Savory pork ribs are getting harder and harder to find at barbecue joints

Texas Monthly Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn has tracked down a few spots that are holding onto salt-and-pepper rubs instead of trendier sweet sauces.

By Casey Cheek & Jackie IbarraFebruary 16, 2023 12:55 pm, ,

Among barbecue lovers, there appears to be two camps: the pork camp and the beef camp.

Of course, that’s not entirely true – a lot of pork lovers do enjoy their beef brisket and vice versa – but savory pork ribs appear to be an endangered species in Texas, reports Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly. Vaughn joined the Texas Standard to talk trends in ribs and where savory still reigns over sweet.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I seem to recall when we had a conversation along these lines low many years ago, you mentioned that you’re more on the beef side of the spectrum. 

Daniel Vaughn: Well, absolutely. But in Texas, when you’re going into a barbecue joint, you’re going to find brisket and pork ribs and sausage at, I don’t know, 99% of them. So I love them all, but I’m certainly going to be looking for the brisket first.

Tell me a little bit about what’s happening with pork ribs now.

Well, you know, I’ve been at this job for 10 years now. And when I started out the sort of de facto rib that you would find all over Texas was a salt-and-pepper spare rib. And lately that’s really flipped completely to being where just about every place I go now, especially the new joints, they’ve got some sweet on those ribs, adding some sugar, adding some glaze, whatever you want to call it. But yeah, they’re getting saucy.

So the old salt and pepper pork, as we have once upon a time known it, is it going the way of the flip phone or something? Have tastes changed that much, or is there something about the preparation that makes it cheaper to cook or what accounts for this change? 

I think some of it is maybe influenced by competition barbecue, where sweet ribs are the only ribs that are going to win. But I also think it’s just more sort of Texas barbecue copycatting. I mean, you got Franklin Barbecue that’s been incredibly popular since it first opened, what, 13 years ago now. They add some sauce onto their ribs and then wrap them in foil and finish them up. And that has become the preferred method for so many others since. So, yeah, I decided to hit the road and find the newer places that are holding on to the savory pork rib and still putting that out there and not going the way of the sweet glaze.

Well, name some names: Who are some of those that are hanging on?

CorkScrew BBQ in Spring is certainly one of my favorites. It’s in our top 50, as is Distant Relatives in Austin – they don’t do anything but salt and pepper on those ribs. Pustka Family Barbeque, which is in Temple now – they moved from Hutto – he’s got nothing but smoke and salt and black pepper on those. I’d say one of my favorites, though, has got to be Guess Family Barbecue – their motto on their shirt is “Old-school Texas barbecue. The same kind Jesus ate.”

We’re entering a realm here where Texas and barbecue is a kind of religion, I think it’s probably safe to say – and there’s a whole lot of stories. 

So Tom Micklethwait and I laughed a bit because, you know, the whole idea for this article started with eating his ribs from his food truck there in Austin. And he had to admit, you know, “there is some sugar in mine.” There’s both sugar in the rub, and there’s a little bit of corn syrup in the spritz that he puts on them. But so much of it is really covered up by the pork flavor and by the salt and some of the other spices in there that you don’t really come away with thinking you’ve eaten a sweet rib.

But yeah, he also says that these places that tell you they’re just using salt, pepper, you know, he told me there are a lot of lies in barbecue. And one of those lies is often that some places are only using salt and pepper.

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