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: 8/12/15

– Move over Austin, Is Houston the hottest barbecue market in Texas?

– The Drawn Cutlass has a review of the new Queen City Q location in Matthews

– Marie, Let’s Eat! visits Rib & Loin in Hixson, TN

– This “complete” list of Charlotte food trucks includes several we’ve reviewed – Smoke & Go, OooWee BBQ, Moe’s Original Bar-B-Que – but  of the writing of this post somehow omits the best of the bunch, Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen

– Downtown Charleston is getting its 8th barbecue restaurant soon, Poogan’s Smokehouse

– Speaking of new barbecue joints coming to Charleston, Charleston Magazine has a quick conversation with John Lewis (via)

– Well?

– Johnny Fugitt’s top 25 barbecue restaurants (as detailed in The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America) here

– TMBBQ has their list of a few more influential barbecue pitmasters that just happen to be black in response to this list of all white barbecue pitmasters and personalities

– Speaking of TMBBQ, Texas BBQ Treasure Hunt researches 40 years of lists from the publication

– Charlotte’s South End neighborhood is getting a Korean barbecue restaurant called Seoul Food Meat Market in the coming months, and the description is somewhat reminiscent of Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta

Esthetically, it will look like American traditional Southern barbecue ribs: It will look the same but it will taste like Korean food.” So beef ribs will be seasoned as the Korean kalbi and bulgogi, pork ribs like the Korean spicy pork, slaw will be kimchi slaw, and wings will be fried, but in rice bran oil, making them healthier, and crunchier, than most, says Chun.

 

Barbecue Bros Book Club: The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America by Johnny Fugitt

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Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.

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Monk: From October 2013 to October 2014, barbecue writer Johnny Fugitt ate at 365+ barbecue restaurants across the lower 48 United States and compiled his own rankings into a book, The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America. His rankings were not based on marketing or TV exposure or from compiling previous lists together into one mega list (as many barbecue lists tend to be), but by one man driving across the US in a Subaru judging barbecue through his own palate.

Speedy and I met up with Johnny last year in Charlotte and was able to get a private tour of the commissary kitchen of Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen where they smoke their meat and do their prep work for the food truck. We’ve continued to keep in touch with him via email and Twitter and consider him a friend of the blog. Full disclosure and all that: Johnny was kind enough to provide complimentary signed copies of his book to both Speedy and me. Though Speedy forgot and bought another one from Amazon anyways (never a bad thing to support a writer, however).

Speedy: That’s right, Monk. I was being supportive, not forgetful. Anyway, in terms of the book itself, I really like the way Johnny went about it. There’s so much subjectivity to these lists that Johnny made sure to tell the story behind why he did this in the first place, his methodology, and a little bit about each trip he took. He was very specific about both what he liked and didn’t like at each place.

Monk: As for the list itself, it’s broken up between ranking his top 25 and then the remaining 75 restaurants are unranked and listed by state. While there are some of the usual suspects on the list, there are some glaring omissions that he wasn’t able to get to (Scott’s Bar-B-Que, La Barbecue, or Killen’s Barbecue) or some that folks might scratch their head at (a non-Franklin or La Barbecue Austin pick for #1 overall, a Florida joint in the top 5, etc). But that’s ok, because that was the whole point of the book.

For NC and specifically Charlotte, I was happy to see some of our favorites represented on the list. We covered this in a previous post, but Midwood Smokehouse and Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen were both decently represented in the book – both in terms of the restaurants themselves on the unranked list of 75 but also particular dishes (brisket for Midwood and brunswick stew and sauce for Boone’s). Speedy, what were your thoughts on the list?

Speedy: As I mentioned above, I like the way Johnny went about it, but of course, I don’t agree with the rankings 100%. I think it’s a little Texas heavy and anything that doesn’t have Lexington BBQ in the top 25 (it does make the top 100), doesn’t line up with my taste completely. However, I think that’s the point. What I do like is that anywhere in the continental 48 I go, I know someone has been there before me to figure out if there’s anywhere worth trying. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Monk: Agreed. If I had any minor complaints, I would have liked to have seen full color photos, but I’m assuming that came down to a budget issue. In any case, while I may not agree completely with how the rankings shook out, I can’t fault Johnny’s hustle. Definitely a worthy read.

Linkdown: 7/15/15

– A review of Archibald’s Barbecue in Northport, AL with the choice quote “It’s painful when a giant falters.”

– Bon Apetit interviews Johnny Fugitt about his book, “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America”

– Daniel Vaughn on the growth of Texas BBQ (as well as barbecue in general); that article also links to this great interactive infographic from the food service marketing research company who provided him data, CHD Expert

– EDIA Maps, Inc (behind The Great NC BBQ Map and the upcoming NC Beer Map) get the Charlotte Agenda interview treatment about creating physical maps in a digital world

But the biggest difference between print and digital is the physicality and the connection to a tangible object. You can’t hang a phone app or website on your wall and stick pins in it to mark all the places you’ve visited. You can stand in front of a map and look and remember and plan and dream. Our maps also create a sense of community, something we had never imagined before making them. We live in a world that oftentimes feels so detached, and maps are visible things you hold in your hands that someone sees, and it sparks a conversation over a commonality. People want to know where you’re going and where you’ve been and what you thought of it. Maps aren’t just guides; they’re memorabilia too – beautiful trip mementos that become part of your home and take you back to an adventure you had or a wonderful time making memories with people you love. They touch something deep within – a nostalgia and a wanderlust.

– Thrillist’s list of best barbecue by region

– Grant tries mutton in the latest barbecue review from Marie, Let’s Eat!

– The Tasting Table with five barbecue myths that need busting

– More on the use of the word “barbecue” and how the word caught on in the northeast in the early part of the century when they really meant “grilling”

Southerners weren’t too keen on this new definition for one of their favorite words. “Many Georgia epicures insist that this is an insult to the honorable name of barbecue,” Rufus Jarman wrote in The Saturday Evening Post in 1954. “You cannot barbecue hamburgers, roasting ears, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, or salami, and it is a shame and a disgrace to mention barbecue in connection with such foolishness.”

– On barbecue and religion in NC by way of Dickie Do’s in Haw River, from the bluegrass blog The Bluegrass Situation

– The Charleston Brown Water Society BBQ Invitational took place this past Sunday and had some famous guests

Pitmasters Sam Jones and Rodney Scott were at Sunday’s second annual Charleston Brown Water Society’s Summer Invitational BBQ, but they weren’t working the pits. No, they both drove multiple hours from their respective homes just to eat and visit. That’s how good the barbecue was.

Teams from Illinois’ 17th Street Barbecue, Tennessee’s Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, and Charleston’s own Home Team BBQ stayed up all night Saturday smoking meat and fighting mosquitos at the Holy City Brewing compound on Dorchester Road. They offered up their labors to more than 300 guests (including Jones and Scott) who lined up the next day in the hot afternoon sun to check in.

– Because why not:

Linkdown: 5/27/15

– TripAdvisor has come out with their annual huh? list of best barbecue states and places

– The Greenville (SC) Barbecue Tour will launch June 6 and run every Saturday

– Texas BBQ Treasure Hunt has some thoughts (for and against) about Aaron Franklin winning a James Beard Award

– Speaking of Franklin, you can watch the first episode of his new PBS show online

– India gets a barbecue food truck

– Sean Brock’s most under-the-radar eating experience in Nashville is Mary’s Old Fashioned Pit Barbecue

– TMBBQ’s thoughts on The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America

– Food Republic has a list of barbecue festivals across the country over the next few months

– Marie, Let’s Eat! continues his tour of Alabama barbecue: Betty’s Bar-B-Q in Anniston, AL and Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer, AL

– As a follow up from the AP Stylebook, Our State Magazine’s editor’s thoughts on “barbecue” as a noun rather than a verb

– A couple of good recent barbecue articles from Our State Magazine

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

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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