There are few things in life more delicious and satisfying than a plate of barbecue. And more often than not, the centerpiece of that plate is a rack of ribs. A glistening, smoky, slow-cooked rib, whether pork or beef, has the potential to be one of the most groan-inducingly good foods in existence, especially when enjoyed with a cold, easy-drinking beer. But who makes the best ribs in America? And what exactly makes a perfect rib?
We reached out to some of the country’s most renowned food writers and critics, and assembled a list not only of their favorites, but of ribs that are renowned far and wide for their smoky perfection. The only criterion that we provided these panelists was that their picks needed to be bone-in ribs best eaten with your hands and a pile of napkins. So while we’re certainly fans of Italian-style braised short ribs (famed critic Gael Greene told us that her favorite ribs are the ones at New York City’s Il Buco Alimentari), those didn’t meet our criteria for this list. Renowned food writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance John T. Edge, The Washington Post’s Tim Carman, GQ’s Alan Richman, the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold, and Esquire’s John Mariani all submitted some of their favorites. A couple of panelists also gave us their answer to the question, "What makes the perfect rib?"
So what does make for a perfect rib, according to some of the country’s leading experts? Tenderness, sauce-to-meat ratio, smokiness, and good charring.
Tim Carman told us, "For me, barbecue spareribs should not fall off the bone like those ubiquitous braised short ribs you find on every chef-driven menu. Your teeth should be engaged in the eating process with spareribs, forced to lock onto the smoky flesh and gently pull it from the bone. The spareribs should also not arrive at your table smothered in tangy/sweet/spicy sauce. I want to taste the meat and smoke and whatever layer of seasonings the pitmaster has applied to the ribs. Sauces can hide defects in seasoning and smoking."
And John Mariani said, "For me a great rib is never oversmoked, pink under the skin, with good charring on the outside. The sauce is down my list of virtues, preferring a dry rub to do most of the work. The meat may come off the bone easily but not 'fall off,' and there should be some definite chewiness to the meat."
We wholeheartedly agree, so with those parameters in mind, we set off to find the country’s 20 best ribs, building on 2011's list and ranking them according to local renown, critical appraisal, and adherence to the criteria set forth by our panel of experts. A word of warning before reading on: You’ll be hungry by the time you make your way to number one. And if your favorite place isn’t on the list, we also agree with what Alan Richman told us: "In fact, they’re all great."
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers. Additional Reporting by Ryan Glasspiegel.