In the South, when it comes to religion and barbecue, folks are equally zealous about both. In fact, for some barbecue is a religion. To be clear, there “barbecue” means the act of slowly smoking over hardwood, or the end result. Pretty much everything else is contentious: what type of wood to use (hickory and oak are most favored), what type of sauce (if any) to use, and whether to rub, marinate, mop or sop. This uniquely American cooking style has spread across the country, with other locales adding their own interpretation on how it should properly be done. It may be old-fashioned, but barbecue has never been more popular, and you needn’t journey far to enjoy it.
Sometimes big things start small. After owner and Kansas City native Robert Bishop took second place in his third barbecue competition, he decided to start a catering business. Next came a well-liked food cart on the Square, and now a full-service dining room in Waunakee. Not surprisingly, his specialty is Kansas City-style barbecue that favors a dry rub and a sweet and spicy ketchup-based sauce. $$ 1336 Montondon Ave., Waunakee, 215-0069
Bonfyre American Grill
The first test of any good restaurant is that it smells good. When you enter Bonfyre, it’s impossible to ignore the alluring aroma wafting from its wood-fired grill and oven. Grilled items include several steaks with a choice of sauces, a pork porterhouse, baby back ribs and ahi tuna. Exceptional, however, is the rotisserie roasted chicken, either herbed or with a barbecue glaze. $$ 2601 W. Beltline Hwy., 273-3973
This is no roadside honky-tonk, but a cavernous urban hangout complete with a rooftop patio. The lengthy menu is an eclectic litany of smoked and char-grilled favorites, imaginative appetizers and twelve classic side dishes. The bar is equally long on brands of bourbon and has forty beers on tap and many more bottled craft brews. $$ BOM 408 W. Gorham St., 257-7675
Chef DJ’s Blair Street BBQ & Catering
Probably the first thing that you’ll notice is the pink VW bug parked out front that looks like a pig. Chef DJ says his ’Q is like they do in Memphis, where pulled-pork sandwiches come topped with coleslaw. Ribs get a dry rub before smoking and then a slather of sauce at the end. Rarely seen outside the South is his BBQ spaghetti—pasta swimming in a hybrid marinara/barbecue sauce and served with pork on the side. $$ 605 E. Washington Ave., 251-1000 Editor's note: Chef DJ's Balir Street BBQ & Catering is now closed.
Delaney’s Charcoal Steaks
Most steakhouses today use infrared broilers to cook their meat. At Delaney’s, top-quality steaks are always hand-cut, aged in-house and grilled over an open flame. The finished product arrives at the table sizzling on a metal platter. Owned and operated by the same family for more than forty years, the supper club prides itself on being a bit old-fashioned. $$$$ 449 Grand Canyon Dr., 833-7337
Double S BBQ
Co-owner Shon Jones hails from Texas and his melt-in-your-mouth brisket proves it. Other Lone Star State favorites include armadillo eggs (bacon-wrapped, smoked jalapeño poppers), cowboy pinto beans and chuck wagon cornbread. There are a couple of Cajun specialties, too, including boudain, a spicy sausage stuffed with pork and seasoned rice. Worth the trip alone is the heavenly buttermilk pie. $ 111 Jefferson St., U.S. Hwy. 18, Cambridge, 886-8292
It would be heresy for a Tex-Mex eatery not to include barbecue. At Eldorado Grill, it’s no afterthought, either. Baby back ribs, pulled pork and, of course, brisket are all seductively smoky and tender as the Texas dew. Served with chipotle potato salad, green chile beans and homemade slaw, everything tastes that much better with a longneck bottle of Lone Star. $$$ BOM 744 Williamson St., 280-9378
Fat Jack's BBQ
Smokin’ since 1986, this family-owned business is the city’s second-oldest barbecue restaurant. The specialties are Southern-style hickory-smoked spareribs and baby back ribs. The accent here, however, is idiosyncratically Wisconsin with cheese curds, salad bar and Friday night fish fry. Regulars look forward to Thursday and the all-you-can-eat ribs and chicken special. $$ BOM 6207 Monona Dr., Monona, 221-4220
Habanero's Mexican Grill
In Mexico, the tradition of cooking food over a mesquite fire is thousands of years old. There’s something inexplicably appealing about eating meat and vegetables hot off the grill, wrapped in a tortilla and topped with piquant pico de gallo. In addition to a fajita burrito with sweet peppers, onions and your choice of meat, Habanero’s is famous for its carnitas, Mexico’s answer to pulled pork. $ 2229 S. Stoughton Rd., 223-9222, 3001 N. Sherman Ave., 244-1992
JB’s Eat-A-Bite BBQ
As is so often the case with BBQ joints, this unpretentious café hidden behind a gas station is just as much about soul food. Catfish, chicken gizzards and red beans and rice shine here. But JB’s specialty is barbecue—ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket—served with the likes of candied jams, turnip and mustard greens, fried okra and mac and cheese. $ 2209 S. Park St., 251-2209 Editor's note: JB's Eat-A-Bite BBQ is now closed.
It’s a local culinary landmark and one of the city’s best restaurants. Chef and co-owner Patrick O’Halloran is a master of modern Italian cuisine. Indubitably, Lombardino’s Tuscan-style wood-burning grill has contributed to its success. Choices change frequently and include a selection of wood-grilled dishes, but always on hand is an eighteen-ounce bone-in ribeye. $$$ BOM 2500 University Ave., 238-1922
Papa Bear's BBQ
Situated in a covert strip mall, Papas Bear’s is a friendly destination for eat-in or carry-out Kansas City barbecue. The menu covers all the bases, but most in demand are the rib tips. Spare ribs are often squared-off, the ends removed to make what are called St. Louis-style ribs. The removed tips, smoked and sauced, are scrumptious morsels and come in small or large orders or with chicken or hot links. $ 4527 Cottage Grove Rd., 222-2374 Editor's note: Papa Bear's BBQ is now closed.
Although barbecued beef and chicken make the cut here, the name says it all at this shrine to pork—ribs, shoulder and catered pig roasts. Notable is the Exploding Pig, a sandwich of BBQ pork, ham, bacon and cheddar with chipotle mayo on dark rye. Some of twelve ten sauces are equally as quirky and delicious. Porktropolis keeps its promises to save the world from boring barbecue. $ 1112 N. Bristol St., Sun Prairie, 837-2651 Editor's note: Porktropolis is now closed.
Red Rock Saloon
With a successful location in Milwaukee under its belt, Red Rock expands to Madison. Best known for live country and rock music and a bucking mechanical bull, it’s very proud of its hardwood-smoked barbecue. In addition to baby back ribs, brisket and pulled pork, it specializes in eleven different wing recipes, each one hotter than the last. Another signature snack is the BBQ sliders made with either beef or pork. $$ 322 W. Johnson St., 709-5200
Samba Brazilian Grill
Brazil’s thrill of the grill rivals our own. There called churrascarias, it’s a repast of various skewered meats, sausage and poultry cooked over charcoal. At Samba, after a trip to the galactic salad and appetizer bar, a parade of grilled meats arrives at your table, each course hand-carved by your waiter. The feast concludes with pineapple caramelized with sugar and cinnamon. $$$$ 240 W. Gilman St., 257-1111
Smoky Jon's #1 BBQ Restaurant
A Madison barbecue pioneer, Smoky Jon Olson has won numerous national championships for ribs, his specialty. More importantly, after almost four decades his loyal Madison fans continue to sing his praise. The rustic dining room serves a variety of sandwiches and dinners; all are available to carry out along with family-style meals that serve four to eight. His award-winning sauce and rub are available here and at many area markets. $ BOM 2310 Packers Ave., 249-7427
State Street Brats
It opened as the Brathaus in 1953. Today it’s a nostalgia stop for throngs of visiting UW–Madison alums. What began as a small, dark tavern eventually got a facelift, an added second story and a faux German façade. A new owner and name came in 1989. Food fads have come and gone, but little changes here where the focus remains on char-grilled brats, burgers and steak sandwiches that are undeniably memorable for so many. $ BOM 603 State St., 255-5544
That BBQ Joint
After eating a lot of other people’s barbecue, owners Maureen White and Clement Henriques were fired up to open their own place. As its name accurately suggests, expect good cooking but not fancy fittings. The Southern-style pulled pork and ribs are exemplary and only made better with one of their exceptional sides. Three homemade sauces include a rarely-seen-around-here tangy South Carolina-style mustard sauce. $ 1511 Williamson St., 709-1300