For a place that, until a few years ago, managed to survive with only one barbecue restaurant, Lexington has come a long way fast.
The city has embraced the barbecue lifestyle with fervor. And that fervor has been rewarded with even more smoked meat and sauce.
There are now at least 10 barbecue restaurants in Lexington, with at least six more in surrounding counties.
This year, Lexington will add three more sit-down barbecue restaurants. Everybody from Keeneland to the University of Kentucky's new dining hall will be smoking meat.
Is that too much barbecue? Can there be such a thing?
Bluegrass Hospitality Group's Brian McCarty doesn't think so. He and his business partner, Bruce Drake, are adding barbecue to the Lansdowne Shoppes lineup in August.
If anything, Lexington is underserved when it comes to barbecue, McCarty said last winter when discussing his plans.
"Barbecue's wide open in this town, and it's a niche that's hotter than a firecracker," McCarty said. Other cities of similar size have 25-30 good to great barbecue places, he said.
Chandler Lyles, who built a following with a food truck before opening Lyles BBQ in Nicholasville in June, said he doesn't think Central Kentucky is anywhere near barbecue saturation.
"If you look at major barbecue cities like Memphis and Kansas City, they have as many barbecue restaurants as Baptist churches," Lyles said.
The city's barbecue eruption is welcome news to Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book, which catalogs every known barbecue joint in the state.
"It's about time your part of the world got some decent meat to eat. When I was researching my book from 2009 to 2012, I really beat the bushes to find some places east of I-65, and there wasn't much," Berry said. "And there's still not much outside of Lexington and Louisville."
Lexington's surge mirrors the national acceptance of country and Southern food. Successes like that of barbecue chef and James Beard award winner Aaron Franklin of Austin, Texas, have convinced a lot people to live their own barbecue dreams, Berry said.
With the proliferation of Food Network and Travel Channel shows, and new cookbooks, "it's possible for a young person interested in meat smoking to learn a lot ... and that's happening all over the country," Berry said. "New York City's now a barbecue destination because so many smokehouses have opened up. It's all new."
Most Lexington barbecue places offer a mix of styles — Texas brisket, St. Louis ribs, and Carolina pulled pork are all popular.
"Everybody's got a twist," said Matt Bradford of Bradford BBQ, which is opening a sit-down restaurant in Zandale in early July. "We do a Memphis-style rub on our pork and our ribs, sweet and savory 17 spice rub, and with local hardwood — hickory, apple, oak."
Bradford has created a niche cooking whole, locally raised hogs.
"We did 25 last year," he said.
Billy's Bar-B-Q also does mutton, which is a Western Kentucky barbecue tradition.
"Billy's is kind of the powerhouse as far as Lexington goes," Bradford said.
Owensboro native Bob Stubblefield, owner of Billy's, said that when he came to Lexington as a graduate student in 1976, he couldn't find any Western Kentucky barbecue.
"Growing up, all the little towns in Western Kentucky and Western Tennessee had at least one barbecue place in them," Stubblefield said.
Many specialized in mutton and a Worcestershire-heavy sauce called a dip that's far different from the syrupy sweet, ketchup-y sauces that many in Central Kentucky seem to prefer, he said.
"Lexington is what I call soft-core barbecue," Stubblefield said. He hopes the city is evolving away from that.
The city's appetite seems to be growing as the palate matures, but Stubblefield worries that Lexington's restaurant scene is becoming overbuilt.
"We went very quickly from about five barbecue joints to 12 to 13," he said. "Lots of folks out there competing, and in the restaurant scene in general. We are all competing for the same dining dollar."
Part of the proliferation everywhere in barbecue has been the new technology, hybrid cookers that use wood and gas instead of traditional concrete block pits of meat over wood coals.
"That's a big barbecue controversy," Berry acknowledged. "Nothing you get in Lexington is going to taste like what you get smoked over big pits."
But it can still be pretty good, he said, as long as they use enough wood.
"Pig is magical. There's a reason that everybody smokes it. It's easy and it's delicious," Berry said.
And as for whether or not Lexington is over-barbecued: The people will decide, Berry said.
"Look at little Tompkinsville, Ky., with about 3,000 people. It has four barbecue places and enough people are hungry for it to keep four places open," he said. "If the people of Lexington are hungry for God's creatures cooked over wood coals ... people will come to it."