Johnny Fugitt is nearing the end of a one year tour around the country looking for the best barbecue joints in the country – one hundred of them to be exact. He was sick of all the poorly researched national top ten lists out there, so he decided to set out on his own and eat as much barbecue as he could along the way. He quit his job, rearranged his duties with the Navy Reserves, and packed up his juicer. Now, eleven months after leaving St. Louis, that final barbecue joint is in sight.
While searching for the best, you can often find the worst, and Fugitt says he might have stumbled into it. In June he wrote “Dover, Delaware might be the worst barbecue town I have visited.”
We met over a couple combo plates at The Slow Bone in Dallas last week. This was Fugitt’s second jaunt through Texas. Austin and the surrounding area was the focus back in the early part of this year (You can see all of his Texas write-ups here), but right now he’s driving through Arizona in search of unsauced meats. Something tells me he’s going to miss Texas.
Daniel Vaughn: How are you so skinny?
Johnny Fugitt: I attribute it to a few things. My dad is skinny, so some of it is genes. I exercise. I limit how much I eat at every place. My non-barbecue diet is a lot healthier than it was before I started this. I’m eating more salad, and I was juicing until my juicer died a week ago. It was in my car all along.
DV: A juicer? Did any leftovers ever make it in there?
JF: No. I guess I could have tried some greens or pickles.
DV: Why are you doing this? Did you lose your job or get laid off?
JF: Good question, but I chose to leave. I’d been working at the Ronald McDonald House in St. Louis. It’s a wonderful organization, but I was ready to move on. I needed a new adventure. A new challenge. I started traveling for a few moths and it turned into a bigger project than I thought it was going to be.
DV: I’m guessing that you didn’t leave a wife and kids at home.
JF: No. I had a girlfriend when I started this, but no more. It was something about never being around.
DV: How many barbecue joints were on your to-do list when you first mapped it out?
JF: I didn’t even have a list. I started off by going to Memphis for a week and eating at as many places as I could. Even now, I’ll stop in somewhere if I pass a place or get a local recommendation.
DV: What is the goal?
JF: Three hundred sixty-five barbecue joints in three hundred sixty-five days. I’ve been to about three hundred and I have forty days left.
DV: What’s your end date?
JF: I started on October 22nd, so I’ll end on October 21st in St. Louis, where I started. My first meal was at Pappy’s in St. Louis.
DV: Where are you from?
JF: St. Louis originally, and I’ve lived in Kansas City, Missouri. I’ve kind of moved to DC now.
DV: What’s left on the tour?
JF: I started in the Midwest this year, then came down to Texas in January, then on to the south. Then I moved to DC to go up and down the east coast this summer. Now I’m doing a big loop out west to finish the year. I’ve done some out west that I flew to, but now I’m going to hit the states I haven’t been to.
DV: Are you going to every state?
JF: The lower forty-eight.
DV: Are you hitting mostly cities, or are you getting out into the rural areas as well?
JF: It’s common to see barbecue centers in the city, in urban areas like Kansas City and Memphis, but then you also have it in the middle of nowhere, so I’m trying to do both. It’s easier to do cities because of the logistics and travel. I’m driving almost everywhere, so I’m able to weave my way around and hit the small spots.
DV: Have you found that any sort of hometown advantage comes into play because you’re from St. Louis and Kansas City? Is the barbecue you grew up with any more appealing?
JF: I’d rather not say too much about geographic preferences because that’ll be in the book. I started out with a bias toward Kansas City, but that’s no longer there. I do like burnt ends.
DV: Three hundred sixty-five barbecue joints is plenty, but that’s still a small sampling compared to all the barbecue out there. How did you whittle your list down to what you have now?
JF: I’m trying to do a variety. I want to go to the Rendezvous, Gate’s, Arthur Bryant’s, Black’s, and Kreuz, but I also want to go to food trucks and places like Chicago Q with white tablecloths. I want to see places that can seat two hundred fifty people, and those that are take-out places. I’ll hit the places you like the most in Texas, but I also want to try and hit some that I haven’t seen much about because I want to help discover some places. If I was going to compile a list of all the best places [that have already been discovered] I could do that from my desk. That’s what most of those top ten lists are. The local lists in general seem to be good, but the best in America lists are hard to be satisfied with. They’re either the ten most famous or the ten most historic. Even in Kansas City, if you asked ten people to name their ten favorite spots, Gate’s, Arthur Bryant’s, and Oklahoma Joe’s will probably be on all their lists. Gate’s and Arthur Bryant’s aren’t as good as they once were, but they’ll still make those lists. Like the Rendezvous – I’d say it’s a fantastic experience, but the food isn’t my favorite.
DV: Have any of the legendary places been particularly disappointing?
JF: I wrote about McClard’s in Hot Springs, Arkansas on my blog. It gets a lot of great press. It’s Bill Clinton’s favorite. I sat at the counter and watched them take a plate of ribs and microwave them before they served them. No thanks. Also, I liked a few places in North Carolina, but overall I was disappointed there.
DV: How about some newer ones that surprised you.
JF: In Texas, Kerlin BBQ in Austin I really liked, and the Brisket House in Houston.
DV: You’re looking to find the best one hundred barbecue joints, but will only those one hundred make it into the book?
JF: It’ll only be one hundred. My goal isn’t to make it look bad for the ones not on the list. Most of them are on the blog, which I’m using to chronicle the trip.
DV: Will those blog reviews appear in the book?
JF: Those are really just my notes, but it’s a great starting point. I’ll write a few introductory chapters too. One will answer the questions I’m asked all the time.
DV: Will they be ranked?
JF: Yes, at least some of them. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll do all one hundred.
DV: Will your entire first fifty be from Texas?
JF: Probably not.
DV: What’s number one?
JF: You’ll have to wait for the book.
DV: What all are you judging besides the meat?
JF: I put together a rubric where I have so many points for meat, sides, sauces, service, price, and what I call “the barbecue it factor.” It has to just feel like a barbecue place.
DV: Does something like the long line to get into Franklin Barbecue knock it down the list?
JF: Not necessarily. I think the line helps to create the experience. That build-up is a unique experience. I really enjoyed it.
DV: Has anyone attempted to bribe you?
JF: No. A few places have given me t-shirts, but nobody has bribed me. I also haven’t really done anything yet.
DV: Are you keeping track of the costs?
JF: This has been the majority of my last year. I’ve done about 22,000 miles on my car and taken quite a few flights. Then the areas vary quite a bit. In North Carolina, I can get a pork sandwich with slaw on it with hushpuppies and greens, all for the same cost of getting a side dish in New York. I haven’t calculated it all, but I have all the receipts.
DV: It sounds like you’ll have a ready-made book tour of one hundred barbecue joints.
JF: Hopefully they’d like to promote themselves as one of the hundred best. Some of them have tiny audiences.
DV: There’s really no way for one man to make this list all-inclusive or completely definitive. You certainly understand that, but does it worry you?
JF: One of the things I think is unique is that by the time I finish, I will have eaten at more barbecue restaurants across a bigger geographic area in a condensed amount of time than anyone.
DV: Have you found any barbecue trends that have carried across the country?
JF: Yes. I’m not the first to notice, but barbecue is becoming more homogenous. You can get brisket in Nashville and all along the east coast. I had some in Portland and Seattle last week. And then you can find pork here. I’ve also seen some places who have hopped on the barbecue bandwagon as something that they can sell in their bar, so it becomes a hipster whiskey bar that also serves barbecue. It becomes an afterthought because average barbecue isn’t hard to make.
DV: What about gas versus wood? Have you found that you prefer one over the other?
JF: I found good and bad barbecue that’s being made in all kinds of ways. I’m not a purist. I care more about what’s on my plate than how it got there. My goal for these one hundred is that I want people to know they can go into any of these places and have a good barbecue experience. I don’t think your average barbecue fan cares about that anyway. Certainly the barbecue aficionados do.
DV: You say this trek is over in October. What happens when you come upon the best barbecue you’ve ever eaten in November?
JF: I’d probably put it in there with an asterisk, but I’m not planning on eating too much barbecue in November. I’m going to take a break.