If you follow barbecue news (and I’m going to assume you do if you read TMBBQ.com), you’re going to hear a lot more about barbecue in Alabama in the coming months. Or at least that’s the goal of the Alabama Tourism Department, which launched its Year of Alabama Barbecue campaign last weekend.
The formal announcement came at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Food Media South event, held in Birmingham, where organizers screened a new documentary, Q: Alabama Barbecue Legends, and passed out a thumb drive of the full film.
I’ll admit, this bit of media savvy worked—at least on me. While attending Food Media South, I set out to try as much of Birmingham’s barbecue as I could. But of course it wasn’t just a bit of clever marketing that enticed me. Alabama has a much-deserved good reputation for barbecue. Not only are there some classic stalwarts who laid the foundation for the state’s smoked meats traditions, one of the best barbecue joints in the nation was founded here. Saw’s BBQ, open since 2009, draws fans from across America, and last year Paula Deen Magazine called it the best barbecue in the country. (There are now three Saw’s locations around Birmingham, all with slightly different menus).
Saw’s menu is emblematic of newer non-denominational barbecue joints around the country. Items common to Alabama barbecue like spare ribs, chicken on the bone, and pork shoulder share space with boudin, sausage, and brisket. They even offer some Carolina-influenced items, like a lima bean-heavy Brunswick stew and a Carolina pork sandwich. They smoke the new stuff as well as the standards, but it might leave the impression to visitors that Alabama doesn’t have a barbecue style all its own–or at least enough of one to rely on for a full menu.
But those assumptions would be wrong. A new historical essay—Pork Ribs & Politics: The Origins of Alabama Barbecue—explains the state’s traditions well:
The pigs that dominated the rural landscape of the state provided the meat. Readily available hickory wood served as the fuel source for smoking it. Open-pit cooking, developed and passed down by pitmasters over more than a century, was the method. And a variety of vinegary sauces, based in mustard or tomato or mayonnaise, offered the foundation for ferocious arguments that serve as their own rewards.
Those open pits transformed over time into indoor brick pits. These are not the brick pits of Texas with a fire at one side and a chimney at the other end. These pits are essentially brick chimneys—broad-based and smoke stained—interrupted by a cooking grate. As Van Sykes of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (1957) explains, “That’s the difference between a pit and a smoker, when you see that masonry chimney coming up.” They are the symbol and the signature of barbecue in Alabama, a state where, much like Texas, all-wood cooking is thankfully still revered and respected.
The most well-known smoked dish of Alabama is probably chicken with white sauce. Any concise list of geographical barbecue styles or sauce variations will likely single out the white sauce, but boiling down an entire state’s contribution to barbecue to this signature item is kind of like believing Texas barbecue is smoked meat on butcher paper from a Central Texas meat market. It’s just a thumbnail sketch. Like Texas, Alabama is a big state with lots of variation from one end to the other. For some perspective, a drive from Bridgeport, Alabama, in the northeast corner of the state, down to Mobile Bay would take as long as the trek from Austin to Pecos, Texas.
Of course, the white sauce stands out for a reason. It’s long history dates back to 1925 when Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q opened in Decatur, a town in northern Alabama. And for most of its life, this concoction of vinegar and mayonnaise stayed in northern Alabama. Sykes said, “Once Chris Lilly bottled Big Bob’s white sauce, everybody started coming in asking for it.” That was in 1994. Think of white sauce in terms of the beef short rib in Texas. Most of the older barbecue joints never offered it, but all of the new ones opening up feel like they need to include it on their menu. But then, it’s hard to argue against it after a bite of chicken at Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q (1984) where the skin shatters like a potato chip, even after a healthy dose of their white sauce.
Although you can now find white sauce at restaurants all around the state, it is not ubiquitous. The older generation of restaurants like Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (1957), Demetri’s BBQ (1961), and Golden Rule BBQ (1891) in the Birmingham area don’t offer it at all, and instead opt for a vinegar spiked tomato-based sauce. “People ask me why I don’t have a white sauce or a vinegar. It’s because I’m traditional, and I’m staying true to the tradition that we helped establish,” explained Demetri’s owner Sam Nakos in Q: Alabama Barbecue Legends. “It’s a tomato based sauce in Birmingham, Alabama.” Van Sykes echoes the sentiment when discussing his thoughts on Alabama barbecue. “The thing that defines it for me is hickory, pork (always), and a tomato-based sauce.”
Another hallmark of Alabama-style barbecue is using a live hickory fire directly under the meat. If a joint is working with a brick pit, chances are that they’re cooking with direct heat. They don’t burn the wood down to coals before adding it to the pit like they do in the Texas Hill Country. They just throw another log into the fire below the cooking grate. Instead of smoking for six or eight hours, a big rack of spare ribs in Alabama might get done in 45 minutes. Willie Gardner at the original Dreamland Bar-B-Que (1958) in Tuscaloosa says his target is about an hour. They open at 10:00, so he gets the ribs on at 9:00. During the lunch rush he admits that he’ll stoke the fire and the ribs might come off in thirty or forty minutes. I’d suggest not fighting the crowds or potentially tough meat, and get there early for the pleasantly chewy ribs with salty, crunchy edges.
Given there’s a hot fire with lots of fatty meat dripping down on it, Alabama barbecue requires lots of attention. There are water hoses to tamp down the fire, but there’s still plenty of flipping involved when cooking the meat. Van Sykes noted that “A good pit man won’t use a lot of water. You can move heat, or you can move meat. It’s a lot easier to move heat.” He should know since he was wearing a brace during the filming of Q because of tendonitis from working that barbecue fork. “The pigs got even with me,” he joked. John Bishop Sr., now deceased, who founded Dreamland told John Egerton, author of Southern Food, that “On busy weekends, I get calluses from forking up so many of these ribs off the pit.”
Until recently, Dreamland held fast to their limited menu that included only ribs. At the original location, they’ve since added sausage, a few sides, and banana pudding, which can hardly be seen as capitulating to the non-denominational barbecue movement. Several months ago when I visited, the server didn’t ask for our order. She simply said, “Y’all want a slab?” Of course we did, but we couldn’t resist the banana pudding either.
The ribs are just as famous at Archibald’s Bar-B-Q (1961) in Northport. It borders Tuscaloosa to the north, so the rivalry between Archibald’s and Dreamland goes back decades. I liked them both, but the long, slender ribs at Archibald’s provide a little less tug and a bit more sizzle to meat ratio. The sauce is also thinner and more acidic so the coating on the ribs is more like that from an airbrush artist than one using a brush. Don’t expect chicken or white sauce at either of these Tuscaloosa-area joints, and don’t ask for pulled pork.
“A lot of people talk about pulled pork. I’m not sure what that is. We’ve been doing this a long time before they ever started talking about pulled pork.” These couple of lines from Dale Pettit of Top Hat Barbecue in Blount Springs on the Q film let you know that the ultra-tender pork shoulders you’ll find in competition barbecue aren’t the aim, nor are they a real possibility coming out of a direct heat pit. Van Sykes who cooks pork picnics (the cut just below the shoulder) described to me the pork ordering options at his restaurant: “It’s inside sliced, outside sliced, inside chopped, outside chopped, or mixed chopped.” There is no pulled option. That is saved for those joints that have gone over to low and slow gas rotisseries for their shoulders like Big Bob Gibson and Saw’s BBQ. Big Bob’s still uses an all wood smoker for their famous chicken.
The menus at Saw’s and Big Bob’s are also a lot broader, probably because they have greater flexibility in cooking thanks to modern smokers. Van Sykes has beef on the menu, but he doesn’t pretend that it’s smoked. “Cows are for Westerns and pigs are for barbecue…my beef is cooked in a pot with barbecue sauce on it. My fire is too hot to cook with beef.”
Of course, if you’ve enjoyed Alabama barbecue outside the state by way of the chains like Moe’s Original Bar-B-Que (started in Colorado by Alabama natives in 2001) and Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (1985) you’ve seen the huge menus that include cuts from every region in the south, including brisket, smoked turkey, and of course chicken with white sauce and pulled pork. You also won’t find a brick pit inside any of their locations.
I spent much of last Friday driving around Birmingham while noting all of the active brick chimneys outside of joints I’d never heard of like Carlile’s Barbeque, and M&M Bar-B-Q. I noticed a familiar name on the side of the original Full Moon Bar-B-Que, and I was anxious to try them on Saturday. It wasn’t until late that afternoon that I realized much of Birmingham barbecue is meant to be enjoyed for weekday lunches. Every one of them that I’d noted on that drive were closed on the weekends. At least it gives me a good reason to come back, and all I’ve got to do is keep an eye out for the smoking chimneys.
Alabama is a big state, so I’ve only gotten to a few joints. This is by no means a complete list of the state’s best, but simply the best items I’ve eaten thus far. I look forward to returning:
Archibald’s Bar-B-Q: Spare ribs, more spare ribs
1211 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
Northport, AL 35476
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q: Smoked chicken, smoked turkey, pulled pork, all the sides, all the pies…all of them
1715 6th Ave SE
Decatur, AL 35601
Bob Syke’s Bar-B-Q: Outside chopped pork sandwich, mac & cheese, lemon pie
1724 9th Ave N
Bessemer, AL 35020
Demetri’s Bar-B-Q: Baby back ribs, sliced pork sandwich with slaw, succotash
1901 28th Ave S
Homewood, AL 35209
Dreamland Bar-B-Que: Spare ribs, preferable early in the day
5535 15th Avenue E.
Tuscaloosa, AL 35405
Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que: Carolina chopped pork sandwich, all the sides
Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q: Smoked chicken with white sauce, banana pudding
3278 Cahaba Heights Rd.
Vestavia Hills, AL 35243
Saw’s BBQ: Smoked chicken, spare ribs, brisket
1008 Oxmoor Rd.
Homewood, AL 35209
Saw’s Soul Kitchen: Smoked chicken wings, Carolina pulled pork sandwich, pork & greens
215 41st St So.
Birmingham, AL 35222