It’s a warm July morning in Lexington, Kentucky, and I’m sitting with Jennifer Lyles, talking BBQ.
Jennifer, along with her husband Greg, and oldest son Chandler, own Lyles BBQ. Greg is a retired Air Force vet, having put in 22 years. Chandler put in 4, and their youngest son, Tucker, is now in training to be a fighter pilot.
They’ve been in business for five years now, after starting in Nicholasville. They put up a tent in a gas station parking lot, back in 2013. That was so successful they continued to expand, eventually moving into the present location.
Jennifer and I are talking about the menu: the smoked meats, the sides, and the eight (!) homemade sauces they serve. I’ve had dinner at Lyles the two previous nights, and frankly, if I didn’t have to drive home to Michigan, I’d be eating dinner here again.
Yes, Lexington has other barbecue restaurants. Some of them might even be good.
But for now? I’ll be eating at Lyles.
Let’s start with the highlights, shall we?
Lyles’ smokers turn out a number of delicious smoked meats: beef brisket, burnt ends, tri tip, baby back ribs, pork butt, chicken, turkey breast, and jalapeño cheddar sausage.
They also make a unique dish, one they call pork burnt ends.
To picture this dish, think of the regular beef burnt ends you sometimes order – cubes of delicious beefy, smoky goodness, tender and unctuous, maybe with a touch of sauce.
Now, imagine if those were made with PORK BELLY!
Yep, Lyles gives pork belly the burnt ends treatment, creating some of the most luscious chunks of protein I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Deeply caramelized slices of pork belly, about 3/4″ thick, with a goodly portion of the fat rendered, leaving just enough of the butteriness you’d expect. These are exceptional, and simply a must-try.
Also impressive is the jalapeño cheddar sausage. One of the joys of eating barbecue in Texas is that there is almost always a sausage or two on the menu. This sausage is reminiscent of that Texas sausage, with a crisp casing, and a filling that still has a bit of texture. Too often sausage casings are filled with a nondescript meat paste. That’s not the case here, as distinguishable bits of meat, pepper, and cheese are visible. And it isn’t dried out–there’s still some juice inside, which quickly marks the butcher paper it’s served on. Although the sausage isn’t made in-house, they’ve sourced a winner.
The turkey breast is also world-class, and that’s not a term I toss about freely This turkey breast would win at a number of BBQ competitions. While it doesn’t evince a deep smoke ring, the smoke taste is evident. The meat is very moist and tender. It tastes wonderful alone, but even better when accented with one of their sauces. In this case, the obvious Buffalo, and some Alabama White for variety.
About those eight sauces? The Alabama White has a strong horseradish note. Because of this, it’s pretty versatile, working on any of the beef or poultry.
The Buffalo is exactly what you think it would be, and works great on the chicken or turkey.
There’s a Carolina Mustard sauce, and a vinegar sauce. Isn’t a vinegar sauce Carolina, too? Maybe an East and West Carolina split?
The Original, the spicy, and the sweet are all tasty.
But then we come to the eighth sauce. The Bourbon Sauce, made with Kentucky’s own Woodford Reserve Bourbon. It’s boozy, tangy, and deeply flavored, and my favorite of the sauces. I’d happily buy this by the quart (fifth?). While all the sauces are good, and some very good, this one is the King. Pour this on kale, and I’d ask for seconds.
Lyles is a Type Four barbecue restaurant.
What’s a Type Four?
Well, after eating a lot of barbecue over the years, and trying it in every region of the US, it gets difficult to differentiate between the various types of barbecue. There’s KC style, Memphis style, Carolina style, Southern, Texas, and other regional favorites. There’s beef ribs, brisket, whole hog, pork ribs, chicken, chicken wings, lamb, turkey, etc., etc.
But every barbecue restaurant, regardless of style, region, or protein, has two things: smoked meat, and side dishes. Two menu options, and two taste options (good and bad). So you can generally put a restaurant into a four-square matrix, and have a pretty good idea of what you’ll be getting.
Type One restaurants miss on both. Neither the meat, nor the sides, are worth a return trip. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it.
Type Two restaurants have good smoked meat. The sides, however, leave a lot to be desired. If they sell bagged potato chips, this is the better choice.
Type Three restaurants have lousy barbecue, and really good sides. This type is really more common than you’d think. Once you have the recipes right on the sides, they tend to be pretty consistent. Barbecue itself still remains a variable, and a bad day on the smoker, or a new employee in charge, can move a Four into a Three for a while. I’ve run into Type Threes in every ‘cue region. It’s disappointing when it happens, but consistent high-quality barbecue isn’t easy.
Type Four restaurants nail both the meat and the sides. Lyles does that, with a delicious menu of sides, most with a touch of smoke.
There’s the expected ones: barbecue beans, potato salad, and cole slaw.
There’s also smoked cheddar mac & cheese, hash brown casserole (made with smoked chicken stock), green beans with smoked pork, sweet potato casserole, cowboy caviar, and corn pudding.
And then there’s the two standouts: sour dill pickles, and hush muffins.
The pickles are made in house, and they’re another winner. The brine seems to have less sugar than you normally see in a pickle, giving them a more sour taste. Coupled with the abundance of dill, this is a bright, acidic pickle, one that wakes up your taste buds. It contrasts wonderfully with the pork, and also with the sweeter sauces.
And then the hushmuffins.
Yep, hushmuffins. You can find hush puppies at a lot of barbecue restaurants, and they’re one of my favorite sides. Deep fried, crispy, with a fine crumb in the center, and the buttery, onion-y taste.
Lyles used to serve them, and they were quite popular.
Until the day the fryers broke, and they were looking at no hush puppies for lunch. And ya gotta have either corn bread or hush puppies with your barbecue, right (unless you’re in Alabama or Texas, where a slice of Wonder bread is the usual side)?
Faced with a problem, they improvised. They increased the butter in the batter, to compensate for the fat that normally comes from the deep fryer, and then put the batter into muffin tins. They tossed ’em in the oven, and hushmuffins were born.
These muffins are golden brown, crispy on the edges and sides, with the familiar hush puppy taste. They’re a winner.
In fact, the hushmuffins and pickles made such an impression, I bought some of each to take home.
And for dessert, there’s banana pudding, a Southern staple that goes back to Jennifer’s Deep South roots. It’s a bit of granny’s love in a bowl, with the de rigueur vanilla wafer.
I don’t know how you could possibly have room for it, but it’s there.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Wow, that place sounds great. But I don’t get to Lexington all that often.” That’s a valid point.
I’m here to help.
It is less than 12 miles from I-75 South to Lyles. That’s a 20-minute detour from your journey, to experience some of the best smoked meats, sauces, and sides you’ll find in the state of Kentucky.
Still not convinced? Well, if you go over to their Web site (see below), and join their email list, they’ll send you a coupon for a free pulled pork sandwich.
Doesn’t that make your decision easier?
Of course it does!
Or you could just stop at McDonald’s.
And if that’s your choice, we can’t be friends.
Lyles is located at 3101 Clays Mill Road, #301, Lexington, Kentucky. They’re open from 10:20 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. daily.
They also have a location in the food court at the Fayette Mall. You can find their Web site here: https://www.lylesbbqcompany.com
And no, there’s no apostrophe in the name of the restaurant. It drove the grammarian in me crazy for a while, but I got over it.
You will, too.