Nothing says summer quite like devouring some messy, mouth-watering barbecue. And in the state that leads the nation in pork production, you’re bound to find some of the best BBQ spots in the Midwest.
Get your napkins ready. We checked in with locals and came up with this list of barbecue joints across the state that keep Iowans coming back for more saucy meat. Hope you’re hungry!
If awards could talk, Smokey D’s wouldn’t shut up. Winner of more than 90 Iowa State BBQ Championship awards and over 1,000 local, regional, and national awards, this staple in the Des Moines area has been embarrassing the competition since its founding in 2006.
Offering catering services, a food truck, a main location, and a satellite location in the Des Moines skywalk system, Smokey D’s does it all. You never know when you’ll be in the mood for barbecue, after all. Grab some ribs, some brisket, or burnt ends with a side of garlic toast. Or give the BBQ Burrito a try. Don’t miss out on the daily special comfort food menu (ham balls on Saturday nights!). Barbecue sauces and rub can be purchased as well.
When a small town barbecue spot sells out daily, you know it’s worth a stop. At Whatcha Smokin BBQ, they prepare Central Texas-style craft barbecue smoked daily. Check out the daily feature or simply dig into ribs, craft sausage, or brisket (you can go lean or fatty, but your server will likely recommend the latter!). Their smoked meats are served pit to plate.
The side dishes at Whatcha Smokin are top notch, too; check out the jalapeño creamed corn and cheesy potatoes. If you have a sweet tooth (and any room left after all that meat) snag some bites of the Nutter Butter Banana Puddin’ or their homemade oatmeal cream pie. Whatcha Smokin also partners with Iowa breweries to offer up a cold craft brew to go with your barbecue. Plus, the open-air restaurant is a fun atmosphere on a beautiful Iowa summer day.
Did someone say pig candy? That’s right. Cornbred serves up candied and spiced bacon and dares customers to try just one slice (after that they won’t need to be swayed). The rest of the menu is just as impressive and tasty. Order up some burnt ends, pork spare ribs, beef brisket, or house-ground sausage. Dig into the skillet mac or street corn salad on the side.
The ambiance in this former train depot makes the experience all the more unique. With plenty of awards under their belt (winner of more than 250, including 35 Grand Championships and four Iowa BBQ Team of the Year awards) the folks at Cornbred love all things barbecue and do a fine job helping anyone who walks through their door love it too. Oh, and they also have an impressive brunch menu to check out.
It’s first-come, first-served at Warehouse Barbeque Co. + Brewhouse. With meats served straight from the pit, it’s hard to pass up the ribs, brisket, or even the ham. You can also grab a sandwich, all of which are cleverly named. For example, the Cuebacca features chopped brisket, queso, and fresh jalapeños drizzled with Warehouse’s own Huck’s Heat barbecue sauce.
Warehouse also has some inventive and mouthwatering starters to sink your teeth into. Try the candied bacon deviled eggs, house-made chips with cheese dip, Piggy Poppers (fried, house-made balls of pulled pork and mac and cheese), and Kluckernuts (another take on the Piggy Poppers but featuring buffalo-tossed pulled chicken, cream cheese, and smoked jalapeños).
CR Midnight Smoker is pretty new on the barbecue scene in the state of Iowa, but they are garnering a lot of attention; taste buds talk, after all. Located inside the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, this barbecue joint is dishing up some surprisingly delicious meats. The menu is simple: ribs, brisket (sliced fresh for your sandwich), pulled pork, sweet and creamy coleslaw, and potato salad (This Ain’t your Momma’s Potato Salad, to be specific).
Pitmaster Greg Stoll has been refining his meat, rubs (which he says are key), and sauces (seriously, wait until you taste Twang, a Carolina-style vinegar sauce) as he aims to make the barbecue he serves up unlike any you’ve had in Iowa—or anywhere else for that matter.
This barbecue gives back. Willie Ray Fairley honed his barbecue skills while growing up in the South—the Hospitality State of Mississippi, to be specific. Now he has set up shop in Cedar Rapids, where he dishes up smoked chicken, brisket sandwiches, and ribs.
Of course, patrons of Willie Ray’s are bound to have a taste bud pleasing experience—the restaurant’s motto is to “let the smoke do the talking”—but they also have the opportunity to support others in need. Anytime disaster strikes across the country, Willie Ray gathers donations, hitches up his smokers, and hits the road to provide free barbecue delights to those impacted. Tasty barbecue with a side of goodwill is a winning combination.
It might be in the middle of nowhere, but good barbecue is always worth the drive, and The Twisted Tail doesn’t disappoint. A steakhouse by name—one that does serve up incredible ribeye steaks and has been voted Best Burger in Iowa in years past—the ribs and smoked wings at The Twisted Tail have gained their own notoriety.
The onion rings also come highly recommended along with the sweet potato fries served with marshmallow dipping sauce. Patrons are impressed with the bar, which features a wide selection of brews, bourbons, and some inventive takes on the Moscow mule. A popular spot for bikers or those looking for live music on a weekend night, The Twisted Tail is a rowdy spot that’s still family-friendly.
Jethro’s has been a fixture in the Iowa barbecue scene for ages. With several locations around the Des Moines area, and now moving as far east as Iowa City, it might seem they are planning a barbecue takeover. If you stop in to dine at any of their locations, definitely dig into the brisket sandwich (you can order it shredded or sliced) with a choice of sides including waffle fries, mashed potatoes and country gravy, mac and cheese, or jalapeño creamed corn.
The Spicy BBQ Steak Chili is another fun spin on getting your barbecue fix. You can order up barbecue for breakfast at Jethro’s, too. Need more diversity? Their menu also features Cajun highlights (give the jambalaya a try), which is nice when your taste buds are looking for a different type of spicy adventure.
At T&T BBQ, they promise to bring the taste of the South right to your mouth. Led by pitmaster Thyron Mathews—known as Big T, he recently appeared on the Netflix series Barbecue Showdown—the T&T team uses family recipes passed down for generations to bring sassy flavors to your plate.
T&T BBQ has garnered quite a following for their rubs and sauces—the Mop Sauce in particular—and their meats are oakwood-smoked. Based out of Oelwein, T&T BBQ can be booked for a variety of catering events and they aren’t afraid to travel, offering ribs and other barbecue delights out of their food truck.
Another food truck barbecue option in eastern Iowa, The Beast & Bird is relatively new on the scene. They feature pulled pork, sliced brisket, coleslaw, cornbread, and to-die-for mac and cheese (seriously, you have to try The Mac). Another fan favorite—so much so that they named their insiders email club after it—is the Yogi sandwich. Stacked with zesty coleslaw, a 1/3-pound of pulled pork topped with Old School House barbecue sauce, and smoked mac and cheese on a pretzel bun, it’s sure to satisfy your taste buds.
The food truck offers pop-up menu items inspired by head chef Logan Merchant to keep customers surprised. Their motto is, “You might get the meat sweats, but you’ll have no regrets.”
Step right up and order at the Old Armory BBQ Chop House counter. This barbecue spot opened in 2012 and offers an impressive selection of smoked meats including beef brisket, pulled pork, baby-back ribs, smoked turkey, chicken, and even salmon. If the pork chimichanga is on special when you stop by, know that it comes highly recommended.
Old Armory does barbecue meat and sauces right but also hits home runs with their sides, including the smoked onion dip and chips for starters, bacon green beans, sweet potato tots, and the cornbread muffin mixed up with a kick of jalapeño.
Always go with what’s on the sign; don’t pass up the ribs at Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack. A fixture in this college town since 2005, Jimmy Jack’s offers a great selection of barbecue options, including a wide variety of sandwiches, all of which you can make “jumbo” for double the meat. Regulars will tell you this is the best way to go in order to sample all the sauces.
Luckily, Jimmy Jack’s is another spot that sells their sauces by the bottle—the tangy Cowboy Sauce and hot Chicago Fire Sauce are crowd favorites—as they do their rubs, so you can take the flavors home with you. With sit-down, carryout, and catering options, the Jimmy Jack’s team is happy to accommodate your barbecue needs.
Definitely not the fanciest joint on the list, Bett & Bev’s is located in an unassuming building just off of Highway 30 (look for the large BBQ sign with the arrow) in Jefferson. But who needs fancy when you’re looking for good barbecue?
Only open during the week, this spot is known for dishing up delicious barbecue (pulled pork, brisket, ribs, you name it) with a side of great customer service. People have been known to change dinner plans to take advantage of their smoked prime rib special on Friday nights. And of course you have to try the Frip Pie—a one-of-a-kind dish featuring french-fried potato chips topped with pulled pork, baked beans, and coleslaw.
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