Blue Ribbon and Honorable Mention ratings are based upon the state of barbecue in New Orleans. In other words, blue ribbon contenders may or may not live up to the long-smoked, beatific brisket found at Kreutz Market in Lockhart, Texas; their ribs may or may not be comparable to the hulking, rosy beauties at Leatha's Bar-B-Que Inn in Hattiesburg, Miss. For the purpose of this survey, I've pitted peer against peer and evaluated each barbecue outlet relative to the local competition.
For the most part, I included only restaurants adhering to this definition of barbecue: meat cooked over hardwood or charcoal with more smoke than fire. Big Shirley's and Bywater Bar-B-Que are the exceptions. I included them based upon their popularity with locals.
Donna's Bar & Grill
800 N. Rampart St., 596-6914
Open Since: 1993
Technique: "Chicago-style," marinated with something and smoked somehow, probably over charcoal (proprietor Charlie Sims, a Chicago transplant, reveals no secrets)
Recommended Meat: Dark, nearly candied pork rib tips, the daintiest of barbecue finger foods
Sauce: Sticky-sweet, with tomato and a touch of tartness
Don't-Miss Side: Crisp cabbage is minced to atoms for the lightly creamy, almost nutty coleslaw, served in a lettuce cup.
Bummer: The meat's lack of smoke. Then again, there's enough smoke in the air of this brass band den to cure a live cow.
The setting: A great, no-frills New Orleans bar with table seating
Lagniappe: Free red beans and rice, and barbecue chicken, on Mondays
1768 Front St., Slidell, (985) 643-6463
Open Since: 2003
Technique: Smoked with pecan
Recommended Meat: Lean St. Louis-cut pork ribs, their sweet pink meat potently smoked and sealed with a spice-rub bark
Sauce: Thin and sweet, with a slight mustard punch
Bread: Grilled cornbread
Don't-Miss Side: Chunky red potato salad seasoned with flecks of bacon
Bummer: Pulled pork was so moist as to be mushy, without much smoke and pre-wet with sauce like a Sloppy Joe.
The setting: A blues bar across from the train depot. The cushy, swivel stools pushed up to the bar and a parallel dining counter look to have come from somebody's 1970s basement bar.
Lagniappe: Musician Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown doesn't only show up to play; one recent Friday afternoon, he sat at the bar before a plate of 'cue.
Ugly Dog Saloon & BBQ
401 Andrew Higgins Drive, 569-8459
Open Since: 1999
Technique: Dry-rubbed and smoked with any variety of woods, including hickory, apple and pecan
Recommended Meat: Pork spare ribs with a chewy, black surface that yanks off to reveal rose petal-pink meat
Sauce: Arkansas-made, it tastes like an even swirl of ketchup and yellow mustard.
Bread: White dinner rolls
Don't-Miss Side: Amazing coarse-chopped, creamy cabbage slaw whose seasonings bear close resemblance to Hidden Valley Ranch dressing
Bummer: Unless smothered in sauce, the pulled pork has no character.
The setting: A dark-ceilinged barroom with enough space for two pool tables, a convention of barbecue eaters and grown men spinning into hysterics over whatever sporting event happens to be on television
Lagniappe: Chili Beans: soupy, cumin-spiced pinto bean chili topped with onions, grated cheddar and sour cream
Chains, Local and National
Corky's Ribs & BBQ
4243 Veterans Memorial Blvd., 887-5000, Metairie
Open Since: 1992
Technique: Smoked over hickory and pecan, and then charcoal-grilled
Recommended Meat: Dry (unsauced) pork spare ribs, barely pink at the surface and rubbed with a salty, rust-colored, spice mixture
Sauce: Overly smoky and syrup-thick, with merciful background spiciness
Bread: White dinner rolls
Don't-Miss Side: A snappy, rough-chopped coleslaw of cabbage, green pepper and carrot that tempers the sauce's cloying sweet and smoke
Bummer: The sauce holds all the smoke.
The setting: Cookie-cutter but comfortable, with laminated menus, vinyl booths and servers wearing bow-ties
Lagniappe: A drive-through window
2750 Severn Ave., Metairie, 888-6370
4950 Lapalco Blvd., Marrero, 347-0624
8740 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, 277-8167
Open Since: 1980
Technique: Smoked with hickory and pecan
Recommended: Chips of black, bacony char and chopped onions from the sauce cling to the pork spare ribs' dark, caramelized surface. The rib meat pulls from the bone with easy effort and, unlike the too-strong pulled pork, its smokiness is convincing.
Sauce: Mustard-tart and sweetened with onions; unfortunately high in fake smoke content. It's warm and in unlimited supply at the fixin's bar.
Bread: Serve-yourself white bread
Don't-Miss Side: If there is one, I haven't tried it.
Bummer: Lean slices of brisket have a credible red ring, but the texture is tough, almost gristly.
The setting: Texas cafeteria: red-and-white checkered tablecloths, saddles as wall art, a metal washtub filled with ice and beer
Lagniappe: At least some employees, all wearing black cowboy hats, seem to be the real deal. One spoke Spanish to customers visiting from Texas who themselves wore matching denim shirts and riding boots.
Texas Bar-B-Q Company
3320 Houma Blvd., Metairie, 456-2832
851 I-10 Service Road, 245-4402
Open Since: 1962 (The original location was in the Ninth Ward.)
Technique: Smoked over hickory
Recommended Meat: Pork spare ribs, not caramelized or chewy but with a nice blush and even, sweet smokiness
Sauce: Thick and fruity, it acts like smoked apple butter when it's left to cool on ribs.
Bread: Cake-like corn muffins
Don't-Miss Side: Both the tomato-sweet baked beans and minced, white coleslaw are picnic-perfect.
Bummer: The "Texas Style" brisket was sliced thinly, as if for a roast beef po-boy, and exhibited no sign of having been smoked.
The setting: Two welcoming, wood-paneled rooms decorated with longhorns, miniature covered wagons and a portrait of John Wayne holding a coonskin cap
Lagniappe: Whole smoked turkeys are available for special order.
1501 St. Charles Ave., 522-4647
8550 Pontchartrain Blvd., 283-8301; late-night on weekends
100 James Drive, St. Rose, 304-6160
Open Since: 2002
Technique: Dry-rubbed and smoked with pecan and oak
Recommended Meat: The jerk chicken breast -- smoked, shredded and then wetted with an intensely spiced Caribbean jerk sauce
Sauce: Each table comes equipped with a nice variety: a sweet, ketchupy Mojo sauce; a thin, puckery cane vinegar sauce; and a Caribbean-style sauce that successfully marries Crystal hot sauce and mango.
Bread: Garlic-buttered Texas toast
Don't-Miss Side: The cumin-spiced pinto beans and fiery mustard greens
Bummer: The moistness and smoke flavor of brisket, pork and ribs are inconsistent. When they're on they're on, but when they're not, you're better off sticking to the sides.
The setting: This used to be a McKenzie's bakery, and you still amble up to the ordering counter over colorful chipped tiles; a young professional crowd populated the back bar and patio during a recent visit.
Lagniappe: Sweet tea
3162 Dauphine St., 944-4445
Open Since: 1997
Technique: Kitchen-grilled and then baked
Recommended Meat: On a recent visit, the brisket was a perfect roast: tender and chewy, a nicely marbled cut with big, beefy flavor.
Sauce: Essentially ketchup, made prickly with jalapenos
Bread: Jalapeno cornbread
Don't-Miss Side: Pencil-length, skin-on French fries
Bummer: This is "kitchen barbecue" at its least dramatic, though regular customers love the stuff.
The setting: All the drama is in the beauty of the courtyard patio, with its iron staircase, potted petunias and shaded tables.
Lagniappe: Go for brunch and spend the afternoon shopping for vintage clothing, arty movies and used furniture.
The Rib Shack
3901 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 443-5101/5102
Open Since: 1990
Technique: Smoked with hickory
Recommended Meat: Sliced pork sandwiches on soft French bread, dressed with coleslaw
Sauce: Dark as coffee and chicory, and syrupy
Don't-Miss Side: A generous spread of pork spare ribs actually comes as a side dish to platters of red beans and rice.
Bummer: The hickory flavor can get high-pitched and astringent.
The setting: A sit-down restaurant with a bright, red-painted front room and a den-like back room with walls of wood paneling and mirrors
Lagniappe: With any luck, you'll drop in when the sweet potato pies are still warm.
808 Iberville St., 565-5520
Open Since: 2004
Technique: Smoked with hickory and pecan in a behemoth, gas-assisted rotisserie pit in the dining room
Recommended: Succulent cochon de lait, in this case pulled pork butt, its tips charred a chewy black and its smoky succor true
Sauce: A rust-colored, black-specked slurry that pushes the limits of vinegary tartness, made with Steen's cane syrup, cane vinegar and south Louisiana peppers
Bread: Skillet cornbread
Don't-Miss Side: Baked beans with the added zip of pickled onions
Bummer: When, after waiting 30 minutes for a table, you learn that the kitchen has run out of ribs and turkey legs, it's like driving through Super Popeye's at 2 a.m. and hearing the kitchen is out of chicken (a true story).
The setting: A large, two-tiered dining room with hard wooden booths and an antique-looking chipped tile floor
Lagniappe: A coffee-colored "debris" gumbo made with smoked meat trimmings, with a scoop of potato salad plopped at the center of the bowl
Non-Traditional Restaurant Barbecue
1500 Esplanade Ave., 301-9704
Open Since: 2004
Technique: Oven-baked and gas-grilled
Recommended Meat: Blow on the babyback pork ribs, and the meat will slip off the bone. That's intentional -- proprietor Michael Dummett says that if your ribs don't twist off, you should take it up with him.
Sauce: A recipe handed down from Big Shirley: sweet, a little tart, and sticky
Bread: Cornbread, garlic French bread or dinner rolls
Don't-Miss Side: Fat elbow macaroni with a melt of orange cheese
Bummer: Smoked barbecue purists will approve of neither the cooking technique nor the loose rib meat.
The setting: "I tried to bring a little SoHo to New Orleans," says Dummett of his nicely renovated corner restaurant. Big windows admit natural light into a space otherwise hardened by stone floors and brick walls.
Lagniappe: Dummett orders his ribs boneless, as a po-boy.
333 St. Charles Ave., 565-5595
Open Since: 2001
Technique: Smoked primarily with hickory, sometimes with pecan or dried corncobs
Recommended Meat: Dry-rubbed St. Louis-cut ribs with "bone-suckin' sauce." Glossy and stacked photo-perfect, they're nevertheless finger food. The pinkish meat has a mellow smoke and loosens from the bone at the suggestion of your teeth. Intermittently available.
Sauce: Chef Brack May is constantly experimenting with sauce. One evening in April, a sinus-searing sauce stuck to the ribs, its mustard spiciness balancing its sticky sweetness.
Don't-Miss Sides: Vinegary mustard greens with enough fire to light the smoker; macaroni and cheese seasoned with smoked lamb shoulder
Bummer: This is no in-and-out 'cue; you pay for the real estate.
The setting: Contemporary cool hotel restaurant. Bartenders spritz vermouth into frosted martini glasses.
Lagniappe: "We decided to kind of go for it this summer," says May of Cobalt's current barbecue-heavy menu.
428 Jefferson Hwy., Jefferson, 833-2722
Open Since: 2002
Technique: Smoked over pecan at 200 degrees for three days
Recommended Meat: Cochon de lait po-boy, with tender but still meaty pulled pork butt
Sauce: Brown gravy. Cook Jamie Galloway calls it "pretty much a multi-purpose gravy of love."
Don't-Miss Side: Well-seasoned red beans with shredded meat and andouille sausage
Bummer: Ordering the cochon de lait means bypassing the roasted duck.
The setting: A modern po-boy shop with platters of boiled crawfish on display and the young, girlish waitstaff of a roller drive-in
Lagniappe: Fish tacos are another sleeper here, made with the freshest catch and hard blue corn tortillas.
601 Gallier St., 944-9272
Open Since: 1998
Technique: Smoked over a mix of pecan, oak and hickory in a smoker imported from South Carolina named "Blackie"
Recommended Dish: The barbecue omelette, a free-form cloud of fluffed egg, onions, green pepper and smoked pork of a deeper tenor than you'll find elsewhere in town. Chef-owner Heidi Trull smokes an entire pig once a week (whenever it happens) and uses the leftover pulled pork the next morning.
Sauce: Louisiana Beer-B-Que sauce made with Red Dog beer and Steen's cane syrup
Don't-Miss Side: Buttered white grits
Bummer: Cooks used to deconstruct the glistening swine outside in front of the restaurant, but that ritual ended after the second rubbernecking car wreck.
The setting: Grandma's kitchen expanded: mismatched tablecloths, pies cooling on the counter and a chef who needles you to lick your plate clean
Lagniappe: Bottomless mugs of coffee and chicory
310 Lafitte St., Mandeville, (895) 727-5580
Open Since: 2003
Technique: Smoked over mesquite; some meats are then finished over post oak in a natural wood grill.
Recommended Meat: Rib tips are chewy, evenly smoked odds and ends charred black around the gristled edges and slicked with a thin, Carolina-style cane vinegar sauce. Also, the dark, chili-like gumbo containing a sandwich's worth of meltingly tender pulled pork
Sauce: Chef-owner Christopher Brady emulates Memphis sauce traditions with the house Soggy Bottom sauce.
Bread: Sliced French
Don't-Miss Side: Sweet corn pudding, the moistest corn muffin ever
Bummer: The 'cue menu isn't as extensive at night.
The setting: A converted country bakery with three folksy dining rooms painted mirliton-green, a patio for cocktails and Stevie Ray Vaughan serenading
Lagniappe: "Friday Q" lunches are all-barbecue, all summer.
69399 Hwy. 59, Abita Springs, (985) 892-0205
Open Since: 1998 (The original location was down the road, in a Shell station.)
Technique: Pit-smoked over pecan
Recommended Meat: Pork ribs have a salty, caramelized top layer, pink meat and a glistening film of fat -- all of which stands up well to the heat lamp and microwave.
Sauce: Thin and sweet, with a touch of smokiness
Bread: Corn muffin
Don't-Miss Side: Chocolate layer cake with chocolate frosting
Bummer: On a recent visit, the pulled pork had a smokeless, almost gamey, flavor.
The setting: A step up from the Shell station where this barbecue joint got its start, the free-standing restaurant is outfitted with a utilitarian but friendly dining room and a dining counter overlooking Highway 59.
Lagniappe: Even the hamburgers are smoked.
Bubba's BubBa Q
420 S. Tyler St., Covington, (985) 898-2166
Open Since: 2003
Technique: Smoked with hickory and mesquite
Recommended Meat: Chicken, smoke-tanned meat and crisp, spice-darkened skin
Sauce: Color-coded squirt bottles contain four styles, each one from a different region: Taste of Texas, Sweet & Innocent, Sweet & Sassy, and Carolina Coonass
Don't-Miss Side: Thin, coffee bean-brown gumbo with okra and meat scraps, and a spicy, aromatic, brown jambalaya
Bummer: Pork ribs are coated in a tongue-tingling spice mixture, but minimal smoke flavor and a grayish pallor inside and out make them unpersuasive.
The setting: A cozy general store. Barbecue sauces, marinades, cookbooks and knickknacks stock shelves all around the dining area; miniature washtubs on every table contain barbecue-industry magazines to read.
Lagniappe: The hot-pink, swine-shaped smoker and the jet-black, steer-shaped smoker out front are for sale.
Sweet Daddy's: A Cajun Barbecue
2534 Florida St., Mandeville, (985) 626-0208
Open Since: 2000
Technique: Smoked with hickory, then grilled
Recommended Meat: Chopped beef brisket, as the chopping tenderizes
Sauce: An elusive, medium-thick, sweet-tart, tomato-savory melange that covers all the bases
Bread: White toast
Don't-Miss Side: Baked beans reinforced with smoky meat scraps; deep-fried creamed corn nuggets
Bummer: Both the babyback pork ribs and the beef brisket tried on a recent visit demonstrated an undesirable combination: unfettered smokiness and tough meat.
The setting: A Wild West look with animal pelts, fishing trophies and weathered license plates adorning the walls, and country music videos on the big-screen television
Lagniappe: A sign outside advertises, "Having a luau? Give us a call."
The Urban Pitmaster
Adams Barbecue Plus +
1246 Franklin Ave., 942-1100
Open Since: 1998
Technique: Smoked in a custom-made open pit, primarily over pecan
Recommended Meat: Pre-marinated beef and pork spare ribs, a dull rosy glow lurking beneath their inconsistently but deliciously charred surfaces
Sauce: The Shelmires doctor up a pre-made sauce; the honey-sweet, slightly tangy result bows to the power of the superbly smoked meats.
Don't-Miss Side: Killer, almost-black smoked sausage powers the basic red jambalaya
Bummer: It's occasionally a challenge to locate the meat between the fat and the oddly shaped bones of certain ribs.
The setting: A low-slung green-and-gold, take-out-only building spreading the scent of a two-alarm fire around the neighborhood
Lagniappe: Adam the younger has been experimenting with smoking salmon over apple wood, which will yield smoked fish specials during next year's Lenten season.
208 Tallulah Ave., River Ridge, 738-1508
Open Since: 2001
Technique: Smoked with imported Kentucky pecan
Recommended Meats: Pulled pork shoulder glistening with its own fat; tender yet chewy brisket; heavily dry-rubbed pork ribs; smoked chicken salad
Sauce: Several vinegary, Kentucky-style sauces, all similar but with varying degrees of heat
Don't-Miss Side: Hobo Taters: warm, chunky potato and bell pepper salad dressed like a baked potato with sour cream, grated cheddar, real bacon bits and green onion tops
Bummer: If you're coming from New Orleans, the length of the drive discourages workday lunches.
The setting: A cinderblock building with a couple of tables and two young employees that are 14 going on an MBA. Look for a modest expansion coming soon.
Lagniappe: The Triangle West Bar is next door for take-out Sierra Nevada and a post-prandial game of pool.
801 Poland Ave., 949-3232
Open Since: 2004
Technique: Dry-rubbed and smoked with hickory in a custom-made pit
Recommended Meat: Pulled pork and beef brisket, both rough-chopped heady with smoke flavor and glistening with fat without being greasy
Sauce: A ferocious Carolina-style seasoned vinegar (great with the pork) and a dark, tomato-based sauce redolent of chile
Don't-Miss Sides: Meaty sweet and sour baked beans seasoned with bell pepper; chunky red potato salad
Bummer: The pork ribs were tough and almost dizzying in smoke content on a recent visit; as it was The Joint's fourth day in business, we can expect improvement.
The setting: A cinderblock outpost, wedged in by Poland Avenue on one side and train tracks on the other, with six indoor picnic tables, happy orange walls and a Rasta mural left over from the previous proprietor, the great Jamaican chef Cecil Palmer
Lagniappe: A jukebox with hand-written song lists plays Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin and the ReBirth Brass Band.
Ms. Hyster's Bar-B-Que
2000 S. Claiborne Ave., 522-3028
Open Since: 1996
Technique: Smoked with Mississippi hickory
Recommended Meat: Dry-rubbed pork spare ribs, rosy to the bone, salty as a country ham and rendered of all but the necessary fat
Sauce: Benign, sweetish and rust-colored, a Mississippi recipe from the late Ms. Hester (Ms. Hyster's sort-of namesake)
Bread: Toasted and buttered French, and sweet cornbread
Don't-Miss Sides: Remarkable string beans with onions, bay leaf and pork meat debris; mustard greens made with heaps of remembrance. Manager Virginia Johnson says her secret is "the Mississippi Stir."
Bummer: Don't be in a rush, and ask what they have before you develop a hankering: There was no lemonade, turkey wings, crowder peas or pies on my last visit.
The setting: Always gospel or blues music cranking. "One says Lord, help me,' the other says, Baby, help me,'" Johnson says.
Lagniappe: The from-scratch white layer cakes "frosted" with coconut, apple jelly or almond icing
Big Cat Ernie Ladd's Throw-Down BBQ
529 S. Broad St., 821-7866
Open Since: 2004
Technique: Smoked with pecan and some help from gas
Recommended Meat: Though sometimes dry and chewy, the pulled pork has an even smoked flavor; the reddish baby back pork rib meat pulls easily, but doesn't slide, from the bone.
Sauce: Dark as night; sweet with spicy-tart undertones, and a little too much smoke
Bread: White buns
Don't-Miss Side: Knuckles of smoked chicken save an otherwise lackluster red jambalaya.
Bummer: Brisket sliced so thin it crumbles is only good swimming in sauce, like a Sloppy Joe.
The setting: A sno-ball stand with a state-of-the-art register system across from the Orleans Parish Courthouse
Lagniappe: The monstrous, tanned turkey legs are probably the closest WWF fans will get to meeting the actual Ernie Ladd.
H&P Bar B-Q Masters
1523 Elysian Fields Ave., 943-2382
Open Since: 1972 (The original location was Uptown.)
Technique: Cooked over charcoal
Recommended: For the greatest effect, get the House Combo: pork and beef ribs, chicken and pink hot links sauced and pressed all together into an aluminum foil package like a barbecue stew.
Sauce: Thick and reddish-orange, it looks like a ketchup-based sauce but then surprises with a tear-inducing back kick.
Bread: White bread
Don't-Miss Side: Creamy textured potato salad, one of two available sides, is shot through with hot red pepper and pickle relish.
Bummer: The marked savor of something akin to lighter fluid infused the meat on a recent visit, though this is not always the case.
The setting: A small, seatless waiting room with orange-painted walls and bullet-proof plastic protecting the kitchen
Lagniappe: Folk-art murals on the building's exterior help identify the location. Look for the rectangle of orange light signifying H&P's open door.
Podner's Barbecue Inc.
2520 Felicity St., 525-5346
Open Since: 1956
Technique: Ribs and chicken smoked with hickory in an indoor pit (Don't be fooled: The locomotive-looking black box with the tall chimney behind the store is an incinerator.)
Recommended Meats: Whole chickens and pork spare ribs are heavily coated with a dry rub that turns into an addicting leathery bark during smoking. The smoke flavor is so subtle as sometimes to be undetectable.
Sauce: An orange, vinegary jus that proprietor Raymond Hoffman calls "a homemade brew"
Bread: White bread
Don't-Miss Side: Potato salad redolent of yellow mustard and sweet relish
Bummer: The ribs are sometimes tough, as if they'd been parboiled.
The setting: Customers queue out the screen door, as if lining up behind the grill at a family cook-out.
Lagniappe: Mr. Ray's in-laws opened in this location in 1956; the age shows in the adjacent grocery, which belongs in a sepia photograph.
Five O'Clock Grill
501 Bourbon St., 529-4256
Texas-style brisket, as well as pulled pork, ribs, chicken and sausage in a sit-down restaurant
Walker's Southern Style BBQ
10828 Haynes Blvd., 241-8227 A walk-up window for cochon de lait po-boys a la Jazz Fest served year-round; also ribs, chicken, sausage and brisket &127;