Saw’s BBQ: The Best Pork Ribs in America?
Declaring an affluent suburb of Birmingham, Alabama to be the home of the best barbeque joint in America — at least when it comes to pork ribs, anyway — would be seen as heresy of the highest order in many parts of the American south. But when one gastronomic authority dared to lay such a claim, I had to find out for my self.
I am the type of guy that, when travelling to a new city basically anywhere, is to check, thoroughly investigates the list(s) of “must dine places” that city and surrounding areas has to offer.
Coincidentally, a few days before our Christmas Week trip down to Birmingham, Alabama — where my wife and I would be taking our daughter to spend the week with my in-laws — I stumbled upon an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on the Cooking Channel, with the theme of things cooked “low and slow.”
And when Dan Kohler, a self-proclaimed culinary anthropologist and food nerd (and Emmy-winning Producer on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel), declared that not only was the pork ribs at Saw’s BBQ in Homewood, Alabama his favorite “low and slow” dish he could think of, but they were also the best pork ribs in the entire country, he had my attention… especially considering Homewood was a suburb of Birmingham, and Saw’s BBQ being located exactly 5.9 miles from the home of my in-laws.
Suddenly, my upcoming trip to Alabama — in which I would be taking our almost-5-month-old daughter on her first plane ride, spending my first Saturday night of Christmas break at a mandir (Hindu temple) instead of a bar, eating home-cooked Indian food (believe me: it gets really old really quickly) instead of southern or soul food, and missing WAY more football than should be acceptable — became that much more palatable.
If you’re from anywhere outside of SEC country, then it’s safe to say that Alabama barbeque falls squarely outside the proverbial Mount Rushmore of regional & subcultural barbeque hubs within the United States. You’d be hard-pressed to disagree with the fact that Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and Carolina barbeque are, almost indisputably, the ‘Four Horsemen’ of American barbeque types.
While it’s not always recognized on the “national” barbecue scene, Alabama BBQ is taken very seriously down in SEC country. Even if it’s an afterthought with the rest of the country, they’re still very passionate about it in the Heart of Dixie.
As an aside: when it comes to Alabama BBQ, the secret sauce — pun intended — is their beloved “white sauce.” And fully recognizing i’m going to start a few fights after stating the following, I don’t really care: said white sauce, to me, is just glorified ranch dressing. In fairness, it’s probably because traditional Alabama white sauce has a foundation of mayonnaise, vinegar, and horseradish, and I absolutely despise mayonnaise in pretty much anything. So, there you go.
Thankfully, Saw’s is so much more than a place serving smoked meats slathered in the aforementioned mayonnaise concoction.
They take great pride in their tender-cut spare ribs, slathered in mustard to both flavor the meat and allow for their top secret house seasoning rub to better adhere to the meat during the cooking process, and smoked with green hickory wood piled up in a brick-lined pit.
Of course, you can still get their smoked chicken with said colorless sauce (a combination that garners very high praise on Yelp), but when juxtaposed with the chance to sample what some folks — or maybe just one folk — considers to be the best ribs in America, i’m giving the former pass a pass like I’m John Stockton.
After skipping breakfast in the morning in proper anticipation of this meal (and not eating lunch until 2pm), we arrive in the no-frills restaurant that could easily double as your grandmother’s soul-food kitchen (or at least the soul food kitchen I wish my grandmother owned and operated) — right down to the lady at the cash register wearing flip-flops and socks, making playfully snarky comments at all the rookie mistakes I made when trying to order.
It’s the type of place where there are eight metallic tables with matching metallic chairs, tightly packed together such that if you’re seated along one of the tables against the wall during a busy time at the venue, you might have to ask the folks at the table next to you to get up to allow you enough space to make it to the exit.
You pick up a small cardboard menu, order at the main cashier, and wait for your food to arrive, but not before helping yourself to the one of the soda fountain drinks or canisters of unsweetened and sweetened tea — if not the canned beer in the glass door cooler just in front of the kitchen.
After i’m finished being lovingly heckled when placing my order, my wife and I sit down at an open table next to a couple sharing one of Saw’s “stuffed taters.” Normally, “sharing a baked potato” at a restaurant would be sufficient cause for earning you the stink eye from a restaurant’s staff and/or patrons.
But not at Saw’s.
I’m not saying these potatoes are enormous; i’m just saying that referring to one of their stuffed taters as “just a baked potato” is like saying a brontosaurus was “just a lizard.” Rather, imagine a baked potato created by Dr. Frankenstein that’s the size of a youth football, absolutely overflowing with whatever combinations of toppings and accoutrements you desired; those are the “Taters” you get here. Put another way, they’re absolutely large enough for two moderately-hungry adults to share as an entree.
But as much as I was captivated by the site of these novelty potatoes, I was just as smitten with the sight of the half rack of ribs that arrived in just the right amount of time after sitting down.
As you can see, and what arrived were five of the meatiest ribs i’d ever seen, combined with four essential slices of white bread for sopping (flanked by the side of the potato salad that I ordered).
And after tasting one dab of the sauce in which my ribs were bathed, I couldn’t have been happier with said dousing. The tomatoey-tangy-peppery BBQ sauce was tremendous — a perfectly sweet and acidic compliment to the rich fattyness of the meat they covered.
Recognizing I might be in the minority here, I believe the sauce should be an accent to the unctuousness of the ribs. But, for those who like their sauce with a side of ribs, fear not: they have a massive bottle at the requisite condiment caddie on each table.
As far as the ribs themselves? When you bite, you’re not even pulling the meat of the bone, but moreso gently sliding it off the flavor-delivering bone and into your mouth; it’s one of the cleanest bites and pulls of ribs you’ll ever enjoy in your life.
The meat is so damn tender that you’d exert less effort pulling the meat off the bone with your hands than you would trying to rip a Kleenex tissue. But when you do rip inside a chunk of the meat to view its preparedness, you’ll find the holy trinity of BBQ: perfectly tender meat on the inside, the perfect char on the outside, and the purplish-pink smoke ring in between the two.
It’s one of those ribs-eating experiences where, because of the juicyness of the ribs and the stickyness of the sauce, you need a minimum of 6 to 8 paper towels, followed by two washings of your hands, throughout the course of the meal — exactly how eating ribs should be.
The last thing I wanted to do was fill up even an inch of space that could be filled by these ribs with the otherwise-tasteless white bread on my plate. But, the sauce was so damn good that I found myself using the bread to sop up the sauce and drippings from the ribs any chance I could.
After spending the next 20 minutes ripping through these ribs like a hungry T-Rex, I basically cleaned the plate, short of a lone rogue pickle and unused piece of white bread, along with about 60% of my potato salad (being honest: I was underwhelmed by the potato salad; I like mine to have a greater variety of texture and more depth of flavors, neither of which I found in this dish version).
And after that, I entered that phase of dining where you wonder if it’s okay to unbutton your pants in public, as you’ve got you’ve got your back arched backwards while rubbing your stomach, looking like you’re about 7 months pregnant with a food baby.
In other words: exactly the way you should be positioned after eating a whole mess of ribs.
So, to answer the question from the start: does Saw’s BBQ have the best pork ribs in America?
Let me put it this way: I think it’s really difficult to call these ribs the “best in the United States,” but for not fault of their own; rather, there are so many incredible competitors to choose from, that selecting one undisputed heavyweight champion would be highly difficult.
That being said, you’d have to search far and wide to find ribs that you’d say are markedly better than the ones you’ll have at Saw’s BBQ.