Pig is good — real good — from snout to tail. But ask us to zero in on our favorite part, and we go straight to the center: ribs.
So go ahead and debate the merits of baby backs or St. Louis spares. Argue whether to cook them low and slow, or high and quick. Hide your secret rubs and special baste recipes. Serve them wet in the sauce or dry on the side. Call it grilling, smoking or "cueing." Just don't forget to call us when they're ready.
We have been on a roll (and we don't mean the one peeking over our belts) in Go! lately, letting readers know about some of this town's best food.
But before summer comes to a close, we would be remiss not to look at some of the finest bones this burgh has to offer.
So yours truly (the Life Sherpa) and St. Louis newbie (Go! editor and beer columnist) Evan Benn searched past reviews, talked to friends and asked for your opinions online to come up with six of the finest barbecue establishments around town.
We looked at ribs — just ribs. Never mind the great slaw, tasty baked beans, savory fries and deep-fried corn. This was a bone hunt, and our six picks were judged solely on their ribs.
For good measure, we offer beer suggestions to wash it all down (but kids at heart know the best thing to cut through barbecue is some good ol' lemonade or sweet tea).
Call this one the Hog Half-Dozen.
17th Street Bar & Grill
Hours 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday—Saturday, 11 a.m.—3 p.m. Sunday • Where 1711 West Highway 50, O'Fallon, Ill. • More info 618-622-1717 • How much $15.99 for a half-slab
Owner Mike "The Legend" Mills is a national barbecue superstar. The Murphysboro, Ill., native and his cooking team have won hundreds of awards, including three Grand World Championship titles. Recently, Bon Appetit magazine named 17th Street the "Best Ribs in the U.S."
Sherpa says: I know this franchise has earned its awards and is legendary in the barbecue world, but I find the ribs to be remarkably average — and this was my second visit. True, they are well smoked and tender, and Mills' "Magic Dust" rub is tasty. But the ribs are not especially meaty, and the mustard-based sauce simply doesn't do it for me. Accolades aside, they are acceptable but not special. And at $15.99 for a half slab, they are quite pricey.
Newbie says: Scene from a barbecue restaurant: Waitress brings ribs. I take one. Sherpa takes one. "Pretty good," I say. "Not bad," Sherpa agrees. More bites. "I don't see what all the fuss is about," I say. "Me either," Sherpa concurs. For the first time during our "research," we leave food on the plates. On the plus side, the sterile 17th Street boasts a decent beer menu. Have a draft of Goose Island Honker's Ale, an easy-drinking beer with citrus notes from Chicago's most consistent craft brewery.
C&K Barbecue #3
Hours 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday • Where 4390 Jennings Station Road, Pine Lawn • More info 314-385-8100 • How much $8 for a half-slab
One of the oldest continuing barbecue businesses (since 1965) in the area, C&K used to have multiple locations but now is down to this one joint, a former gasoline station. Offering carry-out only, customers can have spare ribs as well as down-home treats including snouts, ears, rib tips and tripe.
Sherpa says: This is pure St. Louis style all the way. The spare ribs are swimming in sauce, which is quite good: a nice blend of tomato, pepper and spice that is not too gloppy, soaks up well into a piece of bread and has a slow-rising spice at the end. The meat is what was disappointing. It has no spicy rub that I could discern, no pink smoke ring and simply didn't have much flavor.
Newbie says: My preference is starting to sway heavily toward the dry side, away from this sloppy-wet St. Louis mess. These ribs were all sauce, which maybe wasn't a bad thing because the actual meat wasn't good: plain, white, unsmoky pork. Best to eat it quick, partly because you're doing so on a parking lot but also because the sauce soon looks like Tabasco cut with grease. Save yourself with a great bottle of Bell's Oberon, a wheat ale brewed in Michigan.
Our runner-up: Lil' Mickey's Memphis Barbeque
Hours 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday • Where 6716 Mexico Road, St. Peters • More info 636-278-4227 • How much $8.99 for a half-slab
Charles and Robbie Butler opened their restaurant in 2005 after Charles' homemade sauce had been in high demand from family and friends. While the joint is new, the pedigree is time-tested. Robbie is a niece of Jim Neely, founder of the renown Interstate in Memphis, Tenn., and patriarch of the cooking Neely clan of Food Network fame.
Sherpa says: An interesting blend of Memphis and St. Louis styles: spare ribs, instead of baby backs, served with sauce but not swimming in it, cooked low and slow with a semispicy rub. The sauce is exemplary, not too sweet and with just enough pepper to keep it feisty. The meat was close to perfect: a crisp exterior with some pull needed, but surprisingly tender on the inside.
Newbie says: The menu calls the place "Home of the Sauce" and says ribs are served with it unless otherwise requested; we did not request otherwise. The smoky-sweet sauce complements these impossibly tender, six-hour smoked spare ribs rubbed with a blend of paprika, salt and cayenne. A perfect match for all that smoke and spice: O'Fallon's Smoked Porter, brewed a mere eight miles from Lil' Mickey's front door.
Our favorite: Pappy's Smokehouse
Hours 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday • Where 3106 Olive Street, St. Louis • More info 314-535-4340 • How much $11.95 for a half-slab
Owner Mike Emerson, formerly a competitive barbecuer for Super Smokers, is so particular about the freshness of his meats that he cooks up only so much during a day — and when it's gone, it's gone. So if you plan to eat late in the day, call ahead. One note: The brisket is as good as any you will ever eat.
Sherpa says: I'm not sure what "perfect" barbecue looks like, but I'm sure Pappy's ribs are as close as it gets. Of course, they have that smoky pink ring of succulent pork on the inside, but it is the crisp, rich bark on the outside that is even more special. The ribs are always meaty and cooked to (here's that word again) perfection. I like sauce on my ribs, but I could eat a dry slab of Pappy's for breakfast. Bonuses: friendly service and the perfect barbecue-joint ambience — clean and neat, but relaxed and informal.
Newbie says: Everything about this place says "barbecue": the delicious whiff of smoke that hits you when you walk inside, the wood tables adorned with a roll of paper towels, the heaps of meat plopped onto wax paper. The flavor backs up the aesthetic. Pappy's pepper-and-herb rub hits all the right notes, and the ribs should be barbecue's poster child. I could eat this stuff all day, tomorrow and the next day. 'Cue this good needs a thirst-quencher on the side. Make it a Bud Light.
Hours 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday • Where 10727 Big Bend Road, Kirkwood • More info 314-966-1015 • How much $11.30 for spare ribs, $13.35 for baby-back ribs
Richard Hollins opened his barbecue restaurant in a strip mall in Kirkwood more than 15 years ago and, for the past eight years, has dispensed hickory-smoked bones from his building near Big Bend and South Kirkwood roads. Most business is carry-out, but a small eating area accommodates diners.
Sherpa says: The generous amount of meat on my St. Louis ribs was pleasantly surprising, and it was cooked to a smoky tenderness and offered a nice amount of pull. They are served with Richard's sauce already on them, but they are not drenched in it — and that is always a good thing. My only problem is with the sauce itself, a bit too thick and way too sweet for my taste.
Newbie says: My diminutive baby backs were even meatier than Sherpa's spares. Even the sugary-ketchup sauce didn't detract from the succulence of the rib meat, which withstood just the slightest tooth tug before coming off the bone. My third favorite out of this group. Beerwise, a big dose of hops from Schlafly's American Pale Ale would be just what the doctor ordered.
Hours 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday • Where 1545 North Broadway, St. Louis • More info 314-621-8180 • How much $8.25 for a half-slab
Located in this industrial warehouse section of old north St. Louis, the Walkers have been garnering accolades for their fare since 1999. Along with the standards, they serve snoots, rib tips and, as a bonus, the unusual-sounding but ever-so-tasty barbecued spaghetti.
Sherpa says: Classic St. Louis-style ribs: meaty bones with a smoky grilled flavor from an old-fashioned cooking pit and slathered in a rich, thick sauce. While close to fall-off-the-bone tender, there was a bit of tooth pull required — which I prefer. The sauce is a bit on the sweet side for my taste, but it all brought back good backyard memories.
Newbie says: You know from the smell of burning wood in the parking lot that this is going to be a fine experience. My "short-end" ribs cost a buck more than Sherpa's "long-end" kind, which I like to think made my platter that much tastier. No beer is served at this joint but, if I were doing take-out, I'd pair these ribs with a nice brown ale such as Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, which has enough malty sweetness to lure out the honey and brown sugar in the barbecue sauce.