Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, Decatur AL
Not for the first time, I was forced to consider the odd discrepancy between a phalanx of awards from major cooking competitions and the supposed awesomeness of what the winners of these competitions serve in their restaurants. Either the two are not anywhere close to being the same, or the judges of these competitions have an entirely different set of criteria than I do for what makes good barbecue. Of course, the written word often doesn’t have any nuance whatsoever, and I’m not saying that I’ve ever had a bad meal at a restaurant with one of those larger-than-a-child Memphis in May trophies, but I sure have had better.
I had been intending to visit Big Bob Gibson’s, one of the south’s best-known barbecue joints, for many, many years now, most of this time weighing this weird discrepancy in the back of my mind. On one hand, there’s the perfectly reasonable fact that Gibson’s pitmaster Chris Lilly has won so many of these Memphis in May awards that it would not be hard to literally stumble over them, stacked as they are in the restaurant lobby. But why is it that so few of the many barbecue-loving writers in our hobby have penned glowing pages of praise about this place? Some agree that it’s pretty good, but few have argued in print that it’s much better. (In fact, while I usually collect positive reviews for the “other blog posts about” section below, those were pretty thin on the ground compared to the negative ones. Check those out when you finish here.)
And, sure as shooting, the self-fulfilling prophecy was right on the nose and we had a pretty good meal here. This was not at all bad. I’ve had much worse barbecue in Alabama. But I’ve also had far, far better in this state. This is perfectly fine, middle-of-the-pack barbecue, but bettered by at least three places within a short distance.
Marie and our son and I took the three-hour drive to Decatur to start a day of eating and playing in the Huntsville area. We started out at Big Bob Gibson’s, which was the furthest point on our trip, and worked our way back to the other end of the Huntsville metro. Big Bob Gibson’s history has passed into legend in our hobby. The man allegedly sold his first barbecue sandwich for profit as a young man in 1925, and spent the next three decades selling at everything from festivals to church revivals to other peoples’ restaurants. He finally opened his own place in 1952, next door to the present location. The original site was destroyed in a fire in 1988. One of Gibson’s many grandchildren, Don McLemore, runs the operation today, with his son-in-law Chris Lilly manning the pits.
Marie ordered a barbecue baked potato, and I had a plate with beans and cole slaw. The slaw’s color is outshined in the poor photo above by the pickle, but this slaw is indeed green. Our server described it as vinegar slaw, and what they serve seems to be very finely chopped cabbage with a hint of sugar and vinegar. It was very interesting. The beans were really good, and the pork was not bad. It wasn’t very smoky, and it wanted some sauce.
The deal with white sauce is that many people say that it’s for chicken, but I like it on pork, and the two worked very well together. In fact, the white sauce mixed with the barbecue a whole lot better than the red sauce did. The red-brown sauce might win an unhappy award for boasting the longest ingredients list of any sauce I have ever seen. I’ve just checked the three different commercial barbecue sauces in our fridge and, together, their ingredients lists runs as long as this bottle’s. I wish that all restaurants, not just this one, would mix up fresh batches of sauce for the tables instead of using their grocery store overstock.
The bottom line? It’s pretty good. A restaurant with this big a reputation, however, should be somewhat better than that. We’d eat better barbecue before the sun set.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q (Decatur, AL)
This weekend my wife and I found ourselves heading south to Birmingham so that she could play fairy godmother at the baptism of our friends' cute new baby. As if that wasn't exciting enough on its own, I also managed to talk my way into a lunchtime pit stop (pun very much intended) at Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Alabama.
Here's a little bit of history for context. Bob Gibson started selling barbecue nearly 90 years ago from a makeshift table of wooden planks nailed to a tree in his backyard. Bob's signature white barbecue sauce was a huge part of his continually-rising success. Now-renowned pitmaster Chris Lilly married into the Gibson family, and in 1992 he joined their barbecue operations as well. With Chris's help, Big Bob Gibson developed a new red barbecue sauce that rivaled their famous white sauce. Since then, these guys have won too many competition awards to list, including Memphis in May, the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational, numerous state championships, etc, etc.
I've seen Chris Lilly compete on television countless times, and I even have one of his cookbooks (Fire & Smoke) on my shelf at home. I'm also pretty stoked to watch him and his team compete at the upcoming Jack Daniel's competition in Lynchburg next month. I was certain that it wouldn't be Chris at the helm today, and I realize that competition barbecue is vastly different from its restaurant-quality cousin. With that in mind, I made sure to temper my expectations appropriately.
Given Big Bob Gibson's fame and popularity, I was expecting a hefty Saturday lunch crowd, but we walked in and got a booth at 12:30 with no wait at all. This place has kind of a diner vibe going on. Their awards are prominently displayed right as you walk in the door, and most of the wood-paneled walls are covered with framed articles from Southern Living and the like. There's no need to be humble when you have their credentials.
Naturally, I went for the Big Bob Gibson combo: St. Louis-style spare ribs and a quarter chicken. This way I'd get to try both their red and white barbecue sauces. I'm not normally a big sauce guy, but I made an exception today. For my sides, I picked their red skin potato salad and kettle baked beans.
The beans were nice and sweet. I found a few bits of pepper mixed in, but I couldn't find any spiciness. The mayo-based potato salad was also fairly tasty. It had a hefty amount of onion, which gave it a good bite. These were both decent sides, but nothing all that special.
I was expecting to have my chicken pre-dunked in white sauce, like it is in every television show about Big Bob Gibson's I've ever seen. When I asked the waitress about it, she instead pointed me to the bottle of white sauce on the table. Really? Who knows how long that's been sitting there? The room-temperature bottled sauce didn't come out as thinly as I had hoped. At least it had a nice vinegary tang to it. The chicken had a crispy skin, though it could have been seasoned a little more. I got dark meat so it didn't dry out very much. There was only a mild smoky taste here. I think I liked the sauce more than I liked the chicken, which is an unusual thing for me to say.
For my money, St. Louis-cut ribs are the only way to go. These had a sweet glaze and a good crust, though not much bark. I liked the seasoning blend on the crust too, but there wasn't enough of it. Just like with the chicken, I only found a minimal amount of smoke in the ribs. I was also disappointed that the meat fell right off the bone with almost no effort on my part. Properly cooked rib meat should stay put until each subsequent bite, not come off all at once. I added their "championship" red sauce just for kicks. It came from a bottle on the table too, so my expectations were low. It was good, but there wasn't anything that jumped out at me as overwhelmingly delicious. I've had grocery store barbecue sauces that tasted about the same.
When we left, we stepped outside into a veritable fog of pit smoke. I wish more of it had found its way into our food. Sadly, I may have once again fallen victim to hype. Perhaps Chris Lilly has shifted too much of his focus onto the competition circuit to the detriment of the restaurant that started it all.