'CUE BLOWOUT: Our tasters crowned Slabtown's ribs king (left); WW intern Adrienne So with her official rib-tasting bowl (right).
IMAGE: Heather Zinger; Kelly Clarke
Portland's never been known as a barbecue hotbed, but three newish joints have been toutin' their savory ribs, with good reason. So WW decided to put 'em to the test. We ordered pork ribs, collard greens, baked beans and potato salad from each restaurant and offered up the eats to a panel of starving staffers and interns, who judged each on everything from taste and aroma to messiness factor. And then they all passed out somewhere.
One look at LeRoy Pace's huge, scary smoker, hunkered down in a nondescript parking lot off Southeast Division Street, and you know this man means business: A pair of skinny, pale vegan lookalikes were being lured in by the stench of smoking hog even as we left. Limited seating in the narrow alley between the black-and-silver trailer's face and a brick wall means most barbecue-lovers during the lunch rush get their goods to go.
Aroma: Meaty with a vinegar tang.
Appearance: LeRoy's ribs looked the sauciest and juiciest, by far. "You're killing me by not letting me eat yet," one writer whined.
Special sauce: With its peppery buzz, this not-too-sweet vinegar-based sauce had great spice. The heat lingers in your mouth long after your last bite.
Taste: Although the meat was a little tough, it was also intensely smoky. "That's a Marlboro Man's rib," one staffer explained. "It makes you feel like you'd get cancer if you ate a whole one."
Messiness factor: High. "It's probably the messiest," admitted one eater. "Because my mouth is burning and the meat's difficult to get off the bone, that ups the splatter factor."
Sides: LeRoy's tender, vinegar-puckery collard greens are in the same spicy family as the ribs. You could devote a whole meal—or a banjo song—to them. But the bland beans were a letdown and that tangy potato salad was a bit mushy.
To-go extras: Way to go on using recycled packaging! Four napkins, two forks (non-recyclable).
You might miss this skinny joint a short walk from Montgomery Park but for the big, black smoker hitched to a pickup in front of the door. In the dining room, decorated with lots of varnished wood and owner Tim King's trophies from barbecue competitions, you'll find a handful of four-tops populated with Wells Fargo employees and TriMet drivers on their lunch breaks.
Aroma: Tomato and smoke.
Appearance: Call it the picnic aesthetic: An orderly line of humongous ribs, drowned in sauce, resting on a homey checkered napkin.
Special sauce: We got our ribs with Kansas City Classic sauce, which "kind of tastes like bottle sauce…in a good way," said one tester. "A little bit on the sweet side, but with a welcome pepper punch in the middle." Slabtown also offers Texas hot, North Carolina vinegar and Carolina-style mustard sauce.
Taste: You don't have to tear into these ribs; they're nice and moist, and we love their nearly candied appearance and taste. "It's almost like a dessert rib," mused one happy eater.
Messiness factor: Pretty damn high: "Look! I'm wearing barbecue lipstick!"
Sides: Pass on the heinous, metallic-tasting greens ("I'd rather suck on a can," swore one taster), but nab the potato salad—a chunky mix of giant red spuds in a vinegar mustard-seed sauce.
To-go extras: Five napkins, two forks.
The downtown outpost of Uncle Wally's BBQ is actually still sort of Nathan's Cafe, which was bought by the Wilsonville-based barbecue company last winter. The merger has not been thorough. A large cartoon Porky Pig knockoff (incongruously wearing a Santa Claus hat) is painted on the front window, and the breakfast shift is manned by students with mild disabilities in a cool partnership with the Pioneer School Program (the kids learn job skills and keep their wages). Weirdly, the entryway to the restaurant smells of barbecue, but the dining room does not. Inside, it's your standard office-park cafeteria, with the obligatory photographs of western national parks.
Aroma: Tomato, with a sweet edge from the gratis cornbread.
Appearance: "They look a little grody, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to ribs," one eater said.
Special sauce: Variety is always a bonus, and Wally's offers five kinds of housemade sauce, served on the side (honey-bourbon, made with Jack Daniels whiskey, is co-owner Bruce Hunter's fave). On the down side, they all taste like liquid smoke and sugar.
Taste: Uneven. Although all the meat falls off the bone, some is dry and some is moist. "It's got a nice flavor; very porky," one taster pointed out. "But little to no smoke flavor."
Messiness factor: Minimal. Since sauce is served on the side, you could theoretically eat this 'cue on your lap.
Sides: "Man, these taste like Boy Scouts!" a taster yelled happily after a spoonful of Wally's bright yellow potato salad. The cafe's candy-sweet baked beans had a nice smoky, spicy aftertaste, and the Jack Daniels sweet potatoes (which we chose in lieu of collard greens, which were not on the menu) tasted "like Thanksgiving."
To-go extras: As many free containers of barbecue sauce as you want ("within reason"), plus a package containing a plastic knife, fork, salt, pepper and one paltry napkin.
An order of Slabtown ribs (rubbed provocatively against a LeRoy's rib for sauce contact). And on the side? LeRoy's greens, Wally's baked beans and Slabtown's tasty potato salad.