Bill Batterman: BBQ in Birmingham

Policy debate coach/judge, Bill Batterman, has several recommendations for BBQ in Birmingham. Be sure to check a few of these places out while you’re here!

I’ve gotten a lot of questions emailed to me about Birmingham barbeque, so I figured I would post here in case others are interested. I’m not an expert, but I’ve eaten a lot of barbeque in Birmingham (and in other places). Birmingham folks (or others with experience enjoying Birmingham and Alabama barbeque), please chime in with your thoughts. 

General tips:

Birmingham specializes in pork — ribs and shoulders. Sauce is plentiful and encouraged but most joints dry-rub their meat, too. They also do a lot of chicken, and they pair it with a white barbeque sauce that is unique to the area. The white sauce goes with the chicken, not with the pork (although putting it on the pork doesn’t taste that bad). Some places do beef, but it’s an afterthought. Sides tend to be southern comfort foods — deep fried items, vegetables slow-cooked with hunks of meat, cornbread, etc. A lot of places have incredible pies (icebox/chess-style — usually served cold) and puddings (especially banana).

Simple Version:

If you want the best authentic experience, I recommend Bob Sykes and Saw’s (in that order, although I can’t imagine skipping either one). 

If you want to try a good barbeque meal but you have a big team and/or you don’t care as much about authenticity, head to Jim ‘N Nick’s. 

If you need a fast food-style meal, go to Full Moon instead of Arby’s or Wendy’s or whatever. It’s surprisingly good. 

If you want to go to the most famous place, hit up Dreamland (although I will warn you that I found it very disappointing). 

If you’re up for a drive, go to Bob Gibson’s in Decatur. 

Local(ish) Chains:

  1. Dreamland Bar-B-Que — one of the most famous rib joints in the country. The first one opened in Tuscaloosa and it has since become an eight-location chain with a restaurant in downtown Birmingham. I was underwhelmed, but it has many fans and is an iconic Alabama restaurant. 
  2. Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q — more than 30 locations throughout the Southeast, but it started in Alabama. Good place to take a team — it’s a nice sit-down restaurant and it appeals to non-barbeque lovers (including vegetarians), too. The barbeque is actually pretty good, as are the sides. Make sure to get pie. 
  3. Full Moon BBQ — a local “fast food” barbeque chain. Try this instead of a burger place for lunch or a quick dinner. Surprisingly good quality for a chain restaurant.

Local Non-Chains:

  1. Saw’s BBQ — my pick for best in Birmingham proper (bested only by Bob Sykes in Bessemer for best in the metropolitan area). I missed this one in the original tour in 2009 but have been there a couple times since then. It’s consistently great. Really small place — if you’re with a team, probably best to get an order to-go and eat in a parking lot. (Note: there is another place called Saw’s Soul Kitchen that I have not visited. I think it’s good, but my understanding is that it specializes in Southern food and not barbeque.)
  2. Demetri’s BBQ — a cool, quaint, and very old place in downtown Birmingham with unique barbeque (lots of Greek herbs and spices). The great vegetables and other side dishes appeal to vegetarians and non-barbeque lovers. Pretty sizeable seating area should be able to accommodate teams. 
  3. Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q — another one I missed on the original tour and another small, quaint joint. Located in Vestavia, this one should be easy to get to for most people at the tournament. Very well-respected by locals, but I think Saw’s is better. Go to both and decide for yourself. 

Worth the Drive:

  1. “Big Bob” Gibson Bar-B-Q — located in Decatur, about an hour and a half north of Birmingham. It’s become sort of a spectacle — there are two locations in Decatur and another in North Carolina and they get a lot of press on TV and by selling their sauces — but I was very impressed. The chicken with the famous white sauce is big here, but I also thought the pork was great.
  2. Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q — this was my favorite joint of the 2009 trip. It’s located in Bessemer, part of the greater Birmingham area, but it’s about 30 minutes from the tournament locations. Incredible ribs — on my short list of Best in the World. 

Other Places I Have Not Visited:

  1. Moe’s Original Bar B Que — this is another regional chain with locations in several states. Have heard that it’s okay, but can’t confirm. 
  2. Johnny Ray’s Bar-B-Que — I’m not sure if this place is still open. This was one of the iconic old Birmingham barbeque joints but I think it is well beyond its prime. 
  3. Carlile’s Barbecue — I have seen this place mentioned a few times but it seems better known for burgers than barbeque. 
  4. Golden Rule Barbecue — yet another regional chain with a bunch of locations in various parts of Alabama. There are several in Birmingham. 
  5. Costa’s Famous Bar-B-Que — another place with a lot of non-barbeque items on the menu and a couple locations.