You’ll find people who insist that there are four epicenters of barbecue in America that constitute the undisputed quadrumvirate of masterfully smoked meat: Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, and North Carolina. Ignore such blowhards: just about every corner of America boasts a time-honored, cherished barbecue tradition. Whether it’s Santa Maria tri-tip in California, pit beef in Baltimore, Kentucky smoked lamb, or Hawaiian kalua pork, pitmasters from Alaska to Florida and back devote entire careers to honing the subtle art of slow cooking flavor into flesh. Sure, the Big Four deserve their acclaim, but delectable ‘cue is an American birthright from sea to shining sea.
Six hours by car from the storied smokers of Austin and Texas Hill Country is one of the nation’s most underrated barbecue styles, and it’s found on the windy plains of Oklahoma. The state where the South, the Midwest, and the West collide, the Sooner State has a venerable history of cowboys, cattle ranching, and outdoor cooking. Oklahoman barbecue is similar to the more famous Lone Star variant with beef as the centerpiece, sparing sauce portions, and white bread and pickles on the side. But it has some delicious quirks: hickory is the wood of choice rather than oak or mesquite, while what’s cooked typically consists of rib tips and smoked bologna as well as snappy, bright-red hot links stuffed in sandwiches or served á la carte. At the risk of getting blacklisted from Franklin Barbecue or Terry Black’s, I’ll hazard that the finest Oklahoma barbecue holds its own with the best of Texas. Don’t just take my word for it. Oklahomans take home the most blue ribbons at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, which is considered the Olympics for pitmasters.
To get a taste for yourself, you could do worse than these destination-worthy Sooner State barbecue joints: two in Tulsa, one in Oklahoma City, and even an Oklahoman exclave in Manhattan.
Au Jus, New York City
On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, half a continent away from Tulsa’s iconic Golden Driller Statue, Au Jus serves the kind of smokey delicacies you might find at a Tulsa roadhouse, but with a New York chef’s flair for the gourmet. Owner and pitmaster Patrick Griffin left the waving wheat fields of his native Tulsa for the Big Apple at 16 to pursue his medical degree, and he’s remained in the city ever since. In the ensuing years, Patrick has assumed a role akin to the Oklahoman royal ambassador to New York, receiving the likes of Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, Cornell West, and other Sooner luminaries in his buzzy restaurant. Next to the high-top tables, you’ll find an Oklahoma Wall of Fame graced with portraits of Jim Thorpe, Ralph Ellison, and even Daniel Moynihan — the latter a Tusla transplant and whose namesake adorns New York’s busiest train station.
In addition to an admirable selection of Oklahoma and Texas craft beer, Patrick serves cowboy soul food like hickory-smoked bologna (affectionately dubbed Oklahoma Prime Rib) hot link sandos, and succulent rib tips. Smash burgers are all the rage right now in New York City, but Patrick’s take, inspired by the sliders of the diners of his childhood, is among the city’s finest: thin, charred patties coated with cheddar; tiny fried onions cooked into the patty; dollops of special sauce; and crunchy, tangy pickles. In a delicious fusion of Oklahoma and New York, Patrick sources his bread from A&M Bakery, one of the oldest Italian bakeries in the Bronx. Save room for sweet finales like banana pudding — studded with Nilla wafers and infused with bourbon — and creme brulee. An epicurean at heart, Patrick curates a selection of French wines to pair with his barbecue and also hosts live jazz on Monday nights.
Au Jus: 2621 Broadway, New York, NY 10025
Part butcher shop and part smokehouse, BurnCo is the smoked bologna king of Tulsa (not to be confused with the Tulsa King, Sylvester Stallone). Sit at a picnic table inside the lofty retrofitted warehouse, loosen up the britches, and prepare for a barbecue tour-de-force of smoked turkey, brisket, hot links, and thick-cut slabs of hickory-kissed bologna. The meats are smoked overnight with a mixture of charcoal and seasoned hickory chips, and by the time they reach your metal serving tray, they’re tender enough to break apart with a hard stare. As for the fixins, BurnCo slings the classics like homemade mac-n-cheese, coleslaw, and a light potato salad spiked with dill. For some hoppy refreshments to ease digestion, walk down the street afterward to Dead Armadillo Craft Brewing, another Tulsa institution.
BurnCo: 500 Riverwalk Terrace #135, Jenks, OK 74037
Knotty Pig BBQ, Tulsa
A telltale sign of a barbecue joint’s greatness is a long lunchtime lines of cops, construction workers, and corporate stiffs, all eagerly awaiting their fix of exquisite meat fresh off the smoker. Knotty Pig BBQ, among the leafy streets of McClure Park, serves á la carte brisket, ribs, and pulled pork to satisfy even the most discerning barbecue purists, but the inventive plates like brisket nachos, barbecue-stuffed tacos, and loaded fries are equally compelling. The barbecue sandwiches, breaded piles of meats and onion rings doused in tangy sauce, might alone be worth booking airfare to Tulsa. This isn’t exactly diet food, but if you’re craving indulgence and have time for a post-prandial nap afterward, then Knotty Pig delivers the goods. To cleanse the palate after such a carnivorous bonanza, order the homemade banana pudding, made from scratch and as rich and irresistible as the barbecue.
Knotty Pig BBQ: 6835 E 15th St, Tulsa, OK 74112
Iron Star Urban Barbecue, Oklahoma City
The Sooner State’s capital is home to one of the Midwest’s most dynamic culinary scenes, with scores of exceptional breweries as well as top-notch Vietnamese, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants. But when Oklahoma City, barbecue is a must. Iron Star Urban Barbecue executes the mainstays like brisket, pork shoulder, and hot links with aplomb, but also smokes swankier cuts like prime ribeye and porterhouses. The steaks, hit with peppery wallops of hickory smoke, are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, but you also can’t go wrong with the bacon-wrapped quail, an Oklahoma tailgate favorite, or the brisket tacos, stuffed with shredded brisket and lashed with fresh salsa and crema—a scrumptious marriage of Tex-Mex and barbecue. The peach pie á la mode, that most quintessential of Southern treats, will put a grin on your face as wide as a Stetson. After chowing down, saunter over to Bricktown, a former industrial neighborhood converted into OKC’s bar and nightclub hub, or StoneCloud and Twisted Spike, two standout breweries.
Iron Star Urban Barbecue: 3700 N Shartel Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73118
Lead photo credit: Au Jus