There are three things I love: a hot, sunshiny day, that day off and a plate of tangy, tender barbecue ribs. Thanks to El Nino and three local rib joints, the only thing I couldn't get this week was a day off. The ribs almost made up for it.
I never did find my ideal ribs -- which I define as having a bold hickory smoke taste, a tart sauce fit to clear a throat or open a nostril. But after many hours spent over plates of juicy ribs, I have three tasty recommendations worth the drive and the price.
Let's start down south, as in Memphis, at Red Hot and Blue Memphis Pit Bar-b-que.
When it comes to rib joint ambience (if you like your ribs out of anything other than a shack), you can't beat this place. Just off U.S. 50 west of the Bay Bridge, blues music blasts from outdoor speakers.
Inside are hardwood floors and bright orange walls covered with autographed pictures of blues artists and old concert posters of Little Milton, Bobby Bush and James Cotton. Other walls are decorated with their mascots -- rockin' twin piglets with shades and gui-tars.
When I slid up to the bar to place my order, I went for a regular portion of the wet ribs -- a meal with baked beans, coleslaw and a buttery, crusty roll -- for $9.49.
The ribs were smoky, tender and flavorful, and the sauce just might have been everything I was looking for. Problem is there wasn't enough of it for me to tell. Those were the driest wet ribs I've ever seen. Luckily, a lack of sauce didn't translate into dried-out meat, and the bar guy did throw in a few packages of extra sauce.
The Canopy is a local favorite for pit-beef sandwiches, generous ocean fries and -- what else -- barbecue.
Visit any of its locations in the area, and you'll find the chef flipping meat in a blackened brick pit with flames shooting from below an iron grate. As ambience goes, the Canopy is commercial: bench seats and tables; self-serve drinks; and salt, pepper and vinegar on every table.
But when it comes to ribs, the folks at Canopy have something for everyone.
The baby back ribs are tender with just a taste of smoked flavor. The sauce is spicy and tangy, with a hint of zing and sweetness. And the price is reasonable -- $8.95 for a half rack and $13.95 for a whole one.
Unfortunately, it's not enough. I'd like a little more hickory flavor, please, and a sauce that makes me say, "Ouch!"
Last but not least is Beefalo Bob's, the only one of the finalists not a chain.
Sitting along Mountain Road near Jumpers Hole Road, Beefalo Bob's takes up two storefronts with the kitchen separating the sides for carryout and sit-down dining.
Of the bunch, Beefalo Bob's has the best prices for wonderfully smoky ribs -- $5.95 for a half rack and $11.95 for a whole.
The guys there pride themselves on using nothing but wood to cook their ribs, and the flavor comes out in the baby back and St. Louis ribs.
The baby backs were falling-off-the-bone tender, and doused, not brushed or dipped, in a way-too-sweet sauce, making the ribs taste more like hours d'oeuvres than a main course.
The St. Louis ribs were covered in the same sauce, a meatier version of the babies with the same smoky flavor, but the meat is also tougher. If you like sweet with your meat, be my guest.
Red Hot and Blue Memphis Pit Bar-b-que Canopy Barbecue Restaurants Beefalo Bob's
Where: RH&B; -- U.S. 50 and Exit 28, Annapolis 410-626-RIBS Canopy -- 8125 Ritchie Highway, Pasadena 410-647-7722 BB -- 107 Mountain Road, Pasadena 410-760-BEEF
Hours: RH&B; -- 11 a.m to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Canopy -- 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursda, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. BB -- 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers -- RH&B;, $2.29-$5.99; Canopy, not offered; BB, not offered; RH&B; salads and barbecue, $4.69-$14.99; Canopy sandwiches and barbecue, $3.95-$14.45; BB sandwiches and barbecue, $3.75-$11.95
Credit cards: RH&B; -- MasterCard, Visa and American Express Canopy -- MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover BB -- MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover
Handicapped accessible: RH&B;
Rating: RH&B; *** 1/2 ; Canopy ***; BB ** 3/4
Ratings: * culinary wasteland
**** culinary heaven
Pub Date: 10/09/97