Where There's Smoke: Our guide to Columbus ribs
Have you ever been driving down High Street in the Campus area, your steering wheel in one hand and a Ray Ray's dry-rubbed spare rib in the other? I'm not proud of it. It's the definition of distracted driving: the hit of smoke in your nostrils, the pork rib's salty-sweet rub, the juiciness coming off the marbled meat, the tension on the bone. For a rib lover, it's heaven.
Columbus isn't known as a great barbecue town. The closest we've come was probably when James Anderson's (aka Ray Ray's) spare ribs were dubbed “Some of the Best Damn Ribs in the Country” by the late food writer Joshua Ozersky. And while City Barbeque has built a loyal following as a reliable local chain, part of barbecue's magic lies in discovering the secret spots. And, lucky for us, the town has added a few secrets in recent years.
We took a look at six of the best local barbecue joints in Central Ohio to learn more about their rib game. Enjoy, but keep one hand on the wheel.
Ray Ray's Hog Pit
James Anderson (aka Ray Ray) lives the art of fire, smoke and meat. This is a guy who started his own heritage pig farm and whose tattooed arm includes a USDA inspection seal. The dedication shines through, as his food truck serves up arguably the best barbecue in Columbus. Anderson's stepson, grill master Liam Collins, took us through their process: First, the ribs get a preliminary smoke (using white oak and hickory) for four hours at 225 degrees. Next, their paprika-based dry rub is added. The ribs spend another 30 minutes in the smoker, and get another hit of dry rub before going on the grill. “We're looking for sugar caramelizing, bubbles. That skin on the back, sometimes it will crack, you want it to be just crispy,” says Collins. The secret to his dry rub, Anderson says, is more about the ratios than the number of crazy ingredients. “It's about our formula. … There are very few spices in there, but our balance of salt and sugar is why it's so good,” he says.
Price for a full Slab: Baby back: $24; Spare ribs: $20
Also Worth a Look: Don't miss Meat Corn, Ray Ray's take on elote (grilled Mexican street corn). Corn on the cob gets slathered in mayonnaise and Cotija cheese, then hand-packed with chopped brisket and dry rub.
The Pit BBQ Grille
Opened in September 2016 by four college friends from Ohio State—Bryant Browning, Chimdi Chekwa, D'Andre Martin and Mike Johnson—this Linden-area barbecue joint is out to make something right. “We felt like this is one thing that Columbus was lacking,” says Martin, who hails from Cleveland along with two of his partners. “In Cleveland, there's barbecue on every corner. … We basically wanted to bring a cookout to our customers every day,” he says. The Pit's St. Louis-cut spare ribs are marinated overnight, and in the morning, the ribs cook over charcoal for three to four hours in a big barrel grill, then spend five hours in the smoker. They are served sloppy, with a barbecue sauce that Martin says took them about eight months to perfect. It's a ketchup-based sauce, sweet with a little kick of spice. “The best of both worlds,” he says.
Open: Every day
Price for a Full Slab: Spare ribs: $22.99
Also Worth a Look: Check out the splendidly messy Polish Girl sandwich: sausage, pulled pork, fries and coleslaw crowded into a bun. Cheese lovers will enjoy Mildred's Mac 'n' Cheese, a six-cheese mac named after Martin's grandmother, who provided the recipe. Don't miss Carmen's Candied Yams, which could serve double duty as dessert.
Rooks sets itself apart from its barbecue brethren by making a mean cocktail and elevating the barbecue experience. Smoke is a theme that carries chef Aaron Mercier's menu, and his Memphis-style spare ribs are a highlight. Mercier's dry rub includes two types of mustard, coriander, cumin, black pepper and plenty of salt. Using a pair of Pitmaker reverse-flow cabinet smokers (nicknamed Poncho and Lefty), ribs are smoked with primarily cherry wood for about three hours at 250 degrees. These super-meaty ribs are covered in a dark, delicious bark, which Mercier says “has entirely to do with how you treat the ribs while they are in the smoker. The main thing is that you don't open the smoker too often.” Mercier elects not to remove the silvery membrane (sometimes called “skin”) found on the back of ribs, arguing that it helps to keep moisture in and provides a nice “snap.” His ideal rib is tender, but not falling-off-the-bone tender. “Similar to a really well-executed roast pork,” he says.
Price for a Full Slab: Spare ribs: $25
Also Worth a Look: Rooks is one of the only barbecue joints serving up great cocktails (see Page 130). And barbecue at brunch? You bet. Rooks' brunch menu features dishes like a pit-style chili over scrambled eggs and smoked trout scramble (aka Smelly Breakfast).
Red Door BBQ
This Franklinton carryout is the newest of the barbecue stalwarts on our list. Business partners Salim Jett, chef Aaron Channels and Paul Rockport opened Red Door in April. “Franklinton is diverse and up-and-coming. This area's been rundown for a long time, and we thought … there would be a lot of opportunities to engage with the community and give back,” Channels says. Customers order from a window in the side of a gray building, then take it to go or eat at one of the picnic tables on the side. Aaron's Championship Ribs have a nice, ruddy bark on the outside and a lovely pink color inside. (That's what you want: Pink equals smoke, while a gray meat means the ribs have been steamed.) After sitting in dry rub for 24 hours, the ribs are smoked in a Southern Pride smoker for three to four hours at 225 degrees. Channels prefers cherry and apple wood over hickory for his smoker and wants the meat's texture to be firm, but tender enough to come straight off the bone. “There's no fighting with our ribs,” he says.
Price for a Full Slab: Spare ribs: $16
Also Worth a Look: The brisket baked beans are almost a meal by themselves, packed with green peppers, onion and bits of brisket. Save room for Granny's Bread Puddin', which tastes like a soaked cinnamon roll. The gooey pudding is balanced with nice, crispy bits from the Texas toast.
Started four years ago by military veteran and Columbus native James Howell, B&K has its roots in the big cookouts Howell used to throw when he was stationed in Virginia and Maryland, and later when he returned to Columbus. “I mean big, legendary,” Howell says of those cookouts. “We'd spend a couple thousand dollars for one day.” He always wanted to have his own barbecue joint, and opening B&K was “a leap of faith.” We're glad he took the leap. For his Memphis-style ribs, Howell uses a dry rub that a friend once called “mummy dust” and the nickname stuck. (“No, I can't give you my recipe,” Howell says.) He lets the St. Louis-cut ribs marinate in their dry rub overnight and then smokes them for about two hours over hickory wood. “If I had a choice, I wouldn't have sauce at all,” Howell says. But if sauce is your thing, go for the excellent house-made Carolina gold mustard sauce on the side. He says his perfect rib is “that nice, pink color” and falls off the bone. “It comes off clean and you don't have to fight with it.”
Price for a Full Slab: Spare ribs: $20
Also Worth a Look: Check out B&K's killer mac 'n' cheese, which fuses Monterey Jack and sharp cheddar with a roux. To get the right texture, Howell takes care to cook the noodles al denté before combining with the roux and cheese mixture and then baking it.
Oak Hill Barbecue
Oak Hill is the type of place you stumble upon and wonder why you didn't know about it sooner. (Ray Ray's owner tipped us off.) There's nothing subtle about it, from the building's red flame mural that proclaims “BARBECUE” to the boldly flavored St. Louis-cut spare ribs. If fall-off-the-bone tender is your preference, Oak Hill's ribs are for you. Owned by chef Ron Mosley (who goes by the nickname “Fatman”) and Clint Long, Oak Hill sits on a pleasant residential street in the village of Sunbury. Customers can sit either indoors or outdoors at picnic tables. Now in its second year of business, the restaurant also offers affordable beef brisket, pulled pork and pulled chicken sandwiches. Adding to Oak Hill's charm is Mosley's penchant for serving up chef's whim specials like poutine, “smokehouse” pizzas and even barbecue spaghetti.
Price for a Full Slab: Spare ribs: $19
Also Worth a Look: Skip the side of cheesy spaghetti and go for the nicely salty, golden-brown, fresh-cut french fries. Wash them down with the sweetest of sweet teas and a classic banana pudding.
Looking for something other than ribs? Some of these joints excel in other areas. Here are three don't-miss alternatives.
Jerk Chicken Sandwich at Ray Ray's Hog Pit
Finger. Licking. Good. The brisket and ribs tend to outshine Ray Ray's smoky jerk chicken sandwich, but it deserves praise. Owner James Anderson has never been to Jamaica, but through trial and error, the Ray Ray's team came up with a delicious jerk sauce for its “Americanized” interpretation. Instead of chicken breast, Anderson uses boneless chicken thighs, an underappreciated and scrumptious part of the bird. The bright purple pickled cabbage and onions add a nice crunch and Instagrammable visual.
Coal Miner's Daughter at Rooks Tavern
Chef Aaron Mercier got the inspiration for his new mole starter from Mexican star chef Enrique Olvera, who's known for his obsession with creating the perfect mole. Mercier started his “mother” mole when the restaurant first opened more than six months ago and says he hopes to “to keep it going for decades.” Making fresh, hand-rolled tortillas was a big ask for the fledgling restaurant, so Mercier came up with the idea of masa hushpuppies. Delicately crunchy on the outside but soft in the middle, they pair nicely with the rich, spicy and complex mole. Wash it down with one of Rooks' cocktails, like the Coal Miner's Daughter (love you, Loretta Lynn). Essentially a Moscow mule made with Watershed Vodka or Bulleit Bourbon, drinkable charcoal gives it a mysterious, moody look.
The Polish Girl Sandwich at The Pit
The Pit pays tribute to a Cleveland original with this sandwich that sports specially made Polish sausage from Falter's Fine Meats. The Girl comes loaded with pulled pork, french fries, coleslaw and topped with barbecue sauce. (If you want to skip the pulled pork, order a Polish Boy instead.) You better be comfortable with sweet sauce and napkins for this one, but the sausage and fries make it a winner. In fact, The Pit recently won Best Polish Boy in Ohio by USA Today readers—beating out its Cleveland counterparts, co-owner D'Andre Martin notes.
1114 E. Main St., Olde Towne East, 614-252-7017
Oak Hill Barbecue
60 N. Columbus St., Sunbury,
The Pit BBQ Grille
Northern Lights Shopping Center, 3545 Cleveland Ave., North Side, 614-826-8671
Ray Ray's Hog Pit
2619 N. High St., Campus, 614-753-1191
Red Door BBQ
177 S. Cypress Ave., Franklinton, 614-557-7469
195 Chittenden Ave., Campus, 614-369-1266