issues than food fraud. I’d suggest making your own version – or, if that’s too much trouble, just order a pizza.

Want to connect on social media? Follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

More from SeattleFoodHound: 

What I Ate: Squash blossoms and local flowers with nasturtium puree at the Willows Inn

The Willows Inn, where I ate these squash blossoms, has been accused of food fraud

Posts You Might Have Missed: Seattle Pizza, Food Holidays, and More

While I work on some fresh content, I’m resurfacing a few of my favorite posts from the first three months of this site. Consider it the Seattle Food Hound version of a clip show, that sitcom staple in which studios that produced comedies like The Three Stooges, All in the Family, or Cheers stitched together excerpts from earlier episodes to produce something that viewers hadn’t seen before. Here are a few updates to previous posts that you might have missed.

In February, I wrote about how you can travel the world of pizza without leaving the city. Since then, the best pizza I’ve had is Cornelly’s margherita pizza with fennel sausage and maitake mushrooms. Romeo is no longer slinging pies, but a new Seattle pizza popup I have my eye on is Oskar’s Pizza, which regularly appears at local breweries as well as at other locations around town.

With Cinco de Mayo coming up tomorrow, I thought it’d be a good time to revisit my post explaining why it’s not wrong to celebrate other people’s holidays. Just make sure to commemorate the culture surrounding the occasion respectfully – and getting food from a local Mexican restaurant is a good place to start. My post exploring why some people think that Seattle doesn’t have any good Mexican food offers a dozen recommended spots for tacos, burritos, tortas, and more. And since publication, I’ve given an emphatic thumbs-up to both Carmelo’s Tacos and the takeout box at Asadero.

If you need another occasion to celebrate this week, how about National Hoagie Day, National Roast Leg of Lamb Day, or National Coconut Cream Pie Day? My post from March explains where all these food holidays came from, including some that were just invented out of thin air by an enterprising food blogger.

The new season of “Worst Cooks in America” has just started airing on the Food Network, this time starring Cleveland chef Michael Symon as well as Anne Burrell. I continue to find it one of the most entertaining and educational food shows on TV.

If you’re spending more time than usual in the kitchen, it may be worth thinking about how you can eliminate clutter by tossing your useless cooking gadgets. I still haven’t found the right occasion for my battery-operated ice cream cone, but I will admit to using the apple corer and bagel guillotine.

And while you’re already doing some spring cleaning, why not give some thought to how you organize your recipes? While the New York Times reported on a new option last week, the recipe sharing site called Cookpad that’s gained popularity around the world, I’ll keep using my homegrown solution.

Look for some new posts coming soon, including my take on where to eat the best fried chicken in town!

Want to connect on social media? Follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

Margherita pizza with fennel sausage and maitake mushrooms from Cornelly