Our next stop was Woody's Smoke Shack in Des Moines, Iowa. That's right, we went to corn country to find barbecue.
Talk about fiercely loyal customers, several hundred people had written to us about Woody's, a single barbecue restaurant in a small brick building in a residential neighborhood between Drake University's campus and downtown.
It's owned and run by Woody Wasson and his wife, Cheryl. They first got into the barbecue business when Woody left the construction trade about 10 years and began peddling his barbecue at competitions and fairs around the state. From there, they started a small take-out and catering business.
In 2002, they opened the restaurant. Wasson said business is booming even in the face of the national economic recession.
Unlike Cousin's, Woody's uses a dry rub -- some cayenne pepper, black pepper, cumin, chili pepper ("There's probably one or two spices you don't know," Wasson said vaguely). There's no ketchup or other liquids, unless you count a dollop of honey. He then wraps his ribs in cellophane and aluminum foil and then cooks them in his outdoor pit for several hours.
The Wassons take a lot of pride, too, in their side dishes, which include a wonderful corn bread, cheese grits, greens, baked beans, cooked apple and cole slaw.
"When Woody puts his touches on this great Iowa beef and pork, it just melts in your mouth," gushed Russ Gibson, one of the small army of people who e-mailed us about Woody's.
"I mean, it's good enough to make you cry," he cried.
The third stop in our final four barbecue tour was Archibald's BBQ in Northport, Ala., a small town near Tuscaloosa, Ala., home of the University of Alabama.
Even before you spot it, in the backyard of a small brick house in a residential area, you smell the aroma of hickory smoke and ribs.
It reminded me of Leo's in L.A. Smell can trigger vivid and powerful emotional memories. To me, it smelled like home.
Archibald's is your classic down-home Southern African-American barbecue shack. It's a small, squat block building painted white with red trim in honor of the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama, proprietor George Archibald said. There's a counter inside with no more than half a dozen stools set in front of it. There are four or five tables set up outside under parasols. The air was thick with smoke and flies hoping for an opportunity to alight on the food.
I was struck by the racially mixed clientele that poured steadily into Archibald's. Young black people, older black people, young whites, older whites.
Inside, Archibald, who looked to be in his 60s, tended the barbecue pit and, along with his daughter, served one heaping plate of ribs after another, mostly to take-out customers.
I looked around. There was no menu posted. It turns out there is no menu. You have a choice of pulled pork sandwich or pork ribs. With either, you get white bread and a plastic container of the pungent sauce. An extra hot sauce will set you back 50 cents.
Archibald's parents, George, Sr. and Betty, opened in 1962. That same year, Alabama elected arch-segregationist George Wallace as governor.
George Archibald Jr. started cooking when he was 14 and eventually took over running the business from his aging parents, both of whom are now dead.