Meh. It's not the original.
If that thought ran through your head when you saw the title of this post, then this is for you. I'm here to defend franchise BBQ.
That might sound weird coming from a guy who loves few things more than small Mom & Pop BBQ joints with a fun history -- the kind of places profiled in The KY BBQ Book, for example. There's a reason I didn't include any franchises in my SoKY BBQ Guide last year.
But on this page I'm not talking about the kind of franchise where meat is smoked at a central location and then trucked to stores up to three hours away. I'm talking about a franchise location that features live fire cooking on a beautiful pit in the middle of the restaurant, so there's no question where your BBQ comes from or how it's cooked. If this place happens to share a name and recipes with one of the most legendary BBQ rib joints in the Southeast, I don't consider it a liability.
To back up a bit, I first heard of Dreamland ribs from a local farmer friend just down the road. He's an Alabama transplant who produces our favorite beef products, and he started telling me about Dreamland well over a year ago. The popular method of cooking ribs around here is to go low and slow in hickory smoke, with a slab of spare ribs taking maybe five hours or more to finish. Steve explained how Big Daddy would cook his Dreamland slabs in a different fashion -- high above a hickory fire, they were frequently flipped and basted for about an hour and then coated with the signature BBQ sauce. If you wanted anything other than ribs and white bread at the original Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Tuscaloosa, you were out of luck.
Still the same story today. They sell so many ribs in Tuscaloosa they don't need to do anything else.
|Dreamland BBQ Dot Com|
At some point Steve brought me a bottle of Dreamland sauce back from Alabama, and at some later point I scored a gift pack that contained the sauce, rub, shake, dipping sauce, a beer mug, and an apron. Supercool!
|Baby Backs on the WSM.|
I've tried to cook some ribs in Dreamland fashion, building a hickory fire in the bottom of a Weber Smokey Mountain cooker and grilling the ribs on the top grate with the lid off and the water pan removed. It doesn't provide as much height as Big Daddy's pit, but it works pretty well. I've only tried with baby backs, and they do indeed cook pretty fast.
Not as tender or smokey as the slow-smoked ribs we're used to, but plenty good just the same... in a different sorta way. Good enough that I looked forward to trying the real deal someday if I ever found myself anywhere near Tuscaloosa.
So, fast forward to this week when I got called down to Huntsville for a few days. All I know about northern Alabama BBQ is Big Bob Gibson's, which we visited earlier this year on the way to Florida. Big Bob's is famous for their white sauce, and that didn't really click for me. But I did love their ribs that are smoked slow and low. Surprisingly, my favorite item was the smoked turkey breast.
|Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q.|
I look forward to a return visit, but there wouldn't be time for Decatur on this trip. Anticipating quick lunches and late dinners, I didn't do any research for local BBQ joints or pizzerias to visit while I was in town. I didn't even book a hotel room until I was leaving the house that morning, and I got what I deserved.
Late that same evening, after wasting two hours on room changes and WiFi woes, I was tired, frustrated, and starving in an unfamiliar part of town. The Japanese restaurant across the street had only two cars in the parking lot, but I convinced myself it would work. While crossing the street, standing in the middle of the six-lanes, I looked to the left and couldn't believe my eyes. Like something out of a movie, there was the Dreamland Bar-B-Que logo! It was attached to a building and the lights were still on.
|Those lights are shining straight down from heaven.|
What?!? Dreamland has a Huntsville location? Who knew?
The atmosphere is half sports bar, half BBQ joint, and there ain't nothing wrong with that. There was only one other table of guests when I arrived, so I pretty much had the place to myself. I'm pretty sure the waitress was tired of hearing about how excited I was after two minutes or so. If not, she had to be annoyed after ten minutes. She was nice about it, though. Everybody here is nice.
|White Bread & BBQ Sauce.|
I've never been to a BBQ joint that brings white bread and BBQ sauce to your table as soon as you sit down. I reckon that means they're plenty proud of their sauce. It's a good sauce -- tangy and spicy, with a bit of mustard and chili tempering the sweetness.
|Rib Plate w/ Slaw & Potato Salad.|
There they are. The ribs I've heard so much about. They're beautiful.
They say the sides are made in-house. The potato salad was typical potato salad, and I really liked the slaw that was sweeter than what I'm used to. But I wasn't here for sides!
We would consider these grilled ribs, as opposed to smoked ribs, but they certainly have a smoke ring. What do you call that? Steve says you call it perfection. I'm cool with that. They were as good as expected.
They don't have a deep smoke flavor, but rather a great grilled flavor -- the kind that comes from grilling over a live hickory fire as opposed to grilling over charcoal. The texture is what you'd expect considering how they are cooked. The meat doesn't fall off the bone as it might when ribs are smoked for too long or braised. Chewy? Yeah, but not in a bad way. Just right.
In my rib coma excitement, I shared the rib pics with some friends. Everybody said the same thing. Everybody!
"Meh. Not as good as the original Dreamland."
So?!? The original should be the best, but that doesn't discount the value of the great ribs I just stumbled upon. I'll show them. I'll patronize the franchise three days in a row...
If I hadn't found Dreamland that first night, I would have noticed it first thing the next morning. Nothing like waking up to the smell of a good hickory fire! Too bad they're not open for breakfast. Lunch it is...
Lunch, Day Two.
|The pit is right there in the eating area.|
Nothing to hide here.
As mentioned on other pages, I love visiting BBQ joints at odd hours when there isn't a crowd because that provides an opportunity to ask questions and talk to the people who do the cooking. This late lunch was almost perfect timing, but I just missed the second round of ribs being pulled off the pit. And I didn't have time to stick around to see the third round go on the fire. Oh well...
|There's that bread & BBQ sauce.|
|Half Chicken Plate w/ Green Beans and Mac & Cheese.|
And White Sauce.
Best meal of the week! Perhaps the best grilled chicken I've had anywhere. Perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned. Enough for two people, and indeed it made for two meals. Which was good since dinner was still eight hours away. I'm a rib guy through and through, but this chicken was so good that I'd have a hard time making a decision if I had to pick one or the other.
The green beans with sausage were the best side item of the week, and I liked the white sauce here better than the stuff in a bottle at Big Bob's. Lance said each server mixes up their own batch every day. The chicken didn't need any sauce, but I did prefer the white sauce over the BBQ sauce. Didn't see that coming.
I chatted with Pit Master Bryce for a few minutes on the way out. He said the chicken was just seasoned with their BBQ Shake, so I took some home (forgetting that I already had some at home). He was throwing more chickens on the grill at that point, to go along with the Boston Butts that had been there all day. Another round of ribs was coming up soon, but I had to run... right after snapping a pic or two.
|Pork Butts on the right side.|
|More Butts & Chicken on the left side.|
I got my dang ol' dress shirt dirty on this deal.
The way I see it, the word "franchise" can be thrown out the window when you see a BBQ pit like this in action. I asked my waiter about the great debate and he said there were a few familiar conversations that repeatedly take place. Some folks genuinely believe the original pit in Tuscaloosa provides a better flavor, mostly because of its age. That makes sense to me, so I must get to Tuscaloosa. Someday. Some folks say that Huntsville is their favorite among the franchised locations, so maybe I lucked out by finding this one. Other folks say they can't really tell a difference this way or that. I'm guessing that would be most folks, and in fact most folks would probably prefer the locations that serve something other than just ribs and bread.
When the opportunity for dinner arose on the second night, Dreamland had already closed.
Lights on, doors locked. That's OK. Shogun was still open next door and it was way better than expected!
|Seaweed Salad & Spicy Scallop Roll.|
A high school friend joined me at Shogun. That was a nice surprise, and we were both suitably impressed by this place... right up until they turned the lights off and kicked us out at promptly 10:00 PM. Closing time is closing time! No joking around here.
And no worries. The Waffle House next door never closes...
|Waffle House Coffee.|
The mug says so.
I'll go ahead and say it. The only good thing about Holiday Inn Express on University is the three restaurants across the street.
Lunch, Day Three.
My HSV exit came an hour later than yesterday's lunch, so I was hoping to see some ribs on the fire on my way out of town but I struck out again. By this time I was on a first name basis with my server and the Pit Master, and I was gonna try something new and take something home either way.
Sitting next to the bar, I could hear a carryout customer talking about how the original Dreamland would never sell chicken or silly things like mac & cheese. The great debate!
White bread & BBQ sauce.
|Potato topped with Pork & Salad.|
Probably shoulda got one or the other, which means I probably didn't need the salad.
|Underneath all that cheese is plenty of pulled pork.|
The house dressing is pretty cool -- like a spicy ranch.
The pulled pork was a bit puzzling. The crutch (see below) keeps it plenty moist, but it didn't have much of a smoke flavor. That surprised me since they cook for about twelve hours, but maybe it would have been different if I got some pieces of bark. I love a BBQ baked potato, so I'm not complaining. But I'll stick to the chicken and ribs when I return.
|Firewood is ready.|
Pork butts are on the grill (some crutched in foil) along with chicken and sausage.
|This pic shows the distance between the fire and the grill grate.|
That's hard to replicate at home, unless you build your own pit.
Ciao, Dreamland Huntsville...
It's been a great three days. Of course I look forward to visiting Tuscaloosa someday, but Huntsville is a lot closer and there's a good chance I'll be back here several times before I make it to the original.
Franchise or not, this pit is as real as anything I've seen. Those ribs were as good as I expected. That chicken was some of the best I've ever had (they don't do that in Tuscaloosa). And not for nothing, both places are owned by the same folks.
Thanks Lance, Bryce, and Michelle. Keep up the good work!
Of course I had to take some ribs home to the family...
|SuperbikePlanet apron in the background.|
Pretty sure that's the only one in the state, except for the one next to it.
|Dreamland Ribs in Kentucky.|
Two closing thoughts...
First, the online reviews at places like Yelp are hilarious. People love to complain that the ribs are too chewy and suggest that Dreamland cook the ribs longer. People, perhaps you should ask a question or two before you order? Maybe even stroll over to the fire to see how things are done here? If you're surprised by the ribs you are served, it's your own fault. Hands down, the best review came from a drunk guy who also had the misfortune of staying at the hotel across the street. He complained about the big tower of beef ribs being too tough for his tastes. Yeah, that's pretty much why we just look at online reviews for entertainment.
Second, I guess things have changed a bit around here since the original idea. It's time to add a new rule:
4. Always travel with a GoPro.
It was very much missed this week.