Customers love beef ribs. When a pitmaster plunks down a big, thick fatty rib on a plate, cameras are whipped out to document this ultimate carnivore trophy that is the succulent symbol of the Texas obsession with beef.

While beef backs ribs have been found in joints from Fort Worth to El Paso for decades, beef short ribs have historically been served at very few barbecue joints in Texas. The short rib’s history as a popular cut to order is typically traced back to Louie Mueller Barbecue and the famous beef short ribs featured on its menu daily. Louie Mueller, along a small group of joints in Central Texas, like Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart and the Cooper’s chain that originated in Llano, were really the only ones serving up this cut. That is, until a  few years ago, when the beef short rib phenomenon took hold of the barbecue world. From South Texas (the Granary in San Antonio now cures them and makes bright pink pastrami beef ribs) to East Texas (Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler serves them), they’ve become a very popular menu item and have won over the customers.

But the dirty little secret behind short ribs is that the pitmasters kind of hate them.

Beef ribs raw

Left – Beef Back Ribs; Right – Chuck Short Ribs; Upper – Plate Short Ribs

The beef short rib is a unique menu item. A single rib (which is how it’s usually ordered and served) can be as large as two pounds post-cooked weight. It is also delicious. Unlike a brisket where there’s a distinct fatty side and a lean side, the fat and collagen in a beef short rib runs evenly throughout the meat, producing that juicy, silken, slightly gelatinous texture. They’re less finicky in the smoker than a brisket is, but finding that right point of tenderness still requires plenty of patience. It also requires a lot of room on the smoker, valuable real estate that has a real monetary cost associated with it.

Posing with a beef rib

And speaking of money, the price of beef ribs is also hard to predict. While brisket costs can vary by as much as twenty or thirty cents a pound, Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge has seen the prices of raw beef ribs go from $3.25 per pound less than a year ago to now more than $5.30 per pound. They were originally $16 per pound on the menu, but he had to make a choice of taking them off the menu or raising the price to $18 per pound. But the customers’ appetite never waned: they’re one of the first things to sell out, Fourton says. Even so, he laments, “They are by far my lowest margin item on the menu.”

Pecan Lodge Beef rib Plate
Pecan Lodge Beef Plate Rib

The size of beef ribs can also vary considerably. For a while Fourton was getting twelve racks of beef ribs in a sixty-pound box. Then one day a box showed up with just six racks. The total weight was still the same, but every rib weighed twice as much as the each rib in his normal box. This not only caused some sticker shock with customers when a single rib cost more than thirty dollars, it also cut into his bottom line. Pecan Lodge has a menu item called “The Trough” which had a little of every meat on their menu for one price of sixty-five dollars. It includes a beef rib. When the ribs are running at three-quarters of a pound things work out fine, but throw a one and a half pound rib on there and all of a sudden they either break even or lose money on this huge plate of meat.

John Lewis of La Barbecue would just as soon see beef ribs off of his menu. While he loves the flavor and the positive reactions from customers, they just don’t make any money. “With what we’re paying for beef ribs versus what we’re charging, we’re pretty much breaking even on them,” Lewis says. “It’s a novelty.” He also points out that they require a lot of  pit space, making every square inch of that break-even space; he’d rather fill the pits with more profitable brisket.

Beef Short Cattleack BBQ.
Cattleack BBQ Beef Plate Rib

The cool factor of beef ribs has also hooked joints like Lockhart Smokehouse and Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas and Franklin Barbecue in Austin, but these three have made the cut a specialty item only served once a week (Wednesdays at Lockhart Smokehouse and Saturdays at Cattleack and Franklin). Aaron Franklin said they just got their shipment of beef ribs for the weekend and the box containing 48 ribs was almost $500. That’s $10 per rib before the cost of trimming, seasoning, smoking, labor, and overhead is factored in.

All of these joints use plate short ribs, or IMPS #123A.  This includes ribs six, seven, and eight which are cut just below the ribeye. The marbling is even and the size of each rib, which can be the size of a forearm, is pretty much uniform. For a fine dining setting like Smoke in Dallas the consistency is important. Chef Tim Byres says he needs the same size rib on each plate when more than one person at the table orders one of their popular “Big Rib” entrees. Plate ribs provide that size consistently, but they’re also very large, and Smoke doesn’t charge by the pound. “People love them, but they’re not a money-maker,” says Byres, who concedes that they’re too popular to take off the menu so he just eats the cost.

Beef rib short
Beef Chuck Rib<p dir="ltr"><img alt="" class="media-image attr__typeof__foaf:Image img__fid__33762 img__view_mode__default attr__format__default attr__field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]__ attr__field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]__" src="https://www.texasmonthly.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/class_0.jpg" typeof="foaf:Image" /></p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">When Beaumont resident Erica Alyse Edgerly posted pictures on Facebook of the outfit that prompted </span>Orangefield High School to send<span> her little sister home for violating the dress code</span><span>, she didn’t expect the images to go viral or draw attention from publications all over the country. Yet within two weeks, the photos and her accompanying post were shared </span><a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=992790690732133&set=a.141457705865440.24506.100000036342458&type=1" target="_blank">more than 95,000 times</a> and only recently has the steady flow of headlines slowed down.</p> <!--break--> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">The story of the honors student who was sent home for wearing leggings and a baggy shirt to school was picked up by </span><a href="http://kfdm.com/shared/news/top-stories/stories/kfdm_vid_15348.shtml" target="_blank">local news</a>, <a href="http://www.today.com/parents/sister-slams-high-school-viral-post-after-girl-sent-home-t13721" target="_blank">national news</a>, a top post on <a href="http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/over-80000-people-believe-this-girl-was-body-shamed-by-her-h#.ew8JDYNLm" target="_blank">Buzzfeed</a>, and a handful of <a href="http://www.bustle.com/articles/75068-student-macy-edgerly-was-sent-home-from-school-for-wearing-an-inappropriate-outfit-but-80000-people" target="_blank">feminist blogs</a>. Different stories highlighted different parts of the story. Some played up the fact that the student sent home was an honors student, others emphasized the school’s draconian dress code policy, and all of them drew outrage from the inherent sexism that comes with telling teenage girls to cover up in public.</p> <script>(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.3"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);}(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));</script> <div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=992790690732133&set=a.141457705865440.24506.100000036342458&type=1" data-width="500"> <div class="fb-xfbml-parse-ignore"> <blockquote cite="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=992790690732133&set=a.141457705865440.24506.100000036342458&type=1"> <p>Today, my sister was sent home from school for wearing the clothes in the picture below. And I'm sorry but I have to...</p> Posted by <a href="https://www.facebook.com/edge94">Erica Alyse Edgerly</a> on <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=992790690732133&set=a.141457705865440.24506.100000036342458&type=1">Thursday, April 2, 2015</a></blockquote> </div> </div> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">Edgerly </span><a href="https://www.facebook.com/edge94/posts/997045253640010" target="_blank">updated</a> her Facebook in the days following the viral post to clarify that she never meant to attack the high school for enforcing its own rules.</p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">“I'm not the one bringing negative attention to a school district, considering I never said one negative thing about the specific school. I'm talking about schools in general,” Edgerly </span><a href="https://www.facebook.com/edge94/posts/997045253640010" target="_blank">writes</a>. “Believe what you want, blame me if you want, just don't blame my family or my sister. I'm an adult and I can take it. But I didn't share this 82,000 times myself. The rest of the world did that.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Edgerly’s point is a bigger one, and it’s a point we’re familiar with by now. Schools all over the country, through highly-specific dress code policies, are telling teenage girls to cover themselves to avoid unwanted attention.</p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">Internet and media outrage over school penalties for dress code violations is nothing new. We </span><em>love </em>to freak out online when a student is sent home from school for wearing leggings as pants or is <a href="http://www.mtv.com/news/1922772/miranda-larkin-shame-suit-dress-code-violation/" target="_blank">made to wear an outfit</a> that draws attention to the fact that they broke the rules. Strictly-enforced, one-sided dress code policies are one of the easier examples of sexism to hold up and pick apart. </p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">This kind of thing happens relatively frequently now. Last May, a school in Texas sent </span><a href="http://time.com/104676/dress-code-riot-texas/" target="_blank">160 students home</a> in a single day during a dress code crackdown in an event that led to a sit-in protest and a <a href="https://www.change.org/p/please-repeal-the-strict-dress-code-policies-of-duncanville-isd?utm_campaign=petition_created&utm_medium=email&utm_source=guides" target="_blank">Change.org petition</a>. Around the same time, a teenager in Virginia was <a href="http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/virginia-teen-says-dress-got-her-kicked-out-prom-n105516" target="_blank">sent home from prom</a> when she was told the male chaperones were staring at her dress.</p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">The outrage and pressure to change the policy is there—but schools almost never respond, except, like in Edgerly’s case, </span><a href="http://www.today.com/parents/sister-slams-high-school-viral-post-after-girl-sent-home-t13721" target="_blank">to say</a> it’s their job to uphold school policy and create a safe learning environment. So even when a single example of school dress code politics, like this most recent one from Orangefield High School, attracts a national audience of readers who would like to see the policy changed, it’s highly unlikely anything’s going to happen.</p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">As Edgerly points out in her follow-up posts on Facebook, this isn’t necessarily the school’s fault. Plenty of other districts in plenty of other states have similar rules about how long a dress, shirt, skirt, or shorts should be, and whether or not leggings qualify as real pants. There are nuances between schools, but the same general principle applies: the rules are there to protect the untarnished, distraction-free learning environment. </span></p> <p dir="ltr"><span id="docs-internal-guid-87ee787f-c449-4610-84b1-6200781804cd">Having a dress code policy is all good and fine, especially in a building that regularly holds hundreds of fourteen to eighteen-year-olds for the majority of the year. But when those policies attempt to control things like the wandering male gaze, there’s an easy case to be made for perpetuating sexism. In </span><a href="http://www.orangefieldisd.com/files/user/6/file/OHS_Student_Handbook_2014_2015.pdf" target="_blank">Orangefield’s policy</a>, for example, five of the thirteen listed rules specifically target women’s dress. The majority of the other rules apply to gender-neutral clothing items. The only item that mentions something men cannot wear concerns piercings, and who can and can’t have them.</p> <p dir="ltr">In an interview with a <a href="http://kfdm.com/shared/news/top-stories/stories/kfdm_vid_15348.shtml" target="_blank">local news station</a>, Edgerly said the post was meant to draw attention to the fact “that even still in 2015 women aren’t seen as equal, and women are always seen as such sexual human beings,” as evidenced by her 17-year-old sister being sent home for wearing leggings and a long t-shirt to school. Clearly, people resonated with what she had to say, which, when you break it down, was nothing more than the same critique that’s been circulating for years — it’s unfair to have (sexist) double-standards written into your school handbook. </p> <p dir="ltr">Orangefield High School has yet to bend beneath the onslaught of pressure and attention, and they probably won’t. But what Edgerly, and most of the 95,000 people who shared the post, is waiting on is a culture shift she thinks is a long time coming.</p> <p dir="ltr"><em>Photo courtesy of <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/dno1967b/9733720391" target="_blank">Daniel Oines</a>. </em></p>

John Mueller in Austin takes a slightly different approach. He smokes beef chuck ribs, which, like plate short ribs, are laced with fat and collagen. Racks generally come with four bones, ribs two through five on the carcass as defined by IMPS #130. They are cut just above the brisket and a rack is rectangular in shape. The shape of the meat on each bone isn’t as consistent as a plate short rib, but they’re always smaller. They’re also dense and don’t take up as much pit space as pork ribs, which Mueller would sooner do without than beef ribs. He pays $3.39 per pound raw currently and charges $15.98 per pound for the finished product because of the considerable shrinkage that happens while cooking. Wayne Mueller at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor also uses the chuck short ribs. While he’s seen the price raise in the recent past it hasn’t gotten too high to get him merely to the break-even point. It’s also one of things Louie Mueller is famous for.

Beef short Louie Mueller
Louie Mueller Beef Chuck Rib

Ronnie Killen at Killen’s BBQ in Pearland also uses the chuck rib. He includes them on his beef rib plate, which he charges a flat rate for, not a per pound cost. But he does also cook the plate ribs, but he saves those for folks who want to buy by the pound. Killen may have found the sweet spot when it comes to profitability.

Beef Rib Killen's BBQ.

But as evidenced by their popularity, it’s clear that the people want beef short ribs. From here we’ll just have to see if the prices for beef can settle and allow pitmasters to gauge a fair price to keep them as a profitable menu item, not matter how thin that profit is. John Lewis has thought about using higher quality beef, but that would come at a higher price. “I don’t know how much more we could charge and still have people buy them,” he says. My guess is the ceiling’s pretty high. If they taste better than the one I bought during my last visit, I know I’d snap one (or two) up.