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Project pork rib: Finding smoky perfection at barbecue restaurants in Pierce County

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on May 24, 2013 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
May 24, 2013 9:50 am
A rib platter at Bob's Bar-B-Q Pit in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood comes with ribs, cornbread and sides. File photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer)
A rib platter at Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood comes with ribs, cornbread and sides. File photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

You know a good rib when you bite into it. If it’s smoked correctly – slow and low over wood – the meat should cling to the bone, but just barely.

A search for perfect pork ribs – the menu item by which I judge all barbecue stops – was in order after the loss of three favorite Tacoma destinations: Porter’s Place closed after owner Alton Porter died in June. Papa Jones on Tacoma’s Hilltop closed a few months ago, right after Thrill of the Grill, near the County-City Building, disappeared.

I narrowed my search to Pierce County, Tacoma to Sumner. Yes, that excluded Ranch House, but I’ll get around to writing about Olympia barbecue later this summer, I promise. Around here, I found four places serving tasty ribs that I recommend without reservation. I also found two stops that have the right foundation, but fell short of my rib standard, which is this:

* Pork ribs can be baby back, spareribs, Kansas City-style or St. Louis, but they must be smoked using wood. The telltale sign is a pink ring just below the surface, called the “smoke ring” by barbecue aficionados. I’m not a stickler for solid wood; pellets are fine if used effectively.
* Ribs can be sauced or rubbed, Texas-, Louisiana-, Carolina- or even Northwest-style with coffee — I’m not picky about style as much as I am about substance. The rub or brine should penetrate evenly. If a sauce is involved, flavor should be balanced between sweet and tangy and/or sweet and hot. (Caveat: I do award extra points to restaurants that don’t sauce their ribs. The meat should stand alone.)

Thurmond Brokenbrough holds a sample platter from Uncle Thurm's soul food restaurant. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer
Thurmond Brokenbrough holds a sample platter from Uncle Thurm’s soul food restaurant. Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer

Uncle Thurm’s
3709 S. G St., Tacoma; 253-475-1881,
Thurmond and Linda Brokenbrough started serving barbecue and soul-tinged Southern eats in 1998. Their third restaurant, Uncle Thurm’s Finger Lickin’ Chicken and Ribs, is a homey joint that’s sweetly appointed — like a grandma’s dining room — on a somewhat gritty block near Lincoln High School.

Ribs from Uncle Thurm's.
Ribs from Uncle Thurm’s.

Brokenbrough’s five-tiered barbecue smoker fueled by hickory and mesquite turned out perfect ribs with an even smoke ring, tinged pink. They were tender, but with a slightly chewy resistance. A clingy sauce tasted smoky and thick, with building heat and a backbone of molasses. The ribs tasted brined or perhaps deep rubbed — delicious flavor penetrated.
Ordered: Rib dinner with four bones with a choice of sides and cornbread, $15.95
Smoked meats: Ribs, pulled pork
Sides: Candied yams, collard greens, red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese

Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit
911 S. 11th St., Tacoma; 253-627-4899, or Find the restaurant’s Youtube videos here
This is a third-generation Tacoma barbecue institution, and a hole-in-the-wall joint of the highest order. Brothers Jonathan and Michael Clark now run Bob’s Bar-B-Q Pit in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. Their mother, Carolyn, is the daughter of Bob and Elizabeth Littles, who opened Bob’s in 1948, when it was in downtown Tacoma (the restaurant relocated, after a hiatus, to the Hilltop in 1989).

Jonathan Clark, the "Pit Master," at Bob's Bar-B-Q  on Tacoma's Hilltop loads up his grill with ribs and pork butt for pulled pork. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photo
Jonathan Clark, the “Pit Master,” at Bob’s Bar-B-Q on Tacoma’s Hilltop loads up his grill with ribs and pork butt for pulled pork. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photo

The Texas-style pit barbecue comes from recipes handed down from Bob Littles, who grew up in Texas but relocated here via Fort Lewis. Their ribs are among the best you’ll find for flavor, although texture occasionally can be chewier than I like. A recent visit found ribs thankfully light on sauce (in three heat levels — and hot is truly hot). A long visit to the smoker gave the ribs a pretty pink tinge and a deep smoky flavor from alder.
Ordered: Rib dinner with four bones, two sides and corn bread, $11.99
Smoked meats: Brisket, chicken, pork, hot links
Sides: Baked beans, collard greens, potato salad, macaroni and cheese

The ribs at Branks BBQ in Sumner are supple and smoky.
The ribs at Branks BBQ in Sumner are supple and smoky.

Brank’s BBQ and Catering
13701 24th St. E., Sumner; 253-891-1789,
In an industrial neighborhood in Sumner, you’ll smell Brank’s two blocks away. Stacks of cherry and apple wood sit right next to the giant smokers on display for all to see and smell. Inside, diners will find a sprawling restaurant that’s attractively appointed — a safe place to take grandma or your picky sister-in-law. Owners Charlie and Lori Brank learned their Texas barbecue from a national pit master: Paul Kirk, who occasionally stops by to teach lessons. Brank’s ribs were served just as I like them, with sauce on the side (unremarkable sauce, though). The pork tasted supple, with the slightest chew. Flavor from the fruit wood penetrated to the bone.
Ordered: Lil’ Dude lunch with two bones, one side, $6.95. Four-bone dinners with sides, dessert and cornbread, $13.95
Smoked meats: Baby back or St. Louis ribs, brisket, chicken, pulled pork
Sides: Baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, cornbread

Warthog Barbeque Pit
4921 20th St. E., Tacoma; 253-896-5091,
Gary Kurashima started his career smoking meats at the old BBQ Pete’s on 72nd, with stints at a few other Northwest barbecue standbys. He calls his style “trial and error,” which he’s been refining since opening Warthog in 1999. The restaurant has grown from a tiny dining room to somewhat of a campus.

Plenty of al fresco seating is available at Warthog in Fife.
Plenty of al fresco seating is available at Warthog in Fife.

It’s an interesting and quirky setup:The wood-wrapped dining rooms sit next to a two-story barn and patio that provide comfortable eating in a tidy setting. Ribs were sticky with a too-heavy layer of sauce that was more sweet than spicy — I like it the other way around — but the smoky flavor was penetrating.
Ordered: Rib dinner with four bones and two sides and cornbread, $12.25
Smoked meats: Brisket, turkey, chicken, pulled pork and burgers
Sides: Home fries, “nasty” rice, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, cornbread

Honorable mentions

Po-Boy Bar-B-Q
15019 Meridian Ave., E., Puyallup; 253-848-8548,
This little restaurant has its heart in the right place and the meat was tinged pink just as it should be, but I wanted the ribs to be more tender, the smoke to be less assertive, the seasoning to be more penetrating and the sauce to be less sweet. If you’re in Puyallup, it’s a mighty fine destination, but the ribs don’t rate as high as my other four picks.
Ordered: Rib platter with three bones and two sides, $11.50
Smoked meats: Chicken, beef ribs, brisket and pulled meat sandwiches
Sides: Baked beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw, cornbread

This is a two-year-old photo of pork ribs at Dowd's BBQ. Martin Dowd's smoker is out of commission, but should be back to producing smoked ribs in three weeks.
This is a two-year-old photo of pork ribs at Dowd’s BBQ. Martin Dowd’s smoker is out of commission, but should be back to producing smoked ribs in three weeks.

Dowd’s BBQ
10505 S. Steele St., Tacoma; 253-830-2086,
It had been two years since I visited this Spanaway-area rib restaurant tucked into the back of a 76 station. Much looked the same — all the way down to the semi-clean tables. I raved about the ribs I reviewed a few years ago, but a recent visit yielded brown, tough oven-baked ribs — there was no pink smoke ring. What gives? A problem with the smoker. Owner Martin Dowd said he’s working on a solution to a permit and insurance problem with his smoker. He said he’ll have his delicious smoked ribs back in three weeks.

RIB TIPS: Order your ribs naked, no sauce. You can tell a lot about the meat when it’s not dripping sauce. Is the meat pink? It’s not raw, it’s delicious. That’s a fun chemical reaction that happens when meat is smoked over wood. Fan of St. Louis over baby backs? Or the other way around? Some restaurants, such as Brank’s, offer different cuts of pork ribs – just ask before you order.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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