Alabama Style Barbecue Sweeping the South

Alabama barbecue restaurants are taking off, according to the Associated Press.

Alabama’s best export might be slathered with sauce. ‘Bama-based barbecue restaurants — known for their variety of styles — are spreading throughout the South and beyond, slowly gaining an out-of-state foothold in a highly regionalized business where diners can be pretty picky about what’s on their plate.

Any fan of Southeastern Conference football knows about Tuscaloosa’s Dreamland BBQ Ribs, which started in a smoky, dark building in 1958 a few miles from the University of Alabama. It now has six restaurants, including two in upscale parts of metro Atlanta, and each has the same motto: “Ain’t nothing like’ em nowhere.” Golden Rule Bar-B-Q, which opened in 1891 near Birmingham, has 20 locations in Alabama and has expanded to one each in Georgia and Tennessee with plans to move into more states by the end of the year. And Jim N’ Nicks Bar-B-Q has grown beyond its Alabama roots into Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. With projected sales of $79 million this year, Jim N’ Nicks has plans to grow to two dozen locally owned restaurants by early next year, with one as far away as Denver.

The trick, according to Jim N’ Nicks marketing director Sam Burn, is translating the tradition, food and fun of a backyard cookout into a restaurant experience that sells across state lines. “Barbecue is something people are really passionate about,” said Burn. “Barbecue is very personal and communal and local.”

Other Southern barbecue restaurants have spread — the Florida-based Sonny’s Bar-B-Q calls itself the nation’s largest barbecue chain with more than 150 restaurants in nine Southeastern states. But the spread of so many restaurants from a single state is unusual in the barbecue world, according to Scott Jones, executive food editor at Southern Living magazine. Areas like the Carolinas, Memphis, Tenn., Texas or Kansas City are known for certain styles of meat, he said. People who are used to a certain type of barbecue — chopped pork covered with a watery, vinegar-based sauce, for example — may turn up their noses at a spare rib coated in thick, tomato-based sauce. But, Jones said, Alabama barbecue restaurants are hard to pigeonhole, serving everything from saucy chopped pork to spare ribs rubbed with dry spices to chicken coated in white sauce. Some even serve Texas-style beef, for heaven’s sake. That just doesn’t happen in most parts of the Deep South.

That gastronomic diversity might make it easier than normal for Alabama-based companies to cross geographic boundaries and catch on elsewhere, Jones said. “They only requirement for them is to turn the rest of the country on to barbecue,” said Jones. “They’re not locked down to any particular style.”

Although I’ve spent more time in Alabama than anywhere else, I acquired my taste for barbecue in Texas and still prefer beef brisket to chopped pork. Still, as the article notes, you can get just about any kind of barbecue you want in Alabama.

I did my PhD at the University of Alabama but only managed to get out to Dreamland–now well outside Tuscaloosa–once. The ribs were excellent, although probably not any better than I’ve had at half a dozen other places. My main memory of the place was the limited menu–essentially half a rack or a full rack–and the total lack of side dishes. I still recall with amusement that they brought us a big basket of Wonder Bread, which had clearly come out of a bag as they had giant divets where someone’s fingers had grabbed them.

I want to commend the writer for not making the cardinal error made by many non-Southerners and using “barbecue” to mean “grill.” As Hardy Jackson used to remind us, “barbecue” is a noun. One does not “barbecue” a pig, one smokes it, grills it, pressure cooks it, or whatever. “Barbecue” is the end result of this process.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    This is pretty silly, as everybody knows that it’s in Kansas City that barbecue reached perfection.

  2. Anderson says:

    Strangely for this Mississippi boy, the best barbecue I’ve had remains that to be found at Virgil’s, Times Square, NYC. I don’t expect to be believed, but check it out, those of you who can.

    Both ribs & brisket are excellent, and the biscuits with maple butter are a far cry above Wonder Bread.

  3. Michael says:

    Miami, Shorty’s BBQ. Surely the best pulled pork sandwich ever created. Add a side of corn on the cob, floating in a half inch of melted butter, it really doesn’t get any better.

  4. Russ says:

    Apex, North Carolina. My back deck.

    The best barbecue you’ll ever have.

  5. david says:

    A ‘Bama grad myself, I’ve had my share of Dreamland ribs … meat so tender and tasty that the wonderbread’s all the side you need (no room for anything else). But if youre in T-town, cross the river and hit Archibald’s on MLK in Northport. The place is 90 percent grill, connected to a counter and one booth … but the barbecue is fierce. Not as crowded as Dreamland, but just as tasty.