This is certainly true in New York, where over the past decade, high-pedigree barbecue restaurants have grown into a cadre of low-and-slow cooking. And while each of Manhattan's major smokehouses has a different take on the barbecue renaissance, every one serves a rack of pork ribs. It's an ideal entry point into any smokehouse's menu, versatile enough for a range of recipes but fundamental enough to be a standard bearer for the barbecue tradition.
Has New York become a rib town? We set out to answer this by trying seven pork ribs in Manhattan. Who runs the best rack-et in this city? And how do these ribs stack up to other ribs on the barbecue trail outside of New York City?
The tasters: In addition to SE overlord Ed and the rest of the crew at SEHQ, the panel of tasters included Edible Queens blogger and 'cue enthusiast Joe DiStefano (known in certain circles as "Joey Deckle"), barbecue ambassador Amy Mills, and Grillin' on the Bay founder Robert Fernandez. I stood in for Dumpling, who uncharacteristically didn't feel like having ribs.
This tasting focused on smoked pork ribs available for dine-in or take-out in Manhattan. Choices were based on our informal poll on SENY and the Barbecue Bureau's top choices. We purchased half-racks of spare ribs to-go from each restaurant, with the exception of Rack and Soul, which only serves baby back ribs:
- Blue Smoke: Kansas City Spareribs
- Daisy May's BBQ: Kansas City Sweet and Sticky Pork Ribs
- Daisy May's BBQ: Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs
- Dinosaur Barbeque Harlem: St. Louis Bar-B-Que Spare Ribs
- Hill Country New York: Pork spare ribs
- Rack and Soul: BBQ Baby Back Ribs
- RUB: St. Louis-Style Long End
While many of the tasters had experience in sanctioned barbecue contests, this was a blind tasting on a random day without any warning to the restaurant. All ribs were purchased anonymously and judged blindly. Texture and flavor were given equal consideration, and each rib was awarded an overall score as opposed to a weighted average.
Tender meat enveloped by a pleasing "bark" (the outer layer of rib meat and seasonings) is the goal here. A well-smoked pork rib should pull away easily from the bone, but "falling off the bone" texture in a pork rib typically indicates overcooking.
No absolute benchmarks were set for flavor, but we generally agreed that a discernibly smoky taste was essential, and that balance in the flavor profile was preferable to one dominant character. When barbecue sauce was an option, it was served on the side; every rib was tasted on its own before being judged with its matching sauce.
"Nothing made me say 'wow.'" This was the most telling comment in our results. While great barbecue can be found in Manhattan, most of the ribs in this tasting were underwhelming, and for a variety of reasons.
Rib texture was generally a crowdpleaser, which is a testament to the New York pitmasters' studied dedication to barbecue technique. We were more disappointed by flavors. Some rib flavors completely lacked the sensation of smoke, others covered up bland meat with an overcompensating sauce, and yet others missed the balance between seasoning, sauce, smoke, and pork that captures the subtle complexity of great barbecue. At the same time, very little of what we tasted was flat-out bad.
#1. Rack and Soul's BBQ Baby Back Ribs (7.8/10)
Baby back ribs are usually leaner and more tender than spare ribs, but it was a distinct balance of flavors that put Rack and Soul ahead of the pack. Brushed with a barbecue glaze, these ribs had a sweet bark with a hint of spice, a meaty body, and a light, woody finish. Just make sure to ask for your sauce on the side when you order—several judges found the tomato-based concoction to be shockingly sweet.
#2. Daisy May's Kansas City Sweet and Sticky Pork Ribs (7.3/10)
Holding down a full, smoky flavor, Daisy May's wet ribs tasted robust without being overzealous. Layered over this meaty smokiness was an excellent balance of spicy and sweet flavors, complementing but never pushing over the main attraction. The coating of barbecue sauce applied in the final stages of cooking made for a sloppy rib, but the soft bark and sticky fingers didn't do much to get in the way of satisfaction.
#3. Daisy May's Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs (6.8/10)
Daisy May's dry ribs were more polarizing, but won enough praise to come in just behind their saucier counterparts. Tasters who didn't like this rib pointed to the dry rub, which, while applied relatively conservatively, was "heavy and gritty, with no real medley of spices" outside of paprika. The meat in these ribs was especially well cooked, earning compliments for its "well rendered fat," which had broken down just enough to melt with each bite.
#4. Hill Country New York's Pork Spare Ribs (6.3/10)
"Smoky," "salty," and "fatty" were the dominant descriptions of Hill Country's spares, which were the wild card of this tasting. Seasoned only with salt, pepper and cayenne and prepared without any additional trimming, this rib defied the typical pork rib with a strong, minimalist flavor and a texture that varied from fatty and tender to the equivalent of pork jerky. Tasters gave mixed responses to its "super porky" taste, almost pungent smokiness, and greasy residue, but the character of this rib earned it a fourth-place finish.
#5. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's St. Louis Bar-B-Que Spare Ribs (6.1/10)
Dinosaur's middle-of-the-pack ranking was the tasting's most unexpected outcome, since almost all of us know and love Dinosaur's spare ribs. This rack seemed especially delicate, its meat almost falling off the bone when picked up. While this rib had a distinct, peppery bark, other flavors and textures seemed subdued in comparison. Perhaps something was lost in transit? Again, we were pretty surprised about the results here.
#6. Blue Smoke's Kansas City Spareribs (5.5/10)
Blue Smoke's ribs exhibited great texture but leaned too much on the sauce for flavor. Several tasters described this rib as bland on its own, lacking the taste of smoke or any other pronounced flavor. An extra dose of quality control could have turned out an incredible spare rib, but if you make it to Blue Smoke, you may want to order their salt and pepper beef rib over this one. And if you're a sauce fiend, then slather away—the tomato-based sauce for these ribs was the most complex and satisfying of the lot.
#7. RUB's St. Louis-Style Long End (4.5/10)
RUB's ribs were the only ones deemed "bad" by multiple tasters. On the count of texture, this rib was undercooked. Some layers of fat hadn't broken down enough in parts of the rack, leaving rubbery meat under a crusty, chewy bark. As for flavor, this rib was oversmoked. Smoke flavor was certainly present, but it had overtaken the taste of pork, imparting an acrid taste that was more obtrusive than pleasant. RUB may serve a consistently wonderful plate of burnt ends, but if it's pork ribs you want, you should probably catch a train uptown.
Not Yet a Rib Town?
Even so, seven genuinely pit-smoked ribs within a seven-mile stretch is nothing to scoff at, and that stretch doesn't even reach the outer boroughs (do we need to do a follow-up tasting?) For the 363 days of the year that Manhattan isn't a full-blown 'cue capital, a spare from the top of this list will do fine in place of a strike on the barbecue trail.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.