You can't eat ribs without dirty fingers and a munged-up face. They're just about the only food that even a princess still has to gnaw off the bone like a Bengal tiger. It takes hours to cook them, and half the space they take up in the smoker goes to bone.
Ribs are inefficient, sloppy and primal. They are American summer.
And on a quest that has put me at the mercy of weird and gassy Atkins metabolism and probably left my liver spotted with strange deposits, I endeavored to eat almost every true-blue, slow-and-low smoked rack in town—22 in all—to discover the best and, oh dear Lord, the worst pork ribs in Portland.
My guiding criteria: The meat should be slow-cooked to rich tenderness and imbued with wood smoke, the bark flavorful, the bones soft, the sauce an accessory to the meat and not vice versa. Spareribs are ordered if available, with baby backs second-string. I awarded points for flavor of meat, sauce, smoke and rub; texture; moistness; and outright meatiness. All ribs were eaten as delivered, with or without sauce. All bones were chomped with my back teeth. Everything was assessed with the regional agnosticism of a native Northwesterner who's lived in both Texas and Missouri.
Smokehouse 21 [See also Smokehouse Tavern.]
413 NW 21st Ave., 971-373-8990, smokehouse21.com.
Score: 95 points
Pitmaster: B.J. Smith of South Bend, Ind.
The burn: Two and a half hours in a smoker, glazed and finished in an oven.
Smokehouse 21 looks a little chichi, with each table burnt with the butchering diagram of a different animal—from pig to chicken to cow. The Iowa Gold ribs' Memphis-style peppery rub is sealed with mustard and spiced with brown sugar, smoked paprika, black pepper, salt and ground ginger, with a finisher of Jacobsen sea salt; they come out glistening, sticky and a bit red. Their form might be polarizing for Texas or Kansas City purists, or believers in whatever "authenticity" means to them, but they are the best ribs I've had in Portland. The fat is marbled beautifully into the richly smoky, red-ribboned meat, which comes off the bone willingly but not overenthusiastically. They are moist and meaty, with just enough spice to open up the taste buds and bring out the meat flavor without being overpowering. And I could actually bite off a piece of the bone and chew it. Hot damn!
Price: $19 for a half-rack and two sides.
4233 N Mississippi Ave., 828-5604, meetbbq.com.
Pitmaster: John Wysong of Wankers Corner—but he studied Kansas City style.
The burn: Smoked eight hours with salt and pepper.
Oh, Jesus, how do the ribs at this Mississippi Avenue food cart get so pretty? One could draw the Platonic ideal of a dry pork sparerib from the purest thoughts of an angel, and it would come out looking like these ribs from Meet: thick and smoky bark, a cable of pink smoke, moist and marbled center. The ribs taste of meat and smoke and nothing but, enough so that one feels free and happy to eschew the tangy, sweet, gently spicy Memphis-recipe sauce.
Price: $11.50 for a quarter-rack and two sides.
1625 NE Killingsworth St., 281-3700, podnahspit.com.
Pitmasters: Rodney Muirhead of Texas and Ryan Cay of Baltimore.
The burn: Smoked four to six hours with a dry chili rub.
Ribs have always been a chink in the armor of what is nonetheless Portland's all-around best barbecue spot. Which is to say, those chili-rubbed ribs are merely terrific, as compared to the brisket's untellable ecstasies. But the rich-smoked, tender ribs nonetheless are sometimes a little dry, and this time that was enough to let the two aforementioned rib joints sneak in front of what remain beautiful ribs, best left unsauced.
Price: $19.50 for a half-rack and two sides.
Daddy D's BBQ
7204 E 4th Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-892-4418, daddydsbbq.com.
Pitmaster: Donnie Vercher of Lake Charles, La.
The burn: Cherry-wood-smoked for five to six hours with an apple rub.
Daddy D's is king of wet ribs in this neck of the woods, and pit boss Donnie Vercher will tell you so. At this homey little counter inside a Shell station near the Vancouver Mall, the Louisiana native might also tell you about his occasional stock of gator, or boudin sausage he got shipped in from Broussard by Mr. Billy Belleaud himself. But those juicy, meaty, smoky ribs—baptized in thin, tangy sauce—are enough reason to make the drive north across the river all by themselves.
Price: $14.99 for a half-rack.
PRETTY DANG GOOD
Leroy's Familiar Vittles
4847 SE Division St., 442-7421.
Pitmaster: Anton Pace of Portland, former Delta Cafe owner, whose family hails from Arkansas.
The burn: This remains a mystery.
"Ribs are good," said Pace when I ordered, and indeed they were: thick, intensely meaty bones with a lovely bark and smoky ring, drizzled with a sweet sauce that slowly sneaks up to three-alarm level over the course of a meal—a burning that's doubled down on by cross sections of hot-pickled, mustardy spring squash and okra. This from a food cart that also serves pan-seared trout for $10. It's cash-only, and you might have to track down Pace in the bar.
Price: $10 for a quarter-rack and pickles.
Slabtown Ribs & BBQ
2606 NW Vaughn St., 227-2903, slabtownribsandbbq.com
Pitmaster: Tim King of Delaware.
The burn: Smoked four to five hours on cherry and oak with a spicy brown-sugar rub.
Slabtown's walls are full of barbecue-contest ribbons, its meat ribboned with the pink of smoke. In technical terms, these ribs were cooked as well as any on this list. And while the spicy sauce lived up to its name, the ribs fared best with the ketchupy K.C. sauce. However, the rich smoke and flavor of the meat did not require either one. But for a few meat portions better trimmed than left on the bone, Slabtown could have ranked even higher.
Price: $14 for a half-rack and two sides.
Pine Shed Ribs
17730 Pilkington Road, Lake Oswego, 635-7427, pineshedribs.com.
Pitmaster: Matthew Ramey.
The burn: About six hours on local apple and oak, dry-rubbed with 13 herbs and spices.
Price: $18 for a half-rack.
Russell Street Bar-B-Que
325 NE Russell St., 528-8224, russellstreetbbq.com.
Pitmaster: Jim Barber of Eugene.
The burn: Smoked four hours, braised, then glazed, flipped three times and "shellacked" with tomato-based sauce.
Russell's is a Portland standby, and many from the mid-South especially call it their favorite. The baby backs are super-soft, fall-off-the-bone comfort fare, sweetly sticky and generous of sauce. They're summertime, front-porch ribs. But there's something nonetheless a little pot-roasty about them. While the meat should come off the bone, they shouldn't leap off at first touch, leaving you holding the stick. But it always feels like somebody's grandma made them—which is a good feeling. Spareribs, barbecued dry, will soon be on the full-time menu rather than a weekend special.
Price: $15 for a half-rack with two sides.
5015 NE Fremont St., 287-7022, bottlesnw.com.
Pitmaster: Shawn Meyer of Detroit, who picked up barbecue from a South Carolina Appalachian family.
The burn: Wood-smoked for two hours with a two-spice rub.
Bottles beer bar serves ribs only on Fridays and Saturdays, until they run out—and indeed, I had to make multiple trips before managing to show up early enough. The just-so spicy Carolina mustard sauce is tempered by both vinegar and tomato for a beautiful balance, making for some extraordinarily distinctive sauced ribs. But the meaty ribs were sadly a little dried out.
Price: $14 for a half-rack and one side.
Seven Rivers BBQ [Now a burger joint called Q Burger.]
3107 N Lombard St, 289-9999, sevenriversbbq.com.
Pitmaster: Seven Rivers of Portland (yes that's his name), who learned from his parents, from Birmingham, Ala., and Kansas City.
The burn: Four hours on the smoker.
Seven Rivers BBQ, a bare-bones Lombard Street bar with checkered tablecloths, a multi-arcade console and lunch buffet, serves its ribs starting at 5 pm. The meat is of middling quality—there's a bit more variation in texture than one would like—but the shop's "Portland" sauce strikes a beautiful sweet-tangy-spicy balance and the smoke is rich without being overpowering.
Price: $15 for a half-rack and one side.
Crown-Q Market and BBQ
445 NE Killingsworth St., 281-0373, crownqmarket.com.
Pitmaster: Q—"just Q"—from Portland, who credits his barbecue knowledge to his Dallas grandmother.
The burn: Rubbed, smoked, then grill-finished; 3½ hours total.
Crown-Q, once a cart in the Berry Good parking lot in Eastmoreland, is now a year into life as a tiny butcher shop, cafe, barbecue shack and market on Killingsworth. Crown-Q deals in soft, down-home, saucy comfort with organic meat from a farm in Aloha, served up wet with sticky sauce over soggy bark, first smoked and then grilled. The sauce is deeply sweet, made that way by an ingredient pitmaster Q says is top secret.
Price: $18 for a half-rack and two sides.
NOT SO BAD
Da Fat Boyz BBQ
8145 SE 82nd Ave (Cartlandia pod), 975-0721, dafatboyzbbq.com.
Pitmaster: John Bagorio of Boston via Hawaii.
The burn: Smoked for six hours.
Da Fat Boyz BBQ cart is adorned with some giant trophies, including one from Rogue Ales' Bones and Brew Festival for a first-place finish. And truly, there's little to complain about regarding the bark, smoke and tenderness. But the slab we got had shiners—bones with meat that receded like a quick-dropping tide, revealing bare skeleton underneath—and enough salt to drive a horse to water and make it drink.
Price: $14 for a half-rack and two sides.
Smokin' Rome's BBQ [Closed]
8145 SE 82nd Ave. (Cartlandia pod), 206-898-8440, smokinromesbbq.com.
Pitmaster: Jerome "Romie" Stevens of California, with third-generation Texas-style barbecue.
The burn: Will remain a mystery.
Food-cart owner Jerome Stevens' manner is suited to slow and low cooking—easy and patient. And the ribs are meaty, the bones big enough to look almost like beef, under a lightly tangy sauce. But he might have been a little too patient: The bark tipped over the line from elegant char to a little burnt, and the smokiness overpowers the meat. Big propers, however, for offering grape soda.
Price: $11.75 for a quarter-rack and one side.
Cannon's Rib Express
5410 NE 33rd Ave., 288-3836, cannonsribexpress.com.
Pitmaster: Wayne Cannon of Portland.
The burn: Six hours on mesquite charcoal, dry-rubbed.
Cannon's history goes way back, but these days the "Portland-style barbecue" shack in the New Seasons parking lot also ranks as one of the most expensive. They serve low-wattage comfort fare—tender meat that's mild of smoke and a little shy on meat flavor, doused in a nicely balanced sweet-hot sauce.
Price: $19 for a half-rack.
17883 SE McLoughlin Blvd., 652-1076, and other locations, bustersbarbecue.com.
Pitmaster: "We have a lot of pitmasters here."
The burn: Three to four hours on oak, with a house dry rub.
It's a chain, sure, but it's a local one, and it is the flavor of my childhood. But kids don't know much. The $7.75 half-meal came with two spareribs, plucked from a bin, that could not have come from the same pig. One was thin and dry, the other moist and filled with strange fat deposits. But both had a membrane peeling off their backsides, and both showed the wear of long tenure on the hot plate. Both also had an admirable smoke ring, and Buster's Texas-style spicy tomato-based sauce remains liquid crack—if, perhaps, better enjoyed from the safety of my refrigerator door.
Price: $12.95 for three-fourths of a pound of spareribs and two sides.
NO CHANCE, BUD
Southland Whiskey Kitchen
1422 NW 23rd Ave., 224-2668, southlandportland.com.
Pitmaster: Mcrae Freeman of Alaska.
The burn: Smoked six hours.
They don't serve spareribs at Southland, only baby backs in perfect, prim arches like half the McDonald's sign, dry-rubbed with pepper, herb, salt and something appallingly sour that nags at the senses. The restaurant admits on its menu to "smoking, then grilling," and it shows. The meat is dry and a bit flavorless.
Price: $18 for a half-rack and two sides.
Clay's Smokehouse Grill
2932 SE Division St., 235-4755, clayssmokehouse.ypguides.net.
Pitmaster: Mike Slyman of Maryland.
The burn: Ten to 12 hours on hickory and mesquite, with a house rib rub.
Clay's holds a special place in the hearts of old-school Portland—rockabilly sorts, Division Street originals—but on our visit, the ribs came with bones like railroad spikes, dull-gray meat and hard-seared grill marks. The ribs came in a vinegar-tomato sauce that veered toward sweet.
Price: $14.50 for four to five spareribs, toast, slaw and potatoes.
1335 N Hayden Island Drive, 517-2041, boomersbbque.com.
Pitmaster: Ryan Snyder of Austin, Texas.
The burn: Five to six hours on apple, pecan and mesquite, with wet and dry rub.
The baby backs at Hayden Island's Boomers were about the radius of a coffee cup and hard-welded to their neighbors, with precious little meat. The accompanying sauce bypassed tangy in favor of tart. But there is a bonus for those who eat the ribs in-house: Anyone playing the profitable video-poker machines gets a free drink.
Price: $12.95 for a half-rack.
7712 SE 13th Ave., 327-8755, reverendsbbq.com.
Score: 45 [UPDATE: Found to improved drastically after a check-in at the end of the year.]
Pitmaster: "Her name's Lacottia, I have no idea where she's from."
The burn: Six to seven hours at 270 degrees.
Price: $15.95 for a half-rack.
Reo's Ribs [Closed]
11140 SE Powell Blvd., 310-3600, reosribsbbq.com.
Pitmasters: Reo and Ron Varnado of Mississippi.
The burn: Three and a half hours on what they say is the biggest smoker in Portland.
Snoop "Dogg" Lion's uncle Reo Varnado has been dear to my heart in past reviews, but at this new space at the edge of Gresham—a rec room as dim as a theater, with tables placed randomly in the remains of a former cantina—the meaty ribs were encrusted in char sealed by burnt and remelted sugar, and the sauce tasted like an infelicitous combination of liquid smoke and molasses. From the bottom of the ribs, one could peel off the membrane like the clear film on a new computer screen.
Price: $14 for a half-rack.
Tennessee Red's [Closed]
2133 SE 11th Ave., 231-1710, tennesseereds.com.
Pitmaster: Robert "I can't give away his last name," from "the East Coast."
The burn: "Several hours."
Long ago, Tennessee Red's was a smoker cart run by an old guy named Red from Tennessee, and it was delicious. Three owners later, the place has been halfheartedly remodeling for over a year, and scars remain on the walls. Meanwhile, the ribs are marred by scars of fat and gristly meat that, when found, refuses to release its hold on the rock-hard bone. A firm dousing of sauce can almost, but not quite, make it palatable. The voice on the phone insisted everything about the cooking process was a secret.
Price: $14.50 for a half-rack and two sides.
8701 SE Powell Blvd., 777-9795, campbellsbbq.com.
Pitmaster: Tony "I don't know his last name" of Honduras.
The burn: Smoked in a pit for 12 hours.
Sources say this Powell Boulevard shop used to make some good barbecue, but history only matters if it's honored. In this hall of horns and taxidermy, with a plastic potbellied pig grazing the hardwood, the ribs' "bark" was formed of burnt and hardened fat, floating on a gristle-islanded sea of more fat. The bones didn't so much fall off the gray, gristled meat as recoil from it in horror. The sauce was dull sugar. I don't know how such things are made. I know still less how they are eaten.
Price: $15.95 for seven ribs (just over a half-rack) and two sides.