How to find the best BBQ where you can park a tractor-trailer

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It seems like a lifetime ago now, when the whole world was locked down, and no one was out on the highways except for those of us tasked with keeping the country stocked and fed.

Notwithstanding the dread that enveloped our nation, and all the toxins that would be spawned in our body politic from this unprecedented level of prolonged isolation, I'd be lying if I told you I don't find myself recalling the Spring of 2020 somewhat wistfully these days.

There was nothing quite like burning through the ghost town that was once Atlanta at a brisk 65 mph, then being smoked by a man in a W-9 on 285 like you were standing still. For a while, they were even calling us heroes, and the bonuses from work for trucking in the pandemic were coming in like water.

But here’s what I cherish the most from that time: My wife, Denise, decided that if we were to die, we might as well die together. The worry for one another's well being in absentia had been crushing us both. So she climbed into my assigned 386 Pete one night and rode with me for nine weeks, seeing places she'd never seen before.

Our lives would then become an upside down Barbara Mandrell song, sleeping double in a single bed, and embracing the earthy forced intimacy all of that entailed. By some miracle, though, we never really fought, despite our tight quarters. And trust me, driver, after 41 years of holy acri..., er, matrimony, that just isn't us. I guess we were just thrilled to still be alive. 

[Related: Mild winter gives way to tough decisions this COVID-19 season]

Among the most memorable things we did while we spent that Spring on the road, in the midst of all that news of meat packing houses closing down and the possibility of farm-fed protein becoming unavailable: We went on a last-ditch quest for the best barbecue in the country with truck parking, stopping at old mainstays of mine, and making some new finds, too.

Today, enjoy the results in this long-overdue shout out to the four establishments we loved the most, in order, and to the pitmasters and associates who provided us with wonderful meals while the whole world seemed to be falling apart. 

Nothing beats Georgia Brisket  

#1) Gary Lee's Market, Brunswick, Georgia -- I-95, Exit 29

Hands down , the best barbecue where you can park a tractor-trailer in the United States, at least according to this gearjammer, can be found at Gary Lee's Market in Brunswick, Georgia. You can talk about your South Texas, you can talk about your Piedmont, your Kansas City styles, but to partake of Gary Lee's brisket sandwich with a side of his famous slaw is to experience something that exists in the most perfect version of itself, transcendent of regional style.

One Google reviewer said it the best, "It melts in your mouth."   

Ribs at Gary Lee's Market in Brunswick, GeorgiaThe ribs are great, too.Gary Lee's Market

A venerable hole in the wall, it's a mom-and-pop kind of place, just off the beaten path on U.S. 82 and known only to locals and a few stick haulers, Gary Lee's is located at 3636 US-82 in Brunswick, just a few minutes west of the Flying J at I-95. Five stars.

Caution: Gary Lee's is only open Thursday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-7 p.m., and just has room for one to three trucks, depending on how considerate the drivers were who got there before you. So you may not always be able to get in there, especially if they're slammed.

It's worth a try, though, no doubt. 

#2) Papa Buck's BBQ, Metter, Georgia -- I-16, Exit 104

We stumbled upon Papa Buck's while weighing a load of Vidalia onions at Jay's Fuel Stop next door.

It was carryout only, then, but the staff was upbeat and the place was immaculate. Denise had their famous pulled pork, which was to die for. I had a right respectable brisket, close to on par with Gary Lee's.

What began in 2007 as a single food truck with a mobile smoker in Twin City, Georgia, has blossomed into two permanent units in Metter and Vidalia.

Four-pound pigzilla challenge pork sandwichPapa Buck's is also home to what's called the "Pigzilla Challenge," here pictured, a four-pound pulled pork sandwich. If you can consume it within 45 minutes, that will net you a hundred dollar bill and a t-shirt. Lose, driver, and you'll be forty bucks lighter. Apparently, 90% of Pigzilla Challengers lose the battle.Papa Buck's

Papa Buck's Metter location sits at 1085 S. Lewis St. They're open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Five stars.

#3) Ole Rudy's Bar-B-Q, Jackson, Georgia -- I-75, Exit 201

Another Georgia barbecue institution started in a food truck is Ole Rudy's. I've been coming here since the 1990s, when he used to set up in the parking lot of the BP and advertise his famous "Broonswick Stew" on the CB.

meat on skewers on a grill grateIn more 20 years, I've never had a bad meal here.Ole Rudy's

There's not a pitmaster in all of Texas who can touch his brisket, and the Brunswick stew is off the chain. With his signature single slice of white bread over a generous helping of meat, everything he does is pretty much on par with Gary Lee's.

I just wish the sides were more generous. They're served in cups barely bigger than shot glasses. Doesn't mean I don't love it. Just wish there was more of it for the money.

Ole Rudy's is located at 2831 GA-36 in Jackson. They're open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to at least 11 p.m. Four and a half stars.

#4) Nick's Bar-B-Q and Catfish, Carlisle, Arkansas -- I-40, Exit 183

When it all hit the fan back in 2020, the good folks at Nick's set a table up outside their restaurant and took care of the drivers from there -- rain, sleet or snow.

Nick's roadside sign topped by a cow statueFeaturing spectacular homemade fried pies and the best barbecued chicken on the road, Nick's has been a must-stop of mine while traveling to Texas now for decades.Nick's Bar-B-Q & Catfish

It's located on 1012 Bobby L. Glover Hwy in Carlisle. Four and a half stars.