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Barbecue elite snub falling-off-the-bone ribs, but that's what this Charleston eater wants

Willie Jewell's ribs

Willie Jewell's ribs. Hanna Raskin/Staff

Q: Is there somewhere in the area to get really tender, fall-off-the-bones ribs? I know most people like a little bite and resistance in their ribs, but I want total surrender, like the consistency of a properly cooked soft boiled egg.

A: No need to apologize! To prevent total culinary anarchy, American cooks and consumers have come to something approaching consensus on a set of food standards: Spaghetti should be cooked past the brittle point; toast shouldn’t be served burnt; hot dogs are dressed with mustard, not mayonnaise.

But those are just suggestions. Unless you’re in the restaurant business, there’s no real reason to heed them. Eating is supposed to be enjoyable, so if your palate prefers a well-done steak or cereal soaked in orange juice, there’s no shame in asking for either.

Unlike those items, though, fall-off-the-bone ribs are difficult to produce on command. The consistency you seek generally requires hours in the oven beneath an aluminum foil tent. And restaurants that resort to that preparation method on a regular basis are unlikely to cop to it, since falling-off-the-bone is considered a major barbecue flaw. A decent pitmaster won’t stand for ribs that behave like pot roast.

Still, it seems unduly cynical to send you somewhere in the habit of neglecting its ribs. You shouldn’t have to settle for a failing restaurant just because your opinions aren’t in lockstep with smoked meat orthodoxy.

In order to help find you the right kind of ribs, I ran an image search on Yelp. Regardless of what you think of the site’s sales tactics and its users’ abilities to fairly assess restaurants, its photo archive is a treasure trove. Granted, action such as meat slippage is tricky to capture in a still shot, but hundreds of ribs portraits from dozens of local restaurants gave me some idea of pork sturdiness. Unfortunately, most of the ribs appeared to have more structure than you desire.

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Then I turned to text, figuring the phrase “fall off the bone” was bound to pop up in promotional materials for an area restaurant. Indeed, Boone Hall Farms’ café makes this very claim: $16.99 buys a half rack of baby back ribs advertised as “House-Smoked Until They Fall off the Bone!” I made a beeline for Mount Pleasant.

The good news is I really liked the ribs, which were saturated with smoke. The bad news is they don’t come close to meeting your criteria. I could have stood up and swung a Boone Hall rib over my head, trick rope-style, and the meat wouldn’t have budged.

At that point, it occurred to me that I’ve encountered the kind of rib you describe primarily in chain restaurants. When I last year reviewed the nation’s top 10 casual dining chains, I more than once reached for a rib and ended up with a naked bone in my hand. I suspect that’s mostly a function of mass-production techniques, but I wondered if restaurants serving a broader audience have found that overly tender is more reliably popular than “a little bite and resistance,” as you put it.

To that end, I headed to Willie Jewell’s Old-School Barbecue in North Charleston, an independently owned entry in a 16-location chain that was launched from here. Willie Jewell’s is an offshoot of Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Que, which numbers another 20 stores. (By comparison, there are 1,606 locations of Chili’s, which serves a baby back rib much like the one you’re wanting.)

“Fall off the bone,” might be stretch, but all it takes is a flick of a wrist to free the bone from a Willie Jewell’s rib, which is neither overcooked nor oversauced. In fact, it’s up to you to sauce the rib, which I think you’ll find adequately tender. I didn’t bother, since the flavors of pork and smoke were plenty compelling on their own. Let me know if you like it.

And if readers know of other local ribs that fit the bill, I’d love to hear about those ribs, too.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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