To eat a rack of ribs is to give in to getting messy. From sticky fingers to glaze stains to tearing meat from the bone with your teeth, ribs demand that you put self-consciousness aside and get primal for a while. When the ribs are luscious and tender, and the fat melts into your mouth, it can feel like a reward. What could be better to eat during a year when little has gone to plan?
Many begin their lifelong rib journey with the crimson-stained spare ribs of a Chinese takeout spot, eventually seguing to heartier, smoked baby back ribs, or velvety beef short ribs braised in wine, or the molten fat and sticky-sweet glaze of St. Louis-style ribs. Lamb ribs, or rack of lamb, are a treat most people don’t discover until well into adulthood.
Yet when talking ribs, though, we usually mean pork, and the blossoming of the barbecue scene on Long Island in recent years means some exceptional pork ribs now lurk among us. They primarily fall into three camps: Baby backs, spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs, all cut from the rib cage of a pig but from different areas. Starting at the spine (backbone) and then outward along the curvature of the abdomen, hugging the belly, butchers cut these rib cages into sections, aka racks, and the names of those racks refer to which segment of the rib cage they come from.
Baby back ribs are the portion of the ribs closest to the backbone, usually cut 3 to 6 inches long, and the meatiest of the group. Lean and neat, they command the highest price. They are usually not as tender at St. Louis ribs, which are found just to the outer edge of baby back ribs and tend to be thinner and flatter.
Spare ribs are what’s left once the baby backs are cut off. Because these are the ribs that hug the belly — also known as bacon — they are also fatty and flavorful, but more irregularly shaped. A rack of spareribs is not as neatly presented as a rack of baby backs, and these are the ribs you usually find in Chinese restaurants.
Anyone who has brought together pork and flame knows how easily the meat can dry out. Chefs counter this via exceptionally low and slow cooking, usually for hours in a smoker or oven. Dry rubs and marinades bestow further layers of flavor, and while chefs keep those ingredients top-secret, they might use anything from five-spice powder to orange marmalade in the quest for rib greatness. We are the better for it.
Here are some of the best places to get ribs on Long Island.
Backyard Barbecue (300 Woodcleft Ave., Freeport): It’s been about two years since Archie Ware, a former Town of Hempstead sanitation worker, embarked on a second career as a restaurateur, opening his own place on the Nautical Mile in Freeport. Decades of experience helming his own backyard smoker led Ware to some fine instances of brisket, sausage, pulled pork and spare ribs. But his brontosaurus-sized beef ribs are in a class by themselves. You get only one of these mammoth bones — with meat that’s marbled rather than fatty, juicy and perfectly seasoned — for $45, but you’ll likely not regret a penny of it. When asked if they were worth the expense, our server didn’t hesitate. “If heaven has ribs, they’ll be just like these.” Indeed. More info: 516-771-4227, bbqonthemile.com
Mighty Quinn’s (829 Franklin Ave., Garden City): Long Island’s newest rib purveyor is an eastern branch of Mighty Quinn’s in New York City. Owner Jason Wotman and pitmaster Richard Pena follow the mothership’s recipe to the letter: St. Louis ribs are treated to a proprietary dry rub and are then smoked for up to five hours until they reach the perfect point of tenderness — while still requiring teeth to gnaw off the bone. Mighty Quinn’s also serves a Flintstone-ian “brontosaurus” rib, a bone-in beef short rib that spends 14 hours in the smoker. Spare ribs are $10.25 for 4, $14.95 for 6, or $26.95 for a full rack of 12; the brontosaurus rib is $35. More info: 516-544-2844, mightyquinnsbbq.com
Smoked Barn (2932 Hempstead Tpke., Levittown): Owner-pitmaster Renzo Vargas makes no bones about it: St. Louis ribs have more fat than baby backs, and that means more flavor. And, because smoked meats are traditionally held outside the smoker for a few hours, the fat also keeps the meat moist. Like all pitmasters, Vargas is mum on his rub ingredients but will allow that a key element is coffee from his native Peru. His ribs, like all of his meats, are served dry with both traditional BBQ sauce and a piquant Peruvian green sauce on the side. A half rack is $13, while a full is $26. More info: 516-396-9892
Smōk-Haüs (7 Twelfth St., Garden City): This “gourmet roadside eatery” may sport a few too many diacritical marks, but it has many other things to recommend it — not least its popular baby back ribs ($20 for a half-rack, $32 for a full, both with two sides). Since 2018, owner Manny Voumvourakis and company have been generously seasoning rack after rack of them with an overnight house rub and then smoking them the next day in oak wood. The results are exceptional. Biting through a crunchy, perfectly caramelized exterior is but the first pleasure in this first-order rib experience; inside is a superb tenderness born more of muscle than fat. The meat still clings to the bone, yes, but only the gentlest of tugs is necessary to release it. More info: 516-833-6633, smok-haus.com
Albert’s Mandarin Gourmet (269 New York Ave., Huntington): Chinese restaurant trends come and go, from soup dumplings to pupu platters, but barbecued spare ribs are seemingly eternal. Even a middling Chinese restaurant usually does a good job with ribs; a good Chinese restaurant, like Albert’s Mandarin Gourmet, ensures their place in the pantheon of great starters. The traditional preparation calls for racks to be hung in a vertical smoker-oven, which allows the fat to drip off and the meat to achieve peak chewiness. Lacquered with a sweet-salty glaze that also bears the haunting flavors of Chinese five-spice powder, these ribs give gnawing a good name. $12.50 for a small order, $21.95 for large. More info: 631-673-8188, mandaringourmetli.com
Green Hill Kitchen (48 Front St., Greenport): Matty Boudreau, whose local fine-dining credits include Preston House in Riverhead and Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor (in addition to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Balthazar in Manhattan), nursed a serious smoking habit for a decade before signing on as pitmaster-in-chief at Green Hill. His ribs of choice are baby backs, which he considers cleaner, leaner and altogether more consistent than St. Louis. After smoking them over cherrywood, Boudreau finishes them “Memphis style,” with a thin layer of honeyed sauce and a quick grill to add char to the already-complex flavors. A half rack is $21, and a full rack is $33. More info: 631-477-4900), greenhillny.com
Vic’s Heart N Soul Food Truck (in the parking lot of Home Depot, 346 Middle Country Rd., Coram, on Saturday afternoons): It’s not hard to miss Vic’s Heart N Soul food truck, wrapped as it is in crimson red and golden yellow, sort of like a giant flame. The trick is to catch it during its fleeting Saturday afternoon appearances at the Home Depot in Coram, when owner Victor Hickson and his family set up shop until everything they’ve prepared that day is sold out. That includes the fall-from-the-bone St Louis-style and spare ribs, dry rubbed with salt, pepper, brown sugar and other spices before spending hours in Hickson’s backyard smoker. There, they acquire fall-apart tenderness and a patchwork of char marks before being sheathed in a sticky honey-butter glaze. $25 per rack. More info: 631-223-1620, vicsheartnsoul.com