Barbeque is easily maligned as the one-night stand of comfort food. Whether it’s slow and smoky or sticky and sweet—even when it’s not that good, it’s probably not that bad.
But barbeque is also becoming perilously passé. Wendy’s is putting pulled pork on a burger and Arby’s has Ving Rhames slinging brisket sandwiches as a side gig. Not exactly the local charm of a “one pit wonder”—a single location setup that serves burnt ends and genuine swine to only those who know where to find them.
There are as many kinds of barbeque as there are cities famous for it. But purists everywhere all swear by smoke.
You won’t find a legit pit on a map or in a mini-mall. It’s a blackened, fire-breathing behemoth in a parking lot emitting a telltale trail of smoke that calls to you. They’re urban legends spread by the fearless and the faithful. You won’t always see them, but you can smell them a block away.
A real barbeque pit is like a neck tattoo. It says hello before you do.
Fortunately for folks in Central Ohio, you can keep your street cred at any of these upstarts or mainstays. Whether you’re big on beef or dig the pig, there’s a local, little barbecue joint to satisfy—each with a singular charm.
1114 E MAIN ST.
This Olde Towne East eatery is easily a drive-by, but it should be a destination. There are only a handful of tables but a whole lot of love from the owner. The brisket is excellent and unexpected, cut more like a perfect pot roast than simply sliced. The collard greens have just an extra punch of vinegar that others often lack. And the rumors are true: turkey ribs are a real thing—succulent and tender smoked shoulder meat to be precise. They’re like a Thanksgiving surprise all year round.
5755 MAXTOWN RD., WESTERVILLE
A drive-thru espresso bar isn’t easily converted into a barbeque joint. But if you’re really looking for slow, smoked flavor with fast food efficiency, the Barbeque Shack in Westerville is the only game in town. It’s a bit surreal having someone hand you a bona fide pulled pork sandwich and mac and cheese through a car window. But the folksy feel and surprising seasonal specials will have you driving through often. If you’re lucky, grilled corn on the cob and smoked bacon may be on the menu.
IRON GRILL BARBECUE & BREW
5295 N HIGH ST., WORTHINGTON
If you think you’ve had barbeque every way possible, you probably haven’t been to this Clintonville revival of the old Pig Iron launched by the same owner as the Gahanna Grill. Crispy Carolina pork rolls stuffed with sauerkraut, pulled pork flatbreads with cheddar-jack cheese, and pulled pork quesadillas may be the most original three little pigs you’ll find in greater Columbus. But the best deal on a cold day might be the rich and meaty all-you-can-eat brisket chili and homemade cornbread.
MALLORY’S RIB SHACK
3386 WESTERVILLE RD.
When a fast food franchise meets its demise, the building is typically leveled, being too iconic to pass as anything else. Yet, this one-time Dairy Queen in Westerville promises “the best soul food in Columbus” and probably delivers. Whether you buy wings by the handful or the hundreds, Mallory’s has you covered. The sweet potato pie makes plain ole pumpkin seem like a forgotten cousin. But the standouts here are still beef ribs by the slab, a rare find exceptionally executed every time.
BARREL & BOAR
5251 N HAMILTON RD.
The old Holy Smoke at the edge of Gahanna and New Albany offers a radical reinvention of the former brand. If upscale barbeque is a trend, this is what it looks like. And if a barbeque brunch is on your bucket list, this is the place. Why not put brisket in an omelet with sharp cheddar, or offer pulled pork, candied bacon, and spicy syrup sausage grits? Add a curated collection of craft beer that will satisfy the harshest barbecue and beer snobs alike and it’s a dinner winner as well.