The best-selling ribs at Bar-B-Q Express in Marshall aren’t smoked. The fried ribs are the daily special every Wednesday, and they’ve garnered a following of their own. “I have a customer that buys three or four racks of fried ribs every week,” owner Herbert White told me during a recent visit. After my third rib I was informed that I’d gotten lucky in my timing. When the ribs sold out earlier than usual the day before, White promised a few miffed customers who came in too late that he’d cook more the following day. That’s how I got fried ribs on a Thursday.
White says the building that houses Bar-B-Q Express has been around for more than a century. He opened the barbecue joint two decades ago, and kept the menu pretty much the same until 2015. That’s when he added the rotating soul food specials like meat loaf, turkey necks, chicken spaghetti, veal “cutlass,” and fried ribs. Instead of just slaw, beans, and potato salad, you can choose from a menu display of red beans, cream peas, and yams. My favorite was the cabbage cooked down with bacon fat. “There’s no water in that cabbage,” White said, explaining its hard-to-fathom savory quality.
It took some time to warm up to the fried ribs. If you eat first with your eyes, the initial “taste” of the fried ribs isn’t a good one. They were jumbled together in a steam tray, and looked like logs of soggy tofu with bones. By mid-afternoon, nothing about the breading was still crisp. Three ribs were heaped into a Styrofoam container, and I expected disappointment back in my driver’s seat. I took a bite, then another. Before I knew it, the first rib bone was clean, and I was on to the second. Biting into the third rib, I knew I needed to head back inside to see how they’re made.
What was the secret? Herbert White was more vague than humble. “All my food is seasoned to perfection,” he said with a smile. His fried rib rub, which is from Missouri, is different than the seasoning used on the smoked ribs. Racks of spare ribs are cut into individual bones, then seasoned, breaded, and fried in the morning. “Don’t forget to remove the membrane,” White reminded. I wanted one straight out of the fryer, but he demurred. That’s just the first part of the process. After frying, they’re placed in a hotel pan, covered, and baked until tender. The less-than-crisp outer layer was not a mid-afternoon flaw but part of the recipe’s design.
White wouldn’t reveal any more about the fried ribs, but he did offer his secret to barbecue. He said you must recognize how the pores in the meat are reacting to the heat, and know that “they’re still opening and closing” during the smoking process. Closed pores don’t take on the smoke and seasoning the same way that open pores do. He didn’t explain how to open or close them, but he’s doing something right, judging by what I tried of the smoked ribs. On a busy Friday he might smoke sixteen racks, but he needs just four racks on a Wednesday. They’re no match for the fried spare ribs at Bar-B-Q Express.