Classic American BBQ Gets a Flavorful Facelift

Barbecue variations are abundant and offer nuanced flavors across the U.S.

Anointing a winner in the age-old smoke-filled debate over who produces the best barbecue in the land is futile. The Carolinas? Texas or Kansas City? What about Alabama? 

As in politics and professional sports, everyone’s already picked a side. 

The smarter play may be to defy tradition altogether. According to a recent menu trends report from foodservice research firm Datassential, more than a third of respondents had recently eaten some version of barbecue, while a whopping 75 percent “love or like” ribs. That’s incentive enough for chefs to experiment with border-defying barbecue, especially ribs that can appeal to barbecue lovers of all stripes. 

Using atypical bones, like fish or lamb ribs, can cost half the price of baby backs, but command similar menu prices. Looking to Asian and Indian classics for inspiration can offer nuanced spice flavors that work well as sauces and rubs. 

Successful operators across the country are stoking a smokehouse revolution. At Junoon in New York, Chef Akshay Bhardwaj has no trouble selling his cold-smoked masala ribs as an appetizer for $23. Chef Sharon Nahm of E&O in San Francisco says tamarind-hoisin spare ribs are always best-sellers. 

“Ribs are a great vehicle for layered flavors, especially the sweet, salty, tangy, umami combinations that I grew up with,” says Nahm, who is Korean.


At ROOH in San Francisco, Chef Sujan Sarkar’s Kashmiri lamb ribs infuse the avors of kabargah (a classic Northern Indian dish of mutton or goat cooked in yogurt and spices) onto gamey lamb ribs. “Customers don’t expect lamb cooked this way,” says Sarkar, “because they’re used to chops and curry.” 

 Marinating ribs in yogurt not only tenderizes, it also drives the spices deeper into the meat. Braising the ribs in milk spiked with saffron and chili salt re-energizes these flavors before the ribs are short-fried. A jalapeno-spiked apricot glaze paired with a cool radish and yogurt chutney creates a spicy-sweet balance that’s as creamy as a bowl of raita.

EXPERT ADVICE: American lamb is younger and milder than Indian varieties, so don’t over-season and make sure to ask your vendor for smaller ribs. Sarkar recommends lamb bones that are 4 inches long to ensure maximum tenderness. 

THE APPEAL: These lamb ribs are an important part of Sarkar’s mission to marry California ingredients with regional Indian flavors. Using off-cuts like lamb ribs helps stabilize overall food costs and keeps prices low.


Intent on introducing guests to a new way to enjoy fish, the kitchen at the Herringbone Las Vegas lacquers meaty ribs from pacu, a South American freshwater fish that’s related to the piranha, with a cranberry-chipotle barbecue sauce.

THE PREP: “Pacu have a well-balanced avor that’s perfect for baking, frying or grilling,” says Executive Sous Chef Nick Aoki. He keeps things simple, seasoning with salt and pepper, then tossing in lemon juice and olive oil to keep them from sticking to the grill. They’re flipped, brushed with a cranberry-chipotle sauce percolating with tart, sweet and spicy notes and nished on the grill for three minutes for extra crispiness.

EXPERT ADVICE: Butcher pacu ribs like you would any other rib, making sure to leave the bone on for extra flavor. They should look meaty. The key is to grill them more quickly than pork or beef to maintain their moisture. 

THE APPEAL: Educating the waitsta on the intricacies of an unconventional rib dish is critical to boosting sales. “Some guests can be a little timid,” says Aoki, “but once they understand what they are, they really enjoy them.”


Inspired by his travels along the Mississippi Delta, Chef Adam Wendt of The Delta in Chicago wanted to create ribs that tasted like an edible travelogue of his journey, pulling inspiration from dry rubs in Memphis, steamy cooking methods from northern Mississippi and the smoky avors of Vicksburg, Mississippi. 

THE PREP: To achieve a firm yet tender texture, Wendt brines his bones for 12 to 24 hours, coats them with a spice rub, then braises in chicken stock until tender. By letting them cool overnight, the ribs form a pellicle that protects the meat from drying out when he hard-smokes them the following day. On the pickup, the ribs are grilled over a wood fire and basted with sherry caramel.

EXPERT ADVICE: Gilding ribs with a little extra flavor is no sin, which is why Wendt tops his ribs with an onion crema and fried shaved shallots to offer a balance of sweet and savory flavors. 

THE APPEAL: The 48-seat Delta sells close to 80 orders a week. “Ribs are essential to the Delta experience, but these are really different,” says Wendt. “(They’re) ribs from the whole state of Mississippi in one experience.”


Rib Tips

Four golden rules for better ribs

If you’re pressed for time, season and wrap ribs in foil and roast them at 300 F, which mimics low-and-slow smoking techniques. 

Conduct daily pre-shift tastings with servers so they can relay what’s unique about your ribs to guests. 

At Junoon, Chef Akshay Bhardwaj generates tenderness by cold-smoking ribs with hickory chips and charcoal before vacuum-sealing them in a vindaloo glaze and cooking them sous vide. 

E&O in San Francisco offers its ribs— which have become a popular pairing for drinks—as a happy hour special.