There’s just no way to eat ribs without reverting to behavior of the most bestial of Neanderthal carnivores, using your teeth to rip flesh from bone as your mouth is smeared with fat and sauce. It doesn’t matter how many napkins or towelettes you use. You’ll still end your rib-eating session with the telltale evidence on your shirt or stuck between your teeth. Ribs aren’t really the smartest thing to serve at weddings, but we served them at our wedding because we’re dedicated carnivores.
Some of the best ’cue outside of Texas can be found in Castroville, where a mean little guy who looks and sounds just like Willie Nelson dishes up ribs and the tastiest pepper sausages you’ve ever eaten in your life. But, if you can’t make the four-hour trek to the coast and you have a hankering for barbecue, you’ll find what you need in the unlikely environs of Rocklin.
Not so long ago, Rocklin was a one-stoplight burg with just one restaurant, Mexican. Now the town has become a huge, yuppified suburb filled with chain stores, and the tiny downtown has been carefully refurbished. Around the corner from city hall, next to a laundromat, is Emanuel’s Chicken and Ribs. Lending a note of authenticity is a huge smoker, some bags of charcoal and some rounds of wood carefully stacked in the dirt lot next door. The restaurant itself is nondescript, with a television mounted overhead. Most of Emanuel’s customers take his ribs to go.
Emanuel Sims opened his storefront several years ago, after his catering business took off. He boasts that his ribs have served celebrities and that crowds will wait patiently in line for hours to eat his barbecue. After tasting his pork ribs, you’ll see why. You know how, when you eat ribs at a chain restaurant, they have the same consistency throughout—either tender or dry all along the length of the bone? Well, Emanuel’s ribs, logically enough, reward the eater with a variety of textures: slightly chewy on the part of the bone that cooked farthest from the fire, tender in the middle and slightly charred on the other end.
Emanuel claims the secret ingredient here is time, plus a pinch of sunshine and a few extra smiles. The flavor is a revelation, smoky but not overpoweringly so, that needs only the lightest coat of the tangy, spicy sauce to set off the richness of the meat. In fact, the meat would be better served with the sauce on the side rather than slathered on top.
The barbecued chicken was equally tasty but not as tender, and the hot links could have used a little more time on the grill. Unfortunately, the restaurant was not serving beef or baby back ribs on my recent visit.
There are two kinds of ribs devotees: the kind who will eat only, say, beef ribs; and the kind who will eat anything and everything if it’s been slow-cooked in a smoker. If you’re of the latter persuasion, you’re in luck at Emanuel’s, because the restaurant serves several combos, including a chicken, sausage and ribs combo ($14.99); and LaVerne’s Plate ($12), which is just chicken and ribs. You can order ribs only, or chicken by the quarter or whole. Dinners ($8.75-$14.99) come with salad, chili beans, rolls and your choice of sides, from twice-baked potatoes to cole slaw.
Emanuel’s meats are indeed superior, but side dishes can be the way a rib joint really elevates itself from the pack. When the restaurant opened, it served a full complement of Southern sides, including greens, corn bread, black-eyed peas and candied yams. I guess the folks in Rocklin were too sophisticated to enjoy down-home soul food. No one ever ordered the stuff, and now those options are gone from the menu. The remaining choices are somewhat pedestrian. The chili beans were decent but fairly run-of-the-mill. The twice-baked potato showed some imagination and was seasoned well.
The back of the menu reads, “Bibs are optional, utensils are optional, but a great time had by all is mandatory.” That won’t be a problem if you’re a rib aficionado. In a nice parting touch, the restaurant offers its diners a warmed wet hand towel to help obliterate some of the evidence. And, if you eat these ribs with the relish they deserve, you’ll need that help.