(USA Today) -- There are few things in life more delicious and satisfying than a plate of barbecue. And more often than not, the centerpiece of that plate is a rack of ribs. A glistening, smoky, slow-cooked rib, whether pork or beef, has the potential to be one of the most groan-inducingly good foods in existence, especially when enjoyed with a cold, easy-drinking beer. But who makes the best ribs in America? And what exactly makes a perfect rib?
We reached out to some of the country's most renowned food writers and critics, and assembled a list not only of their favorites, but of ribs that are renowned far and wide for their smoky perfection. The only criterion that we provided these panelists was that their picks needed to be bone-in ribs best eaten with your hands and a pile of napkins. So while we're certainly fans of Italian-style braised short ribs (famed critic Gael Greene told us that her favorite ribs are the ones at New York City's Il Buco Alimentari), those didn't meet our criteria for this list. Renowned food writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance John T. Edge, The Washington Post's Tim Carman, GQ's Alan Richman, the Los Angeles Times' Jonathan Gold, and Esquire's John Mariani all submitted some of their favorites. A couple of panelists also gave us their answer to the question, "What makes the perfect rib?"
So what does make for a perfect rib, according to some of the country's leading experts? Tenderness, sauce-to-meat ratio, smokiness, and good charring.
Tim Carman told us, "For me, barbecue spareribs should not fall off the bone like those ubiquitous braised short ribs you find on every chef-driven menu. Your teeth should be engaged in the eating process with spareribs, forced to lock onto the smoky flesh and gently pull it from the bone. The spareribs should also not arrive at your table smothered in tangy/sweet/spicy sauce. I want to taste the meat and smoke and whatever layer of seasonings the pitmaster has applied to the ribs. Sauces can hide defects in seasoning and smoking."
And John Mariani said, "For me a great rib is never oversmoked, pink under the skin, with good charring on the outside. The sauce is down my list of virtues, preferring a dry rub to do most of the work. The meat may come off the bone easily but not 'fall off,' and there should be some definite chewiness to the meat."
We wholeheartedly agree, so with those parameters in mind, we set off to find the country's 20 best ribs, building on 2011's list and ranking them according to local renown, critical appraisal, and adherence to the criteria set forth by our panel of experts. A word of warning before reading on: You'll be hungry by the time you make your way to number one. And if your favorite place isn't on the list, we also agree with what Alan Richman told us: "In fact, they're all great."
1) Oklahoma Joe's, Kansas City, Kan.
In a city renowned for its pork ribs, the ones at Oklahoma Joe's are simply the best, and were on more than one of our panelists' lists. Boasting a deeply burnished shade of red thanks to a rub heavy with paprika, cumin, brown sugar, and chili powder, these ribs also happen to be picture-postcard-perfect to look at, and you'll most likely find yourself snapping a photo of them before you even take that first bite. And once you do, you'll learn what the fuss has been about. Moist, juicy, smoky, tender - all those adjectives you thought you knew the definition of will only conjure one image in your mind from here on out: Oklahoma Joe's pork ribs. They're the best you'll ever have.
2) Smoke, Dallas
"I dote on the beef ribs at Smoke," Edge told us. "These show great smoke penetration, and the meat has a kind of roundness, a beefiness that recalls the best dry-aged steakhouse stuff." The rest of the country tends to agree. Chef Tim Byres opened this restaurant inside the city's Belmont Hotel in 2009, and while it's not a barbecue joint, per se, even though there are several smoked meats on the menu, his fine-dining approach to the cuisine elevates it above the pack. The giant "big rib" is slow-smoked over oak and hickory until it develops a beautiful crust and is tender but not falling apart. It's served with a chimichurri sauce that provides an extra kick, but it's wholly unnecessary.
3) The Salt Lick, Driftwood, Texas
Both the beef and pork ribs from this Texas institution, Alan Richman's favorite, are good enough to bring you to tears. There's just something about the meat, the smoke, and the shady, tree-filled setting that combine for a transcendental barbecue experience. These ribs are mopped as they smoke on a giant central pit, and the pork ones emerge tender and pull clean from the bone without falling off it, right in that sweet spot. The beef ribs (go for double-cut if you're feeling especially macho), which are the stuff of dreams even without a drop of sauce, will have you strategizing your return visit even before you leave. Don't forget to bring a long a six-pack; they'll put it on ice for you. Now that's hospitality.
4) Home Team BBQ, Charleston, S.C.
Home Team Barbecue has been around for less than 10 years, but that wasn't enough to stop it from being named "the most life-changing BBQ ribs" in America by Esquire last year. Pitmaster Aaron Siegel starts with a sweet and spicy rub that's used on just about everything they smoke, and the ribs go down for five to six hours. When they emerge, they're covered in a deeply caramelized bark and are moist and tender. It's just about impossible to get through a rack of these without groaning for joy at least a few times.
5) Franklin Barbecue, Austin, Texas
Aaron Franklin must be some kind of sorcerer. What started as a trailer in 2009 quickly became one of the most revered spots in all of 'cuedom, and loyalists and pilgrims all line up outside the newish building's front door for hours on end, every day. No visit is complete without sampling some of the impossibly tender ribs, which are peppery and with a well-caramelized bark. You have your choice of slathering on three sauces (espresso-based, vinegar-based, or a sweeter variety), but as is usually the case with barbecue this good, none is necessary.
6) Archibald's, Northport, Ala.
"I love the pork ribs at Archibald's," John T. Edge told us. "They have a great char, come slathered in an orange-hued vinegary sauce, and require - as great pork ribs do - a tug of the incisors to loosen meat from bone." The restaurant has been run by the Archibald family since it opened in 1962, and today it's run by George Archibald Jr. who sticks with the same recipe his father used. Ribs are smoked low and slow over hickory wood, and served out of a little shack. Grab a rack and a cup of sauce, snag a picnic table, and enter barbecue nirvana.
7) City Market, Luling, Texas
City Market is one of Texas' great barbecue joints and a true claim to fame for the city of Luling; you'd be hard-pressed to find better brisket, and the ribs are simply out of this world. It's a comfortable, air-conditioned restaurant (a nice change of pace from some of the state's more rustic establishments), and while the sauce is some of the best you'll ever have, it's completely unnecessary on these beautifully smoky ribs that really let the meat speak for itself.
8) Pappy's Smokehouse, St. Louis
It might be Memphis-style barbecue in St. Louis, but Pappy's makes the best ribs in a city that's renowned for them. The lines form early to get into this hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and it closes as soon as the barbecue runs out. These ribs are smoked over apple or cherry wood, and have a kick of black pepper and rosemary. It might be a bit of a madhouse, but just close your eyes and take a bite, and you'll be in your happy place in no time.
9) Phillips BBQ, Los Angeles
Featuring the best ribs in Los Angeles, according to Jonathan Gold, this small restaurant and its newer second and third locations serve "the tastiest barbecued ribs south of Oakland," according to the LA Times critic. These ribs are spicy, peppery, and require a bit of tug to get them off the bone, and the smokiness and work-of-genius flavor combination has attracted legions of fans. If you decide to make a pilgrimage, go to the original, a tiny, greasy takeout window. It's about as authentic a barbecue experience as you'll ever get.
10) Hill Country, New York City and Washington, D.C.
The pork ribs at Hill Country, with locations in New York and Washington, pay homage to - where else? - Texas' Hill Country, and are peppery, tender but don't fall off the bone, and delicately scented with wood smoke. You'll eat more than a few before you even realize that they don't have any sauce on them, because it's completely unnecessary. If there's room left in your stomach, order some of the perfectly smoked prime rib and thank us later.
11) Alamo BBQ, Richmond, Va.
Another suggestion from Carman, Alamo specializes in Texas-style barbecue, as the name implies. Its brisket is the stuff of legend, but the ribs are also world-class. They're smoky, mopped with a stellar but not overpowering barbecue sauce, and are so good that you might just end up ordering a second rack.
12) Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.
Charles Vergo's Rendezvous is consistently ranked among the best barbecue joints in the country, and you do not want to miss out on their ribs. What makes these ribs so good is the rub, or as they call it, "the seasoning" (word is that it's not called a rub because it's not rubbed in). The baby back ribs are cooked hot and fast, which might seem against-the-grain, but the proof is in the pudding: the technique works.
13) Corky's, Memphis, Tenn.
In a city known for its barbecue, Corky's has found its way to the top of the heap thanks to its ribs. Its website describes the lengthy process that its ribs go through to reach the eater: "Born of a unique combination of place, history, and just plain knowing what great ribs and barbecue are supposed to taste like, Corky's unrivaled ribs and authentic, hand-pulled barbecue are meaty, succulent, and falling-off-the-bone-tender. Corky's barbecue is made with old-fashioned Southern tradition - slow-cooked in pits with hickory chips and charcoal, hand-pulled to select only the best, and basted in our special blend of Corky's sauces." If that doesn't make you hungry, we don't know what will.
14) Mr. P's Ribs and Fish, Washington, D.C.
The Washington Post's Tim Carman suggested we add Mr. P's to our list, and public opinion clearly agrees that it deserves a spot, even though it's just a broken-down bus that's only open Friday through Sunday. Yes, an old converted bus is serving some of the country's best ribs. These ribs are about as simple as it gets, with a well-developed bark, a perfect smoke ring, and no frills. This is working man's barbecue, served in big, hearty portions.
15) Bludso's, Compton, Calif.
A favorite of the LA Times' Jonathan Gold, this Compton, Calif., restaurant specializes in Texas-style ribs from a recipe handed down by owner Kevin Bludso's great-great-grandfather. The recipes are a well-guarded secret, but the end result is world-class: smoky, sweet, and requiring a little tug to get at. The smoky smell will lure you in from blocks away.
16) Twin Anchors, Chicago
Once a favorite hangout of Frank Sinatra, this Chicago institution opened in 1932 in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood as a Prohibition-era tavern. The ribs are slow-cooked for five hours, finished on the grill, and served to tender perfection. If you find yourself there on a weekend with a wait more than an hour, though, make sure to heed the establishment's golden rule: No dancing.
17) Off the Bone, Dallas
An unassuming spot located on an unassuming street just outside of Dallas, Off the Bone was named the best barbecue in the city by D Magazine in 2010. Thepecan-smoked ribs served out of this converted gas station might be considered gourmet by most standards, but that doesn't mean they're not down-home and delicious, especially when you catch a glimpse of them being mopped with sauce by the pitmaster in the back.
18) Roper's Ribs, St. Louis
Family-owned since 1976, Roper's St. Louis and baby back ribs are meaty, smoky, and coated in a hearty sweet and spicy sauce that doesn't overpower the meat. It's a tiny, smoky place, so be prepared to take your order to go; you'll be amply rewarded with ribs that are also considered to be among America's best, and Travel + Leisure agrees.
19) Bogart's Smokehouse, St. Louis
A relative newcomer, Bogart's is helmed by the former pitmaster from a St. Louis institution, Pappy's. The sides here are spectacular, but make sure not to fill up on them because their ribs are the main event. They're sticky and caramelized due to a special treatment that they get after being removed from the grill: they're hit with a blowtorch, a genius move if we ever saw one.
20) Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que - Llano, Texas
This supremely peppery pork rib breaks a trademark rule of barbecue - it's finished over direct heat - but it's just about impossible not to fall in love with Cooper's ribs. That finishing touch gives it a great char, and you're also allowed to choose your own rack, right off the grill. The folks at Details Magazine also agree that this is one of the country's finest.