Choosing the Establishments
First of all, barbecue had to be the specialty of the house, not just a menu item. I tried to include the best-known places, locations recommended by readers and those with good reviews in other publications or on various food chat forums. And I added a few places just because they looked right or smelled right when I drove past. But I certainly didn't make it to every place in the region.
In each case, pork barbecue -- preferably pulled pork but minced or chopped, if that's all they had -- ribs, coleslaw and potato salad were purchased, packed in coolers and taken home to be eaten. Though many of the places I visited provided seating, others did not, and I wanted to eat all of the samples under similar conditions. The pork was eaten on buns along with the sauce provided. If I was offered a choice, I always chose hot sauce.
The Judging Criteria
I think barbecue pork should taste like pork, not something that could just as well be chicken. It should be juicy, it should have a smoky flavor that doesn't overwhelm the pork taste, and it should be tender. The sauce should be bracing but not so fiery that it kills the taste buds.
I like coleslaw sweet and tart and potato salad to have a real potato-y taste and a slight tang from vinegar and mustard. I want ribs that you eat on the bone, tender and juicy and tasting of pork, not falling off the bone and mushy. And I want them to taste like they and fire have been close but not intimate friends, with a slight char and a deep pink center.
I realize not everyone has the same criteria, so I have tried to describe how each item tastes and looks, and how it deviates from what I like.