Ralph Melton (ralphmelton) wrote,
Ralph Melton

Rib Cage BBQ

On Saturday, Lori and I drove down to Monongahela to visit Rib Cage BBQ.

We had found about Rib Cage BBQ from a thread on Roadfood.com. The thread started with a drive-by advertisement, but we started talking about barbecue, and the proprietor showed up and talked in a friendly way about his wares.

The proprietor had said "If you are ever planning on coming down with some friends please let me know beforehand and we will make sure that we take care of you." I had dithered a bit about whether it was appropriate to accept that sort of special offer for a visit that I intended to report on. (Amateur reporting to LiveJournal and Roadfood, that is.) I concluded that it was okay for me to get the "special Roadfooder treatment". My journalistic standards are that my work should be both honest and interesting, and a report of special Roadfooder treatment would be interesting to Roadfooders, and could be honest as long as long as it was clearly labeled as such. So I sent him a private message that we were planning to come down.

The place looks like a barbecue joint should look, with lots of wood and smoke coming up from inside:
(I learned later that it was cherry wood.)

The walls and floor are concrete, with a bit of piggy decor:

We were looking for a variety of food, and I was particularly interested in the pork chop on the menu, so we ordered a #1 combo: pork chop, 1/4 slab of ribs, riblet, small fries. We added a cup of baked beans. I said that we'd found out about the place from Roadfood.com, and asked to meet John (I'd been told that the father and son who run the place are both named John). John Sr. came out to meet us, but he didn't hear my introduction clearly, so he didn't go into full "special treatment" mode until later.

We would have gladly sat at the counter, but even though we'd arrived at 3pm to try to come at a slow time, the counter was full. So we took a seat in the little dining room at the side.

A little later, a lady in a Steelers jacket asked if I was Ralph. I confirmed that I was, and she introduced herself as John's wife. Apparently the younger John wasn't in that day, but had mentioned my message that I hoped to come by, so recognition began at last. And did we ever get special treatment!

The other nice lady brought us white bread, cornbread, and samples of the sauce to confirm that we wanted the "sweet and tangy" sauce instead of the mild.
The reddish brown sauce had the chunky texture of spaghetti sauce, with a strong tomato flavor. The Roadfood discussion had led me to expect celery seed in the sauce; I did taste that significantly, but perhaps I did so only because I was primed to do so. I'm sure that I haven't identified all the seasonings that went into it. The sauce was served steaming hot, which was novel to me. The mild sauce had some spicy heat, and Lori is heat-averse, so we confirmed our sweet and tangy choice.

The combo plate had the unglamorous presentation suitable to a barbecue joint:
I think the picture conveys the texture of the sauce.

I rolled up my sleeves, swept my hair back, made sure I knew where the stack of napkins was, and dove in.

The first thing that came to hand was a rib:
The rib was hearty and meaty, definitely a rib to gnaw instead of a plucking the meat away.

After a rib apiece, we came to the pork chop. This was a massive piece of meat, larger than a hand and an inch thick:
This was tender and juicy; I didn't use the knife and fork, but broke off tidbits to eat. I have no idea how it makes economic sense to serve such a huge piece of meat for $3.75--I'm surprised that covers the cost of the napkins required to eat it.

As we were trying to eat the pork chop, John came through, and we had a much better introduction. He was very enthusiastic about his place and his food, and we had a great time talking with him. He pointed out that he gets whole pork loins and cuts them into chops on-site, and he trims them so thick, because if he cuts them thinner, the texture would be "like a hockey puck".

He brought us a sample of his pulled pork, which we both quite liked; it was very soft, with a mellow flavor:

John then brought us a sample of his Italian sausage. It was really good, flavorful and juicy--he explained that the reason that it's so good is that when he gets far enough toward the end of a pork loin that it can no longer produce the massive thick chops he serves, he chops up the remainder for sausage.

We would have liked to have eaten more of everything, but even though we'd only had a bowl of cereal before coming, we were gorged to a degree that we had never reached in all our New Orleans eating.

John then showed us around the restaurant, including the pit. Somewhere in this conversation, I had an "Aha" realization that I probably should have had much earlier: This meat is not smoked. This meat is cooked over an open flame at very high heat:
The heat is so intense that it deforms the heavy metal grate; the grate has to be replaced every six months.

Knowing this makes everything make more sense. The pork chop makes a lot more sense as a specialty of the house; it's suited to fast cooking. Beef brisket isn't on the menu, and I wouldn't recommend it be added to the menu; the hot fast cooking wouldn't provide enough time to gelatinize the collagen.

Final conclusions:
- I would not come here for smoked meat; this is open-pit BBQ, cooked over a hot fire.
- The food was good, and the portions are so massive that the food-to-cost ratio is off the scale.
- I had a great time talking with John; if possible, I recommend talking with him about the restaurant and the food, because it really added to our enjoyment.
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