Then there were also guys doing barbecue their way in parking lots and driveways - cooking ribs over charcoal fires and serving them with sauce and a few pieces of white bread. Back in the ’80s, when I first got to Cincinnati, I enjoyed ribs from small joints in Walnut Hills and Madisonville. (Does anybody remember the one in Walnut Hills that had a number for a name and the one in Madisonville that had two letters for a name?)
Then the wave of “real” barbecue came to Cincinnati as people began to appreciate the methods of pitmasters who used old-fashioned techniques to smoke ribs and meats, slowly cooking and infusing them with wood smoke. That method, native to other parts of the country such as Memphis and Kansas City, became codified in barbecue contests and “competition” cooking. A whole new cultish appreciation has built up around that style, and the super-tender Montgomery Inn ribs that are all about the sauce became a little passe. (Well, among a certain crowd. They’re not in the top 100 anymore but surely are still No. 1 in Cincinnati.)
Restaurants can now smoke barbecue in big commercial smokers that use gas for heat and wood for smoke, often with good results. But the purists are onto something with their love for the “artisan” barbecuers that use wood for both heat and smoke, and serve their meats in casual style: no menus and servers.
Barbecue in Cincinnati now covers the range. Walt’s is back. The “ribs kings” for this new barbecue world are Elias Leisring and Drew Simmons of Eli’s, but it’s a different world they reign over.
Note: Can we go a little easier on the sugar, people? Some barbecue meals are sweeter than a banana split. I’ve had barbecue sauce as sweet as syrup, coleslaw that tastes more like sugar than cabbage, and baked beans that could be mistaken for candy - and not in a good way. And the cornbread! It’s not supposed to be yellow cake; it’s dinner, not dessert.
Eli’s is about to get itself into a “No one goes there anymore - it’s too crowded” situation. People LOVE this place. Partly, it’s the presentation. $5.75 for a sandwich, $8 for a dinner. Picnic tables and a lawn outside. Its out-of-the-way location that makes every customer feel like he or she just discovered it. But the ’cue is solid: unsauced ribs with a dry rub that combines a grainy sweetness with a spicy kick, tender turkey, and pulled pork that seems just pulled out of the smoker. Just don’t go on a Saturday night, when the crowds pack the cozy restaurant. Or grab carry-out at the Findlay Market location! 3313 Riverside Drive, Columbia-Tusculum. 513-533-1957.
Matt Cuff started out as a hobbyist competition barbecuer in South Carolina. Then he started selling from a truck. Now, he’s got a cozy little place on a corner in Newtown, where you might see him outside chopping maple and cherry or pulling ribs from his wood-burning smoker. His pulled pork is deeply smoky, pulled into big shreds, and the neatly cut St. Louis-style ribs are smoked with a rub redolent of warm spices like cinnamon, cloves, and a bigger hit of cumin than usual, but less sugar. In general, Cuff gets my vote for his restraint with sugar. His coleslaw is a little sweet but balanced out with a bracing tartness. Plus there's a new location in Walnut Hills. 6901 Valley Ave., Newtown. 513-271-6555.
If you like smoked brisket over pulled pork, it’s a harder task to find the good stuff. It can easily be tough and chewy, or if it’s tender, it’s tasteless. Velvet Smoke has it down. This is another place that got its start in competition, with a team that competes on the professional circuit and has done quite well. The pulled pork, with thick-shredded slaw piled on top, should be second on your list. 10515 New Haven Road, Harrison. 513-367-5227.
The smell on Sharon Road is the best advertisement for this establishment. Owner Jim Emmig is another guy whose love of meat over smoky wood led him to a second career. I love the St. Louis ribs, whose meat has a hard time deciding whether it wants to come off with your bite or stay stuck to the bone, and has both meltingly tender parts and crispy, burned bits. It’s sauced before serving, but not drowned in it. The pulled pork, in big shreds, tastes like it was particularly delicious when it came out of the smoker, but has lost a little something while it waited to be served up. 2343 East Sharon Road, Sharonville. 513-771-4888.
This is a full-scale restaurant built around smoked meats. I was impressed by a plate of tender brisket and pulled pork that tasted fully porky. They have three sauces you add yourself at the table - I’m fond of their Memphis sauce: light-bodied, spicy, and not so sweet. They also do an unusual mustard slaw and offer mashed potatoes with gravy as a side. 275 Pictoria Drive, Springdale. 513-671-7667.
This is a commercial operation that maintains a feel for how barbecue ought to be done. Once a place becomes a chain, it’s easy to automatically pooh-pooh it, but there’s some solid food here: I found the pulled pork a bit tasteless, but the ribs are meaty, with big shreds of pork pulling off with each bite, and the sauces are all good examples of their type. Their sides are generally very good: I like their cornbread better than anyone else’s, mainly because it’s the least sweet and has the most texture. The green beans are flat, with a meaty texture, and they do a fluffy Texas toast. It’s also, admit it, great to be able to go up to the counter, order a feast to go, and have it in your hands in less than 5 minutes. There are five locations in Cincinnati.
The defining characteristic of Montgomery Inn ribs is their soft, tender texture. Touch a fork to them, and they come off the bone, leaving the bone completely clean. They come liberally covered with a sauce that tastes of tomato, sugar, and very light spices. It’s not spicy at all, nor is it particularly smoky. The shredded pork is shredded to a fine texture, almost fluffy, and mixed with sauce, but the brisket is rather tough. However, the Saratoga chips dipped in sauce are still a treat. 9440 Montgomery Road, Montgomery, 513-791-3482; 925 Riverside Drive, East End, 513-721-7427; 400 Buttermilk Pike, Fort Mitchell, 859-344-5333.
The old classic in Fort Wright has been revived. You can see the ribs hanging in front of a wood fire in the old smokehouse out in the parking lot. They’re roasted out there, then finished in the oven. They’re baby backs, which are leaner and less forgiving. I like the way they’re just barely glazed with sauce, but I find them a bit bland-tasting. Their pork and chicken is done in smokers, and the chicken, especially, is beautiful, a burnished brown all over and nicely smoky. (And instead of those little wet-naps in a package, you get hot towels.) 3300 Madison Pike, Fort Wright, 859-360-2222.
This little spot on Short Vine is one of the too-sweet offenders, but I’ll give them a break for their delicious sweetened fruit teas - there were real raspberries in my raspberry tea. They also serve something you don’t see too often: turkey tips, meaty morsels in barbecue sauce. 2733 Vine St., Corryville. 513-376-8781.
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.