Restaurant Scene: What is barbecue in Chattanooga? It’s a little bit of everything!

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Quincy Jones prepares rib tips at Good Eats BBQ on Friday.

I counted. There are at least 20 barbecue restaurants in Chattanooga. I'm not talking about places like Thatcher's in Ringgold, Hog Heaven in Rossville or even Bailey's in Ringgold. I'm not even counting the national chains like Mission BBQ and Sticky Fingers or the regional ones like Jim 'N Nick's, Edley's, Buddy's or Shane's Rib Shack, and definitely not Volcano, the Korean barbecue spot adjacent to Hamilton Place mall.

Nor did I count the restaurants that aren't technically barbecue restaurants that still cook fantastic barbecue like Ridgedale Corner Market. I'm simply talking about the establishments in Chattanooga proper that actually describe themselves as a barbecue restaurant. There would be even more if places like Master Blaster or Sunset never shuttered. I'm not being dramatic when I say that barbecue sauce is seeping out of every square mile of Chattanooga.

I'm from North Carolina, the state that Anthony Bourdain called "the cradle of barbecue," and, more specifically, Wilmington, a city sandwiched between the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean and a staunch defender of Eastern North Carolina style barbecue. It's a place that yawns at brisket, doesn't consider ribs as barbecue and would much rather have chicken fried than smoked.

The barbecue where I'm from is always whole hog, meaning it's everything but the oink, even the parts I lovingly refer to as the "the jiggly bits." The meat is finely minced with a pair of cleavers and finished off with vinegar (usually apple cider), salt, pepper, sugar and crushed red chili flakes. We draw the line, set the boundaries and stick to it.

Places like Jackson's Big Oak Barbecue have etched our style in stone. Even North Carolina-based chains like CookOut and Smithfield's don't try to deviate from the blueprint or bastardize the style.

In a 2016 interview, David Johns, the owner of Sportsman's Barbecue, specifically said his place on Hixson Pike had Chattanooga-style barbecue. That was the first and last time I'd ever heard anybody mention a style of barbecue in a city full of barbecue.

Brandon Ellis, owner of ChatterBox Cafe, described it as transplant barbecue, an amalgamation of various regions and cities. When the fragrant haze of smoke clears, it reveals that Chattanooga has a fluid, free-for-all, "anything goes" barbecue scene. So I decided to shake the tree and see what fell out.

There's more, much more, more than I could possibly fit on this page. Maybe barbecue in Chattanooga is a jack of all styles, but a master of no style in particular, and I'm fine with that. I've learned to not focus on what barbecue in Chattanooga isn't but instead learn to love everything barbecue in Chattanooga is.

There's the killer potato from Highway 58, Hickory Pit Bar-B-Que, Choo-Choo Bar-B-Cue and Dixie Barbecue, which claims to be "the home of the killer potato." Everybody seems to have a version of this a loaded baked potato topped with some sort of barbecue on their menu, even if it's not a "killer" one, and it's definitely as unique to the Chattanooga food scene as a MoonPie is.

Rib and Loin describes its spare ribs as Memphis style, a la Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous, but James Massengill from Chatt Smokehouse doesn't give any specific city credit for his ribs but the sticky, sweet sauce piggybacks off the style birthed in Kansas City.

Pitmaster and self-proclaimed genius Steve Ray probably has the best iteration of a pulled pork sandwich in the entire 423 at Owl's Nest and, yes, it comes with slaw — as it should. Good Eats BBQ dignifies ribs tips, which were traditionally discarded as scraps cut from the spare rib, smoking them slow and low with pecan wood. Good Eats also has smoked bologna, just like Forkers BBQ and a handful of other barbecue spots in the city.

There's Couch's Barbecue, which people refer to as "The Mothership," mainly because it's been serving barbecue almost the same way since Harry Truman was president. Instead of being "pulled," the meat for Couch's shaved pork sandwich is sliced thinner than Arby's shaves its roast beef before it's piled high on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomato and the all-important hot slaw.

The BBQ nachos at Naked River give you the option of having your tortilla chips covered in smoked turkey, chicken, pulled pork, brisket or jackfruit, if you're one of those types of people who prefer cashew milk in your bowl of cereal. There's the BBQ egg rolls you can dip in Alabama white sauce at Mike's Smokehouse, which also treats burnt ends as an entree.

Barque BBQ has a brisket melt that would make Aaron Franklin shed a tear of joy, but its brisket chili Frito pie is the most innovative thing I've seen done with brisket in Chattanooga since Chef Kenyatta Ashford's smoked brisket meatball yakamein at Neutral Ground.

Sugar's Ribs perched atop Missionary Ridge has pork butt poppers, grilled jalapenos stuffed with pulled pork and then covered with Monterey Jack cheese and a mild salsa, that's something you'd see at TGI Fridays, but bigger and better. And Wright's Barbecue Kitchen took over the old cinder block building that used to be Old Plantation Bar-Be-Que on Dodson Avenue, cooking up BBQ dogs and smoked wings that are equal part juicy, flavorful and beautifully charred.

Contact Andre James at 423-757-6327 or

  photo  Andre James