State is slathered with smoky, spicy and saucy (or not) “Q” joints
Kentucky barbecue has a culture and flavor all its own, one that involves generations of aspiring pit masters working to supply restaurants, church picnics and cook-offs with meats flavored with just the right combination of heat, smoke, love and (maybe) sauce. To achieve that, says Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book, “You need a lot of good, hard wood.” Like hickory, for example. And in Kentucky, he says, “We’ve got the climate and we’ve got the wood.”
Western Kentucky has long been identified with great barbecue, but the form knows no bounds. “You can find barbecue now in places you couldn’t before,” Berry says.
These days, there are far too many barbecue restaurants in the commonwealth to cover in one article, so here is an exploration, a sampling, if you will, of the breadth and variety of Q joints around Kentucky.
Kentucky Hillbilly BBQ, Wickliffe
Don’t let the name fool you—Kentucky Hillbilly BBQ is about as far from the mountains as is geographically possible, and it inhabits one of the most interesting spots in the state. It’s about a rib-bone’s toss from the meeting point of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Across the road is the Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, an underrated gem for history buffs that’s worth a visit all its own.
There’s no indoor dining at Kentucky Hillbilly BBQ, but folks sit at tables on the covered porch to enjoy the menu items, mostly classics (brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken), though specials include pork steaks, hash brown casserole and bacon-wrapped pork loin kebobs. The house barbecue sauce is sweet and tangy, and does fine things when it coats the chicken, though the brisket is so tender and delicious it doesn’t need any help.
Knoth’s Bar-B-Que, Grand Rivers
Knoth’s keeps its menu simple—a concise list of offerings that appears to have undergone little change since PORK PLATE, BEEF PLATE, FRIES and SLAW went up on its wall-mounted menu when the restaurant opened in 1965. Beans? Potato salad? Chicken? Knoth’s, served by Jackson Purchase Energy Cooperative, doesn’t offer them, and customers at this Land Between The Lakes-area institution don’t seem to mind, instead enjoying its mustard based coleslaw, milkshakes and The Shelby, a pulled-pork-infused grilled cheese sandwich concoction that earned a thumbs-up from our taste testers
Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, Owensboro
Owensboro describes itself as “the barbecue capital of the world,” and earns that title by hosting the Bar-B-Q Block Party, a two-day, smoke-and sauce- infused shindig previously known as the International Bar-B-Q Festival. The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn has earned wide praise from Southern Living magazine and other outlets, though it’s not the only working pit in town. Old Hickory Bar-B-Que has been serving the region’s signature mutton barbecue since 1918. The restaurant sometimes smokes mutton more than 20 hours. Their dedication to the craft is such that they do custom cooking—you provide the meat, they provide the smoke. Old Hickory Manager Keith Cook says customers, especially hunters, bring all kinds of game for Old Hickory’s smokers: “Goat, elk, antelope, deer, turkey, racoon, rabbit. We’ve done it all.” Old Hickory is a full-service operation with a big dining room and extensive menu of deeply satisfying options. There’s more to enjoy than you can possibly eat, though consider saving a compartment in your belly for lemon icebox pie. Cook, who’s worked at Old Hickory for more than 20 years, echoes the sentiments of many pit masters and others in this business when he says that making and serving Kentuckians barbecue isn’t just a job: “It’s a way of life.”
Blue Door Smokehouse, Lexington
Red State BBQ earns plenty of accolades, ranking among the Best in Kentucky in our reader vote each year, but as with Owensboro, Lexington has multiple barbecue pits smoking day and night. Blue Door Smokehouse on Walton Avenue is a smaller operation with a friendly staff that lives up to the declaration on the restaurant’s website: “If we don’t know your name by now, we will soon.” The brisket’s terrific. The sausage is possibly perfect, and the owners had the wisdom to avoid taking sides, as it were, in one eternal barbecue-lovers debate: creamy slaw or vinegar slaw? Blue Door offers both.
Thatcher Barbecue Company, Slade
Nearly 340 miles east of Kentucky Hillbilly BBQ is a barbecue outpost that’s hiking distance from Natural Bridge State Resort Park and Red River Gorge Geological Area. Served by Clark Energy, Thatcher Barbecue Company (which has another location in Jackson) emphasizes local sourcing on its menu items, which include innovations like Loaded Mac (macaroni and cheese with pulled pork, green onions, bacon crumbles and barbecue sauce) and the BBQ Sundae, described in their menu as: “baked beans, pulled pork and slaw over a layer of hash brown casserole.” Most of their customers are tourists, owner Crystal Thatcher says, and, “People who come here aren’t fromhere, so they want to experience what we have.” That means barbecue, as well as the mountains and music. Thatcher Barbecue Company customers can also enjoy live bands at the adjoining Pit House. The real star of the show, of course, will always be on your plate.