Where We've Been: 17th St. BBQ

Tie goes to the sides in the hotly contested campaign to declare the state’s best ribs

 The distinctive pink ring sacred to all barbecue aficionados is clear on 17th Street BBQ ribs. (Facebook/17th Street Barbecue)

The distinctive pink ring sacred to all barbecue aficionados is clear on 17th Street BBQ ribs. (Facebook/17th Street Barbecue)

By Ted Cox

One Illinois is prepared to declare a winner in what is perpetually the most hotly contested race in the state.

The best ribs in Illinois are at 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro.

Now, we well know that every town in Illinois worth its salt has a contender for best barbecue, with gourmands and gourmets in every city ready to defend their favorites.

The best we’ve had, again, are at 17th Street BBQ, appropriately enough at 32 N. 17th St.

First, a few matters of culinary aesthetics. We’re not fans of parboiled, moist, barbecued ribs that fall off the bone — known to barbecue aficionados as “meat Jell-O” — as found at Chicago’s renowned Twin Anchors, said to be a favorite of Frank Sinatra. (Hey, Ole Blue Eyes was wrong about Jack Daniel’s, too.)

Rather, we like them smoked, low and slow, to quote the great pit master Gary Wiviott. They ought to be meaty, and hold to the bone, with of course that distinctive pink ring just under surface that all barbecue purists know to look for. At the same time, they must, yes, still be moist, but naturally so.

On that note, we’re going to take issue with Chicago’s other great contender, Smoque, which has been a little dry, both for the baby backs and the St. Louis ribs, the last couple of times we’ve had them.

We tried 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro on our first visit to Carbondale, in May, and returned there last weekend. On a busy Friday night, with President Trump slated to be in town the following day for a campaign rally at Southern Illinois Airport, the place was packed, but we were still seated in a matter of minutes, while our cocktails were still fresh, and the ribs were succulent as ever, moist and meaty and smoked to pink-ring perfection.

A busy Friday night with a packed house is the true test for a rib joint, especially one that prides itself on slow smoking, and 17th Street didn’t just pass, it excelled.

 17th Street BBQ also had a stand at the State Fair in Springfield this summer, but the Murphysboro location is the best. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

17th Street BBQ also had a stand at the State Fair in Springfield this summer, but the Murphysboro location is the best. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

But what really sets 17th Street BBQ apart are the sides, the Achilles’ heel of almost all great barbecue restaurants. And what is it with the white bread traditionally served at the top African-American rib joints? We’d put Honey 1 BBQ on Chicago’s South Side up against any rib place in the state if it weren’t for the white bread included with each order. What’s up with that?

By contrast, 17th Street not only has appetizers like southern-fried dill pickles that have been featured in The New York Times, and onion straws with a delicious dipping sauce made in house, it has fresh collards and brisket-seasoned green beans, both of which are accented with bits of meat, no doubt scraped as the leavings off a carving board.

They’re almost as good as the ribs — almost, but not quite. As it stands, however, they’re the perfect complement.

It also has a succulent brisket (we’d like to compare that side to side with Smoque’s), steaks, burgers, sandwiches, potatoes, and salads, but the ribs are to die for.

The 17th Street BBQ franchise includes a larger, more conventional restaurant just off I-57 in Marion at 2700 17th St. And it also had a stand at the State Fair in Springfield this summer. But the original location in Murphysboro is the best, hands down. It’s woody and welcoming and well worth the half-hour drive from the interstate — the best damn rib place in Illinois.

But if you’ve got a favorite you’d like to put up against it, mention it in the comments below this story on the One Illinois Facebook page, and we’ll try to check it out when we’re in the area.

The great thing about elections is there’s always another one around the corner if your candidate doesn’t win this time around. Keep that in mind next week, but be sure to vote Tuesday in any case.