Barbecue editor discusses best barbecue in the country, including NC

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Daniel Vaughn’s got the best meat-loving gig ever: He’s Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor, the only full-time barbecue-focused journalist in the United States.

Growing up in Ohio, Vaughn didn’t truly fall for barbecue until he moved to Dallas 15 years ago. It didn’t take long for him to become obsessed, and he started chronicling his weekend journeys across the state on his blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, while working as an architect.

By 2012, Vaughn had earned a spot on the tasting team for the next Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ list, which is published every five years. Then came a book deal with Anthony Bourdain’s publishing imprint for “The Prophets of Smoked Meat,” and by 2013 he had been hired as the full-time barbecue editor at Texas Monthly.

“My book was published on May 14, 2013, and the new Texas Monthly Top 50 came out the next day,” Vaughn said. “It was just the start of a very big year.”

CNN asked him about his love of this most delicious food tradition and where he finds it cooked just right.

Is there something unique about barbecue? Every culture has its cooked meats.

The slow smoking of Southern barbecue makes it unique from the rest of the world. Plenty of cuisines cook meat over fire, but most focus on either quick, direct-heat grilling like Japanese yakitori or the cured and cold smoked items like ham or whole fish.

How do you choose where you’ll eat next?

If there’s “BBQ” on the sign, I’ll probably be stopping, but I have to plan my trips around a few good leads. I keep a Google map up to date with markers of the places I’ve visited and all the others on my to-do list. If someone sends me a lead, I’ll add it to the map. Then I’ll consult the big barbecue map before I set out on a barbecue road trip.

What is special about Texas barbecue?

The variety of Texas barbecue is what I love about it.

Of course there’s brisket, the undisputed king of Texas barbecue, but the pork ribs, sausages, smoked turkey and even pulled pork are coming on these days. The giant beef short ribs that have become popular across the country originated here. They’re like the poster-child for our love of beef barbecue. There’s something very Texan about skipping a rack of puny pork ribs and instead ordering a pound of beef on a bone the size of your forearm.

What are the different kinds of Texas barbecue?

There are four distinct regions of Texas barbecue, but a fifth is emerging. Big city barbecue, also called craft barbecue, is becoming its own style with a focus on high-quality brisket served by the pound. The fattier slices from the point of the brisket are especially adored. The big city places also tend to have better sides and more meat options than some of their small town counterparts.

The more traditionally recognized regions are East Texas with its saucy ribs and ultra-tender brisket usually served chopped on a bun.

In the Hill Country, they cook directly over the coals, so meats are done more quickly and get a unique flavor from fat dripping down into the fire. This is where you’ll find items like mutton and cabrito (goat) on the menu.

South Texas is known for barbacoa de cabeza, or beef head barbacoa. Beef heads are cooked in the ground until tender. The meat is then pulled form the head, chopped and served on tortillas with salsas, cilantro and onion.

Central Texas is the most popular and is a reflection of its meat market roots. The style began in old meat markets that smoked their leftover raw meat and served it as barbecue. The meat was all sliced in front of the customer and sold strictly by the pound. Butcher paper serves as plates, eating with your hands is encouraged, and sauce is always served on the side.

What’s the best way to order?

If you’re ordering barbecue from a joint where the cutting block is in full view, you’ll be able to see if the meat looks good or not. If it looks tender and juicy, order it. If you see the cutter struggling to cut through the ribs, maybe it’s a good day for brisket instead. If it all looks bad, then a chopped beef sandwich covered in barbecue sauce, pickles and onions is a safe haven.

Where else would you eat barbecue?

I’m always on the lookout for great Texas-style barbecue outside of Texas. From Jack’s BBQ in Seattle to Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, the quality of smoked beef outside Texas keeps getting better. Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in Atlanta, Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, Smoque BBQ in Chicago and Little Miss BBQ in Phoenix are also great options.

I really enjoy learning more about other barbecue cultures as well. I like the mutton barbecue at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q in Owensboro, Kentucky, and the Santa Maria style steaks at Hitching Post in Casmalia, California.

Despite the difference in preferred protein, I think the closest style to Texas barbecue is in North Carolina. They cook primarily pork, but they still value cooking with wood just as much as we do in Texas.

The Skylight Inn in Ayden is the perfect example of the Eastern North Carolina style of whole hog. Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley, Picnic in Durham and Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville are also great options for whole hog barbecue. For the pork shoulders of the Piedmont region in North Carolina, I like Lexington BBQ #1 and Bar-B-Q Center, both in Lexington.

Whole hog outside of North Carolina can be just as good. Just grab a sandwich at Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue in Lexington, Tennessee, Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, or even Arrogant Swine in New York.

In the rest of the South, it’s hard to beat the smoked chicken with white sauce at Big Bob Gibson BBQ in Decatur, Alabama; dry rubbed ribs at Peg Leg Porker in Nashville; or just about anything at Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta. Chicago’s barbecue style isn’t as well known as others, but the links and rib tip combo at Honey 1 BBQ on the South Side is worth the trip.

One of the more unique bites of American barbecue I tasted was on a recent trip to Hawaii. The fatty, crispy nuggets of smoked salmon belly at Guava Smoked in Honolulu were as good as any burnt end in Kansas City.

What do your barbecue duties entail right now?

We’ve just kicked off our six-month-long search for Texas Monthly’s next Top 50 BBQ list. We’ll eat at around 500 barbecue joints around the state before settling on the Top 50, which will come out in June 2017. About 20 people will be eating their way through Texas for the magazine’s list.

I’ll also keep writing on, our dedicated barbecue site. Right now I’m finishing up some research on the early development of barbecue restaurants in Texas.

Barbecue was first advertised in meat markets in the late 1800s, and it looks like the first restaurants dedicated to barbecue appeared in El Paso, long considered a Texas barbecue wasteland, not in the bigger cities in the eastern half of the state.

Those old advertisements also tout lamb and pork just as much as beef, and brisket rarely gets a mention. That sort of research keeps me grounded when I might otherwise get too consumed with the most current trends in barbecue.