Photo: Melissa Hom / Graphic: Ravi Bangaroo
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.”
While we know that barbecue styles vary region by region (we hear you grumbling about Kansas City, Texans), we feel confident that these criteria are universally applicable when determining great ribs.
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. It should be a reddish-brown color; it should be moist and tender, with some texture.
Some of the ribs that made the cut this time around were also on last year’s ranking, like Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Missouri; the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas; Richmond, Virginia’s Alamo BBQ; and Bludso’s out in Compton. A few of this year’s newcomers include The Pit in Raleigh, North Carolina; Rocklands Barbeque in Washington, D.C.; Everett & Jones of Oakland, California; and Brooklyn’s BrisketTown.
So, did your favorite ribs make the list? (If not, let us know and we'll consider them next year.) What about that rack you’ve heard everyone raving about? You’ll just have to read on to find out.
#35 Rocklands Barbeque, Washington, D.C.
Rocklands is a D.C. favorite — so much so that they’ve been voted the best barbecue joint by the Washington City Paper seven years running. One look at the ribs and it’s easy to see why, as they achieve a gorgeous pink hue by being smoked over red oak and hickory wood. They offer beef ribs, too, but go for the pork, as they’re the crowd favorite.
#34 The Pit, Raleigh, N.C.
Don’t let the simple name fool you — this is one special place. Legendary pitmaster Ed Mitchell founded The Pit in 2007, and although he’s no longer a part of the venture, it’s still imbued with his famous touch. They source pigs in-state, all raised using free-range farming practices, and the proof is in the pudding — or ribs, if you will. They have whole and half racks of baby back ribs, but you should really order the Carolina-style ribs because, as their menu cheers, “more bone, more fat, more flavor!”
Additional Reporting by Senior Eat/Dine Editor Dan Myers.