BBQ Belt Road Trip: 4,000 Delicious Miles, Part One

I am honored to be a guest blogger on the HeidiTown site and I hope to bring as much fun to my journey as Heidi does to hers. I will start by saying I’m no stranger to road trips and remember as a kid driving across Wyoming to see Thermopolis and the beauty of Yellowstone National Park. 

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After college, I took my new car across the USA to see Tennessee and Florida. And my husband and I have done multiple trips starting off when we were just engaged to drive to Las Vegas, but have also driven to Los Angeles, to the Grand Canyon and all over Colorado. Some of the best vacations have been taking to the road and seeing the USA from ground level instead of 30,000 feet in the air.

Heidi’s trips have inspired me to travel more in my home state. However, this trip was a plan that my husband and I had for a while. He has never seen New Orleans and what originally was going to be a week-long trip to see the sites, became a two-week adventure that we decided to call the BBQ Belt Tour. 

Concept- Travel to 6 cities and through the southern USA and enjoy BBQ and what the cities and states have to offer

The idea was sound. Kansas City, St. Louis, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, and Austin. All good BBQ areas and strong histories. 

What we didn’t count on was the heat wave that hit the country as we drove south. But… well… you make the best of what you can manage and hit the air-conditioned locations when you just can’t handle the heat anymore. 

DENVER to KANSAS

From Denver, we headed out across Highway 70 and across Kansas and saw a good two hours of nothing but green and gold fields, oh and a few cows. Let it be known that being able to entertain yourself for a couple of hours at a time is necessary for road trip travel. Some states are pretty boring in spots. 

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As you drive from Denver to Kansas however there are some great historical spots. The most notable might be the Nicodemus National Historic site which preserves the only remaining western town that was established by African Americans right after the Civil War. This is a National Park area and offers self-guided tours, interactive exhibits and a decent amount of history. We briefly drove by though as we were anxious to get on our way. 

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Our first official stop was a small town called Hays. Hays, KS is actually a pretty hip town and we were enamored with the red brick lain streets. Hays is the largest city in northwestern Kansas, but don’t let this fool you. There’s a population of 21,000. It’s not a large town, but they have Ft. Hays State University and a nice downtown with some good eats. 

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If you go, definitely stop at Gella’s Dinner & Lb. Brewing Co. It’s a gold medal American Brew Fest winner and, of course, we had to try the local favorites. 

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Gella’s Grendel bread was amazing! It’s a fried bread that they serve with maple syrup and their homemade pesto. The bread itself is good, but Gella’s pesto is definitely worth trying. It is honestly the best pesto I’ve ever had. You can also buy a jar of it when you’re there. 

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We took a walk around the red brick streets of Hays while digesting our meal and got to see a bit more of their quaint downtown. A few days before the 4th of July, the town was quiet. There are some beautiful buildings and local artwork that make the downtown area nice, and we could easily see it as an enjoyable gathering place when students are back in session or on a cool Friday night. Our stop was short, but a nice reprieve before we got back on the road to Kansas City. 

MISSOURI

Kansas City, Missouri is known for its barbecue and that was our main goal. But if you visit Kansas City for more than a day, there is plenty to see and do. The American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are there, and we were told the WWI museum and memorial are worth taking the time to visit. We got in a bit late and drove up tentatively to the blue penguin outside our hotel. 

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The 21c Museum Hotel is not only a hotel, but it hosts curated rotating exhibits within its walls. From the entryway to your room you’ll see artwork installations by artists from around the world and as a guest, you can visit the museum area exhibits at any time. We enjoyed amazing artwork that focused on labor, and I saw some artwork from famous artists that I had never seen in person before. It was the perfect place to stay for our first night.

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On a recommendation from a coworker, we settled on Jack Stack BBQ for dinner and it didn’t disappoint. The prime rib cut, which I highly recommend was impressive as it was delicious. However, the spicy sauce wasn’t that spicy, more of a smoky sweet flavor with hints of pepper. Overall though we were impressed with the sides – get the cheesy corn and the BBQ beans – and the impromptu fireworks show outside made for a great evening. 

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Afterward, we hit the Power and Light district not too far from where we were. Resident DJ Lazer was playing for the main area and offers up a little bit of something for everyone. For those that have never been, this area is an open-air club environment with a huge main stage surrounded by a multitude of bars, from an Irish Pub to a tiki bar (SharkBite) and a PBR Big Sky. 

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It doesn’t matter who you are or what you like there seems to be something for everyone and it brings together young and old, business and casual, you name it we saw it all. Best people watching for the home of the Kansas City Chiefs.  

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The next day we were on to St. Louis, but first, we took a trip around the neighborhood and stopped for coffee at the cutest shop called Mildred’s the name of my husband’s grandmother, so yes, that was necessary, and the coffee it worth it. We took a look at the Kansas City Library with its book-carved stairs and book spine façade, it was an entertaining little walk and some pretty selfie-worthy spots. 

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Many people don’t realize it, but the St. Louis Arc is part of a 91-acre National Park as well so if you’re getting National Park visits off your bucket list – this one counts. At 630 ft tall this stainless steel arch that was completed in 1965 is the world’s tallest and is quite impressive.

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I’ll admit I saw this sometime around the age of 9, but seeing it again as an adult it’s still inspiring, and at 9-years-old, I saw it from a distance as it was under repair, but this time we got up close. The mere size is stunning, and the fact that this was the start of the Louis and Clark expedition makes it a memorable monument to the expansion of the US to the west.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the sticky sweet ribs that are the signature of St. Louis BBQ. We did a quick lunch at Salt & Smoke and had to try the fried ravioli that seem to be the local thing. Fried ravioli with pimento cheese didn’t sound all that appealing, but the experience is worthy and the crispy creamy bites of deliciousness should be tried. 

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The ribs in St. Louis are known for the sticky sweet brown sugar-based sauces and OMG are they ever! It’s good, but I’m glad I ordered the lemonade to wash it down. The sauce options to add are amusing here – My Bestie worked best as an addition, but the I Can’t Even helps give them a little heat that made a perfect mix. I tried the Mustardalina and that put it over the edge for me in flavor and I was sold. For the trip – St. Louis won the sauce option game. I wasn’t disappointed in any of them. 

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After a bit of a walk around the downtown area, we caught the Cardinal’s field and some of the artwork downtown and had a bit of fun stretching our legs before we hit Nashville in time for the 4th of July. 

TENNESSEE 

NASHVILLE:

We pulled into Nashville late on July 3rd and once we checked into our hotel we immediately headed to Broadway a few blocks down from where we were staying. I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect, but Nashville’s Broadway was the craziest experience I’ve ever seen. It is lined with live music clubs and neon signs as far as the eye can see. If you are in a band this is the place to be, as there isn’t a lack of places to see live music. 

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We took a full loop and chose a few bars to go into to check out the local scene. We hit up Lucky Bastard Saloon and the upstairs was a bit quieter from the rest of the places we had passed. I had to request an oldie but goodie country song from the band playing – many of the bands play requests, for a $20 fee. But if you want to hear something bad enough it’s worth it and from what I gathered bands play primarily for tips and rotate a bit from bar to bar. If you just like what they’re playing, put a couple of dollars in their bucket and support the artists.

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Here’s a tip we learned from a local who knows the ropes. If there is a popular place you’d like to go into and the line is “out the pooper” as the locals like to say, you should go into the pizza place or restaurant next door and see if you can sneak in through the shared bathroom. 

After hitting up a selection of bars we decided it was late and we were pretty drunk. We picked up some pizza at Til 5 Pizza which was right next to our hotel. Honestly – really good late-night pizza. And as the name indicates they are open until 5 am. 

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The next day was time to find BBQ. My husband had seen that the pit master at Peg Leg Porker was award-winning so off we went. Walking in, we could see that it was a popular place. The line was backed up to the door and it was packed. Seating was difficult to find as the 100-degree heat made most people want to sit inside despite the covered patio. 

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We could smell the smoker and we knew we were in for a treat. We ordered a platter that came with ribs, sausage, pulled pork, and chicken. I lucked out grabbing an indoor table while a family was leaving. I’m not exaggerating when I say – this was absolutely the best BBQ we had the entire trip. Their home sauces were in perfect harmony with the smoked meats. I now recommend this place to anyone visiting Nashville as the dry rub is phenomenal and I’m sold on Nashville BBQ. And if you’ve never tried white sauce – this is the place. 

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As a side note, after BBQ we decided to try Tennessee Brew Works and my husband convinced me to rent a scooter to get the few blocks over to where it was. I’d never ridden a scooter before and I was hesitant. Lyme and Lyft are pretty prevalent all over Nashville and if you need to get somewhere close it isn’t a bad way to get around. I admit I’m late to the scooter bandwagon, but despite my anxiety about my balance, I found it pretty easy and once I figured it out it was a short ride over to the brewery and a good introduction to this new form of public transportation. 

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Tennessee Brew Works also has a restaurant, but we were there for refreshment and the good selection of headliners, Lagers, Ambers, Wit, and Ales made it good for anyone visiting. I had a Walk the Lime, a seasonal gig beer with a heavy lime forward, but it was a refreshing kick for the hot weather. My husband ordered the 1927 IPA with a good hoppy flavor. We enjoyed watching the people and having a lazy afternoon before the 4th of July fireworks. 

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Speaking of fireworks… we knew we needed to get back to Broadway early to get a spot anywhere, but… even getting there around 4 pm every place was already filling up. We lucked out and found a table off the strip, not the best line of sight, but still decent, and decided it was the place to camp out for the next few hours.

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It is the most people I’ve ever seen in one location. They piled in into bars in just a few blocks of Broadway. It was packed. In a post covid world this fact made me nervous. It was crazy.

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However, the BEST fireworks show I’ve experienced was there in Nashville. A constant array of fireworks goes against the dark Nashville sky with everyone watching and cheering in unison. It was an experience I’ll never forget. The photos just don’t do it justice and unless you’ve been a part of it yourself, I think it’s hard to really understand. Nashville does it up and does it right. 

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Be prepared to pay $9 for a PBR. The businesses definitely make money from firework watchers.

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After that experience, we wandered around for a bit and caught multiple bands and some kooky characters around the bars. My husband tried Westland Whiskey at Nudie’s Honky Tonk at the end of the night and we hit the cool hotel room satisfied that we had fully experienced a 4th of July worth bragging about. 

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The next day we headed out and got some needed souvenirs and to see a bit more of the city. As we walked around we saw Printers Alley which is named after Nashville’s once prominent newspaper and printing industry, but now houses some nightclubs that have been around since the 1940s. Arcade Alley housed a glass ceiling shopping area with over 50 shops and eateries to choose from. After a good walk around the area, we decided it was time to head to Memphis. 

MEMPHIS: 

Coming into Memphis, I don’t think anyone can miss the giant pyramid of the Bass Pro Shop. This amazingly bright structure you can’t miss as you drive into the city and although we didn’t visit until we were leaving Memphis, it is worthy of visitation. This structure houses a full hotel, a very large Bass Pros Shop that carries anything you could imagine, but also has an Everglades-type atrium that includes ducks, fish, and alligators. Even if you have no reason to visit, it is a must-see. Seriously, you should go pick up some drinks and chips for your drive while you’re there.

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That being said, Memphis after the 4th of July was a bit of a letdown as it was quiet. The place we stayed was very close to Beale Street and to be honest, was not our best experience with Airbnb. But we were determined to make the best of it. On our first night, we hit up  Flying Saucer Draught Emporium for dinner and some air conditioning. Some unique burgers and good beers—a good start to our first night in Memphis.

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Beale Street was a bit sparse, but that made it easy to walk and see all the blues clubs and jazz joints. I was most interested in the Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame. Names that put Memphis on the map from performers like Dewey Philips and journalists like Earnest Withers. It’s cool to see the names and look up who they were and what contributions they made. We settled into a small outdoor venue and listened to an old crooner and an amazing guitarist fill the space with the sweet notes of blues.

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The next day we found a great coffee shop The Crazy Gander. The friendly owner even offered me an extra iced chai to go as the shop was slow and we were heading out into the heat of the day. The first stop was Sun Studios. A wonderful tour of the place where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course Elvis, made their debut. Marion Kessler was the first person to record a young Elvis and brought him to the attention of Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips.

Then on to Stax Records, where Otis Redding, Isaac Hays, and Booker T. Jones made their name. Just to see all of the memorabilia and get a feel of what these artists were trying to achieve is amazing. You’ll get a close-up of some of the equipment used back in the day such as some of the first multi-channel recording mixers. You’ll also get a glimpse into touring costumes, special pressings, an intimate look at some prestigious Grammy awards, and Isaac Hays’ personal and customized Caddie. 

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If you are a music buff, like us, Memphis is a must. The creation of blues, the history of American rock-n-roll, and the birth of Southern Soul, Memphis covers all of it and within that some of the first pioneers in recording with modern record press equipment and more. The amount of music history in this town is amazing. There’s plenty to take in.

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We decided it was time for some food and hit up BBQ at the Germantown Commissary. A quaint neighborhood outside of Memphis this place wasn’t packed, but you will not go away hungry as the portions are generous and the food is good. 

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It claims to be the birthplace of BBQ Nachos so we had to get those (to be honest nothing special, but good nonetheless. However, the pick 2 platter with ribs and the pulled pork was not for the faint of heart and is also served with a deviled egg. I think we could have split that and been fine, but I ordered the pulled pork sandwich and we had way too much to eat. The BBQ sauce here was really good. I can’t say it was my favorite, but it can definitely hold its own. The ribs were cooked right, and the pulled pork was delicious. 

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I will say in the heat, every place we went to eat was nice enough to offer us drinks to go. A pleasant surprise when we were dealing with triple-digit temperatures. We took a quick drive over to Memorial Park and Crystal Shine Grotto. This cemetery host the burial site of many notable people, but probably the most famous is Isaac Hayes. 

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If you don’t know Hayes, he was a Grammy-winning musician who wrote the theme to Shaft and was the voice of Chef in the South Park cartoons. We visited his gravesite and took a stroll through the grotto area and the concrete, man-made, crystal cave that is definitely a unique and memorable visit. This art installation was put in the pre-depression era and is focused on Christian themes throughout the quartz crystal cave created by Dionicio Rodríguez.

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We decided to end the day at Ghost River Brewing, a lively spot at the end of Beale St. While walking into the area we landed in a motorcycle show with bikes lining both sides of Beale and music coming out of every corner while the sun was setting around the clouds. It was a sight to see!

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We ended the night at the famous BB King’s Blues Club and knew we were in the right place when the piano man was playing some Prince. We requested Lovely Day from the band as it seemed a perfect ending to the lovely day we had. 

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On day two, we hit up the Peabody Hotel for the morning walk of the ducks. Yes, 5 or so North American Mallards march from the top of the hotel to the lobby fountain every morning and march back up at night. It’s a grand presentation and very family inclusive. Kids love it just as much as adults. If you want you can get duck-themed souvenirs and even duck pastries in the shops within the hotel. 

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A.Schwab is an old-time soda shop in Memphis where we took a quick break for shopping and of course, a nice cold soda from the fountain. Cold is key on a hot road trip. A great place to pick up t-shirts, hats, and any candy you can imagine.

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You can’t be in Memphis without a visit to Graceland. Be forewarned the pass to the mansion is not included in the regular museum pass. However, the basic pass gets you into the park where you can go through the full museum area that includes a full set of Elvis costumes, memos, Grammys, personally owned cars, his planes and more. It was pretty amazing to see all the wealth that surrounded Elvis and thinking at such a young age he became not a person, but a business. The money moving around him was extremely impressive, but within that was a man searching for himself. It was an amazing exhibit overall and a unique look into his life. 

That evening, we took a Memphis Walking Ghost Tour that gave us a look into the more spooky and devastating parts of Memphis along with some cool ghost stories along the way. We learned of the local ghosts and haunted locations while also getting some history of Memphis along a 2-mile walk around the downtown area. 

BBQ Best Road Trip Memphis TN HeidiTown

We saw the haunted piano of Earnestine & Hazels and learned about the music-loving ghost girl in the Orpheum Theater. However, the key feature of this tour is the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968. The hotel is now a landmark with a permanent wreath. Outside are multimedia presentations about the history and events surrounding that day. At night it’s an ominous sight. As I understand, it’s now a full museum you can also go in and tour during the day. 

Part two LOUISIANA, etc. up next!

2 Comments


  1. Wow, what a trip! We are from Kansas City and have made that drive countless times. Next time, we’re stopping at Gella’s Diner. Thanks for that suggestion. Jack Stack BBQ is one of our favorites. Did you know you can order it online? They ship it frozen so you can have a great meal while watching the KC Chiefs play! Thanks for sharing your trip!

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  2. No one wants to see the Chefs play! 😉 What a full itinerary. LOVE ME the KC BBQ sauces. Fun times.

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