Before You Go
For more information, contact: Hillbilly Bar-B-Q, 208 Tullulah, River Ridge, LA 70123, (504) 738-1508
McClard’s Bar-B-Q, 505 Albert Pike, Hot Springs, AR 71901, (501) 624-9586, 1-866-622-5273,
Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn, 6374 U.S. Highway 98 West, Hattiesburg, MS 39402, (601) 271-6003,

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Leatha Jackson opened up Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn near Hattiesburg, Miss., nearly 30 years ago, and it’s been a family business ever since. It has been called a “smokehouse of the highest order.” /Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn photo

With summer on the way, cravings are sure to surface for succulent sauce, smoky flavors and all the finger-licking fare of
Southern barbecue

Published: May/June 2003
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

Southerners are passionate about barbecue. Devotees can endlessly debate meat, sauce and wood, but the proof is in the eating.

We turned to food writers–people who eat for a living–and asked for their recommendations on the best places for barbecue. It is by no means a complete list, but when you’re on the road, these eateries are worth a detour.

Louisiana lagniappe

While not a fancy restaurant, people come from far and wide to visit the Hillbilly Bar-B-Q about 20 minutes away from barbecue-starved New Orleans (left). /Louisiana Office of Tourism photo
New Orleans, with its Creole and Cajun traditions, is home to some of the greatest food in the world. But the Crescent City has long been short on good barbecue, a situation that changed with the opening in 2001 of Hillbilly Bar-B-Q, a tiny joint about 20 minutes out of New Orleans in nearby River Ridge.

Dale Curry, food editor of “The Times-Picayune,” and Sara Roahen, restaurant reviewer for the “Gambit Weekly,” both praised the slow-smoked shoulders, ribs, chicken and brisket produced by owner Larry Wyatt.

Wyatt hails from Paducah, Ky., where his family had a barbecue business. He’s been in Louisiana for 18 years, during which time people who tasted his cooking kept urging him to open a barbecue joint. When a friend offered him a building, he decided to take the leap.

“I poured my heart out into it,” said Wyatt.

The results are mouth-watering. Pork shoulder and beef brisket smoke for 24 hours, while chicken and ribs smoke for four hours. Smoked pork, alligator and shrimp boudin (meat, rice and seasonings in a sausage casing) and smoked chicken salad are also on the menu.

“I use all hickory wood, brought from Kentucky,” said Wyatt.

The side dishes, made fresh daily, are beyond the norm. There’s corn and red pepper salad, purple and green slaw with carrots and vinaigrette, sweet and smoky baked beans, hobo taters and hillbilly chili. Staffers Kelly Maskau and Donna Quin cook the sides while he tends the smoker outside.

Wyatt seems both flattered and surprised by the enthusiasm shown for his hickory-smoked meats.

“I didn’t know if there’d be a demand for barbecue. This is a seafood place down here,” he said. But locals hungry for authentic barbecue have beaten a path to his door.

“One guy from Slidell ate here every day for a solid week when he first found us; he said he hadn’t found good barbecue down here before,” said Wyatt, who still marvels that “people drive all the way across town to get our barbecue.”

Barbecue art in Arkansas

McClard’s Bar-B-Q has been a tradition in Hot Springs, Ark., since 1928. The family owned business has used the same sauce recipe since it was acquired from a traveler who used it to pay his bill in the 1920s. /Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo
When you ask about barbecue in Arkansas, chances are people will mention McClard’s Bar-B-Q, a tradition since 1928 in Hot Springs. This is one of those family-operated places with a great story as well as great food.

In the 1920s, Alex and Gladys McClard owned the Westside Tourist Court–nine little cabins and a restaurant. One traveler stayed for about two months and when it came time to leave, he could not come up with the $10 he owed. He offered them his barbecue sauce recipe instead. It turned out to be a great deal. It’s the same sauce they use today and the key to their success. They keep the original recipe locked in a safe deposit box downtown.

By 1928, the McClards had transformed the tourist court into a barbecue shack with goat as the main meat. In 1942, the restaurant moved a few blocks to its current location. Today, the tourist court is gone and goat is no longer on the menu, but the sauce is the same.

John T. Edge, author of “Southern Belly,” is a fan. He writes: “McClard’s barbecue sauce is among the best in the land, a heady concoction of tomato puree, vinegar, red and black peppers, onions, sugar, and Lord knows what else. It’s a world class sauce, a worthy complement to the smoked beef or pork.”

Other food experts agree. Irene Wassell, food editor of the “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,” and Jane and Michael Stern, authors of several books on American dining, include McClard’s on their lists of the best barbecue places. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, are among the many repeat customers at this local landmark.

Today the second, third and fourth generations maintain the family tradition of quality food, said Scott McClard, whose great-grandparents started the business.

“Now four families are down here working. That’s why it’s good,” he said. The family has turned down franchise offers in order to maintain quality control.

“Everything is made from scratch,” McClard said. “My grandfather mixes the spices for the tamales every morning. We make 300 to 400 hand-rolled tamales every day, starting with our own cornmeal. Our slaw is made by hand, and the potatoes are cut and peeled by hand for our French fries.”

Tamales may not be typical barbecue fare, but they have been a tradition at McClard’s from the beginning. They’re the star attraction of the Whole Spread–a platter loaded with tamales, corn chips, beans, barbecued beef, cheese and onions. Another signature dish is the Rib and Fry–a platter of succulent ribs covered with a mountain of crunchy fries.

Even the famous sauce, which is available online, is made and bottled on site. The pits out back are fueled with hickory wood.

Making memories in Mississippi

For some true, down-home barbecue–not to mention wood-grilled steaks–follow your nose to Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn just west of Hattiesburg. Leatha Jackson, 80, and her family have run this barbecue mecca since 1974.

It began long ago when Leatha got tired of picking cotton and left home. With $2 in her pocket, she walked and took a bus to her aunt’s café in Bogalusa, La. There, Leatha learned how to cook. As Leatha says, “Colonel Sanders got rich off another man’s cookin’, and … Aunt Jemima still has a rag on her head,” so she decided to open her own place.

Today, Leatha works the crowd, passing out greetings and hugs to accompany the ribs and pecan pie. Politicians, businessmen, tourists and locals make the pilgrimage to the simple café where the ribs are succulent, the steaks are thick, the chicken is tender and the sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce is so good that it is bottled and sold by mail order.

Her daughters, Bonnie Jackson, Myrtis Richardson and Caroline Stephney, and son, Larry Jackson, work alongside her, as do some of her grandchildren.

"God has most definitely blessed me," she says.

In his book, "Southern Belly," Edge calls Leatha’s a "smokehouse of the highest order, set amongst the piney woods of southern Mississippi. Pork or–heaven forbid–beef ribs are the draw and they’re a paragon of the pit master’s art."

Can’t get enough?

Looking for more barbecue meccas while you’re on the road? Check out a copy of “BBQ USA” by Steven Raichlen, which will be available May 15. Billed as a quest to find the soul of American barbecue, the book celebrates the best of regional live-fire cooking in every state, plus Puerto Rico and Canada. If you can’t visit these places in person, there are 450 recipes so you can enjoy some finger-lickin’ barbecue right at home.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann, a contributor from Gerald, Mo., is always willing to sample some barbecue.

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