There isn’t anything subtle about the savory art of barbecue. The unmistakable aroma, smoky haze and big pit-master personalities make barbecue almost as much a form of entertainment as cuisine. Good ‘cue is like gumbo — every recipe is special and every technique is a tradition. And Alabama’s masters of the grill are some of the nation’s best, with iconic and award-winning restaurants scattered across the state.
The Original Greenbrier Bar-B-Que in Madison opened its doors nearly 60 years ago, serving some of the best hickory-smoked meats in the state. Margaret Berzett, who co-owns the North Alabama landmark with her son Johnny, envisioned the future of Greenbrier while working as a waitress at the dining spot she would eventually own. The menu has grown to encompass barbecue chicken, pork, fried catfish and seafood. Accompanying sides are fried okra, baked beans, baked potato, slaw and the real crowd-pleaser, hush puppies. As for sauce, North Alabama’s signature white barbecue sauce has just the right amount of tang to complement the chicken it’s paired with.
North Alabama’s other barbecue landmark is Decatur’s storied Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, originator of the state’s famous white sauce and winner of countless cook-offs nationwide. In 1925, Bob Gibson himself invented white sauce from a mix of mayonnaise, cider vinegar and black pepper. Today, his family continues to run the restaurant, which is just as well known for its cookbooks, bottled sauces and flavorful rubs as for the hearty meals you can order in person — but a visit is still mandatory for any true barbecue lover passing through the region.
Heading south down Interstate 65, the next stop on Alabama’s barbecue odyssey is Big Daddy’s Bar-B-Que in Warrior. Owner Paul Woodard (aka Big Daddy) was inspired as a little boy by watching his dad cook. Woodard was an apt pupil; his skill has earned Big Daddy’s recognition by The Birmingham News as the best in the seven-county area. The ribs are meaty, tender and flavorful, and (if you opt for your bones without the thick sauce) with a hint of sweetness, they won’t disappoint. The menu also includes chicken, catfish, burgers, Polish sausage and a wide array of traditional sides such as fresh greens, field peas and butter beans. Leave room for dessert; the signature key lime cake has a fan base of its own. Address: 407 Main St. N., Warrior. Phone: 205-590-2279.
Full Moon Bar-B-Que is a Birmingham favorite. Since its purchase in 1996 by brothers David and Joe Maluff, Full Moon has grown from one restaurant to eight. The brothers continue the barbecue tradition, cooking low and slow over a hickory-fired pit. The menu includes traditional choices of barbecue pork, beef brisket, smoked turkey, chicken and pork links. Sides include collard greens, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, popular vinegar-based slaw and chow-chow, the spicy-sweet relish that’s a Southern tradition and a must with greens.
Another Birmingham favorite that’s growing rapidly is Jim ‘N Nick’s, the 25-year-old restaurant that has expanded to more than six states. Founded in 1985 by Nick Pihakis and his late father, Jim, the restaurants feature classic, from-scratch country sides and slow-cooked meats including pork shoulder tended for more than 10 hours over a hickory-wood pit. Along with the deeply smoked meats, the menu boasts their signature coleslaw and famous bite-sized cheese muffins.
The second-generation owner of Archibald’s Bar B.Q. in Northport is George Archibald Jr., who started learning the business at the age of 7. The menu is simple: pork shoulder and ribs cooked in a vintage pit, using hickory and pecan wood. It’s a family affair, and his sister and niece make the special sauce. When asked about the condiment, they smile and divulge only that “it is vinegar-based with a tang to it.” The sauce may be secret, but one thing is certain, Archibald’s is forking up good barbecue. Address: 1211 Martin Luther King Blvd., Northport. Phone: (205) 345-6861.
For more barbecue options, check out our list of featured restaurants.
Charla L. Draper, is a marketing communications professional and former food editor for Southern Living magazine. She writes about food on her blog, Chow-Chow & Soulâ„¢.
The views expressed here are those of the author.