By , Kate Kolenda
Published March 20, 2018
There are few cuisines more quintessentially American than barbecue, and ribs are arguably the ultimate barbecue dish. Whether the ribs are pork or beef, prepared Memphis- or Texas-style, few carnivores can turn down a tender and juicy barbecued rib, which is why The Daily Meal has been ranking America’s best ribs since 2013.
But what are the fundamental characteristics of a great rack of ribs?
To get some perspective on criteria, we spoke to the experts over at the Kansas City Barbeque Society. The Baron of BBQ, chef and author Paul Kirk, explained that when he judges barbecue competitions, he looks for a rib that “looks like [it’s] something I would like to taste or eat — you eat with your eyes. It should be a reddish-brown color; it should be moist and tender, with some texture — not falling off the bone. I want to taste the flavor of the pork with a little smoke.”
Ardie Davis, fellow KCBS member; author; barbecue competition judge; and founder of the American Royal International BBQ Sauce, Rub & Baste contest, told us that “regardless of breed, expense, and cooking method, perfect ribs look delicious, are easy to chew — and to you, they’re delicious. The meat easily tugs off the bone… but is not overcooked to a mushy consistency.” He described the ideal taste as possessing a “kiss of smoke,” while being simultaneously “not bitter; lightly seasoned with complementary seasonings if any… No hint of Freon, lighter fluid, fish, or other flavors that don’t belong in ribs. Perfect ribs resonate deep down in your primal DNA.”
In order to compile this year’s list of contenders, we supplemented our editors’ and city editors’ personal rib-eating experiences across the country and three years’ worth of research by digging through online reviews and combing best-of lists that were published since our 2014 rib ranking to make sure we haven’t missed any great new places. Next, we asked readers to give us their recommendations on where to get killer ribs. We then divided more than 100 spots by region — from Delray Beach, Florida; to Scottsdale, Arizona; to Long Beach, California. After that, we asked over 40 rib experts — like Culinary Ambassador for the State of Virginia, chef, and journalist Patrick Evans-Hylton and legendary Charleston chef Louis Osteen — to weigh in and vote. We proudly present the 35 that came out on top.
This year’s winners are located in 13 different states, with Texas being the best represented, commandeering 10 of the 35 spots — four more than last year. This enabled the Southwest to take the regional lead with 11 ribs, usurping the Southeast, which controlled a whopping 17 spots in 2014 but came in second with nine this time around. Georgia, Ohio, and Indiana all dropped off the list, while Maryland is a newcomer this year. Tennessee is up two spots with five, but Missouri is down two to four ribs; and Alabama, Illinois, and North Carolina each slipped by one. Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., all held steady with one slot each, and California retained its two.
Less than a 40 minute drive from Austin is the small town of Taylor, Texas, and in Taylor sits Louie Mueller Barbecue, the home of America’s best ribs. They’ve got big meaty beef ribs, which they rub with salt and cracked pepper before slow-cooking them over post oak wood; pork spare ribs, which get salt-and-pepper rubbed just like the beef ribs; and their newest entrée, baby back ribs, which are dusted with a “magic” spice mix and basted with a sweet glaze. Let’s not kid ourselves here — just order all three, because you know you want to. You can blame it on us; we won’t mind.
Formerly Oklahoma Joe's, and last year’s winner, Joe’s Kansas City boasts ribs that are a deeply burnished shade of red thanks to a rub heavy with paprika, cumin, brown sugar, and chili powder. These ribs are postcard-picture-perfect, and you’ll most likely find yourself snapping a photo of them before you even take that first bite. But once you do, you’ll learn what the fuss has been about. Moist, juicy, smoky, tender — all those adjectives you thought you knew the definition of will conjure only one image in your mind from here on out: Joe's pork ribs.
What started as a trailer in 2009 quickly became one of the most revered spots in all of ’cuedom, and loyalists and pilgrims all line up outside the front door for hours on end every day. No visit is complete without sampling some of the impossibly tender ribs, which are peppery and have a well-caramelized bark. You have your choice of three sauces for slathering (espresso-based, vinegar-based, or a sweeter variety), but as is usually the case with barbecue this good, none is necessary.
Kansas City can be very proud to be home to Arthur Bryant’s, arguably the most famous barbecue restaurant in America. You would be doing yourself a great disservice if you were to pay a visit to this place, which was founded in the 1920s, without trying the ribs. The secret to the barbecue here lies in the wood: the hickory and fruit wood used is of the quality more often used for making furniture than for burning. The pork ribs are pink and perfectly smoked, and when slathered with Bryant’s famous orange-red barbecue sauce.
Chris Lilly is one of America’s most renowned pitmasters, and with good reason. He took over the pit at the circa-1925 barbecue joint a couple of decades ago, introducing new sauces and rubs to the equation, and suddenly Big Bob Gibson’s was on the map. He’s best known for his Alabama-style white sauce, a tangy concoction that best complements his smoked chicken, but his ribs are not to be missed. After being liberally seasoned with his award-winning dry rub, they’re pit-smoked low and slow over hickory smoke, then glazed toward the end with his famous red sauce and honey. The end result is sweet, smoky, spicy, tender, juicy, and just about everything you’d look for in a rib.
Definitive Hill Country barbecue meat on butcher paper in a big barn of a place perfumed with wood smoke is what you’ll find at Kreuz Market, the third member in the Lockhart rib trifecta. Their brisket and sausages are legendary, but they make some really mean pork spare and beef ribs, too. In true Central Texas-style, they use post oak wood, but what sets them apart is actually the absence of something: barbecue sauce. They don’t have any in the kitchen and you won’t find any on the tables, just a little bottle of hot sauce here and there.
City Market is one of Texas’ great barbecue joints and a true claim to fame for the city of Luling. You’d be hard-pressed to find better brisket, and the ribs are simply out of this world. It’s a comfortable, air-conditioned restaurant (a nice change of pace from some of the state’s more rustic establishments), and while the sauce is some of the best you’ll ever have, it’s completely beside the point on these beautifully smoked ribs.
It might be Memphis-style barbecue in St. Louis, but Pappy’s makes some of the best ribs in a city that’s renowned for them. The lines form early to get into this hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and it closes as soon as the barbecue runs out. These ribs are smoked over apple or cherry wood, and have a kick of black pepper and rosemary. The whole scene can be a bit of a madhouse, but just close your eyes and take a bite and you’ll be in your happy place in no time.
Charles Vergo's Rendezvous is consistently ranked among the best barbecue joints in the country, and you do not want to miss out on their ribs. What makes these ribs so good is the rub, or as they call it, "the seasoning" (word is that it’s not called a rub because it’s not rubbed in). The baby back ribs are cooked hot and fast, which might seem against-the-grain, but the proof is in the pudding: The technique works.
Cooper’s gained the most traction of any place on last year’s list, rocketing from the barely-made-it No. 34 spot to make it into this year’s top 10. Their supremely peppery pork rib breaks a trademark rule of barbecue — it’s finished over direct heat — but it’s just about impossible not to fall in love with Cooper’s ribs. That finishing touch gives it a great char, and you’re also allowed to choose your own rack right off the grill.
Check out the rest of the country's top 35 spots for delicious ribs
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