Photo by Drew Cranisky

Barbecue is all about the hunt. It adds hours to road trips, demanding detours for ribs and banana pudding. It makes you wait in lines that snake around the block, hoping that the legendary brisket holds out a bit longer than last time.

Amazingly, in an age when many restaurants tweet their every move, the best BBQ joints are often blissfully off the grid. Just like cooking it, eating good barbecue demands a certain level of obsession.

For a week, I prowled Pittsburgh for the smokiest ribs and the juiciest wings. I got lost in the ‘burbs, stalked food trucks and faced torrential rains that threatened to flood the all-important smokers. While we mention a list of favorites at the end of this article, I couldn’t get to them all. I wanted to highlight some less heralded spots—and the testament to the limits of the human body. There is only so much smoked meat one man can eat.

The South Hills Newbie: The Swhinery Smokehouse Bar & Grill

Though The Swhinery is new, the shelves heaving with trophies attest to owner Lenny Verosky’s barbecue prowess. After years on the competition circuit, Verosky opened up the Beechview restaurant earlier this year. Unlike the rest of this list, The Swhinery has a bar, which is where we sampled his wares. We ordered the classic combo platter—ribs, chicken and two sides. The St. Louis ribs were the star, lightly charred at the ends and brushed with Lenny’s secret 52-ingredient sauce. At least until he brought out the chili. “This isn’t Pittsburgh chili,” Lenny cautioned. Made with all of their smoked meats and just a handful of beans and tomatoes, it exploded with the deep, dark flavor of great gumbo. And if you don’t believe me, check those trophies—he’s got some for the chili, too.

(Updated June 18, 2015) It’s time to show some love to Pittsburgh Barbecue Company, opened seasonally on Banksville Rd. It’s a treat for commuters leaving town at the end of the day. The ribs are yummy but may we also suggest the pulled pork? And don’t skip the slaw. Ok, might as well throw in some beans, too, because they’re sinfully rich and good. Right now this charming takeout place is hard to find due to construction of a big hotel on Banksville. A mountain of dirt is blocking our view of them from the road and as a result, business is hurting. Seek them out and you will be rewarded! It’s not only great food but the folks who work there are always warm and welcoming.

Redneck sandwich at SouthSide BBQ. Photo by Drew Cranisky.
Redneck sandwich from The Southside Barbecue Company. Photo by Drew Cranisky.

The Homewood Rivals: The Dream BBQ and Showcase BBQ
Despite humble origins, American barbecue has gotten fussy. In Brooklyn, new BBQ joints spring up like weeds, complete with tables made from reclaimed wood and flights of artisanal rye whiskey. Though I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of ‘cue nouveau, sometimes I long for the real deal. This pair of Homewood restaurants delivers.

Both are far from flashy. In fact, it would be easy to drive right by either one if it weren’t for the billowing sidewalk smokers. Both are mainly take-out spots, though the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming at each. They offer similar no-frills menus, and we stuck to the tried-and-true chicken and ribs platter at both.

Once again, ribs were king. The Dream’s were tender but pleasantly crispy, slathered in a thick, spicy-sweet sauce. Showcase’s had a deeper smoke flavor, complimented by a tangy sauce served warm and on the side. Minor differences, perhaps, but these nuances inspire fierce loyalty in locals, who side with their favorite in a Mineo’s versus Aiello’s sort of rivalry. Either way, you get a Styrofoam clamshell straining under the weight of lovingly cooked meat and gooey mac and cheese for less than ten bucks. As for my favorite? Come on. I’ll never put that in writing.

Cue on the Move: The Southside BBQ Company and Blowfish BBQ
When there’s something called a Redneck Club on the menu, how could you order anything else? This brisket/pulled pork/slaw monster strays from the traditional club sandwich blueprint, but you can’t argue with the results. The Southside BBQ Company’s truck, appropriately dubbed the CarnivoreMobile, is another new addition to the growing stable of ‘Burgh barbecue options. Owners Pat and Mike Joyce have long been fixtures of the city’s culinary scene, and they continue to own and operate the Southside’s 17th Street Café. But their enthusiasm for this less formal, more mobile style of dining is infectious. With a playful menu (it also features something called a Bar-B-Cone) and an onboard, top-of-the-line smoker, the brothers are doing the meat on wheels thing right.

The smoker from Showcase BBQ. Photo by Drew Cranisky
The smoker from Blowfish BBQ. Photo by Drew Cranisky.

Justin Blakey is another guy who knows a thing or two about mobile meat. Better known as Hootie, he launched—what else?—Blowfish BBQ last year. Initially just selling on Sundays at D’s Six Pax & Dogz, Blakey’s smoker/grill trailer is rolling up to more and more events around town. At the latest Weather Permitting at Shadyside Nursery, Blakey was offering a few basics that were anything but basic. His chicken, a meat that I’d shamefully come to think of as the boring prologue to ribs, was the best I had all week. Meaty drumsticks, rubbed with spicy, jerk-style seasoning, were cooked to blackened perfection. The sausages and mac and cheese, both smoked as well, were just as good. And Blakey’s spicy, vinegar based sauce provided a welcome change from the thicker, sweeter sauces I was accustomed to. Blakey has competition experience, and it shows. Keep an eye out for Blowfish, and whatever you do, get those drumsticks.

And no list is complete without the following favorites to round out the barbecue scene:

Wilson’s on N. Taylor Ave. on the North Side, hard to beat for authentic southern-pit BBQ. People swear by it.

Union Pig & Chicken, the cool spot in East Liberty with outstanding barbecue and libations in a relaxed and fun setting. Hint: you can get the bbq upstairs at Harvard & Highland, also a great spot to park for the night.

YinzBurgh BBQ on Baum Blvd. Vegetarians unite! Not only is the barbecue notable but the tofu dishes will amaze you. Not to mention the Chili-Q, a specialty.

Pittsburgh Barbecue Company, opened seasonally on Banksville Rd., a treat for commuters leaving town at the end of the day. The ribs are yummy but may we also suggest the pulled pork? And don’t skip the slaw. Ok, might as well throw in some beans, too, because they’re sinfully rich and good.

There’s also Smoke Barbecue Taqueria that just closed in Homestead but has since reopened in Lawrenceville  Smoke specializes in tacos filled with bbq meat, not to be missed.

Two Brothers in Presto, PA has a full barbecue menu along with gumbo, quesadillas and smoked wings. And did someone say Double Wide Grill? Yes, they did. We haven’t tried the barbecue on their menu but now we have a reason to return soon.

And there’s always the wood-fired grill offerings from Gaucho Parilla Argentina in the Strip, a big favorite in town.

Summer is barbecue season, and this list ought to get you off to a good start. I do recommend, however, that you space them out over the summer, not a week. That much pork, no matter how tangy or tender, can’t be good for anyone. Especially not the pigs.

Drew Cranisky is a writer, bartender and recent graduate of Chatham University's Food Studies program. He enjoys cats, pinball and fancy burgers.