Turning fat into gold: the secrets of America’s best barbecue ribs

One small restaurant that doesn’t understand small portions and where flavour dictates all. Yep, we’ve stumbled upon (officially) America’s best barbecue ribs, in a city you might not expect it from, writes Steve Madgwick.

Strangely, for a bluesy, edgy city in the middle of the ‘Barbecue Triangle’, St Louis was a flavourless ghost town only a decade ago; at least in terms of barbecue restaurants to write home about.

Ten years later, a supernova restaurant in its Midtown crowned the city’s monumental rise from the culinary wasteland by claiming the title of the ‘best barbecue ribs in America’ (as voted by the guzzling gourmets of the Food Network).

Pappy’s Smokehouse first served its Memphis-style fare back in 2008, when Midtown was a decaying old business district full of dilapidated warehouses (now filling with micro-breweries and cool eateries). It started as it meant to continue; doing the fundamentals well, nothing fancy.

“Smoke everything very low and slow,” says general manager Tom Agusti, who’s learned ‘the ways of barbecue’ over his eight years at the restaurant. “You’ve got to take pride in the meats and put your heart and soul into it. When you barbecue for a living it’s more of a lifestyle; you learn to be a lot more patient.”

But it takes more than maxims to create award-winning flavours. So, how do you go about making America’s best barbecue ribs?

Start with loin back ribs, which are similar to baby back ribs, but with more fat (read: flavour). Then, throw a little curve ball by using a ‘dry’ rub (instead of ‘wet’) packed with hush-hush herbs and spices.

With 20 minutes to go, glaze said ribs in brown sugar syrup and allow it to caramelise sweetly. Apart from paprika, salt, pepper, the remainder of the Pappy’s recipes are throw-away-the-key secrets. Even the company that makes the glaze base has no idea what else gets added to it.

By this stage, the ribs have already been inside ‘Walter’ for 14 succulent hours, smoking over sweet apple or cherry wood. Who’s Walter? He’s one of six 120-rib smokers that congregate out the back. Around these parts, it’s customary to name your smoker (after a friend, on this occasion). In fact, it’s plain weird for a smoker to have no name.

best barbecue ribs America Pappy's Smokehouse St Louis Missouri

(photo: Steve Madgwick).

Lastly, feel free to enhance America’s best ribs with one of Pappy’s house-made sauces, like the Hoodoo or Jane’s Sweet Sauce, apparently as sweet as owner Mike’s granddaughter (Jane).

Just behind the ribs in popularity are Pappy’s (unusually) thinly sliced medium-rare brisket (smoked for 23 hours at 180 degrees), and its pulled pork.

There is one element Pappy’s fails badly at: portion control. Quite simply, there are no small portions here.

“I don’t eat barbecue every day,” says Tom. “When I do, I stick to lighter options like the smoked turkey. Luckily, a lot of the local non-barbecue restaurants around here also like barbecue so we tend to trade them for lunch often.”

“Fortunately, I walk an awful lot as part of the job too so I get to walk off all the barbecue. I haven’t put on much weight but the cholesterol is another story. The beans here are soaked in butter; even the greens are going to catch up with you.”

Barbecue is certainly not a flash-in-the-pan fad in St Louis like it has been in other cities across the globe.

“Back when I started there were only 70 seats in the restaurant and we’d smoke a couple of hundred pounds of meat a day,” says Tom, “but now we have 150 seats and we do almost 10,000 pounds of meat in a busy week.”

To put into perspective just how popular Pappy’s has become, that meat sells out every single day, often well before the 8pm closing time. When it’s gone it’s gone.

Pappy’s regulars, some of whom feast up to three times a week here, cut across St Louis society, from business men and women to construction workers and from travellers to students from the two nearby universities.

Typically more than half of its customers each day are either first-timers or people who’ve been in before but are from out of town, including a few you may know: the likes of Hugh Jackman and Pharrell Williams.

best barbecue ribs America Pappy's Smokehouse St Louis Missouri

(photo: Steve Madgwick).

Of course, cool stuff on the walls and kick-arse music is all part of the barbecue experience. Pappy’s décor pays homage to the four Bs of St. Louis: barbecue, beer, baseball (the Cardinals) and (local) blues artists, such as Chuck Berry.

So what enticing new developments are on Pappy’s barbecue horizon? None really. No need for a revolution here, when you make America’s best barbecue ribs. Tom’s just happy to have St Louis barbecue mentioned in the same sentence as that from Memphis, Texas and North Carolina.

“We became an established staple in such a short time just doing what we do. That’s what people want. You can’t change that.”