All barbecue fans have their favorite off-the-beaten-path barbecue restaurants, and there are plenty of legendary joints with a sufficient reputation for pilgrims to drive hundreds of miles to seek them out. But what about when you're zipping down a lonely highway far from home and top a hill and spot an unfamiliar "BBQ" sign? Is it worth stopping and risking a precious meal, when you only have between three to five per day to spend? What if just ten miles down the road there's an even more worthy contender? These sorts of decisions can drive a barbecue nut to acid stomach and night terrors.
Over the years, connoisseurs have formulated a variety of techniques to help their decision-making. In "Southern Belly", John T. Edge advances the cobweb test: "When in doubt...bend down and take a look at the woodpile. Are there cobwebs collecting between the split logs?" If there are, move on: it's a gas-burner.
In "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue", John and Dale Reed devote four entire pages to this vital topic. They note that almost all authorities have endorsed a mixture of pickup trucks and pricey imports in the parking lot as a reliable sign of quality, but they add a clincher: "If the sheriff's car is there, hit your brakes immediately."
Porky LeSwine of The BBQ Jew came up with his own handy list of "ten commandments" for separating the meat from the gristle. The best of these tell you what to avoid: any place that is open on Sunday, serves beer, stays open past 9:00 pm, or advertises on billboards.
My favorite, though, is one I read years ago in a magazine (and, unfortunately, I've long since forgotten who wrote it). It's ingenious less for its effectiveness than for the sheer empiricism of its method. You assign a numeric score to a barbecue joint based upon the number of human-like things the pig on the sign is doing. A realistic pig just standing there: 0 points. A pig standing up and wearing a hat: 2 points. A standing pig in a hat and overalls strumming a banjo, winking, and turning a barbecue spit (or feasting on his brethren) - well, just pull right on over. You have found a winner.