12 best U.S. cities for meat lovers

Story highlights

We surveyed meat experts and collected consumption and other data to pick our list

Omaha Steaks probably the most iconic name in American steak

You may not have heard of Lexington, North Carolina, but a barbecue feast there is like no other

CNN  — 

With the possible exception of smartphone technology, nothing’s seen more practical advances this millennium than food.

While it’s true that much of that progress involves vegan, vegetarian and low-meat consumption, carnivory has also seen an impressive evolution.

Bacon-wrapped sausage, sausage-stuffed tenderloin, tenderloin burger on a fried-chicken bun – eating in the United States is becoming less a matter of sustenance than a game of meat Tetris.

Perhaps in response to years of demonization by health experts, the whole nation has gone meat crazy. Of course, some parts of the country are more flesh-obsessed than others. To determine the hierarchy of meat cities, we convened a caucus of nine experts in beef, burgers and barbecue for their top 10s, and made that half of our final score.

Then we factored in per capita meat consumption, drawing from USDA and Nielsen sales figures and survey responses provided by health assessment platform Sharecare.

Finally, we threw in the number of steakhouses (BBQ and burger joints aren’t tracked), as determined by market research firm NPD Group, and the number of events staged to celebrate seared animals.

The following are our findings. Some are expected. Some may be shocking. All are canon.

12. Omaha, Nebraska

Experts: 12th

Consumption: 12th

Steakhouses: 11th

Events: 7th

Nebraska is the nation’s No. 2 beef producer, with 93% of its available land in one way or another used to house, feed or process cattle. So, between cows and corn, there’s really only room left in the state for the restaurants that serve the two.

Of those, Rick Browne, editor in chief of Barbecue America magazine, recommends Johnny’s Cafe, a third-generation family-owned steakhouse near the Omaha Stockyards that’s been in business for nearly a century. Johnny’s is notable for “a Chateaubriand and a one-pound prime rib that are pricey, but absolutely worth every penny,” says Browne, “and both are aged right in the restaurant.”

Coincidentally, this is also the home of Omaha Steaks, the most iconic name in American steak, if there can be such a thing.

Biggest among Omaha’s annual meat-centric events are Ak-Sar-Ben’s (Nebraska backwards) River City Rodeo and the Septemberfest BBQ and Rib Eye Steak Cookoff Challenge. Plus, the city’s indoor football team is called the Omaha Beef.

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11. Fort Worth, Texas

Buffalo at Bonnell's in Fort Worth.

Experts: 7th

Consumption: 11th

Steakhouses: 5th

Events: 11th

Texas is the Argentina of the United States. Not only for its pride and passion, but also because it’s the top beef producing state in the union, which explains the appearance of two cities from the state on our list.

“They still parade longhorns down city streets,” explains Texas Monthly magazine’s resident Barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn of how Fort Worth earned its “Cowtown” sobriquet. “It’s a civic symbol of history, but also of how much they love beef.”

But it’s not just beef.

“There’s a culinary safari just between the menus of local chefs Tim Love (Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, White Elephant Saloon) and Jon Bonnell (Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine),” says Vaughn.

Staged publicly for the first time in 2012, Meat Fight is fast becoming a premier annual barbecue competition over in neighboring Dallas (yes, we know Dallas isn’t Fort Worth and definitely vice versa), where one of the most recent darlings among meat elites, Pecan Lodge, can also be found.

Says Steven Raichlen, author of the “Barbecue! Bible” cookbook series, “The beef plate ribs may well be the largest bones in North America.”

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10. Las Vegas

Experts: 9th

Consumption: T-5th

Steakhouses: 8th

Events: 8th

Depending on your perspective, Las Vegas has either 600,000 residents or six. It’s a town predicated entirely on attracting outsiders, so it lacks some of the folksy authenticity of its peers on this list. But it makes up for that with – like anything else in modern-day Gomorrah – an almost criminal bounty.

Vegas is notorious for its buffets: nine-dollar, 24-hour, all-you-can-eat meatpaloozas that extend for what would constitute city blocks in the real world. But it’s also loaded with celebrity-chef steakhouses – two dozen on the Strip alone, according to Browne.

While it doesn’t boast the most meat events, Vegas may claim the most of the largest magnitude. It hosts the World Open Chili Championship, World Barbecue Championship, World Burger Championship and Bacon World Championship, with purses ranging from $25,000 to $50,000.

Each fall, nearby Laughlin stages the $50,000 USA Barbecue Championship, and just a half-hour outside of town, Boulder City throws the annual Best Dam Barbecue Challenge each spring.

9. Tampa, Florida

Tampa or Miami? For Cuban sandwich lovers, it makes a difference.

Experts: T-10th

Consumption: 2nd

Steakhouses: 6th

Events: 10th

Yeah, we couldn’t believe it either. Not only does the Cigar City rank second in per capita meat consumption, food author John T. Edge says it’s the best place in the United States to get a steak.

“Because they serve prime porterhouses, dry-aged on premises for eight weeks, Bern’s [Steakhouse] has made Tampa a citadel of American meat. The steak is that good.”

More controversial is Tampa’s dispute with rival Miami over the true origin of the Cuban sandwich. When in doubt, go with the version that uses the most meat.

That would be Tampa’s Cubano, which piles Genoa salami atop the customary slices of roasted pork butt and smoked ham. Further stoking the broiler, the city council recently passed a resolution proclaiming the Cuban Tampa’s “signature sandwich.”

Meanwhile, an annual Cuban Sandwich Festival has been inaugurated in Ybor City, America’s first Cuban community and site of the sandwich’s purported genesis.

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8. Philadelphia

Classic Philly cheesesteak from Geno's Steak.

Experts: T-10th

Consumption: 1st

Steakhouses: 3rd

Events: 12th

With Philly perennially placing at or near the top of any list of heaviest cities, meat’s probably not gonna be the only food superlative associated with it. But according to the USDA, meat represents the largest slice of overall food spending in America by almost double the second largest expense, and leading the field is the City of Buttery Love.

Synonymous with Philly is the cheesesteak, the most municipal of all sandwiches.

While the city’s placement on our list would be assured with its official sandwich alone, Philadelphia boasts another signature regional meatstuff: scrapple. After butchering a pig, take what’s left on the floor, throw in some cornmeal and flour and form into a loaf. Next, slice and pan-fry until all you can taste is heart surgery.

Browne recommends City Tavern, “the only restaurant in America where the chef cooks rabbit, lamb, pork chops, ham, veal and venison using recipes adapted from the Colonial days.”

7. Memphis, Tennessee

Experts: 4th

Consumption: 7th

Steakhouses: 12th

Events: 6th

“Hogs cluck like chickens during the first week of May in Memphis,” says Jack Waiboer, co-owner of Carolina Pit Masters Barbecue Cooking School.

That’s because the River City is home to arguably the largest barbecue competition on earth: the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (aka, the Super Bowl of Swine).

Memphis doesn’t concern itself much with meat beyond smoked pig, and it doesn’t have to.

“Pork capital of America,” according to Grilling.com editor and Memphian Clint Cantwell, the city boasts several legendary barbecue joints, including Payne’s, Central BBQ, Rendezvous and Cozy Corner.

If someone would just tell this place about steak, it might rank much higher – only one other town received as many first-place votes from our meat elites (three) as Memphis, and it’s the No. 4 city on our list …

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6. Los Angeles

Experts: 8th

Consumption: T-5th

Steakhouses: 2nd

Events: 9th

No, this list isn’t detouring into America’s Best Gluten-Free-Range Chia Taquito Towns.

“Scratch beneath the glitzy, golden-tanned surface, and you’ll find that Angelinos really do have an appreciation for meat,” says hamburger blogger Jess Pryles (aka Burger Mary).

Contrasting with meat-myopic entrants like Austin and Memphis, no one method plays the lead here, with steaks, burgers, tacos and barbecue all getting star turns.

New restaurant chi SPACCA serves what “Barbecue! Bible” author Raichlen says may be North America’s biggest steak: the costata. And if any table in the place sat more than six people, they’d have made it twice as large.

Los Angeles is home to budding burger chains such as Umami Burger as well as mainstay In-N-Out, but also individual exemplars Father’s Office, Plan Check and 25 Degrees.

But as cheesesteaks are to Philly and Cubans are to Tampa, tacos are to L.A.

The panoply of animal parts that qualify for inclusion in a folded tortilla is mind-blowing (if not stomach-churning): tongue, cheek, tripe, brain, belly, head, esophagus – in L.A. if it bleeds, it feeds.

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5. Lexington, North Carolina

Lexington, North Carolina: The fashion police say "Oink!"

Experts: 6th

Consumption: 4th

Steakhouses: 7th

Events: 4th

Those who know, know. Those who don’t are likely puzzling over the lofty ranking of this speed bump an hour outside Charlotte.

Of the dozen or so “barbecue capitals of the world,” Lexington is by far the smallest, which may be its best argument for the distinction.

There’s a barbecue restaurant (19) for every thousand people here, and most of them are world class, including Lexington Barbecue, the Barbecue Center, Speedy’s Barbecue, Jimmy’s BBQ, Smokey’s Joe’s and Stamey’s.

Waiboer calls it the quintessential barbecue haunt. “More hogs are sacrificed daily in the name of great barbecue in Lexington than any other place on the planet.”

Each October the carnage intensifies with the Barbecue Festival. When your URL is simply “BarbecueFestival.com,” the deal is real and Lexington’s pig-out is a fixture atop food festival lists, hosting more than 125,000 attendees in a single-day event.

Make a long weekend of it and you could conceivably sample every barbecue joint in town. Or, pop over to Charlotte, where the majority of Lexington’s steakhouse figures are attributed, and tour its 80 New York strip joints.

4. Austin, Texas

Experts: 2nd

Consumption: 10th

Steakhouses: 10th

Events: 2nd

“Doesn’t anyone in Austin have a job?”

That’s the question Steven Raichlen poses after noting that meatheads line up daily at 8 a.m. in front of places – like Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue – that don’t open til 11. Despite topping PETA’s list of vegan-friendliest cities, Austin is meatopia for those who ascribe brisket sacred status.

More than any other city on the list, our meat elites recommended restaurants found in Austin: Kreuz Market, The Salt Lick, Smitty’s Market, Rudy’s and Freedmen’s round out the local nobility.

“Even Din Ho Chinese BBQ gets high ratings,” says Browne, only half-joking.

And that’s just barbecue.

Hamburger blogger Jess Pryles champions local joints like P. Terry’s Burger Stand, Dan’s Hamburgers, Sandy’s Hamburgers and Hopdoddy Burger Bar for their proficiency at the ground game.

“No other place in the country celebrates red meat like the Texans in and around Austin,” says Browne.

That includes nearby Lockhart, which the state legislature decreed by resolution the Barbecue Capital of Texas, and where, says Vaughn, “There are five legitimate barbecue joints for just 12,000 people.”

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3. Chicago

Chicago tips the meat scale with its array of ethnic influences.

Experts: 5th

Consumption: T-8th

Steakhouses: 4th

Events: 3rd

Erstwhile “hog butcher for the world” and object of Upton Sinclair’s reformist rage, Chicago is a top meat retreat even without the Union Stock Yards through which more meat once passed than anywhere else in America.

The diversity of meats served and celebrated here may be the nation’s richest, but Chicago gets Raichlen’s vote for its Italian beef sandwich: thin slices of seasoned roast beef soaked in its own juices then piled on chewy long Italian rolls and topped with grilled sweet peppers or giardiniera (pickled vegetables).

Johnnie’s Beef and Al’s #1 are the Pat’s and Geno’s of Italian beef.

Then there’s barbecue, which, like the blues, gives Chicago rare Southern cache for a decidedly Northern stronghold.

Smoque and Lem’s Bar B-Q have the North and South sides covered, respectively, while the best beef ribs in Rick Browne’s experience are served at Q.

Even the fests demonstrate uncommon range.

There are more than 15 major meat events in the Chicagoland area each year, adding to SausageFest and Ribfest audience-expanders like the Kosher BBQ Festival and even a Halal Food Festival.

2. Kansas City, Missouri

Experts: 1st

Consumption: T-8th

Steakhouses: 9th

Events: 1st

You can tell a lot about a city by the way it treats its meat, and KC gets downright meatarded when it comes to celebrating cooked critter. Of 30-plus annual events, the main attraction is the American Royal, arguably the world’s most prestigious barbecue competition, attracting more than 500 teams.

Kansas City manages its No. 2 ranking without the fetishizing of food that has become de rigueur, focusing instead on tried and true methods of meat prep, especially steak and barbecue.

KC’s the home of burnt ends and some of the most titanic places to get ‘em: L C’s Bar-B-Q, Gates Bar-B-Q, Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Q, Danny Edwards Blvd Barbecue, Quick’s Bar-B-Q, Jon Russell’s and Jack Stack Barbecue, which Browne declares also serves the best lamb ribs on earth.

During its days as a stockyard town, Kansas City was as regarded for steak as it was barbecue, and it still houses institutions like Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse and the 100-year-old Savoy Grill.

“When it comes to barbecue, Kansas City still rules,” says Raichlen. Or is it the other way around?

1. New York

A traditional appetizer before dinner  in New York.

Experts: 3rd

Consumption: 3rd

Steakhouses: 1st

Events: 5th

It hardly seems fair.

As if New York wasn’t best at enough things already, even for meat it’s top of the list. King of the hill. A-number one.

“Once a barbecue wasteland,” says Grilling.com editor Cantwell, “New York’s now a hotbed of great restaurants propelled by the recent rise of Brooklyn barbecue” at places like BrisketTown, Fletcher’s, Fette Sau and Hometown Bar-B-Que.

New York pioneered the $100 burger … then the $666 burger … but it’s awash in more prudent patties, too, at The Spotted Pig, Corner Bistro, Old Town Bar, Minetta Tavern, Burger Joint and Korzo Haus, where they’re deep-fried inside Hungarian flatbread.

The city claims nearly twice as many steakhouses as No. 2 in the category (Los Angeles), headlined by Peter Luger, Old Homestead Steakhouse and Keens Steakhouse, which serves a mutton chop flanked by dog’s ears of lamb bacon that will make eating for the next 24 hours optional.

Then, of course, there’s the deli brisket, corned beef, pastrami and hot dogs for which New York has always been known.

All have superlatives at Katz’s Delicatessen, further proving you can take the Meatpacking District out of the city, but you can’t take the city off any list of meat meccas.

Jordan Burchette is freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.