It was getting dark when I headed south out of Austin. Houston was my destination for the night, but I’d gotten a tip about the ribs at Dos Rios, a Tex-Mex restaurant in New Braunfels. It was a heck of a detour, but I was getting desperate. I’d been searching the state, following leads from strangers, to find a great rack of Tex-Mex ribs. After seven restaurants, and just as many disappointments, I held on to hope as tightly as I gripped my steering wheel on Interstate 35 during rush hour. Driving through New Braunfels, I passed the massive Bavarian murals painted on the building that houses the annual Wurstfest. The sight spurred a moment of clarity. I was forced to face the fact that my logic had been blinded by my mission. How else to explain that I somehow still honestly anticipated that I might discover a revelatory rack of ribs at a Tex-Mex restaurant in this most German of Texas towns? I’d lost it.
Yet, some days later, I was back at it again. I’d heard good things about an Austin Tex-Mex joint with beef ribs on the menu. I was encouraged to learn that the ribs aren’t done until one o’clock, so are not available to the lunch crowd. They must take their time with the ribs, I thought. I planned a visit, even though I’d already complained to my editor that this quest was fruitless. He advised that I should cut my losses on the time and money I’d already spent to find a sizzling plancha of pork perfection. But I couldn’t help myself from wanting a baby-back-shaped bow with which to tie up this article. So I rationalized. After all, I only had two stops remaining, out of the ten on my list.
The reward for my persistence? A plate that would make any pitmaster shudder landed on my table. A six-bone rack of beef back ribs had been cut in half, steamed to tenderness, and stacked on the plate without so much as a leaf of lettuce for garnish. No seasoning was visible on the meat, which was only a shade of gray darker than the bones. I reached for the chips and pushed the plate away to avoid the steamy aroma of boiled beef. A photo of this sad plate might elicit sympathy from a casual observer, but my editor knew better. “The fault is mine for continuing the search,” I texted along with a photo. “Yep, your own fault,” he replied.
Really though, I blame Michael Sambrooks. After a meal at his Houston Tex-Mex restaurant Candente, I talked with Sambrooks about the smoked ribs I had enjoyed there. They were glazed with a chipotle barbecue sauce and garnished with cilantro and cotija cheese. When asked about the inspiration for those ribs, he said, “The Tex-Mex ribs are kind of a play on, you know, those ribs you always get at the Tex-Mex places.” I interrupted him. I had never ordered ribs at a Tex-Mex place. He mentioned the tender, saucy ribs at places like Lupe Tortilla and Pappasito’s. I was curious, and as a food writer always looking for a new angle on barbecue, I took the bait. A week later I waited for my order of ribs at the original Ninfa’s in Houston while munching on warm tortilla chips and sipping a margarita.
Like at most Tex-Mex restaurants that serve ribs, at Ninfa’s they’re available as an add-on to a fajita platter. It costs $12 to add six baby back ribs, and the server let me order them a la carte. With the chips, salsa, and warm tortillas, it seemed like a great deal. The ribs were fine, but nothing more. Chopped cilantro and a spiced-up barbecue sauce coated their back side. The meat side was resting on a bed of onions and peppers on the sizzling platter. Pulling the rib meat into a tortilla with a little hot sauce was the way to go. The ribs had spent most of their cooking time in an oven and didn’t have much flavor on their own, but the presentation was made for Instagram.
The top-shelf margarita was better across the street at El Tiempo. The server looked confused when I ordered the ribs, which weren’t exactly hidden on the menu. She retreated to the kitchen, certain that the cooks would tell her they no longer serve them. Maybe nobody orders the ribs at El Tiempo, but they do make them. Sadly, the best part about them was the side cup of garlic butter that was great on the tortillas.
The best deal on ribs is at Pappasito’s. During lunch, an uncut half rack of Sito’s baby back ribs with rice and beans is $13.95, and they’re a dollar less on Fridays. The ribs actually looked like they’d been finished over a flame. At Lupe Tortilla, the ribs are cut individually, coated in chipotle barbecue sauce, and laid onto a hot plancha along with beef and chicken fajitas. The sauce caramelizes or burns depending on how long you let them sizzle.
Many of the ribs I tried were described as smoked. At Papacita’s in Longview (not to be mistaken for the Houston-based chain Pappasito’s), the “Mesquite Smoked Ribs” are described as having been “slow cooked over wood” on the menu. The only way there’s any truth to that is if the oven they’re steamed in sits on a wood floor. At Uncle Julio’s, a full rack of baby back ribs at least tasted like smoke. They were honestly the best of the bunch, which is not to be taken as a recommendation. I’m not saying they were bad, but I think every plate of ribs I sampled would disappoint barbecue lovers who have expectations about what smoked ribs should taste like.
I embarked upon this search knowing that none of these restaurants specialized in ribs. I wasn’t looking for Top 50 contenders, but I thought it would be like ranking the best glam-rock ballads of the late eighties and early nineties. You wouldn’t buy the album for just that song, but you wouldn’t skip the track either. The “November Rain” of Tex-Mex ribs was the goal. Heck, I would have settled for Cinderella’s “Coming Home” ribs, but toward the end I knew I’d be lucky to find something akin to White Lion’s “When the Children Cry.” I guess the real lesson is that barbecue should just be left to the pitmasters. That was the message I got from Valentina’s in Austin when just this past weekend they seemed to taunt me with an Instagram photo of their new Tex-Mex rib platter. It was missing the plancha, but the ribs had at least seen the inside of a smoker.
I get that it seems obvious that Tex-Mex restaurants aren’t the best place to eat ribs and that driving to Longview with optimism that East Tex-Mex would provide the big payoff in this story seems naive. But it also reflects how I got started searching out the state’s best barbecue. After my first trip to Louie Mueller Barbecue back in 2006, I thought if I just tried every joint in the Dallas–Fort Worth area (about 180 at the time), I would find that one hidden gem on Louie Mueller’s level that everyone else had somehow missed. I had no more success then than I had on this search for ribs. Maybe Sambrooks knew what the outcome would be all along—all part of his plot to use my curiosity against me and prove that the ribs at Candente are that much better than the competition.
There are still some lessons to be shared from my efforts. First, if you want to take a chance on Tex-Mex ribs, my advice is to get them as part of a fajita platter, because if the ribs are bad, at least you’ll have fajitas. Also, I made sure to sample a top-shelf margarita at each restaurant (on the rocks with salt) to have something else to compare from place to place and to dull the potential sting of another bad rib. If I don’t share my top four here, the folks in accounting might not approve my latest expense report, so here they are:
- Pappasito’s Reserva made with Corazón Reposado, Grand Marnier, agave nectar. $11.95
- Dos Rios Rita made with Dos Rios Reposado, Cointreau, simple syrup, lime juice. $11.00
- Uncle Julio’s Patrón Classic made with Patrón Silver, Patrón Citrónge, lime juice. $11.99
- Lupe Tortilla Perfect Margarita made with Demetrio Lowland Tequila, simple syrup, lime juice. $11.50
I can’t believe I’m doing this, but if you encounter that elusive platter of incredible Tex-Mex ribs somewhere in Texas, let me know. I may yet be bull-headed enough to give them a try.