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HOBBY: Finding the perfect BBQ joint

Mar 15, 2023

Joe Hobby

I love me some BBQ. That's because I’m southern, and it's the law. If you cut me, I will probably bleed smoky, sweet, red sauce. Any kind of meat is fine, but I have a strong lean toward pork ribs. I firmly believe a properly barbecued pigsicle can change your life faster than a Baptist preacher's sermon.

I will eat BBQ anywhere, but my favorite places are always the joints. For those of you that don't know, a BBQ restaurant is not a BBQ joint. Let me elaborate. Once I ate in a BBQ establishment in Kansas City that had white tablecloths. It was decent ‘cue, but white tablecloths? Just a few miles away was another place that had a policeman patrolling the parking lot and an old screen door in front. That, my friends, is a joint.

To be a true BBQ joint you have to be a little scared to go inside. Start with a sketchy part of town. Concrete block exteriors are always a good sign. Maybe it's been added on to a couple of times. A BBQ joint can even be a part of a gas station. And you’re on the right track if there's a gravel parking lot with a couple of State Trooper cars out front - unless their blue lights are flashing. Then it might be best to eat somewhere else.

Once inside, a proper BBQ joint needs to have lots of stuff hanging on the walls, mostly from the college football teams in the state. Traffic signs, and fake metal snuff ads will not do. Those reeks of Applebee's. Photos of old football coaches are especially desirable. I went in one place that had an ancient, yellowed picture of a young Bobby Bowden. That's perfect.

It also helps if there's any type of neon sign prominently displayed. Bonus points are awarded if some of the letters don't light up. Then you could have an udweiser or an iller beer.

One place that meets all the requirements of a BBQ joint is Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Now the place is an icon, with notoriety that goes far beyond the south. But it wasn't always that way. Years ago, I took a friend from Florida to the original location because he "wanted some good ribs." I almost laughed out loud watching the color drain from his face when we left the main road and entered a rough part of town. He looked on either side and saw carnage that resembled Berlin just after World War Two. We drove on in silence for another mile before I turned off the paved road on to a gravel one. About 200 yards later, I made a left into a dirt parking lot and pulled up to one of the telephone poles laying on the ground. We were facing an old red cinder block building. Hello, Dreamland.

My buddy looked at me with a mixture of fear and anger then asked, "What are we doing now?"

"We’re gonna eat ribs. You said you wanted good ribs."

"You are out of your mind if you think I’m going in there," he responded sternly.

"Look around at all the cars. It's fine. I’ve been here lots of times. C’mon. Let's go."

"I’m not going."

I pointed to a couple of white Ford Crown Vics with small antennas on their trunks. "See those? They’re state vehicles. Probably cops. This place is safe. Now get out of the car."

Still not quite convinced, he sauntered towards the front door like it was the Green Mile.

We settled into an old vinyl booth, and immediately our waitress brought us a half a loaf of white bread along with a cup of sauce.

She smiled a gap-toothed smile and said, "Y’all ready?"

I responded, "Yeah. I’ll order for both of us."

"Wait," he interrupted. "You don't know what I want."

"I know what you’re gonna get."

Turning to the waitress he asked, "Can I have some baked beans?"

"Nope. Ain't got any."

"What about coleslaw?"

She looked at me and we exchanged knowing glances. Then she said firmly, "Look, we got ribs, white bread, chips, Cokes, and beer. That's it. That's all we got."

Properly chastised, my friend slinked in his seat.

I smiled said, "Bring us a slab and a couple of Cokes, please. Thanks, Joanette."

"Wait! You know her name?"

I laughed. "Told you I’ve been here before."

Shortly, the ribs arrived and my buddy took a large, meaty bite. Soon he was attacking his plate with the gusto of a lion who had just killed an antelope. After about half a slab, he looked up at me and without wiping the sauce from his face, said, "Ribs this good don't need nothing else with them."

Bingo. That's the final trait of a BBQ joint. Great ‘cue. Sides can be just okay, but that's what they are - sides. BBQ is always the star of the show. It had better be good. And at Dreamland is. Somehow, ribs you eat in a BBQ joint just seems to taste better than those in a BBQ restaurant - especially one with fancy white tablecloths.

I’ll take a cop in the parking lot anytime.

Joe Hobby is a comedian from Alabama who wrote for Jay Leno for many years.

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