(Editor's note: A previous version of this article misidentified the location of Owensboro, Ky.)
The scene: Barbecue is one of the most unique and regionalized of American foods, and I have sampled many styles, from the whole-hog-with-vinegar of North Carolina to Memphis' BBQ spaghetti to burnt ends in Kansas City and the lesser-known Santa Maria BBQ of central California. But there is no hyper-regionalized style as specialized as that of Western Kentucky, mainly in its epicenter of Owensboro, where the slow-smoked meat of choice is not ribs or pulled pork or brisket, but rather mutton. Owensboro's next-best-known specialty is a hearty stew called burgoo, which contains - you guessed it - more mutton. Not only do the restaurants of Owensboro specialize in this offbeat menu item, each May the city hosts its famous International Bar-B-Q Festival, a major culinary event. The centerpiece? Mutton Glutton, a one- or two-day unlimited tasting of barbecued mutton, burgoo and other dishes.
The two most famous eateries in Owensboro are Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q, each of which has both passionate fans and naysayers. So of course, I visited both. Old Hickory is an innocuous looking restaurant on a small side street near downtown that resembles a Sizzler or Cracker Barrel, except for the big pile of wood stacked outside. It has a drive-thru, carry-out section, and one medium-sized dining room, divided into two parts by a low wall, with both booths and tables. Old Hickory has a mom-and-pop ambiance, with friendly waitress service. Tables have cards of local businesses set into the varnish, while the one page laminated menu also has ads for insurance agencies, tire shops and a liquor store. In contrast, Moonlite is enormous and always bustling, located on a busy suburban road lined with strip malls and fast food, with a vast parking lot and multiple dining rooms, plus a big carry-out operation. It has an a la carte menu but its centerpiece is an enormous buffet, offered at lunch and dinner, which most visitors partake of.
Reason to visit: Something you've never tried before
The food: The story typically goes that in the early 19th century wool production in the U.S. boomed, meaning lots and lots of sheep were around, and once sheep got too old to produce good wool they were edible and plentiful. But mutton (older sheep) was tougher and harder to cook, best suited to the slow-smoked BBQ style or stewing, both of which break down connective tissue into tender meat. This explains the rise of BBQ mutton and burgoo, but does not explain why it is so limited to the Owensboro region and not found in the nation's many other sheep ranching locales (although burgoo is also found elsewhere in Kentucky). Nonetheless, mutton rules Western Kentucky Bar-B-Q (not BBQ or barbecue, always Bar-B-Q here), and there we are. Both restaurants also offer more common barbecued meats like ribs and chicken.
I love barbecue in almost all forms, do my own smoking, and have judged major BBQ competitions. I am also very fond of lamb as a meat, so I expected to love Owensboro's specialty. I did not.