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!

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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