Slicing Up the Barbecue Belt in a 2016 Camaro SS

This year, we give thanks for brisket. And ribs. And pulled pork.

John Lamm

For some people, BBQ is not just a quintessential American cuisine. It’s a bloodsport. Every down-home smoke shack from Miami to LA claims to be tops, and every region has a distinctive style. For me, you can’t beat the barbecue belt from Nashville to Memphis to Kansas Cities (both of ‘em). So I lasso’d ace photographer John Lamm, and we hit the road for a two and a half day banzai to one great spot in each of those towns, aiming to name a champion in the end.

That’s about 800 miles, counting a few side trips, covering four states, so we needed a fast car—something All-American. How about a 2016 Camaro SS coupe, packing a 6.2-liter, 455-hp V-8? It’ll turn 0-to-60 in four seconds flat. Make it bright red, so we’ll have to duck every cop below the Mason-Dixon line.

First, let’s get something straight. Most people use backyard Weber kettles and supermarket jars of sauce to make BBQ. Classic barbecue is smoked meat. That means it’s cooked indirectly—away from open fire—using seasoned hardwood, like mesquite, cherry, oak or hickory. If the temperature gets above 250-degrees, you’re not smoking, you’re roasting. Smoking is a lengthy process that demands consistent temperature, equipment and skill.

All of which is to say: Don’t try this at home. Finding the best is worth the trek.

NASHVILLE

Nashville is the music city, with the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry right downtown, plus dozens of rockin’ honkey-tonks. But the city is known for BBQ too. Peg Leg Porker, Hog Heaven, Jack’s (“From Pit to Plate”) and Bar-B-Cutie are just a few great spots. When we pull into town, it’s 8:30 am. We know of only one great barbecue breakfast joint—Puckett’s Grocery (puckettsgro.com). We hit the downtown branch and it’s packed already. Puckett’s has been dishing savory ‘cue since the ‘50s. They’re open all day, with live entertainment too.

John Lamm

What to order for breakfast: The Southern Stack, a mound of slow-smoked pulled pork, topped with spicy slaw, served over sweet potato pancakes and fried apples, with a Willow Farms Free Range egg on top and crispy home fries. That’s the best $9.29 you may ever spend. Puckett’s has a stocked bar and a forest of beer taps, but 8:30 am is early for bourbon shooters. Homebrewed sweet tea is the official non-alcoholic accompaniment.

Other Puckett favorites are the Piggy Mac (cherrywood pulled pork in an iron skillet, topped with smoked Gouda mac n’ cheese) and the house specialty dessert, Deep Fried Brownie Sundae (a combo of brownie batter and cookie dough with chocolate, peanut butter and butterscotch chips, all battered, fried and topped with vanilla bean ice cream, spiced pecans and candied bacon).

We can’t visit Puckett’s and not stop by Mark Lambert’s restoration shop on the way out of town. Housed in an old firehouse on Charlotte Ave., it turns out perfect ‘30s-era Packards. Mark’s own Super 8 Convertible sits behind our Camaro. It’s a thing to behold, but we can’t tarry. We’ve got a three-hour sprint to Memphis for lunch. The Camaro is up to the task.

Nashville to Memphis: 220 miles, I-40 West all the way to Beale Street.

MEMPHIS

The first Camaro appeared nearly three years after the Mustang, in 1967, and thus began the heralded Pony Car Wars. This all-new Camaro is the sixth generation since the first appeared, hitting streets this month. Our V8 version (base $37,295…you can also get a turbo 4 or a V6 for cheaper) is about 200-lbs lighter than its predecessor, and it feels quicker and more nimble.

For all their agility, many sports coupes can be nasty rides if you have to spend six hours in them, but not this one. Even with the race-inspired 1LE “Track Package,” GM’s Magnetic Ride Control balances comfort and sport settings, and the cockpit’s bucket seats are firmly supportive. Times have changed since the first gen Camaro; this one has OnStar 4G LTE with a WiFi hotspot, phone charging, Chevy MyLink, an 8-inch screen and Apple CarPlay.

John Lamm

Three hours after we screeched out of Nashville, we’re rolling into Memphis, the acknowledged home of the blues, the birthplace of rock n’ roll, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and the posh Peabody Hotel where a flock of ducks sashay across the lobby into the elevator twice a day. If we had a week, we’d hit Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous, Corky’s, Leonard’s Pit, and Marlowe’s—all top notch Memphis BBQ. Today, we’re trying Central BBQ. It looks the part: corrugated metal sides, and a big neon sign with a pig on it. The slogan: “The #1 BBQ Sandwich in Memphis.”

Manager J.C. Youngblood (a perfect BBQ guy’s name) gives us a quick tour of the kitchen. Everything’s clean and business-like. Right off the smoker come reddish-brown slabs of pork ribs. Although we’re tempted by Central BBQ’s “six-way wings” – wet, naked, jerked, dry spice, honey gold or sweet heat—we go with a half slab of ribs ($13.99) and the brisket ($11.99). Succulent chunks of pork fall right off these slow-cooked bones; the thick brisket has a crusty exterior and juicy melt-in-your-mouth flesh, just as it should be. Baked beans are an essential component. Central’s are excellent, brimming with brown sugar, onions and meat trimmings, and just $1.99.

John Lamm

Across the way, at 450 Mulberry Street, is the Lorraine Motel, preserved just the way it looked when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated there in 1968. An entire side of the old motel has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. We stop to pay our respects, then saddle up in the Camaro. It’s a long way on three interstates to Columbia, Missouri, and our next stop, Buckingham’s Smokehouse.

Memphis to Columbia, MO: 396 miles. Take I-40 West to I-270 North to I-70 West to I-40/I-64 West to I-63 South.

COLUMBIA, MISSOURI

This is our longest leg—nearly 400-miles to Columbia—so while we’re tempted to make a few backroad stops, it’s “West-Bound and Down,” as the old country song goes. Darkness is falling, but the eager Camaro seems to smell the meat smoking, and aside from one quick gas stop, we never lift. We hit Columbia at 8:15 pm—plenty of time, as Buckingham Smokehouse serves until 9:30 pm.

Columbia is home to a handful of BBQ bucket listers, including Shotgun Pete’s and Smokin’ Chicks. Buckingham’s has won Best BBQ in Columbia awards for the past eight years, however, and we’ve never been. The restaurant’s symbol, a cowboy in chaps riding a giant rearing pig (Get it? A bucking ham?) welcomes us into a pleasant pine-y setting. The baby back ribs (slathered in pungent sauce), spicy brisket, and smoked pit beans are all top notch. The place has a 5,000-foot smoker that’s big enough to drive our Camaro into. The smoker goes through a cord of hickory a week.

“The seasoning is the art. The smoking is the science.”

The décor doesn’t do much, but as Ray Lampe, aka “Dr. BBQ,” likes to say, “Culture and patina is often taken for granted” around these places. “That could be because they are all so focused on the food that painting the walls or getting a new sign just takes a back seat. Sometimes it takes a seat and never gets back up.”

Columbia, MO to Kansas City, KS: 134 miles, Take I-70 West to I-670 West to I-35 South to the Mission Road exit.

KANSAS CITY, KS

Why are there two cities with the same name, in two states, separated by the Missouri River? Who knows? Kansas City, Kansas, is a bit run down. Kansas City, Missouri, is happening. And everyone’s wearing Royals blue, these days. We begin our jaunt at Joe’s Kansas City on the Kansas side, which is not just a restaurant but a functioning gas station. We get there at 11 am, when they’re about to open, and there’s already a line outside. Within minutes, the parking lot is filled. A long line quickly wraps around the building, but no one’s complaining.

John Lamm

We finagle a kitchen tour. Plump succulent briskets are just coming out, and pork shoulders too. “We smoke our pork shoulders for 17 hours using white oak,” says the restaurant’s Doug Worgul, “the same wood the whiskey makers use, so it imparts the same smoky flavor.” Blackened wire shelves are rotating in huge smokers, alternately loaded with plump turkeys, racks of ribs, briskets and pork shoulders. A line cook skillfully slices a freshly done brisket side, and serves us a few tastes. The pink-ish meat is OMG tender. “We keep the process exactly the same,” Doug says.  “When we hire new cooks, we tell them, they have to do it our way. There’s no experimenting. Consistency is what we’re all about. The seasoning is the art. The smoking is the science. The product has to be the same every day.”

One of the big favorites here is the Z-Man sandwich. It’s comprised of slow-smoked brisket topped with smoked provolone and two crispy onion rings, served on a toasted Kaiser roll, for $7.39. Joe’s even offers a vegetarian version, with smoked Portobello mushrooms instead of brisket. Says Doug: “What self-respecting BBQ joint would put a vegetarian sandwich on its menu? We would. It’s 2015, people!” Joe’s also serves a tasty Carolina sandwich with pulled pork, spicy slaw and their famous “Bubba’s sauce.” Or, classic ribs. “They’re done with a dry rub,” says Doug. “Then we brush them with just a little sauce before they’re served.”

John Lamm

Zagat’s has rated Joe’s the number 1 Barbecue in Kansas City, Kansas. It’s easy to taste why. There are three locations, but the gas station is the place.

Kansas City, KS to Kansas City, MO: 7 miles! I-35 North to I-670 West to I-70 East to Brooklyn, Ave.

KANSAS CITY, MO

When the Camaro roars over the bridge into Missouri, we’re on the edge of meat delirium, having consumed enough calories to fuel a small nation for a day. But there’s no turning back. Kansas City, MO, is packed with ‘cue joints: Gates, Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Hayward’s Pit and Rosedale. But we keep coming back to Arthur Bryant’s Legendary Kansas City BBQ at the original location on 1727 Brooklyn Avenue.

Forget fancy. Bryant’s resembles a tired high school cafeteria, except for the nonstop action behind the counter and wall photos of the rich-and-famous who’ve queued up here. An orderly line forms and everyone slowly passes a large window where a fast-handed cat named Timmie takes and serves your order. Behind him is an dumbwaiter that drops to the fire pit level where it’s periodically loaded with the best possible ‘cue, then sent up where Timmie and his cohorts do their sorting, chopping, slicing and serving.

John Lamm

Arthur Bryant’s serves excellent baked beans, but you want to be sure to order potatoes too. These are golden French fries, with the skin still on, served crisp and hot, the perfect compliment to smoked beef, chicken, turkey and pork. Everything is wrapped in butcher paper, just as it’s always been. Like Joe’s and others, Arthur Bryant’s offers ‘burnt ends,’ bite-sized morsels made by cutting off the leading edge of a brisket, cooking the chunks a bit longer, then slathering them with sauce. Don’t miss Arthur’s pickles; you can buy just one, a pint or a quart.

After lunch, we talk with a couple of Chevy enthusiasts in Bryant’s parking lot. Then we’re beelining to MCI airport. We’ve covered 757 miles in the Camaro, loving every one of them. So which of the five spots we hit gets the nod for top BBQ joint? Tough call, but here it is:

Joe’s Kansas City for brisket, and Arthur Bryant’s for ribs—both of them in their respective Kansas Cities. Either way, you can’t go wrong in any of these great American BBQ joints, or Chevy’s brilliant new Camaro.

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Puckett’s Gro.: 500 Church Street, Nashville, 615-770-2722
Central BBQ: 147 East Butler Ave, Memphis, 901-672-7760
Buckingham Smokehouse: 3804 Buttonwood Drive, Columbia, MO, 573-499-1490
Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que: 3002 West 47th Street, Kansas City, KS, 913-722-3366
Arthur Bryant’s Legendary Kansas City BBQ: 1727 Brooklyn Ave, Kansas City, MO, 816-231-1123