All over the country, debates over what makes the best barbecue rage. Cities and entire states are known for their barbecue fare, but the treatment of the meat—how it is smoked, dry-rubbed, or sauced—is what defines barbecue in that area (though what accompanies the meat is important, too).
Kansas City boasts thick, dark and smoky sauces and dry-rubbed meat. The Carolinas offer sauces ranging from vinegar-based (North Carolina) to mustard-based sauce (South Carolina), almost always on pork. Memphis serves up dry-rubbed ribs with no sauce, or wet ribs dressed with tangy sauce before, during and after they cook. Texas cooks their beef low and slow, bringing the flavor of the fat into the meat and serving their sauce on the side.
Iowa barbecue samples all of these styles, offering you the chance to explore various flavor favorites from across the country in a single sitting.
Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon
Recommended appetizer: Fried Pickles
Scott Kading, owner of Gabe’s, recently reopened the aluminum behemoth on the outskirts of Iowa City, filling the calendar with musical acts and sustaining its reputation as a barbecue joint. The moist Beef Brisket is Iowa black angus beef from Tama, boasting right on the menu that it’s “so good you don’t need sauce.” Crispy frickles balance the smoky flavor with their brine.
Big’s BBQ Brew Pub
Recommended brew: Root Beer
Opened in the spring of 2017, this house-turned-restaurant in Mount Vernon also brews its own beer (and root beer!) in the basement. Proudly serving Iowa-style barbecue, Big’s mixes regional methods to create and serve new flavors. The pulled pork is a must-try, smoked and tender and duly complemented with an inventive Raspberry Sriracha sauce.
Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack
1940 Lower Muscatine Rd, Iowa City
Recommended sauce: Chicago Fire
Jimmy Jack’s North Liberty location offers an extended menu compared to its original southeast Iowa City location, including salads and smoked portobello. Still, this barbecue enthusiast keeps ordering the tender, slow-smoked chicken, soaking each slice in the properly spicy-sweet Chicago Fire sauce.
Q Dogs BBQ Company
Recommended side: Cheesy Potatoes
All the meats Q Dogs serves are smoked “low and slow” with cherry wood, giving them a mild sweetness. While the ribs are a fan favorite because of this technique, the bizarre but charming one-off on the menu is the BBQ Sundae, featuring a smoked beans base, followed by a layer of apple cider slaw, topped with pulled pork and garnished with a pickle spear. Cornbread is served with it, but the shining star of side dishes is easily the cheesy potatoes—also smoked, of course.
Mosley’s Barbecue and Provisions
125 E Zeller St, North Liberty
Recommended drink: House-Made Sweet Tea
Go with a gaggle of friends to try The Spread, Mosley’s sampler of pulled pork, standard or hot slab ribs and pulled chicken and sausage links. Pair it with any side from a jar of bacon (more meat!) to collard greens—but be sure you’re washing it down with the Southern gold standard: their very own house-made sweet tea.
Recommended sauce: Blackberry Habanero
Sitting comfortably left of center for standard barbecue fare, Pop’s makes no bones about offering a “traditional” and an “other” menu, the latter of which includes items like Cuban sandwiches and chicken strips. Still, their burnt ends are melt-in-your-mouth tender with crispy charred edges, proving they could do a solid barbecue-only menu, but they don’t have to.