Restaurant: Barney's Memphis Style Ribes, Racine, WisconsinBarney’s Memphis Style Ribs
2920 Taylor Ave
Racine, WI 53405

(262) 636-0051

Update: Barney’s Memphis Style Ribs closed in November 2006 and was replaced in March 2007 by Teddy & Vic’s Pig n’ Out Barbecue. The Pig n’ Out menu looks similar (right down to “The Famous Stockade Chicken”), but we haven’t eaten there yet.

Here in the upper Midwest, it’s nearly impossible to find the true, smoky pork goodness of barbecue ribs as they’re enjoyed in, say, Memphis or Kansas City or Texas or Arkansas. Here, people brag about rib meat falling off the bone (because they’re braised beef short ribs), “barbecue” can mean bratwursts and burgers quick-broiled over flaming charcoal, and there’s way too much focus on the sauce, as if some secret ingredient is more important than the meat.

Elsewhere, ribs are pork meat that you gently tug from the bone with your teeth, and “barbecue” involves more smoke than fire. But elsewhere is at least 600 miles away, so I was very excited to watch the vacant building which once housed the Stockade being slowly remodeled into Barney’s Memphis Style Ribs. After the place had been open a couple of weeks, my wife and I gave it a try.

The dining room was clean and white and adorned with a few Elvis hangings, but too spare and brightly lit. The tables were tiny. The music was Nashville pop, not Memphis R&B, and the wait staff was so eager that they were asking for our drink orders before we even reached the table and took off our coats. Barney’s is still very new. I imagine it may develop over time.

The prices listed on the menu seemed pretty darned steep: $19.95 for a full rack of baby back ribs and two sides (your choice of beans, cole slaw, French fries or mashed potatoes). We cautiously split an order. Also on the menu are battered cod or perch dinners, chicken (for example, eight pieces with fries at $11.95), five sandwiches and five appetizers.

Our ribs arrived in a plastic basket, with yellow food service rolls and the two sides in small plastic cups. The tableware was plastic as well.

Barney's Memphis Style RibsThe baby back ribs were small, not particularly meaty (I would have preferred bigger spare ribs), and simply too dry. Memphis style ribs are customarily prepared with a dry spice rub. Sauce, if desired at all, is available on the table. Barney’s spice rub was actually pretty good — not too thickly applied, zingy yet subtle — but the whole trick to this style of ribs is to still retain the natural pork juices (often with the help of a vinegar-based “mop sauce” during smoking). That part needs work.

Also, true Memphis-style ribs are slowly smoked to doneness, not grilled. Generally, this smoke wafts a hunger-inducing aroma over the surrounding block and beyond. At Barney’s, we couldn’t detect the smoke inside or out, and it wasn’t in the meat as much as it should be either. According to the menu, the ribs here are smoked and then finished on the grill.

The side dishes were perfunctory. The cole slaw was standard food service issue, the beans a calico-style recipe that seemed a little more homemade. Beverage choices included a few beers and Pepsi products.

Our servers were perfectly friendly and attentive young women in red Barney’s T-shirts.

It’s heartening to see someone refurbishing a building on a key intersection, and it’s thrilling to see them attempting what amounts to a foreign cuisine in these parts. I hope this restaurant matures. Maybe they’ll discover bigger, juicier ribs, dim the lights, and perhaps buy some B.B. King or Rufus Thomas CDs. I’ll probably go back after a while to find out, because I love good ribs and Memphis is a 10 and a half hour drive from here. Rogers, Arkansas is over 12 hours.”