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

Seattle’s Most Iconic Foods (Besides Salmon)

If you ask people in other cities to describe Seattle, they’ll probably tell you that locals walk around here carrying a Starbucks coffee cup in one hand and an umbrella in the other, on their way to buy salmon at the Pike’s Place Market. Well, anyone who’s spent more than a year in town knows that there’s a ton of better places to get coffee, that only tourists use umbrellas, and that the place where they throw the fish is called the Pike Street market (I’m joking, folks). Still, one of those stereotypes is actually true: there’s a ton of great salmon here. And we’re fortunate to also have a wide range of fantastic fruits and vegetables, seafood, and other food products that are identifiable with the city and surrounding region and that make it an amazing place to eat. Inspired by a recent discussion in the Seattle Foodies Facebook group, here’s my list of 17 of the most iconic Seattle foods.


In addition to salmon, eating like a Seattle local means taking advantage of the abundant seafood in Puget Sound and nearby waterways. According to Cynthia Nims, author of several books about seafood, Washington is the biggest producer of oysters on the Pacific Coast and one of the largest in the country. And there are lots of great oyster bars in town where you can slurp your fill, including The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard, Taylor Shellfish Farms in Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, and Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor in Ravenna.

Another iconic seafood is Dungeness crab, which can be found throughout Pacific Coast waters but is abundant on the Washington coast. According to Nims, you can find Dungeness crab almost anytime on the calendar, but the greatest supply (and best prices) typically come in the first month or two after the ocean fishery season opens around December 1. And year-round, it’s possible to enjoy a great Dungeness crab roll at places like Seattle Fish Guys in the Central District, Bar Harbor in South Lake Union, and Local Tide in Fremont, as well as at many restaurants along the waterfront.

One more iconic Seattle seafood is the giant saltwater clam known as geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck), which is abundant in the inland waters of Puget Sound. A good place to try it is at Shiro’s Sushi in Belltown, where it’s available on the a la carte sashimi menu.

Fruits and vegetables

Washington State produces over 100 million boxes of apples annually, more than any other state. But there’s a lot of other iconic produce to enjoy here, like the sweet golden Rainier cherry, created in 1952 by a Washington State University scientist and named after the mountain. You’ll typically find them only for a few weeks after harvest, in late June to early July.

Another fruit created through a WSU breeding program and named after a local mountain is the Shuksan strawberry, a large, bright-red fruit. It also has a very brief season, typically harvesting in June at farms in the Skagit Valley.

Blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, and marionberries are all prevalent near Seattle and throughout the Northwest, but the most iconic local berry is the red raspberry. Washington State produces over 60 percent of the nation’s raspberries, which is 15 times more than our neighbor to the south. Take that, Oregon!

It’s not surprising considering the Pacific Northwest’s moist climate, but you can find an abundance of iconic mushrooms in the local woods. Species including the Pacific golden chanterelle, morel, and chicken-of-the-woods are among the edible fungi you’ll find on a foraging expedition in the forest, or on a less adventurous visit to your local upscale market.

Teriyaki, pho, and poke

Three iconic Seattle foods that you can eat at dozens of restaurants around the city reflect its large Asian population and diverse culinary influences. According to a 2007 Seattle Weekly article, the first teriyaki establishment in town was Toshi’s Teriyaki Restaurant in what’s now called Uptown. A Japanese immigrant named Toshihiro Kasahara, who opened it in 1976, still cooks at a location called Toshi’s Grill in Mill Creek. Kasahara has defined Seattle-style teriyaki as meat that’s marinated in a sweet soy-ginger sauce, grilled over an open flame, and finished with a drizzle of teriyaki. You’ll find versions of teriyaki in every neighborhood in Seattle, but it’s much less prevalent in other cities.

With around two percent of Seattle’s population identifying as Vietnamese, it’s not surprising that pho is one of the iconic Seattle foods that you can find throughout the city. A few recommended places to try are Pho Bac Sup Shop in the International District, Billiard Hoang in Columbia City, and Pho Than Brothers, with multiple locations in the region (all of which provide a signature cream puff along with your pho).

And although poke is a food that’s native to Hawaii, it’s become ubiquitous enough in Seattle that I’d also include it among the city’s iconic foods. My favorite spot for poke bowls is 45th Stop N Shop in Wallingford, but Poke Square in Ballard is also great, and Seattle Fish Guys in the Central District has a delectable assortment of poke by the pound.

Baked goods

Huge numbers of Scandinavian immigrants settled in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, and that heritage is still an important part of the city’s DNA. Seattle’s fortunate to have some outstanding bakeries that produce iconic Scandinavian baked goods. Larsen’s Bakery in Crown Hill is known for the Kringle, a buttery Danish pastry in a pretzel shape that’s filled with almonds and raisins. And at Byen Bakeri in Queen Anne, you’ll find a wide assortment of Scandinavian breads and cakes. These include cardamom braids as well as princess cake, a Swedish specialty consisting of sponge cake layered with raspberry jam, vanilla custard, and whipped cream, and topped with green marzipan.

I was surprised to learn that the Dutch baby, a thick pancake that’s typically baked in a cast-iron pan and served in wedges, originated in Seattle in the early 1900s. In 1960, Sunset Magazine credited a downtown restaurant called Manca’s Café as the inventor of the Dutch baby. The owner’s daughter apparently named the creation, perhaps corrupting the German word “deutsch,” since the Dutch baby was similar to a German pancake dish. Around town, you could try one at the Tilikum Place Café in Belltown, or at the Original Pancake House in Bothell.

Hot dogs and hamburgers

The Seattle dog, a hot dog with cream cheese and sauteed onions, has been around for less than 25 years, but has since become known as a regional specialty. According to one account, the Seattle dog was invented in 1988 when a bagel vendor in Pioneer Square added a hot dog to the bialy sticks with cream cheese that were a popular snack for the stadium-going crowd. About five years later, a different vendor nearby added cream cheese to the hot dogs he sold, helping popularize a similar creation. Today you’ll still find Seattle hot dogs in the neighborhood before and after Seahawks, Sounders, and Mariners games, as well as at stands in nightlife hot spots like Belltown and Capitol Hill.

As I wrote about in March, Seattle doesn’t (yet) have its own iconic regional burger. But if I had to nominate one iconic Seattle burger, it would probably be the Deluxe at Dick’s Drive-In (with multiple locations around the city). It’s a pair of all-beef patties that are topped with melted cheese, shredded lettuce, mayonnaise, and relish. There are certainly better burgers elsewhere in the city. But this one is a touchstone for many locals remembering how good it tasted at 2 a.m., so it deserves to be on the list of iconic Seattle foods.

Sweet confections

Finally, I’ll finish the list of foods that are identifiable with Seattle (and the surrounding region) with a trio of confectionary treats. Similar to Turkish Delight, Aplets & Cotlets are jellied candies that combine fruit with powdered sugar and walnuts. Aplets were first developed more than 100 years ago as a way for Washington State apple farmers to use their surplus crops. (Cotlets, made with apricots, came a few years later.) The candy gained popularity during the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, but they may soon be a relic of history, as Liberty Orchards, the company that makes them, recently announced that they would be shutting down this June.

In 2009, when the Washington state legislature debated whether to make Aplets & Cotlets the official state candy, the bill failed when some politicians wanted to give the honor to Almond Roca. The latter candy, a chocolate-covered toffee with an almond coating, is made by Brown & Haley of Tacoma. You’ll find it in supermarkets and drugstores all over the region, and in many other cities as well.

You might associate this third confection more with Chicago than with Seattle, but the Frango mint was originally created in 1918 at the Frederick & Nelson department store downtown, in the building that later became the flagship Nordstrom store. Frederick & Nelson was soon acquired by Marshall Field’s in Chicago, which changed the recipe and produced its iconic mints for more than 75 years before that company was acquired by Macy’s. Today you can still buy Frangos from Garrett Brands, the Chicago retailer that’s perhaps better known for its popcorn. It might be a bit of a stretch to call this candy one of the most iconic Seattle foods. But if you want to bring along a taste of the city the next time you visit relatives, it’s a lot easier than schlepping along a salmon – or a Dick’s Deluxe.

What do you think are the most iconic Seattle foods? Leave a comment and let me know!

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

More from SeattleFoodHound: 

What I Ate: Kumamoto oysters with classic mignonette

Kumamoto oysters are one of the most iconic Seattle foods