We first stuck our noses in the air and followed the smoke to local houses of barbecue the week before the ceremonial kickoff of the grilling season, Memorial Day weekend. One thing we found was that there are more 'cue joints around these parts than you can shake a skewer at, and so a single survey could never encompass them all, short of permanently incapacitating the surveyors' taste buds.
So here it is, about a week after the traditional midpoint of the season, the Fourth of July, and we've cut another wide swath through the metro area to retrieve not-quite-burnt offerings from five altars. We didn't specifically start out with that intention, but this group includes a sampling of alternatives to the norm, which, around these parts, is generally a "St. Louis-style" rack of spare ribs slathered in sauce. Among these out-of-the-ordinary selections are a temple to Memphis-style smokin' and a side trip to Texas.
Again for this set, we took carryout from each place -- a whole slab of spare ribs where possible, but in this case a few substitutions were mandatory. (We'll sacrifice ourselves one final time sometime around Labor Day, but we still won't have covered half of the local barbecue scene.
(By the way, a note to whoever scheduled the Rib America event adjacent to the Soldiers Memorial this weekend: It's nice to expose us barbecue-starved Midwesterners to "award winners" from New Jersey, Minnesota and the like. And it's great to hold events that bring people downtown. But just maybe next year, you might consider holding an all-local 'cue festival?
As best as I can tell, there are at least 20-30 potential entrants. Just a thought.)
We Are the Champions: Just a bit too late for inclusion in our Memorial Day article, Terry Black, Ron Skinner, Skip Steele and the rest of the team from Supersmokers brought yet another world championship home to St. Louis by taking top honors in the whole-hog division of the 23rd annual Memphis in May Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Memphis in May is the culmination of a competitive circuit that includes about 50 sanctioned barbecue contests across the country, with all the winners from those contests and more than 150 more teams from around the world competing for titles in whole-hog, pork-shoulder and ribs categories. Supersmokers was edged out by Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q of Decatur, Ala. -- winners in the shoulder category -- for grand champions, but it's interesting to note that Supersmokers was the only competitor from north of the Mason-Dixon line to place in the Top 10 of whole hog, and they beat out their next closest competitors by more than five points in the preliminary and four points in the finals -- the barbecue equivalent of a runaway.
Soon thereafter, Supersmokers opened up their latest satellite location, in the Dierbergs in Heritage Plaza (Olive Boulevard and Ross Road, about a mile west of I-270, 314-542-0193). These outlets are a bit of a trick, because they don't actually cook on site and the hours are somewhat limited, but we were utterly enraptured by the succulence of the meat and almost candylike caramelization of the juices and spice dry-rub on the outside. Supersmokers only does baby backs, but at $15.95 for a full-slab dinner, they remain competitive with the places that do the larger and meatier but also fattier and more sinewy spare ribs. At any rate, even from the grocery-store outlet, this is a rack of ribs that you want to gnaw on until you've stripped off every last morsel. A carryout order took less than five minutes to fulfill, although there tend to be lines around peak meal times.
Full restaurants are located at 601 Stockell Dr. in Eureka, 636-938-9742; and 1711 W. Highway 50 in O'Fallon, Ill., 618-624-6742; the other Dierbergs locations are in Chesterfield (Clarkson and Baxter roads, 636-728-1234), Warson Woods (9901 Manchester Rd., 314-919-0600) and St. Peters (94 Crossing, Hwy. 94 and Mid Rivers Mall Dr., 636-936-3000). Supersmokers is also available between gates 7 and 8 in Busch Stadium.)
Deep in the Heart of Brisket: Beef tends to be the barbecue of choice down Texas way, and a Chesterfield Valley strip-mall place called Lisa's Texas BBQ (125A Long Rd., 636-537-0341) leads with its brisket (sliced or chopped) but also offers pulled pork and slivered chicken breast in sauceable sandwich style. (Pork steaks and baby backs are on the catering menu.)
These sandwiches are hearty, with a mild kick to the special "Lisa's" sauce, but what really stood out to us here was Lisa's special-recipe chili. A pint container of this stuff has at least four or five big slices of brisket mixed in, providing a pronounced beef flavor but also a very filling meal, for only about 3 bucks. Connoisseurs of chili with an "i" (as opposed to the beanless, usually more fiery New Mexico variety spelled with an "e") should definitely give this a try.
In addition to the sandwich plates (6 bucks, including two sides), the main items are available in bulk (the best way to feed a family) for $9 a pound. A carryout order was fulfilled almost instantaneously.
Love My Ribs Tender: Given the whole "Memphis in May" thing, the folks downriver about 300 miles to our south tend to think of their town as one of the meccas of barbecue, so much so that some intrepid entrepreneur actually packaged and franchised the look, feel and taste into Judd's Memphis Best, which survives today in two locations here, one at 2795 I-70 S. Service Rd. in St. Charles (636-947-8345) and the other at 8071 Manchester Rd. (314-644-7007), just off the corner of Hanley Road, in Brentwood. We took our samples from the Brentwood location.
Ribs here are served "dry" or "wet," depending on whether you're a sauce aficionado or not, and several days after digging into a slab of each, my mouth still waters at the slightly herby, slightly seasoned salt crust that seduced both nostrils and taste buds. The wet version was fine, too, but it didn't infiltrate as many senses as the dry style. And don't let that word "dry" put you off; the meat itself is anything but, cooking up in a way similar to when you do a roast encrusted in rock salt -- the juice stays in the meat, but the spices don't overwhelm the flavor at all.
The place is just a bit too nice for a true barbecue shack, all decorated inside with Elvis paraphernalia and other Memphis memorabilia. There are buckets of roasted peanuts on each table should you decide to eat in; our carryout order took almost 15 minutes, which makes me wonder about the efficacy of the drive-through window attached to one side of the restaurant.
Name That Toone: Love Shack: Well, the rib shack is a little old place where we can get together. And in the case of Barney's (16011 Manchester Rd. in Ballwin, 636-227-2300), it's been that way for more than 35 years.
Now under the watchful eye of the colorfully named Trent Toone, Barney's is a throwback to a time when there really was a barbecue "season" and it and places like the dear, departed VFW All-Nite Barbecue on South Broadway were open only from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. Barney's still cranks up in mid-May and closes in September, open only on weekends (including Fridays) and holidays.
We almost always run into folks we know at this barn-red shack (no tin roof, rusted, however) with the picnic tables and the smoke signals that emanate according to the prevailing winds of the evening. In this case it was a St. Louis University physics professor we've known for something like 25 years but who hasn't changed a wink in all that time, leading us to wonder whether he's been field-testing relativity theory all these years.
As for the ribs, they're smoky, smoky, smoky and dense but still tender. A whole slab of spare ribs is $15.45; another specialty -- requiring advance order -- is whole smoked turkey at $2.75 a pound. Turnaround on a busy Saturday evening was almost instantaneous.
All in the Family: When we dropped into Lee's Bar-B-Q Plus (2811 S. McKnight Rd. in Rock Hill, 314-961-9023) for some lunch carryout, a mom and an incredibly cute baby were sitting at the front counter. Next thing we knew, however, the mom had popped on her apron and slipped back into the kitchen to finish off our order, leaving us to coo and make faces while we waited.
But the free entertainment wasn't enough -- Mom very politely inquired whether we wanted our ribs whole, in sections of three or four or sliced rib-by-rib to make them easier to eat. No one at the other stops on our tour had made a similar inquiry.
And with sauce packed in little plastic containers along with our order, we were able to dip rather than slather, reducing the soiling of our shirts to a minimum -- although, in accordance with the second law of barbecue thermodynamics ("Sauce, of its own accord, flows toward clean regions"), the limit never approaches zero.
Our order took about 10 minutes to come out, but the little angel made the time pass a lot more quickly than that, and the special attention probably increased the prep time by four or five minutes.