What makes a rack of ribs excellent? Should the meat be falling off the bone? Be doused in a sauce? How tender is too tender? Is there a nice, well-seasoned “bark” surrounding the meat? The answers to these questions will vary depending on who you ask. Though Americans are known to love pizza, burgers, and the like, few cuisines light America’s fire like barbecue. We take it extremely seriously, because as any ‘cue connoisseur will tell you, it’s not just about the meat, but also about regional identity, pride, and the journey to barbecue perfection.
Succulent, smoky, rich in flavor, moist, and visually appealing are just a few of the adjectives most would agree need to be present for a slab of ribs to be unbelievable — the kind of ribs that demand accolades and respect, ribs that amass a fervent loyalty amongst its patrons.
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 2015 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 11 different states, with Texas once again being the best represented, commandeering 11 of the 35. Newcomers to the list include 2 from South Carolina; 1 from Mississippi; 1 from Tennessee; and 2 from Texas. Maryland, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. fell off the list.
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; Richmond, Virginia’s Alamo BBQ; and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas. A few of this year’s newcomers include Swig and Swine in Holly Hill; Killen’s BBQ in Pearland, Texas; and Charles Vergo's Rendezvous in Memphis, Tennessee.
So, did your favorite ribs make the list? (If not, let us know and we'll consider them next year.) Read on to find out which ribs are worthy of the hype and praise, and which didn’t make the cut.
Additional Reporting by Kate Kolenda.