Few people on Planet Earth know more about barbecue than Ray Lampe (aka Dr. BBQ), and he happens to live right here in the Tampa Bay area. The pitmaster, Food Network personality and owner of St. Petersburg’s Dr. BBQ restaurant — a member of the Datz Restaurant Group — literally wrote the book on barbecue road trips (called Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Road Trip). We picked his brain on what makes barbecue worth driving across the country for, why barbecue regions are so sharply divided, and some of his top ‘cue joints in the Southeast.
BARBECUE VARIES BY REGION FOR A REASON
“Barbecue regions began by what was available. So if you were in North Carolina, and you wanted to be a barbecue cook, you had a bunch of hickory wood, and you had some hogs. That’s what was around. That’s what people cooked there. In Texas and in Kansas City, they had big stockyards with a lot of cattle. Many parts of the cattle were expensive, so they used the parts that were cheap. The brisket is a perfect example of that. They had post oak and they had mesquite, so that’s what they used to cook.”
THE STYLE OF ONE BARBECUE RESTAURANT HAS SOMETIMES BECOME INCORRECTLY SYNONYMOUS WITH AN ENTIRE REGION
“[Take] Alabama white barbecue sauce — Big Bob Gibson Barbecue in Decatur, Alabama. Their guy, Big Bob Gibson, was cooking barbecue by the railroad. He cooked chickens, and he dunked them in this white barbecue sauce. It’s really like a salad dressing. There’s no other way to describe it. They cook the chicken, they dunk it in the white barbecue sauce — great stuff. Now the guy across the street starts doing it. His cousin opens a restaurant in Huntsville. He starts doing it, and it’s all well and good. But they don’t know much about [white sauce] in Mobile. It’s a whole other part of Alabama. Now, unfortunately, you get to the big barbecue resurrection where we open a bunch of barbecue restaurants in big cities, and what do they all put on the table? This is “Kansas City sauce.” This is “Alabama sauce.” This is “South Carolina sauce.” And it’s nonsense.
GO TO THE SOURCE FOR A REAL TASTE OF REGIONAL BARBECUE
“KC Masterpiece, the barbecue sauce on the shelf, is a real thing created by a guy that was a doctor in Kansas City. It’s a sweet, molassesy barbecue sauce. That became ‘Kansas City sauce.’ Well, if you go to Kansas City with me next week, we’re going to go to Gates, and their sauce is nothing like that. We’re going to go to Arthur Bryant’s — definitely nothing like that. We’re going to go to Rosedale, and we’re going to go to a bunch of the original barbecue places in Kansas City that don’t sell anything like that. But if you don’t go there, it’s easy to say ‘Well, there’s KC Masterpiece on the shelf at my grocery store, that must be what all Kansas City people eat.’”
BARBECUE EVOKES A PASSION UNLIKE ANY OTHER CUISINE
“I think we’re all comparing [the barbecue we eat] to that great barbecue we ate either in our dad’s backyard, or in our neighborhood where we grew up, or you name it. Of course, one of the problems is our ribs in the restaurant can never live up to what your grandpa cooked 40 years ago, which you don’t even really remember, but you know it was better than anything you’ll ever eat in your life. And everybody is just that passionate about [barbecue]. That’s what’s so cool about it. We love it.”
Barbecue picks around the Southeast from Dr. BBQ
The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint
7501 Highway 57
Ocean Springs, MS
“They’ve actually won the world championship for their whole hog. I don’t believe they serve their whole hog every day, but they are some characters. It certainly would be a colorful place to visit.”
Cozy Corner Restaurant
726 N. Parkway
“It’s a really cool old place. It’s one of my personal favorites. One of the things they have that’s unique is Cornish hen. Nobody really has Cornish hen, so it’s a cool story and a good item to eat as well.”
Neely’s Interstate Barbecue
2265 S. Third St.
“It’s a funky old place. It’s legend in Memphis. I’d hate to see you miss that.”
Sam Jones BBQ Restaurant
715 W. Fire Tower Road
“Find the [restaurants] that are still cooking with wood. In North Carolina, look for Sam Jones Barbecue. Sam’s is a new place, but Sam has family from the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. The Skylight Inn is a famous old place. Sam is the grandson and worked there for years and has opened his own place.”
Read our road map for the ultimate Southern barbecue road trip here