Few items in the food world are as controversial as BBQ ribs. Locals from the nation’s top cities for BBQ will debate at length about whether beef or pork provides a better base meat, or if dry rubs or sauce make for the superior dressing. And don't even get people started on the best ingredients for that sauce, which can range from vinegar and mustard to molasses and tomato. One thing all the cities on our list of best rib spots share is a commitment to doing it the way they know best, whether it's in a traditional style rooted in generations of preparation (Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, Charleston), or a melting-pot mix of various styles from around the world (Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago). In any case, the ribs promise to satisfy. Just make sure you don't wear white.
Though conventionally thought of as a pizza and hot dog destination, the Windy City actually boasts a coveted smoke scene serving a wide diversity of rib styles. South Side restaurants, for instance, are known for their extra-meaty rib tips, while the North Side’s hot-on-the-scene establishments embrace cooking styles from Memphis, Kansas City and beyond. Among the North Side haunts, Smoque and Chicago Q are top choices that add upscale sheen to down-home traditional cooking.
Like Chicago, the nation’s capital doesn’t have its own singular rib style – but it has mastered curating the best cooking methods from around the world. Old Glory, for instance, serves ribs cooked in the traditions of St. Louis and Memphis, while Smoke & Barrel offers ribs served "muddy" style – a mix of dry-rubbed and saucy. Hill Country Barbecue Market, meanwhile, pays homage to Texas hill country with its ribs and down-home ambience. Even the restaurant’s chili, cooked without beans, is straight from the Lone Star State.
Photo via Bludsos BBQ FB page.
While relatively new on the scene, Los Angeles BBQ restaurants have quickly left their mark among rib connoisseurs. Many point to Bludso’s, which has outposts in Compton and downtown, as the restaurant that helped shepherd in the City of Angels’ BBQ renaissance. Chef Kevin Bludso is from a family who cooked Texas-style BBQ for generations, and the tangy sauce slathered on meat comes from a recipe passed down by his grandma. As the name suggests, Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ also favors a Texas approach, which it has been sharing with Los Angeles since 1969. For something completely different, Kogi BBQ serves up tacos stuffed with Korean-style short rib meat at its sit-down restaurant and various food trucks.
Located in Texas Hill Country, Llano has a population of just over 3,000 and only one major BBQ restaurant. Yet that restaurant – Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que – is so good, it alone warrants the city a spot on the list. Unlike most Texas-style BBQ spots, pork ribs are cooked over direct heat and come spiced with a heavy amount of pepper. Yet even diehard Texans can’t deny that the rule breaking has led to tasty results. Another fun touch: Patrons can select their chosen rack of ribs straight from the grill.
Dallas, not surprisingly, is the epicenter for Texas-style ribs: slow-smoked, seasoned with a kick, and of a very sizeable portion. But while the style is traditional cowboy, top BBQ restaurants aren’t afraid to get creative. Off the Bone, for instance, serves up sweet pecan-smoked ribs that are as unusual as they are delicious. And each joint boasts its own spin on sides, from fried okra at Pecan Lodge to a healthy selection of steaming veggies at Peggy Sue BBQ. No matter where you go, be prepared for a laid-back experience where jeans are practically a requirement.
St. Louis restaurants tend to favor grilled ribs with a "more is more" approach to sauce that is often thin, tangy and tomato-based – leading to messy but tasty results. Many will tell you that Pappy’s Smokehouse, where ribs are smoked over cherry and applewood, is the place to go, but it’s far from the only spot in town. Also recommended are two family owned favorites: Roper’s Ribs (family owned since 1976) and The Piccadilly at Manhattan (family owned for three generations, since 1901).
Photo via the Bessinger's FB page.
Charleston has mastered the art of the golden mustard-based sauce. Bessinger’s Barbeque, one of the most acclaimed spots in town, infuses its mustard sauce with vinegar and undertones of char to add tangy kick to ribs and other meats. Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ’s house twist on mustard sauce helped it earn a nod from Esquire for the "most life-changing rib." And Sticky Fingers’ mustard sauce, which it fittingly calls the "Carolina Classic," is known for its welcome hot spice. Of course, there are other sauces in town (ketchup and even mayo make appearances as well), but why mess with an already good thing?
Slow-cooked meat slathered with a sweet and tangy sauce rooted in the flavors of molasses and tomato have made Kansas City a star of the BBQ rib scene. Locals will argue heatedly over which restaurant does it best, but three tend to make most top-five lists: Gates, Oklahoma Joe’s and Arthur Bryant’s. Gates is known for its decadent mixed plate, which pairs saucy ribs with ham, brisket, fries, white bread and pickles. In addition to serving fall-off-the-bone meat, Oklahoma Joe’s is beloved for its classic roadside atmosphere and setting within a former gas station. And Arthur Bryant’s is acclaimed for its slightly unconventional twist on sauce, peppered with paprika and vinegar. You can’t go wrong at any.
Ask anyone from Memphis, and they’ll tell you that their ribs are the undisputed best – and indeed, this Tennessee city tends to top critic’s best-of lists, too. The secret to success is a fine-honed dry rub that typically includes paprika, onion and garlic, as well as whatever house specialties local chefs want to throw in. While it’s hard to go wrong from among the city’s 80-odd barbecue joints, the ribs are particularly delectable at Central BBQ, where sizeable plates come with sides including pork rinds and home-cooked potato chips; and Corky’s BBQ, which cooks ribs over hickory and charcoal for maximum-flavor results.
Texas-style sauce – a sweet and tangy mix of tomato and vinegar – is the name of the game in Austin, where BBQ options run deep. Where to begin? The pork and baby back ribs at Rudy’s are so popular, the chain has three restaurants in town. Franklin’s was such a hit with the locals, it quickly had to move from a humble trailer to brick-and-mortar digs. Even with a bigger location, they still gather lines around the block by the time they open. Visitors who want to do Austin up right and pair live music with your ribs, Stubb’s has a full calendar of musical artists to entertain guests as they feast on tender pork spare ribs.