Illustration: Allison Corr

Barbecue chips are ubiquitous in the U.S., where the differences in brands’ interpretations of the flavor make no two alike. They’re undoubtedly the most American of potato chip flavors, as wide and diverse as the nation itself.

Brands can’t even come to consensus on how to spell the flavor itself: Is it BBQ? Bar-B-Q? Bar-B-Que? Barbecue? Barbeque? The answer is yes. Even within the same brands, the spelling will vary. Trust me. It’s incredible! For consistency, I will use Associated Press-approved “barbecue” going forward.

Then, there’s the flavor definition. Unlike easy-to-decipher layups such as dill pickle, sour cream and onion, or original, there’s no hint as to how any particular barbecue chip will taste. You can’t base it on the name: A barbecue in America means different things to different people. Is it the flavor of a cookout? If so, grilling or smoking? Dry rub or wet seasoning? Not to mention the regional seasoning varieties between places like Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas City. Defining barbecue is like defining love.

In lieu of a clear profile, most chipmakers gravitate toward some established flavors. Their circles overlap the most at smoky, tangy, salty, sweet, paprika, onion, and mild heat. (Try singing that list. It sounds like the start of a Disney-movie soundtrack.) But how those elements combine, and at what ratios, is what gives barbecue chips their finger prints. Such variation also makes objective evaluation of a great barbecue chip challenging. Nevertheless, here’s how I tried.

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First, I looked across major national brands and available chip descriptions to rank them on the flavors previously mentioned. Those that had an even balance of several of the elements scored higher; those that were overbearing in one area scored lower. Next, I evaluated the quality of the chip. I chose from both kettle and continuously-fried varieties (kettle chips will be crunchier), as well as rippled and flat chips.

I assigned a score for both the barbecue flavoring, and the chip quality, then tallied the results. This was limited to widely available brands; regretfully I didn’t include my favorite due to its limited availability (sorry, Martin’s). It’s not perfect, but frankly neither is barbecue, nor America.

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Top row: Kettle Brand, Zapps, Lays, Jay’s Open Pit. Bottom row: Cape Cod, Utz, Jay’s
Photo: Nick Leggin

7. Jays Ridges Open Pit BBQ

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These chips apply seasoning by the bucketful. Tomato and onion are the lead dancers by a wide margin, distancing this variety from other barbecue flavors. Without the label, these could easily be mistaken for ketchup chips. The chips were moderately stale, and lacked any pleasant crispiness.

Chip quality: 4 out of 10
Seasoning: 4 out of 10
Total score: 8 out of 20


6. Jays Barbecue

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I could lose my taste buds for 30 years, regain them after some magical operation, and immediately recognize the flavor of Jays barbecue chips. The pickled-sausage red color stood out among those sampled. Heavy on paprika, and low on the other elements, these are more like a German paprika chip than an American barbecue chip, making it hard to rank these higher. The chip itself was serviceable, but not great.

Chip quality: 5 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 5 (out of 10)
Total score: 10 (out of 20)


Tie-4. Kettle Brand Backyard Barbeque

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Kettle’s continuously-fried variety is one of their three entries in the barbecue space. I chose “backyard” as it was the most analogous to the other brands sampled. The chip itself offered a good potato flavor and had a thicker cut than any counterparts. But I couldn’t call these barbecue chips in good conscience. The flavor seems to disappear; maybe I detect a hint of a dry rub spice without the sugar or salt, but beyond that I couldn’t find barbecue elements at all.

Chip quality: 7 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 4 (out of 10)
Total score: 11 (out of 20)


Tie-4. Lay’s Barbecue

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Lay’s chips were like a tangier Utz, with the addition of black pepper flakes. You won’t find any over- or under-seasoned chips in the bag, and the crisp mimics any of the other Lay’s varieties. They’re entirely plausible barbecue chips. Admittedly, I’ve yet to recover from the Lay’s Barbecue recipe change of the 1990s, where they switched from the orangish-brown bag to its now black bag (a remnant of the KC Masterpiece tie-in).

Chip quality: 6 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 5 (out of 10)
Total score: 11 (out of 20)


3. Utz Barbeque

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Utz had the best of the continuously fried flat chips, offering pleasant crispness without crumbling. The seasoning hit several of the flavor elements, and offered some notes of garlic. I couldn’t taste any horseradish, despite it being called out on the ingredient list. Despite no points for aesthetics, the yellow and orange bag contains a solid, middle-of-the-road barbecue chip.

Chip quality: 6 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 6 (out of 10)
Total score: 12 (out of 20)


Miss Vickie’s Smokehouse BBQ

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These kettle chips had an active crisp. The whole bag was lightly seasoned with a sweet, salty, paprika trifecta, plus a recognizably onion note. The absence of smokiness, though, meant these chips didn’t live up to the “smokehouse” name.

Chip quality: 6 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 6 (out of 10)
Total score: 12 (out of 20)


2. Zapp’s Mesquite Bar-B-Que

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Zapp’s offered one of the better kettle chips, with persistent crunch despite being slightly oily. The chips deliver on the bag’s mesquite flavor promise. These offered a pretty even balance of the other flavor notes; however, they could have been more seasoned overall. Nevertheless, these were one of the better options sampled.

Chip quality: 7 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 6 (out of 10)
Total score: 13 (out of 20)


1. Cape Cod Sweet Mesquite Barbecue

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For the most exemplary balance of sweet, salty, smoky, spice and tang, this was the winner. These were adequately seasoned, without compromising the potato-ness of the chip. A minor baby back rib aftertaste emerged after a few seconds. The crunch and color was ahead of the others tested. We have a gold standard.

Chip quality: 8 (out of 10)
Seasoning: 8 (out of 10)
Total score: 16 (out of 20)


Observant readers will notice that even within the sampling for this taste test, the spelling and descriptions vary wildly. And so did the flavors. But the exemplary barbecue chips delivered the best elements of actual barbecue: smokiness, perceptible but not overly aggressive spices, and a harmony of sweet, salty, and spicy. So maybe the name—no matter how you spell it—isn’t too far off the mark.

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