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Well done: The city's best barbecue. From a truck.
Story by Brock Radke
This is for the people who have been to my house for a barbecue. I know it was fun, I know it was good, and I know that once I write this, you might not want my ribs anymore. I’ve been cheating. It’s been going on for a long time, and I knew it was wrong, but it was fun and I couldn’t resist.
See, years ago, someone taught me a trick: how to get perfectly tender ribs without long hours of slow smoking. It’s not much of a trick, actually; it’s just steaming the meat. After grilling the seasoned ribs, I cut them into smaller sections and wrap them in air-tight aluminum foil packets with a generous splash of sweet, spicy barbecue sauce. Some indirect heat, an hour and a half later, the perfect fraud is complete.
I feel guilty now. I feel dirty. I’ve wronged you, Friend Who Eats My Ribs, and you deserve better. I’m ready to atone, but I need help: barbecue therapy. I need you to know I take our cookout relationship seriously, and I take this cuisine seriously. This is one of the most American things you can eat. There is wild variation in what we identify as barbecue, from Texas to Memphis to the Carolinas. Barbecue causes great arguments and it brings people together. To sauce or not to sauce? Pork or beef ribs? These are serious questions, and serious people spend time and resources perfecting this, their craft. And I’m just gonna throw some ribs in foil with sauce and say I’m giving it to you right? Never again.
The ’cue guru
To prove my dedication, I’ve found a guru. His name is Jimmy Cole and he comes from Cincinnati. I’ve never been there and I wouldn’t know if it’s a serious barbecue city, but I have been to Top Notch Barbeque. That’s where Jimmy cooks, and he cooks serious barbecue.
“Just the other day, a dude came through and he ordered a bunch of stuff, some chicken and ribs and a pulled pork sandwich,” he says. “He was eating it so fast, and he dropped his sandwich on the street. And then he picked it up and kept eating it! And then he got in a Benz and drove away.”
As the old saying goes, you know you’ve found great barbecue when a rich man eats pulled pork off the ground. Or something like that.
You probably haven’t been to Top Notch, but you will go now and try the ribs. It’s a mobile kitchen, a food truck, a catering business, and it’s usually stationed at Plant World on West Charleston Boulevard. I don’t think you should necessarily listen to what food critics or restaurant writers say or write, but you should know the majority of these guys in your city believe Top Notch smokes the best ribs in Vegas. Considering Jimmy has been up and running for less than a year, that’s pretty impressive. Not as impressive, however, as the ribs.
First things first: Get good meat. No more baby backs. From now on we’re getting giant, meaty spareribs. And we’re not leaning on the sauce — always too sugary — to bring the flavor. At Top Notch, the meat is the star of the show, followed closely by the spicy, rustic seasonings in the secret dry rub. Just like me, Jimmy has tried every barbecue joint in Vegas. And he found good stuff, too, but it could be better.
“The one in particular I like is H&H, which has a really strong following,” he says. “People told me I could be just like H&H. But I want to be different. When I moved out here 11 years ago, I fell in love with the desert. I love the Southwest and the scenery and the history, and I want to bring a little of that Wild West vibe to my barbecue.”
I examine his dry rub, stick my face in the big bucket of seasonings for a nice whiff, but he won’t share the recipe. He shouldn’t. There’s definitely paprika in there, black pepper, garlic, a little sugar—
“That’s all you get,” he says. Fair enough.
Pow in your mouth
The ribs are prepped — which includes tearing off the membrane underneath, since it prevents seasoning from sinking in — and then rubbed deeply with spices, and left to marinate for at least a day. Then, early in the morning, they go on the grill in the hot smoker. Jimmy likes to use apple or pecan woods, sometimes a little hickory. The initial heat seals in the juices and starts to build a spice crust; then the temperature comes down to around 250 degrees. The ribs will cook for at least three hours.
“Anything more than 300 degrees and you’re gonna burn ’em up,” he says. Don’t worry, I won’t do that.
The ribs are Jimmy’s favorite thing on the Top Notch menu. Mine, too. They really are huge, so much meat on each bone, and unbelievably tender and juicy. Sometimes “falling off the bone” can mean overcooked and dried out, and that never happens here. You can really taste the pork, but those spices are just a wonderful punch in the mouth. A little smoky, a little salty, a powerful zing. It’s a new taste for barbecue in Las Vegas.
Of course, I’m not going to completely steal it for my next cookout, and I couldn’t if I wanted to. But I will take some of these new tricks, and I will give you the real thing next time you come over to my house. I swear, I’m a changed man. The cheating is over.
For more information on Top Notch Barbeque, visit www.topnotchbarbeque.com.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
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May/June 2010: “All up in your grill.” Secret summer recipes from top chefs
February 2011: “Best of the city.” Read about all the other best dishes in the valley
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