Rolling down Herron Avenue, looking for the address, I am alerted by smoke before I even see the store. It is the middle of a hot afternoon, and there isn't much going on, besides two homemade rib cookers in the dirt out front. I decide to head in...
I ask what they have, and he gives me the 4-bone price, half-rack price, rack price, and of course all the sides. Even though it is too hot to eat, I can't resist and order a half rack, greens and sweet potatoes. As Anthony starts to pack up my ribs, I stop him short of the sauce—I like mine with sauce on the side. I want to really see and taste the meat—the pig's contribution and the cook's skill.
So I tried to eat all of Pittsburgh's barbeque. I visited many places, missed more, tasted the sides and sauces, and attempted to talk to everyone.
There are two kinds of ribs on a pig, baby back and St. Louis, and Pittsburgh really digs the St. Louis-style. The baby back comes from the back, underneath the big muscles that run down both sides of the spine. Spare ribs are inside the front belly, and baby back are clean with no gristle or cartilage on the ends. As for the St. Louis ribs, they are less expensive and have three types of meat—meat between the ribs at the top, the tail at the bottom, and the bit in between where the long, cartilaginous tendons are. These three meats make the St. Louis ribs messier to eat and harder to cook, but, anyone who is anyone in BBQ will tell you these are the real deal.
Now that we know what style of ribs people in the 'Burgh are cooking, how exactly do they do it? Just as the styles of ribs can vary, so can the methods of cooking. Herron Avenue Bar BQ and The Dream BBQ Spot in Homewood are two of my favorites (with many others throughout the city), and they are cookin' with the charcoal-fire 55 gallon drum home-made cooker using direct heat. In addition, giant grills, charcoal fired with direct heat, are a popular choice, as well as the beautiful custom beast at Big Mamas House of Soul in the Strip. At Steel City in East Liberty, their meat comes out of an electric smoker where a heating element browns chips and generates the smoke.
Sides and seasonings—ribs are always seasoned with a mixture of salt and pepper, and sometimes with a mix that contains garlic powder or a mild chili powder. Mr. Willie's in Squirrel Hill adds dried thyme to the mix, making an exciting addition. Now that the seasonings are just right, it's time for the sides. Big Mama's sure knows how to pack in the flavor. Baked red beans with bits of jalapeno, black-eyed peas loaded with garlic, mushy green beans, great corn bread, and who can resist homemade chocolate pineapple upside-down cake? I see where the "soul" part of their name comes from. When your're visiting Steel City, their fried corn is a must.
Finally, I understand, or at least think I do. You must let the meat go at is own pace—let the smoke do the work, the meat has to taste good and be tender without getting dry. And, the sauce must be good too—let it sit on the stove and cook slowly. The sides, well, they're slow too... The art of Barbeque doesn't hurry.
700 N. Taylor Avenue
1000 Banksville Road
2121 Murray Avenue
1603 Penn Avenue
639 Herron Avenue
220 N. Highland Avenue
6800 Frankstown Avenue