You can make a good case for the hamburger. Pizza for sure. These days, tacos would be up there. And of course, hot dogs and apple pie are as American as the Fourth of July.
But any discussion of a national food for these United States would be remiss without barbecue. Because like the country it hails from, it has a somewhat complicated history based in part on regional rivalries.
According to a 2013 article on the history of the practice, none other than Christopher Columbus himself is said to have found Native Americans engaging in the practice.
“The first indigenous tribes Christopher Columbus encountered … had developed a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. Reports indicate that the Spanish referred to this new style of cooking as barbacoa: the original barbecue.”
The practice spread over time through the American colonies. Pork was abundant in the American South, and settlers are credited with the advent of sauces — the English in Virginia favored vinegar; the Germans in the Carolinas, mustard. In Memphis, they’d develop the sweet red sauces. Texas created beef barbecue and mutton is the favorite in Kentucky, and Kansas City gave the world the gift of burnt ends.
But what about Pittsburgh? It might not be a cultural icon in these parts, as the Steel City doesn’t lay claim to a specific style of barbecue. But that hardly takes away from its universal appeal and the range of quality options here — the pursuit of which could take you on a pretty diverse tour of Western Pennsylvania, from a street corner in Homewood to a residential North Hills neighborhood to prime Downtown real estate or a sleepy Mon Valley town.
Here are 12 of the best you’ll find.
Carmi Soul Food Restaurant
They’ve hosted Denzel Washington, Gov. Tom Wolf, scores of Steelers and perhaps most impressively were recently gifted a poem by the local laureate of camp, Billie Nardozzi.
Carlene and Michael King put the Car and the Mi in the name, and their love in the food, serving up soul classics like fried chicken, shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, some killer mac and cheese and of course, pork spare ribs in a mildly sweet sauce that are smoked daily and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
917 Western Ave., Allegheny West; 412-231-0100. carmirestaurant.com.
Fourth Street Barbecue
The farthest afield on this list, located in “The Magic City” of Charleroi, the solid slate of barbecue and comfortable environs at Fourth Street make for a pleasant enough drive for a satisfying meal in a comfortable environment.
But, combined with an adjacent brewery called Four Points that’s set to open this fall, Fourth Street will almost certainly become a regional draw, bringing new visitors to this sleepy Mon Valley town.
308 Fourth St., Charleroi; 724-565-5456. fourthstreetbbq.com.
Pittsburgh Barbecue Co.
As its sits on a roadside knoll, behind a huge shade tree this little reddish-wooden cabin and smokehouse evokes an image of the Deep South but in fact it’s not even in the deep South Hills.
Located outbound on the side of Banksville Road, not even a mile from the mouth of the Fort Pitt Tunnels, the Pittsburgh Barbecue Co. has steadily grown from a smoker, a shed and piles of wood in behind a parking lot to a top local barbecue destination.
Another spot where they do just about everything well, the pork ribs in particular are worth dealing with tunnel traffic and one of the more annoying roads south of the Monongahela.
1000 Banksville Road, Banksville; 412-563-1005. pghbbq.com (There is also a second location in Delmont)
Pork & Beans
One of the most-hyped restaurant openings in the past year, this collaboration between chefs Richard DeShantz and Keith Fuller has managed to live up to its press, bringing Texas-style barbecue to Downtown Pittsburgh.
Mr. Fuller brings gourmand-meets-geek fun to dishes like their recent restaurant week special — a smoked 2.5 pound “Game of Thrones” inspired, black cardamom molasses brined and mushroom rubbed “Targaryen” turkey legs with chimichurri sauce.
But the classics play as well here as anywhere you’ll find. The brisket is absolutely perfect — a blend of meat and fat with a salt rub so tender that it nearly disintegrates in the mouth.
136 Sixth St., Downtown; 412-338-1876. porkandbeanspgh.com
Have your order ready. Stand behind the blue line until you’re called. Don’t be on your phone.
The posted rules for service at Showcase BBQ in Homewood smack a bit of a smoked meats version of the Soup Nazi (albeit much friendlier). But they are necessary because when this place gets crowded — and it routinely does — the line is thick and the staff is collectively a well-oiled machine in motion.
A pair of smokers that look like converted oil barrels beckon to Drew Allen’s corner spot where the mustard-based sauce is the stuff of legend and turkeys have “ribs.” It’s actually the meat from their scapula and they’re cooked to perfection, like everything else here, in a style that Mr. Allen calls “Northeast backyard barbecue,” using a combination if wood and charcoal to keep the product moving.
6800 Frankstown Ave., Homewood; 412-361-7469. showcasebbq.net
Smoke BBQ Tacqueria
They started as a small shop in Homestead and have grown in their Lawrenceville location to be one of the most consistently crowded restaurants in the city.
Texas transplants Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco meld barbecue and tortilla shells into a perfectly engineered and addictively efficient smoked meats delivery system — particularly in the beef brisket taco, with sauteed onions and hot peppers and a mustard barbecue sauce.
Though their tacos are immensely popular, for the purists, baby back ribs and burnt ends are also available a la carte.
4115 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412-224-2070. smokepgh.com
Christian Frangiadis has spent a career as a chef pushing the culinary envelope with a wide array of diverse cuisines for more than a quarter century in Pittsburgh and the Caribbean, where he started a family during 11 years there.
He returned to the ’Burgh and opened Spork last year featuring an innovative menu, but it was a trip to Austin, Texas and some of the luminary barbecue spots there that inspired a spinoff — Spork Pit featuring Texas-style ’cue made on a massive smoker custom created by Robert Pearce of Houston Smokers.
They serve out of Spork’s back lot on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from noon until the supply runs out, but will eventually move down the street to a permanent location in a partnership with Kevin Fisher, whose family owns the nearby Penn-Aiken Dairy.
Spork Pit: 5430 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. 412-441-1700; facebook.com/SporkPit
Twelve Whiskey Barbecue
Across-the-board solid offerings in a fun environment make this South Side spot a crowd pleaser by chef Alex Balint, who also owns Doce Taqueria next door.
They do the staples well here — ribs, brisket, chicken, etc. — but Mr. Balint likes to get messy and creative with the specials and the sandwiches, like the recent Twelve Cubano, with smoked pulled pork, bacon, swiss, Carolina mustard sauce, pickles and mayo, or the roasted pineapple pulled pork grilled cheese.
1222 E. Carson St., South Side; 412-742-4024. facebook.com/twelvewhiskeybarbecue
Tucked into a quintessentially suburban neighborhood, with regular live music, whiskey and barbecue Wheelfish brings a little bit of a roadhouse feel to residential Ross.
Bartender extraordinaire Katie Sabol and pitmaster Matt Huggins opened the place in late 2015. They also nail the bark on their spareribs with a terrific rub that’s a bit sweet. Other highlights include a unique chicken that is smoked then flash fried for a great mix of flavor and with a crispy skin and juicy meat. The smoked eggplant might be the top barbecue veggie dish in the region.
635 Sangree Road, Ross; 412-487-8909. wheelfish.com.
Wilson’s Bar B-Q
Approaching the address at 700 N. Taylor Ave. you’d be excused for thinking the building is on fire – because when the meat is on in the yellow brick smoking chamber, you can see and smell the billowing white clouds from blocks away.
They’ve done it like that at Wilson’s Bar B-Q for nearly 60 years in as bare bones – no pun intended – a fashion as possible.
In fact, on a recent visit to the spartan shop, all there was were bones – pork ribs just off the smoker — on the menu. Simply placed on a white plastic plate and covered with tin foil, the smell of them will taunt you until you can sit and eat them, at which time you’ll be treated to perfect ribs — a crusty bark encasing tender, fall-off-the-bone pink meat.
700 N. Taylor Ave., Central North Side; 412-322-7427.
A career as an engineer brought Richard Coursey from his native Georgia to Pittsburgh two decades ago. But in his “retirement” he’s brought some of that Southern flavor from to his adopted hometown via Yinzburgh BBQ, which he opened in a small Baum Boulevard storefront in 2012.
He cooks the food that he ate growing up on his family farm, along with help from his sister Debbie Gorman, who is the sauce mistress. They’ll smoke everything from meatloaf to organic tofu here, but not to be missed when available are the beef short ribs, locally sourced from Clarion Farms Beef.
A sibling location to Yinzburgh, Meat Here! is set to open in the coming weeks in South Oakland.
4903 Baum Blvd., Oakland; 412-621-YINZ. YinzBurghBBQ.com
In the immediate vicinity of the PPG Paints Arena, there is no shortage of places to purchase overpriced and often poorly made fare before Penguins games and concerts — let alone the concession costs inside the Paint Can.
So why more people don’t make a pre-event stop a block away at Z-Best Barbeque is a head scratcher. Z-Best has fired its smokers around the Hill District since 2009 but in 2014 moved into the longtime former home of Mr. Ribbs on Fifth Avenue, Uptown.
The fare is a high quality bargain, and home to a killer hot barbecue sauce, which has a subtle, building heat from red pepper flakes and a slight vinegar bite, and some awesomely gooey macaroni and cheese.
1315 Fifth Ave., Uptown; 412-235-7163. zbestbbq.com.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412