So there’s this list out of “America’s 35 Best Ribs.” I have no idea what “The Daily Meal” is or how they put together this list or any other details about the thing. But I do know that as I went through the list I realized:
From at least one viewpoint: I have had ribs at 12 of their top 15 rib joints in America. There are times in your life when you have to reassess. The other day I happened to glance at my Marriott Rewards account rundown. I have spent almost 1,400 nights in Marriott Hotels. Put another way: I have spent roughly FOUR YEARS of my life in Marriotts. I once wrote how much I loved the movie “Up in the Air” and the big reason was that it beautifully captures both the allure and emptiness of travel, the romance of always going places and the void of never getting there, the joy of moving and the gloom of helping your daughter with her homework over the phone.
But the point here is not to get caught up in travel talk but instead to say that as I scrolled through this list of best rib joints, I had this crazy feeling: “Yeah, I’ve been there ... hey, I’ve been there too ... and there ... oh come on, I’ve been there .. and I’ve been there, this is getting ridicul ... no, wait I’ve been there also.”
If you had asked me if I had eaten ribs in 12 different restaurants, I would absolutely have told you no. There’s no way. TWELVE? I have not eaten ribs in 12 different restaurants. Not a chance. Instead, it turns out, that not only have I eaten ribs in more than a dozen different restaurants, I’ve happened to eat in TWELVE OF THE FIFTEEN BEST rib places in America. Like I say, it’s a moment to reassess. I’ve lived one seriously lucky life.
Of course, all my rib experiences revolve around great sporting events.
Like I say: One seriously lucky life.
No. 15: HIll Country (Washington): I had ribs here when I was in town for something ... don’t even remember what it was. I think it was the U.S. Open at Congressional, but I’m not sure about that. I’m sure the ribs were great, but I don’t remember them at all. The only reason I remember going is that a Washington native promised me that these were going to be the best ribs I’d ever had and I told him: “Um, I live in Kansas City.”
No. 14: 17th Street Bar and Grill. Never been.
No. 13: The Shed. We drove from New Orleans to Gulfport either at a Super Bowl or a Final Four, again, can’t remember many of the details. I remember mostly being in the car on the ride over with other sportswriters ... there is nothing quite like a group of sportswriters on a mission to find good ribs.
No. 12: Montgomery Inn. Every year, at least once and often twice, my wife and I order Montgomery Inn ribs. It comes packed in dried ice, and it’s probably the best shipped food experience I’ve ever had ... the ribs really do take just about as good as they do in either Montgomery or at the Boathouse near downtown Cincinnati. Fall off the bone. I suspect I’ve eaten Montgomery Inn ribs 25 times in my life, and probably more.
It is really dawning on me that I’ve eaten A LOT of ribs in my life.
No. 11: Rendezvous. Been three times. I could not even tell you why I’ve been in Memphis three times. I’m trying to remember if I’ve actually been there four times ... my pal Tommy Tomlinson and I were in Memphis together once and I can’t remember if we did Rendezvous. And if we did not, I can’t remember why not. I do remember that they are fantastic ribs.
I am imagining a dear friend of mine who is a vegetarian reading this. I’m sorry. I really am.
No. 10: The Salt Lick. I’ve definitely had Salt Lick ribs but I’m not sure of the circumstances because I have not been to the restaurant itself ... I think they were catered for a sporting event. But I remember having ribs and thinking they were pretty good and being told they were Salt Lick.
No. 9: Franklin Barbecue. This is in Austin. I went on a Saturday night after a Texas football game. Did not get within a mile of the place. Went back a different time ... I want to say I went there the time I went down to Austin to do a big story on Dick Vitale. I went alone. It was worth it.
No. 8: Fiorella’s Jack Stack. Well, one of the reason I have been to so many of the Top 15 is that four of the restaurants are in Kansas City. I have been to EVERY barbecue place in Kansas City. I once did a story about going to every barbecue place in Kansas City.
I used to go to Jack Stack once or twice a week, every week, with people from work. I didn’t normally order the ribs -- they had a flattened chicken that was a little bit like food heaven. I did try the ribs. They were fine, but not the reason to go to Jack Stack in my view.
No. 7: Dreamland. One of my favorite ever barbecue experiences in part because it’s one of my first barbecue experiences. I’m guessing I was 24 or 25 and I was working for the Augusta Chronicle. We were in Tuscaloosa for what had to be an Alabama-Georgia game. A whole bunch of us found this little shack in the middle of nowhere ... you would go in and the menu was this: RIBS. BEER. That was it. RIBS. BEER. They put the ribs on top of white bread; your only choice was how many ribs to get. I’m a Kansas City guy through and through, but if I had to eat ribs outside of Kansas City I’m pretty sure I’d go to Dreamland.
No. 6: Big Bob Gibson, Decatur. Never been there
No. 5: City Market. It’s in Luling, Texas. which I recall being less than an hour drive from Austin. A baseball scout told me I had to go there. I don’t remember much about it but I also don’t remember feeling disappointed.
No. 4: Gates Bar B-Q. I remember once arguing with the great Negro Leagues player and spokesman Buck O’Neil about the best barbecue joint in Kansas City. He was a Gates guy, which is a fine thing to be. But I was an Arthur Bryant’s guy. He made his strong points about Gates’ perfect sauce and the atmosphere -- when you walk in someone will yell at you “Hi may I help you?” I scored a few points, I thought, about the joy of Bryant’s ribs.
Then he said: “Oh what do you know? You’re a white boy.”
No. 3: Sam’s BBQ1 Marietta. Never been there. And I’ve been to Marietta. Not sure how I missed it.
No. 2: Arthur Bryant’s. I’m not sure how this is not No. 1. This is, famously, Calvin Trillin’s “Best restaurant in the world.”
No. 1: Oklahoma Joe’s. Well, let me tell you: I like Oklahoma Joe’s. I like it a lot. I eat there more or less every time I come back to Kansas City. It is a fantastic barbecue place. But better than Arthur Bryant’s? No. It is not. Even though the original is inside a gas station, even though I have waited an hour or more to get barbecue there (beginning in the line by the gas pumps), even though it’s better than almost every other place on earth ... it’s not better than Arthur Bryant’s.
Let me tell you about one more ribs place ... one that somehow is not on the list. One year I was in Denver and my cab driver was Hindu. This was not be worth mentioning except for this: He was an expert on barbecued ribs. He asked me where I was from, I told him Kansas City, and you would have thought that I was the fifth Beatle. He got SO excited and began telling me how he was the only Hindu on earth who was also an expert on barbecued ribs. He mentioned this irony (or, as he called it, “blasphemy”) at least a dozen times.
“My family will not even speak to me,” he said. “But I love ribs.”
And, right off the top of his head, this guy started listing off all the Kansas City barbecue places -- not just the four I mentioned above but somewhat more obscure places like Snead’s and Zarda’s and Danny Edward’s and so on. I mean he was SERIOUSLY an expert.
He was going on and on ... to this day I kick myself for not getting his name and phone number. He would have made one hell of story. But I didn’t. I just took in the wonder of the moment (and this was a ride from the airport to downtown, so I was in the cab with the guy for like an hour). Finally he told me I had to go to a place called “Guy and Mae’s Tavern” in Williamsburg, Kansas. I had never heard of it. I had never heard of Williamsburg either. He made me PROMISE him I would go there.
“Best ribs in the world,” he told me.
“Well, you know, Arthur Bryant’s ...”
“BEST RIBS IN THE WORLD!” he told me again, not willing to accept any argument. He had tried every place. He was not guessing. Guy and Mae’s. Best in the world.
I’m pretty sure I would still think of that whole cab ride as nothing but a dream -- a Hindu cab driver who was a barbecue expert? That’s not real. -- except I wrote down “Guy and Mae’s” and that night called my wife Margo and told her about it. She had heard of the place. When I got back home, we planned a trip to Williamsburg on the recommendation of the cab driver -- he had told me it was no more than 30 minutes outside of Kansas City. But that turned out to be very wrong. It’s actually closer to an hour and a half from Kansas City, depending on your starting point. So we put it off.
A couple of years later, though, we were come back to Kansas City along I-35 and all of a sudden Margo barks out, “Oh, hey, I think Guy and Mae’s is right around here.” So we went to Williamsburg, which is a tiny town. We went to Guy and Mae’s which was a tiny place. We walked in and said, “Um, we want to get some ribs.” To be honest, it didn’t look like a place that would even sell ribs. It kind of looked like a bar.
They wrapped the ribs in tinfoil. No sauce on them. Said they would be good for the drive home. When we got home, we ate those ribs and I have to say ... I’m an Arthur Bryant’s guy. I’m a Dreamland guy. I’m a Montgomery Inn guy. But it really is possible that the best ribs I’ve ever had were those tinfoil-wrapped ribs from little place called Guy and Mae’s. I don’t know -- I’ve only had them once. But it’s possible.
For years now, I’ve wanted to track down that cab driver in Denver. I can’t imagine it would be THAT hard to find him. It seems like if you ask around for a Hindu cabbie who loves ribs, you know, you would eventually find the guy. Maybe someday I will see him again. If I ever do, I’ll tell him: Yeah, those were some good ribs.