Catching up with “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” Author Johnny Fugitt

Monk: In October 2013, St. Louis native Johnny Fugitt set off on an epic road trip across the lower 48 US states to try one barbecue restaurant per day for an entire year (Speedy and I were able to meet up with him in Charlotte). Johnny accomplished that feat, and his 2015 book “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” was the result (our book club review here), where his #1 was an unexpected Austin joint (no spoilers here).

However, in the years since we haven’t heard much from Johnny; his site Barbecue Rankings hasn’t consistently been updated since 2016 and his Twitter since 2017. I recently wondered the reasons behind the hiatus of sorts, so I reached out to him for an interview to see what he’s been up to lately. Big thanks to Johnny for his time and thoughtful answers as well as the use of some of his photos from the big trip.

So last time we caught up during your yearlong barbecue odyssey I believe you were based in St. Louis. Where are you now and what have you been up to for the past few years?
Missouri is home, but I haven’t been there much the last few years. I’m in the Navy Reserves and that brought me to the Middle East in early 2016 for what was supposed to be a year. Three years later I’m still here. I agreed to extend and support so it wasn’t as if I was forced into anything. I’m not here for too much longer, however, as I’ll return to the States this summer. Obviously friends and family are the main thing one misses when away, but it’ll also be great to get back to the regular, American patterns of life. Among other things, I miss watching sports and sharing that experience with a community, the ease of American life and, as you can imagine, foods. Barbecue is at the top of that list, but Mexican food and Chick-Fil-A are up there too. I also just miss the ritual and shared experiences of big meals with loved ones – the prep work in the kitchen, passing plates around the table and the simple laughs over a meal. 

You mentioned you had been focusing on freelancing more recently. What type of work have you been doing?
I started freelancing when I kicked off the book project in 2013. Once the book came out I wrote and edited full-time for a couple years and really enjoyed it, even though it isn’t the easiest way to make a living. I loved meeting a variety of people, the flexibility of the work and being my own boss. Unfortunately I have had little opportunity to keep that up over the last three years as you can tell by my outdated Barbecue Rankings site. Nevertheless, I still write and edit just a little bit for some St. Louis-based outlets. It’s actually quite therapeutic for me as it helps take me home mentally for a few hours and offers an escape. I’ve written a little bit about some of my international travels while on leave and covered a few things where a local presence is not required.

Are you still eating barbecue much and if so, how often? And are you still as skinny as ever?
I don’t think I’ll ever match the pace or amount of barbecue I ate on my tour for the book. With that said, my barbecue consumption is definitely at a low point now, not by choice but simply by my surroundings. First, on occasions when the galley serves something akin to barbecue (often baked or steamed), let’s just say I go with another entree. Locally, pork isn’t easy to find in the Middle East and I don’t have a smoker or even charcoal grill with which to work. Options are not great. I am still pretty lanky. An active lifestyle is a big part of that now.

What’s the best barbecue you’ve had recently?
It’s been a while. I was able to spend four days in Missouri last May – just enough time to see family for a couple days, watch the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium and get some City Butcher in Springfield, Missouri. Some restaurants drop off over time for a variety of reasons – over-expansion, cost cutting, pitmaster departures, for example – but I think City Butcher is only getting better and it was already one of my favorite places years ago when I did my book tour and they had just opened. I look forward to a barbecue binge this summer when I get home.

Any plans to get back into barbecue game in some aspect? No chance there’s going to be a second book, right?
I certainly hope to reintegrate into the barbecue community upon my return home. Maybe I’ll do some freelance work covering barbecue restaurants, maybe join a competition team sometime down the road, maybe do a little more restaurant consulting, who knows? I don’t know exactly how that will look, but I miss it. I miss the food, but also the community. You can meet some incredibly kind, interesting, gracious, hard-working people in the barbecue world. I certainly hope to write more books, but I don’t know that I’ll ever get to embark upon a year-long road trip around America again. 

Anything else?
I’m glad you guys are so dedicated to Barbecue Bros. We started around the same time with, I believe, some shared values and goals – provide a local voice in barbecue to share news, give honest opinions, build community and explore something we love.

Linkdown: 3/2/16

– This article on barbecue treats from Robert Moss considers the misleading names of Texas Pete, Cheerwine, and burnt ends

– Sam Jones has partnered with Heinz to create a “Carolina Vinegar Style” barbecue sauce

– John Shelton Reed has a new barbecue cookbook coming – appropriately titled “Barbecue”

– He’s also having an event at the new Durham barbecue restaurant Picnic to celebrate the release of his book

– Midwood Smokehouse is havin a ‘cue and wine pairing at their Ballantyne location on March 16

– Only In Your State has 10 More Restaurants That Serve The Best Barbecue in North Carolina and well, it certainly is a list

– Interview with our friend Johnny Fugitt

– Midwood Smokehouse is asking for votes for Charlotte Magazine’s Best of the Best Awards 2016

Congrats to Johnny Fugitt on his new book, The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America!

front cover

Congrats to our friend Johnny Fugitt (aka Barbecue Rankings) on today’s release of his book, The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America. Speedy and I were fortunate enough to meet up with Johnny last year on his way through Charlotte and we couldn’t have met a nicer person (or one more passionate about barbecue). I can’t wait to get my hands on the book to see all  of his rankings and where some of my favorites (both NC and beyond) landed on the list (or not, as the case may be).

Order from Amazon today

In one year, barbecue critic Johnny Fugitt visited 365 barbecue restaurants across 48 states. The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America chronicles the journey, shares secrets of barbecue legends and points you to America’s best plates of barbecue. Educational, humorous and hunger-inducing, this book raises the bar for investigative food journalism. Caution: Side effects of this book may include late night cravings, spontaneous road trips and the meat sweats. Not all material may be appropriate for vegetarians. Carnivore discretion is advised.

Monk

Linkdown: 5/13/15

– The new Midwood Smokehouse gets a short write-up in Charlotte Magazine and sounds great; can’t wait to try it out

The new Midwood stays true to the original Central Avenue location, with beer signs and similar decor along the walls, but a more modern vibe to it. Rounded bench seating is a new take on a booth, and barbecue- and beer-themed cut metal art, designed by a restaurant employee, splits two sections of the dining room. The bar surface is made of reclaimed pine, and old barn siding with signs of aging bring back a rustic touch to the front of the bar and the ceiling. Rustic, but not old-fashioned: along the bar, USB ports are tucked underneath for customers who need to charge their devices.

– Charlotte Business Journal also has some coverage on Midwood Smokehouse as well

– Bill Spoon’s makes this Thrillist list of Best restaurants in Charlotte

– Marie, Let’s Eat! visits a heavy hitter in Archibald’s Bar-B-Que in Northport, AL and comes out raving about the ribs

– Some nice photos from last weekend’s Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival, which is now a NC BBQ Association event

– West Asheville is getting a new barbecue restaurant, Bonfire Barbecue, this week

– Spicy pork sandwich at Heirloom Market and brisket at La Barbecue both make Zagat’s list of America’s most iconic new dishes

– Looks like Moe’s Original Bar-B-Que is getting into the food truck game in Charlotte

– Congrats to friend of the blog Johnny aka Barbecue Rankings on the imminent release of his new book

Linkdown: 12/24/14

– Robert Moss goes deep on chicken mull, “the rarest stew in barbecue

To sauce or not to sauce: well that just depends on whatcha like

– Mission BBQ in Virginia Beach is the most patriotic bbq joint in America (h/t reader Robert Evans)

– Crown Town Living checks out The Improper Pig

“Denver’s barbecue is atrocious” (via)

– Grant from Marie, Let’s Eat! finished up his NC/SC circumnavigation reviews last week, but checked out Praise the Lard BBQ in Buford, GA recently

– Johnny Fugitt of Barbecue Rankings is interviewed by the salad restaurant Chop’t after his 365 joints in 365 days sojourn ended

– ICYMI, here’s our holiday 2015 gift guide we posted last week for your (extremely) last minute gift ideas

Linkdown: 11/26/14

– The Pit beats out NC State University in The Triangle Business Journal’s Battle of the Brands for Reader’s Choice

– Downtown Charleston is getting yet another barbecue joint, this time with Irish pub Egan & Sons coming back as a barbecue restaurant (under a new name) complete with a new smokehouse to be built out back

– I missed this back in the summer, but Home Team BBQ (currently with Sullivan’s Island and West Ashley locations) is also expanding to downtown Charleston

– Billy Durney, pitmaster of Hometown Barbecue in New York, to consult on a Los Angeles barbecue restaurant for Mendocino Farms

– Boone’s Bar-B-Que sauces are now available at Savory Spice Shop in Charlotte

– Ohio-based barbecue chain City Barbeque plans to open another triangle location; in addition to their Cary location they are opening a location at Southpoint Mall in Durham

– Jim ‘N Nicks and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que are forming a partnership for the purest of barbecue ideals – “to leverage their buying power, consolidate labor costs and grow both companies”

– A flattering review of the Flat Rock Wood Room, just outside of Asheville

As for what comes out of that 250-degree wood-fired pit, well, I can only gush. Ordering a half rack of their St. Louis style ribs, I carefully narrowed my sides down to wood-smoked mac and cheese and collard greens. While the mac and cheese was plenty cheesy, it proved to be fairly standard with minimal wood smoke. The collards, on the other hand, had plenty of flavor and a slight sweetness.

– Barbecue Rankings recounts his “barbecue odyssey” in Feast Magazine

I began my barbecue odyssey on October 22, 2013, at Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis.  I was nervous as I met owner Mike Emerson and tried to act as if I knew something about barbecue.  I have always considered myself a casual barbecue fan, but the truth is that I knew very little about regional nuances, barbecue history, smoking practices and the way restaurants work before setting out on this project.  I didn’t prepare much before setting off on my journey – I wanted to learn from the people working the pits day in and day out, not the so-called experts.

– Christmas is right around the corner

Linkdown: 10/22/14

– The Charlotte Observer’s Retro Charlotte blog has several old ads for the Mallard Creek Barbecue

– Speaking of the Mallard Creek Barbecue, in its 85th annual edition just as many people come for the brunswick stew as do for the pork writes Charlotte Observer writer Kathleen Purvis

– One last link for it, where they are going above and beyond to prevent health risks

Mind wanders to Southern rock, baseball, weather – and barbecue

– Some photos and a short recap of this past weekend’s Q-City Charlotte BBQ Championship

– Village Voice: Arrogant Swine Brings the Nuances of Carolina ‘Cue to New York

The region’s other favorite barbecue preparation, Lexington style, marries pork shoulder with a thin but pungent ketchup-based vinegar sauce. On a recent visit, Ho’s thickly chopped pig was aggressively smoky but just slightly undersalted — it still sings when dipped into that sauce.

– Congrats to Johnny!

Photo Gallery: Checking out Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen with Barbecue Rankings

Monk: A few weeks back, Speedy and I had the pleasure of welcoming Johnny Fugitt (aka Barbecue Rankings) to Charlotte for a behind the scenes look at the current #1 on our Charlotte Big Board, Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen.

We initially reached out to Boone’s via Twitter to see if they would be out on Friday, but instead they graciously invited us to their kitchen (where they do their prep and also where they will soon have a pick-up for to-go ordering) for a private tasting. Both Boone and his business partner Tom were extremely welcoming, kicking off the visit with a bloody mary before taking us to a look at the smoker (a Southern Pride that they feed with hickory and occasionally cherry wood) and ultimately out to the food truck for a tasting. Boone treated us (graciously enough, for the price of on the house) to pork, brisket, ribs, wings, and brunswick stew. You can read my thoughts on the pork and brisket (as well as sausage, which we didn’t have this time) from when I checked out the food truck back in May.

Speedy: It’s been documented that I was a bit skeptical of Monk’s original review – mainly because I had a hard time thinking that Charlotte’s best barbecue came from a food truck. However, seeing Boone’s kitchen, smoker, and truck setup showed me how this could be possible. By the time we got to the food, I was incredibly excited. Boone was nice enough to provide us with a sample of pulled pork, ribs, brisket, wings, and brunswick stew.

The pork is served without sauce. It has a really solid flavor, great bark, and is perfectly tender. I didn’t find it dry per se, but I will admit that I added some eastern style sauce, which added to my enjoyment of the meat.

Monk: One thing I hadn’t expected was that Boone uses a Southern Pride smoker for his meat. While we tend to be purists when it comes to barbecue, if it’s good it’s good. And I don’t know exactly how he does it, but there is some damn fine bark on the barbecue that Boone puts out.

Speedy: The brisket is different than I’ve had most places. It’s sliced fairly thick, finished on the grill and served sauced. We were served meat from the point, so it was very moist and tender. I would be interested in tasting it against the flat, but I overall, I thought it was quite good – certainly worth an order.

Boone serves St. Louis cut spare ribs, which are big and meaty. These ribs are not as tender as baby backs, but I was able to get a good bite and clean the bone fairly easily. I really enjoyed the flavor of the ribs. Smoke taste was apparent and the ribs weren’t too sweet, which I’ve been seeing (err tasting) a lot lately.

Monk: Brunswick stew is the dish that started it all (literally) for Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen and could very well put them on the map. So the story goes (as it was relayed to us by Tom and Boone himself), it was 2 gallons of brunswick stew requested by Tom’s dad that led to requests for more and ultimately led them to start the food truck and kitchen last fall. And damn, if it isn’t some of the best brunswick stew I’ve had in quite some time.

Speedy: The wings are very, very good. They are smoked to the perfect temperature and served in two flavors – chipotle apricot and dry rub. I actually preferred the dry rub wings – though I wouldn’t turn down either under any circumstances.

Monk: Smoked wings can be hit or miss at a barbecue spot, where they have them on the menu as an afterthought, but man these were some seriously good wings.

Speedy: Overall, there wasn’t anything not to like about the food from Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen. The man is well known around Charlotte for helping start up a couple of local joints, and I do feel the need to mention that the food from Boone’s food truck has a lot of similarities to Queen City Q (which had a less than amicable split with Boone a couple years back). That being said, I do think the food truck is better. I haven’t seen anything similar to his brunswick stew anywhere in Charlotte, and it’s clear that Boone puts a lot of himself into his food, which I really do feel that you can taste.

Overall, this was one of the cooler barbecue experiences I’ve had. Boone and Tom couldn’t have been nicer, which was really just icing on the proverbial cake. First and foremost, these guys turn out a great product, so I, for one, will be keeping a lookout for the food truck more frequently.

Monk: Agreed about the passion that Boone and Tom have for their barbecue. You really could hear just how much these guys cared about what they do now, which maybe wasn’t the case in previous lives.

As for Johnny, Speedy had a bolt to get his hair did but I was able to stick around for a few minutes to chat with him before he headed out to Greenville. Really nice guy, and we spent the time talking about our barbecue experience (his a little more extensive than mine, clearly) and traded tips on joints in various cities. I can’t wait to check out his book once it’s published (possibly as early as next May depending on which publishing option he goes with) to read his thoughts, and I have a slight hunch you may see Charlotte represented a time or two in the book.

Thanks for hollering at us, Johnny! Safe travels in your final weeks on the road!

Johnny Fugitt is finishing up his year-long roadtrip on October 21 and you can see his photos and notes from the road in the meantime on his blog, Barbecue Rankings.