Mike Mills makes the best barbecued ribs I've ever tasted. I've eaten a lot of barbecue across the southern United States, but his stand head and shoulders above anything else I've tried.
Mills owns a small, otherwise ordinary looking restaurant in a tiny Southern Illinois college town called Murphysboro. Like many other people, I learned of Mills from Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, who wrote of his unprecedented three Grand Championships at the Memphis in May BBQ World Championships. My buddy Matt and I drove from New York to visit both the restaurant and the Memphis in May competition back in 2000, and we were simply blown away at Mills' amazing ribs.
Real barbecue cooks slowly over wood smoke and low heat. It takes about four hours to cook a rack of ribs, during which time the fat renders, tenderizing the tough rib meat and connective tissue in the process. Spicy dry rub and smoke penetrate the meat as moisture and fat slowly escape, coloring the outer later of meat with a rosy pink smoke ring. There's a 20 minute window when the ribs are perfectly cooked. When two rib bones are pulled apart, the meat should stay attached to them, and tear easily between the ribs. "Falling off the bone" ribs are overcooked and mushy.
Competitive barbecue teams expend a lot of effort to deliver one perfectly cooked rack to the judges. They'll stagger ribs at 20 minute intervals so one rack will be peaking at the exact moment they're judged. Restaurant pitmasters can't afford to be so picky. They start cooking large batches hours in advance of mealtime and you'll get what you get: Mama Bear, Papa Bear, or Baby Bear.
What we got on that visit to Mills' Illinois restaurant near closing time on a slow weekday was Baby Bear: a perfectly
cooked rack of ribs. Also: the best baked beans I've ever tasted, great coleslaw, and amazing cornbread. Barbecue restaurants usually focus on the meat and make lousy sides. Not here. It was simply the best barbecue meal I'd ever eaten.
Fast forward to 2001: Mills had partnered with a Vegas businessman and opened up 4 corporatized restaurants with faux down-homey decor. Just as Vegas apes New York, Venice, and Paris, these restaurants mimic what a barbecue restaurant in small town America might look like, tongue firmly embedded in corporate cheek. Think TGI Friday meets county fair.
I visited about a year after their openings, and the Vegas store's food was a faded, illegible facsimile of the Illinois original. I'm glad to report things have improved in four years.
We started with a basket of fried dill pickles, which I loved. Thick waffle cut slices are dredged in a flour heavily seasoned with cayenne and Mills' dry rub. Fried crisp, spicy and rather salty, these might be the ultimate beer snack.
We ordered the massive Mama Faye's combo of baby backs, chicken, beef brisket, pulled pork and hot links:
The Memphis style baby back ribs are Mills' specialty and my favorite of all the meats. They're cooked with what's oxymoronically called a wet dry rub. The ribs are mopped with apple cider near the end of cooking, and dry rub is reapplied, leaving a moist spicy sweet coating that tastes great without sauce. The other meats? Nice, but not nearly as distinctive as the ribs. Next time, I'd order just the baby backs and call it a day.
A food epiphany like the one I had in Illinois doesn't happen often. I realize I'm judging Jan by Marcia's accomplishments here. Really, Jan is terrific. Definitely stop in when you're in Vegas. But that Marcia. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!Memphis Championship Barbecue
2250 Warm Springs Rd.
Las Vegas, NV
1401 S. Rainbow Blvd
4949 N. Rancho Dr
Las Vegas, NV
4379 Las Vegas Blvd
North Las Vegas, NV
702-644-000017th Street Bar & Grill
32 North 17th Street
Murphysboro, IL 62966
2700 17th Street
Marion, IL 62959
PS: I picked up Mills' new book, called Peace, Love and Barbecue, which is one of the better colections of barbecue lore I've read. It also lists recipes for some of my favorite dishes from his restaurants. The award winning ribs, his Magic Dust dry rub recipe, the baked beans, the fried dill pickles: they're in there. I'll write a book review after I've had a chance to go through it more thoroughly.