Johnny Fugitt decided to hit the road for BBQ & write a book listing his Top 100 joints. Recently, his travels brought him to Austin. While he was in town, I met him for dinner. I was very happy to meet such a nice guy and want to support him. To that end, here is a Q&A with him (with contact & social-media information at the bottom):
Q: In your own words, will you tell our readers about your endeavor?
Sure! I'm on a culinary crusade to find the best barbecue restaurants in America and the project will culminate in the publishing of The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America book. I'm visiting famous, historic places like Rendezvous and Black's, but also lesser known places in search of those hole-in-the-wall hidden gems.
Q: Why are you doing this? What prompted it?
I noticed that there are a lot of local lists (Texas Monthly's Top 50 is the largest and most complete), but not a definitive, nationwide ranking of barbecue restaurants. Also, most of what I've seen are lists rather than rankings and I like rankings. There are scores of barbecue books, but most of these focus on recipes, history, etc. rather than restaurants.
Q: Where have you been? Where is left on your list?
I've visited St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville, Oklahoma City, parts of Arkansas, a fair amount of Central and Eastern Texas, New Orleans, Iowa, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, Chicago and a few little random spots in between. I've done most of the middle of the country.
My goal is to canvas America. I expect the rankings to be heavy on the South and centers of barbecue, but I want to give barbecue restaurants in places like Oregon and Vermont a chance to go toe to toe with the big barbecue boys.
Q: How many places have you visited, and how many more do you plan to visit?
I'm at 109 restaurants in about four months. There have definitely been some great spots along the way and some that haven't been so great. Since I'm already at 109 having only covered the middle of the country, I could easily hit 200-300 before I'm finished.
Q: Without giving anything away, can you tell us some of your thoughts/reactions to places you been and things you've eaten?
Sure. Let me first say that I'm reviewing the whole restaurant experience and not simply a plate of food. Meat is paramount in barbecue, but sides, restaurant ethos, sauce, service, value, etc. all factor into the restaurant experience as well. With that said, I enjoy both the old school, spartan, slightly dirty, picnic table kinds of places as well as clean, modern spaces with nontraditional items. I think both can be great barbecue experiences and I expect to have quite a bit of diversity within the rankings. I've seen famous restaurants struggle to maintain quality with increased demand or as they open new locations, but I've seen some restaurants that have grown well and been able to handle success.
The toughest part of the project is the rankings. Within a day, I might find that I prefer the ribs and sides from one restaurant, brisket and feel of the restaurant at another place and the pork and sauce from a third. At the end of the book I'll have a section with awards for individual items and a few lists like my "Dream Texas Meal" with one item from one restaurant, another item from another restaurant, etc.
Q: What's your favorite BBQ city thus far?
Even though my barbecue roots are in Kansas City, I think I've enjoyed Memphis and Austin the most so far. Barbecue permeates Memphis unlike any other place I have been. In addition to the historic joints, there are some great hole in the wall places. Austin's scene is exploding and the city itself is a lot of fun. I expected great brisket and found it in Austin, but I also had some great ribs, complete meals and overall barbecue experiences while there. I'm also really looking forward to visiting the Carolinas this spring. It doesn't compete with these spots, but one city that surprised me was Nashville. It will always play second fiddle to Memphis, but Nashville's contribution to the barbecue world of the cornbread pancake pulled pork sandwich is not to be missed. A picture of one can be found on my blog here: http://barbecuerankings.com/post/71885260748/bar-b-cutie-in-nashville-tennessee.
Q: What you learned about BBQ during this process?
I've learned a lot. I've learned that that barbecue is continuing to evolve. Barbecue served as it was 20 years ago will probably not cut it today. Standards have been raised. I've learned that the barbecue community is tight knit and incredibly passionate about their work. I've learned how difficult it is to survive in the restaurant industry and met a lot of owners who put in very long hours. I've also learned, of course, a few tips and tricks about smoking meat and preparing great food!
Q: Once your book is published, any future BBQ plans?
Nothing set yet, but I hope to continue to be involved in barbecue. I might consider joining a competition team - more for the camaraderie than as a serious competitor. I'll write if I find a good outlet for it. Some restaurant owners have asked for my thoughts on their food, new menu items, their operations, etc. and I would be happy to share some of my experiences as a consultant as well.