"People might love the ribs here the exact same way I love my most well-worn muumuu."
It has all the signs of deliciousness. Calvin's Royal Rib House, a 30-year barbecue and soul food joint in Bed-Stuy—I would love to avoid the word "joint," but anything else would be inaccurate—is only open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for takeout. Even the old-school sign looks delicious somehow, but it's mostly about the line.
On those three business days, longtime regulars wait, hugging hello, asking about each other's kids, and reminiscing about similar neighborhood joints, now long-gone. When they finally get inside, customers give their orders to a guy standing inside the huge kitchen, which is separated from the waiting area by a metal gate.
The Rib House closes when they run out of food—that can be as early as 8 p.m. At least by then your choices are guaranteed to have been narrowed for you.
I live nearby, and make a point of passing Royal Rib House often to relieve the tedium of my dog walking routine. The sight of all those loyal eaters is, for me, pretty seductive. It's an almost universally-trusted axiom, after all. Neighborhood regulars equals authentic (and therefore superior) cooking. Conversely, a gang of tour bus slobs equals overcooked pasta. But ever since reading Jim Leff's "Chowhounding Rules of Thumb," a post he wrote in 2001, I've made a practice of checking myself before I assume the best.
Leff, who founded Chowhound in 1997 and has always enjoyed his own contrarianism, wrote: "Just because people are from there doesn't mean they know anything about the cuisine—or where to find the best places (any more than the average American knows anything about great apple pie or hamburgers or clam chowder!)." It's obvious, but a food writer can get caught up in the moment, as can any outsider aching to discover something good to eat.
So I approached stoically, striving to be un-charmed, fighting all impulses toward giddiness. People might love the ribs here the exact same way I love my most well-worn muumuu. If it's not your muumuu, it's not pretty, and it's definitely not comforting. And if you didn't used to eat those ribs with your now-dead grandma every Saturday, sitting on her front stoop, sipping iced tea, well, who knows? They could be tough! Or bland!
They are not. But it took a while to find that out.
On my first visit, the person in front of me got the last order, and the banana pudding had just been 86'ed as well. I ended up with barbecued chicken, fried chicken, a "chopped BBQ sandwich" with coleslaw on it, plus sides: more slaw, collard greens, candied yams, mac and cheese (simply "baked macaroni" on the menu), and cornbread.
My heart broke a tiny bit—despite my hardened facade—when I found both chickens to be mediocre. The barbecued bird was dry beneath Calvin's famous tangy-sweet barbecue sauce, which is sold in many an outer borough Foodtown. The sides were solid but not outstanding. But the sandwich, a porky sloppy Joe of sorts, was oddly intoxicating. The bottom of the bun had been absolutely annihilated by the slow-cooked meat during the ten-minute walk to my apartment, and was reduced to an un-pickupable sponge that I didn't mind one bit. The pork was intensely flavored, tangy with vinegar and plenty salty.
There was promise here.
Every regular I questioned had refused to recommend one dish over any other, saying they were all incredible—yes, it seemed there was a dose of nostalgia involved. But you can't judge a rib house without the ribs, so back I went. On my second visit, the line was very long and the air was cold and damp. Eventually, my grumpy, fat mutt staged a protest, shivering and whimpering and casting me as downright abusive. Just as I was nearing the door, I gave in and took him home. Best friend, my ass.
You have to get to the Rib House, which is open all day, by early evening—any regular will tell you. Aim for 5:30 p.m. and do get the rib dinner, with collards (long-cooked, slightly spicy, perfectly vinegared) and the macaroni (instantly as comforting as your very own muumuu). The ribs are tender and extremely tasty, with their own smoke-induced red hue under the sauce, which, despite its intensity, does not overwhelm the pork as it does the chicken. That said, you'll die if you don't have a beer on hand. Or maybe a Gatorade.
By my fifth visit, when I finally procured some banana pudding, one of the guys behind the counter greeted me by name, and with a certain warmth that may or may not have the power to moisten the chicken a little bit.
Calvin's Royal Rib House
303 Halsey Street, Brooklyn NY 11216 (map)