Just back from lunch with Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, a Chicago freelance writer and photographer in Sacramento for the weekend to judge at the California State Fair wine competition.
But ribs were at the top of his to-do list upon arriving in town, largely because they are the topic of his next book. He's been traveling about the country for the past year, searching for the best rib joints, and by the talk he'd seen on various online culinary chat sites he figured the hottest place in Sacramento for barbecue would be JR's Texas Bar-B-Que just off 47th Avenue in the south city. (Actually, hot dogs were at the top of his to-do list. They're the subject of the book he plans to write after he wraps up his rib book. Thus, on the way to JR's he stopped at a Wienerschnitzel - "They don't have them in Chicago" - where he didn't care for the chili cheese dog but found the Chicago-style hot dog "pretty good.")
At any rate, he seemed to have a good time at JR's. It's a barny joint with a pool table, plastic forks, Styrofoam cups and a couple of huge TV's with CNN on one screen, soccer on the other. "It's like there's an unwritten code for barbecue joints - don't spend any money on the decor," said Goldwyn.
We sampled about every meat on the menu. Goldwyn seemed to especially like the smokiness given the meats from the mesquite that fuels the smokers, the spirited spice rub on the beef ribs, and some of the brisket, but all the meats, including the pork ribs, tended to be a bit dry to his bite. That's pretty much a standard drawback at rib joints, he's found. Proprietors tend to let the meat sit too long once it's out of the cooker. "It's gutsy of him to serve (these meats) without sauce," said Goldwyn, explaining that a lot of barbecue places coat their brisket, ribs and the like generously with sauce to compensate for the dryness of the meat. (At JR's, various sauces are served on the side, all of which got a thumbs-up from Goldwyn. "They're true Texas style. They're spicy but not sweet.")
After visiting about 100 barbecue restaurants, what's the best he's found so far? "Honest to God, I make them, and I tell people how they can do them on my Web site," says Goldwyn. There's just no substitute to serving ribs right from the cooker, not giving them any time to dry out, he adds.
Let's try again: Where's the best restaurant ribs in the country? "I'll sound like a homey, but it's Honey 1 in Chicago. They're moister, and moisture is important in ribs. Great ribs also have to have a pork flavor, and they do."
In his book, however, he doesn't intend to rank rib joints. He doesn't want to divulge the approach he's taking that he is confident will set his book apart from several others that have been published lately, so let's just say it promises to be imaginative, personal and fresh.
Though he wished the meats at JR's were juicier, he was impressed by the personality, popularity and size of the place. As we left, four Sacramento police officers walked in. "It's a cop hangout. That's the stamp of approval," said Goldwyn.