Eating our way through Bama’s Best Pork Ribs

Eating our way through Bama’s Best Pork Ribs
Smokin’ on the Boulevard in Florence has the best ribs in Alabama, according to the Bama's Best Pork Ribs contest results. (file)

From the Black Belt to the Wiregrass to The Shoals, we crisscrossed our great state stopping only for pork ribs. It was heaven on earth for a Southern food lover.

I was on a tasty mission to discover Alabama’s best pork ribs with two other judges – Daniel Tubbs, an Alabama pig farmer, and Bob Plaster, who is a competitive cook. We were riding with Marlee Moore, Guy Hall and Debra Davis from the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Bama’s Best Pork Ribs was an inaugural statewide contest sponsored by the Alabama Pork Producers, which is a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation (the state’s largest farm organization with more than 357,000 members). In two months, the contest received over 900 nominations for more than 100 different restaurants.

We took two days to visit the Final Four and ultimately name Smokin’ on the Boulevard in Florence our winner.

Heard’s BBQ & Soul Food in Maplesville in Chilton County got the People’s Choice Award for receiving the most nominations. Wiley’s Smuteye Grill in the tiny town of Smuteye in Bullock County and Whillard’s BBQ & Grill in Marion in Perry County rounded out our top four for various delicious reasons. Each of the finalists received a plaque commemorating their achievement. Smokin’ on the Boulevard also got $500 from the Alabama Pork Producers and bragging rights, of course.

These kinds of competitions celebrating iconic Alabama products (there was a catfish contest last year) are important, says agricultural communications specialist Marlee Moore. “Agriculture has an over $70 billion economic impact on Alabama every year. Pork farming is a small part of that, but there are farmers working every day on their pig farms to provide quality pork for consumers across the U.S.”

The contest began with a social media campaign, and people posted their nominations on Facebook and Instagram.

“People are very passionate about their barbecue,” Moore says. “Whether it’s brisket or ribs or pulled pork. … They all think, that in their hometown, they have the best. These tiny towns really rallied around their hometown restaurants. I think that’s great because we need to promote our small towns. We need to promote rural Alabama.”

Guy Hall, the Federation’s Pork Division director, was not a judge, but he tasted the ribs at every stop and declared all four restaurants “worth a road trip.”

Bird-dogging the best barbecue in Alabama. (Susan Swagler / Alabama NewsCenter)

He was right about that. I love good pork ribs (and I had good pork ribs), but that road trip was just as memorable as the food.

We passed by Civil War monuments and the former site of Jim’s Funk Junction (now, incongruously, a law office). We saw dozens of peach stands and one good-looking bird dog statue. Irises and chimneys marked the sites of long-gone rural farmsteads. We saw antebellum homes lovingly restored and others in sad disrepair. Signs told us to share the road with horses and with tractors, and we did. Looking along the highways, I noticed that armadillos are having a tough spring. On a brighter note: Queen Anne’s lace, showy primrose and goldenrod are everywhere.

The people we met, those folks cooking these award-winning ribs, were the real draw on this journey. I was blown away by their stories and by the incredible support their communities have shown them.

We started in Marion, which is home to one of Alabama’s National Historic Landmarks, the Italian villa-style Kenworthy Hall with its distinctive (rumored to be haunted) tower. Judson College and Marion Military Institute are here, too, and those schools, in part, are why Whillard’s BBQ & Grill exists.

Greg and Susan Horton have had this place for about six years. “I’ve always loved to cook,” he says. “Never had a lot of time to do it. I own a construction business, too. This little place was closing down, and we didn’t want it to close down. It’s been here since the ‘50s. We have two colleges in this town. On certain nights they come eat with us. Those young folks need a place to go.”

His ribs involve a mustard rub, a seasoning from Louisiana, a hickory-wood smoker and about four hours. The result is an incredibly tender rib with a nice spicy bite and a subtle smoky flavor.

Horton has a history with the grill. “We did some wild game cook-offs and catered for some different events like the Alabama Deer Association and some weddings and that kind of stuff.” He says ribs and brisket are his favorite things to make. “We have a really good brisket.” The chunky potato salad – traditional with egg and pickles – and crisp slaw are two more reasons to visit.

Next stop:  Maplesville, in the peach-producing part of our state. Although it’s only been open for about a year and a half, Heard’s BBQ & Soul Food received the most votes of any contender. There’s not much of a sign out front of this little place; you’ll probably smell this awesome restaurant before you see it.

Roman Heard is the pit master. His wife, Shakira, makes the sides and is in charge of the soul food served on Sundays when you can get collard greens, chicken and dressing, cornbread, black-eyed peas, turnip green soup, banana pudding and such. Most days, though, it’s barbecue, and a simple plate of ribs with white bread and sauce will cost you $7. There are sides worth mentioning: potato salad, slaw and delicious baked beans with a little ground beef mixed in.

Heard prefers a St. Louis-style rib. “I don’t use a lot of smoke,” he says. “I use direct charcoal with a hint of pecan. That’s the difference between what we do and traditional barbecue places. On the outside, I do a mustard coat. It’s not really for seasoning; it’s more for tenderizing because I don’t use a smoker. Then it’s just basic seasoning and a touch of cayenne pepper and that’s it. Instead of low and slow, I take mine on high heat in the beginning and then slow it down through the process and move it away from the heat.” It takes about two and a half hours. “My wife makes the sauce,” he says, “and she doesn’t tell me nothing about it.” I know this:  It’s tomato-based, sweet and thick, and our crowd loved it.

“We make it every day. Everything we do — the ribs, the sauce, we make it that day,” Heard says. “And when it’s gone, we sell out, that’s it. People get aggravated with me sometimes, but they know, for the most part, what I’m trying to do.”

He started this business cooking at home and giving food away. “I was working a 9-to-5, full-time job, and this was just a dream I had. I kinda supplemented on the weekend, cooking on the weekend, saved money and built up until I could get my own place. It’s just a dream come true. I really love it. Feeding people and seeing people enjoy it. It’s a passion.”

After this, we drove south to Smuteye with its population of … well, that’s hard to say. But this little town is near Union Springs, the field trial capital of the world with three annual championships — two professional and one amateur — that attract people and their dogs from all over the country. There’s a beautiful bird dog statue in the middle of town, and Wiley’s Smuteye Grill is just down the road.

Owner Wiley McWhorter says he couldn’t be prouder to be a part of the barbecue contest.

“I told my wife, Debbie, it’s an honor for me and her just to be in the top four. To be voted in on it. I knew we’d get some votes probably, but I never would of thought.  You would not believe the folks who’ve come in here and have seen that on Facebook. They are so proud. They couldn’t believe we were in the top four – in Smuteye.”

Turns out, though, that Wiley’s already was a destination restaurant.

“We cook the ribs several hours; we try to get them to where the bones come out of them,” says McWhorter. “A lot of folks come from everywhere to eat them. A guy came down from Canada week before last. He was coming down turkey hunting. And he told the guide, ‘Now, before we go turkey hunting, what about that little ol’ barbecue place back over there in nowhere? Is it open?’ The guide said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘That’s where we’re going right now.’

“We have people come here from everywhere. I had a guy come here from Mississippi. He said, ‘I don’t know where Smuteye is, but I think we can find it.’ He did. And he enjoyed it.”

Wiley’s ribs are so tender they come apart in your hands. There’s a nice smokiness to them that perfectly complements the meat. “I put no rub on my ribs,” McWhorter says. “I just smoke-cook ‘em with hickory and oak and put nothing on them but a little salt water. Take them right out back and put them on the grill (it’s a massive thing with a tractor pull to lift the lid) and cook them slow for several hours.”

The homemade camp stew is another reason to visit Wiley’s. “We make it from scratch. Daddy’s old recipe, like he made all the time in the wash pot,” McWhorter says. “My wife does the potato salad and makes the slaw.” The sauce here is simple: “It’s just a vinegar-based sauce. It’s what we were raised up on,” says McWhorter, who grew up cooking alongside his father.

One more thing about Wiley’s:  You’ll absolutely want to save room for a slice of homemade German chocolate cake.

Florence is one hip, happening place, and it was our final stop.

Internationally known fashion designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin, of Alabama Chanin, call this beautiful town home. And now Smokin’ on the Boulevard offers a different claim to fame for Florence.

When you go looking for this little barbecue joint, you might first notice the small campfire built along the side of the road in front of the building. Stop before walking in, and snap a selfie in front of the colorful wall painted to look like a postcard.

You are here.

Jeff Carter and Karen Hill opened their roadside stand six years ago, and they cook ribs, Boston butts and whole chickens low and slow in a fertilizer-buggy-turned-smoker.

Hours of operation, Karen says, are “from when it gets ready on Thursday ‘til about dark on Thursday and then about 7 a.m. until dark on Friday and then about 7 a.m. until we sell out on Saturday.” That’s around 2 p.m. just so you know.

These ribs – the winning ribs – are a combination of everything we loved at each of the previous places. They are big and meaty and pull-off-the-bone tender. They also are subtly spiced with a pleasant smoky flavor that really lets the taste of the quality pork have the starring role.

“We use dry rub and hickory smoke. You can’t rush it,” Carter says. “You start everything at 150 degrees and go up 10 degrees every hour. And turn them from time to time. … I can get them done in nine to 10 hours.”

The only sauce they make here is a thick, delicious white sauce for the chicken, but they do sell bottles of Sweet Baby Ray’s for customers who can’t do without some red sauce on their pork.

“These don’t need any sauce,” Carter says about his ribs, and he’s right. By the time the ribs have spent all those hours in the smoker, the rub has melted into the meat to create a kind of glaze. That’s all anyone needs.

The only side made on site is a whole smoked cabbage. “You cut the core out, put a handful of rub in and a stick of butter, and smoke it ‘til it’s done,” Carter says.

“It’s just a hobby gone crazy,” Carter says about Smokin’ on the Boulevard. “And I tell everybody, ‘I don’t claim mine as the best barbecue you’ll eat, but it’s some of the finest you’ll eat anywhere.’”

We all agreed.

Whillard’s BBQ & Grill

12267 Highway 5, Marion, 36756



Heard’s BBQ & Soul Food

8341 Alabama Highway 22, Maplesville, 36750



Wiley’s Smuteye Grill

14162 County Road 35, Banks, 36005



Smokin’ on the Boulevard

4080 U.S. Highway 72 (Florence Boulevard), Florence, 35634



Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades. She shares food, books, travel and more at Susan is a founding member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.

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