If you look for a list of the top barbecue restaurants in the country you’ll notice some of the same establishments will make the list time and time again. Joints like Skylight Inn BBQ in North Carolina, Franklin Barbecue in Texas, Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que in Kansas City and Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Alabama, are recognized in barbecue circles around the country for producing some of the best low-and-slow cooked meats around.
While barbecue connoisseurs all have their favorite spots to dine, they’ll agree it’s hard to compare one restaurant to another, because each has its specialty. It’s these specialties that keep the customers coming back for more – and even more so, keep customers travelling far and wide across the country to get a taste.
Locals and visitors to Ayden, North Carolina, drop in to Skylight Inn BBQ for the whole-hog pork, served with corn bread and slaw. People travel far and wide to Aaron Franklin’s Austin eatery, Franklin Barbecue, to try the brisket. At Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, hungry customers line up daily for the famous burnt ends, as well as the Z-man sandwich (stuffed with slow-smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese and topped with a crispy onion ring).
Since 1925, people have been flocking to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, based in Decatur, Alabama for smoked chicken slathered in Bob’s signature tangy white sauce.
“Every chicken that comes out of our hickory fired pit gets dipped in our white sauce,” says Chris Lilly, 4th generation owner and award-winning pitmaster at Big Gibson. The signature sauce has a vinegar and mayonnaise base, seasoned with black pepper and lemon juice. “We are known for our barbecue chicken in white sauce – it was invented here back in 1925 – but now I see it all over the country.”
Perhaps part of the reason Big Bob Gibson’s signature sauce can be found in restaurants around the country is because the restaurant itself is legendary. Bob Gibson started his business back in 1925 in Decatur and it’s been handed down through four generations of the family. While the smoked chicken remained at the top of the menu, new recipes and meat selection were added through the years, as well as an additional location to accommodate growth. However, the restaurant truly started to gain its national recognition when the fourth generation took over in 1991.
Lilly, who met his wife Amy (Big Bob Gibson’s great granddaughter) at the Univ. of North Alabama, had no barbecue experience when he started working at the restaurant – he was a marketing and finance major. Amy’s father, Don McLemore, offered Lilly the chance to come and learn the business from the ground up – starting naturally, in the pit room.
“That’s where you start out when you’re in a barbecue restaurant – you need to learn the whole business from the back of the house to the front of the house,” Lilly says. “I learned it all, but my passion and love for barbecue is always going to be back in the pit room. I still spend as much time as I can back there.”
Lilly says aside from being born into the business, the best way to learn about barbecue is by cooking it, over and over again. “I often say the greatness of a pitmaster is directly proportional to the size of his ash pile,” he says. “This means, the more you burn, the more barbecue you cook and the more your ash pile grows – you just have to learn by doing.”
Lilly learned his craft by doing from the time he started with Big Bob Gibson in 1991 until 1997 when it was time to show off his talents at his first barbecue competition. The restaurant bought a rotisserie cooker on a trailer to use with the catering side of the business. And in 1997, they entered their first barbecue competition in Huntsville, Alabama, as a way to promote the catering business. At this first competition, the Big Bob Gibson team got high marks and an invitation to cook at the Memphis in May Barbecue Championship. “And then we were addicted,” he recalls.
“We started as a way to promote the restaurant, but they’re also a lot of fun,” he says. “If you get out there and win consistently on the circuit – at competitions like Memphis in May and the American Royal – you can use those wins to promote your restaurant.”
The team has won championships in all categories – pork shoulder, beef brisket, chicken and ribs – but they’ve won the most with pork.
Big Bob Gibson has cut back its competition involvement to four per year (Memphis in May, American Royal, Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championships and a new charity event in Palm Springs, California, King of the Smokers).