I barely even have to chew," my friend Jeffrey said, pausing for a moment from sucking sticky-sweet barbecue sauce off the business end of a baby back rib. "They fall right off the bone." He and I and about a dozen of my friends were hovering over aluminum trays outfitted with racks of the smoked-then-grilled ribs, each worthy of the ultimate rib compliment. We alternated mouthfuls of succulent meat with sips from sweaty bottles of Blue Moon, our fingers tacking to the sides, leaving smudged sauce prints on the label.
Our group of beer-guzzling, tattooed, red-meat-eating man-children and their spouses had congregated at Rock 'N' Roll Ribs in Coral Springs that night to do what it is we all do whenever we get a reprieve from our increasingly busy lives: eat, drink, play.
Our get-togethers don't always happen with the regularity they used to. But still, there's the occasional backyard barbecue: a birthday party for Gary's 6-year-old daughter, complete with two coolers full of more beer than any of us can possibly pound and every inch of grate space on the two-tier propane grill packed with Ball Park hot dogs and burgers matted with processed American cheese. Or a Fourth of July brouhaha at my place, munching on grilled chicken wings and bullshitting about the greatest zombie films of all time as the Florida sun goes from white to pink-orange in the background. These gatherings, not the many restaurant meals I eat, are my happiest food moments these days.
I bring this up because an evening at Rock 'N' Roll Ribs feels just about as close to a backyard barbecue as you can get in a restaurant. The food isn't exactly Memphis- or Texas-style 'cue; rather, it tastes like what you might whip up with some friends huddled around a Weber grill. In fact, the very idea for the place was born of such gatherings, cooked up over cold Coronas by guitarist and food-industry vet Rick "Moby" Baum and his close friend, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain. As McBrain tells it — in his thick English accent — starting a restaurant together had been a dream since Baum first shared his rib recipe with the rocker at one of their back-garden parties. A self-admitted "foodie" who's eaten his way around the world some dozen times over, McBrain says it was these ribs that stuck with him the most.
Although most of the recipes are Baum's (the exceedingly tender ribs, the thickly chopped pork, the foot-long "death dog" wrapped in bacon and stuffed with pepper jack cheese), it's been the presence of McBrain, the hard-rock icon, that has reeled in the hype for the rib joint. The buzz has reached the point that people not even remotely interested in barbecue are clamoring to get in. Since it opened in late November, the 50-some-seat barbecue room has been ass-to-glass packed, not unlike the thousand-plus rock shows McBrain performed during his long career.
Inside, McBrain works the room in much the same way as he does a stadium concert, greeting fans and shaking hands with genuine enthusiasm. I've seen him stop by every table in the busy restaurant, posing for more sweaty hug pictures — devil horns flying — than should be expected of any celebrity. But he seems to enjoy it thoroughly. Tall and blond, he's the kind of likable dude that you want as your host, with the swagger of Johnny Cash and the sense of humor of Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel.
It doesn't hurt that at any point in your meal, you can look up at the large flat-screen TV surrounded by drum sets and Marshall amps and watch live concert footage of the same guy who's had a hand in making your pulled pork sandwich. When Nicko came to our table and posed for a photo with my friend Joanne, she was as giddy as a groupie for the rest of the night. "I got my picture with Nicko McBrain!" she screamed in apparent shock. "Woo-hoo!"
Baum, on the other hand, does his share of entertaining too. But mostly, he's hard at work managing the front of the house. He does a good job of ensuring that his staff is keeping the punters happy with cold beer and small bites — namely platters of thick-cut onion rings breaded with cornmeal and served with a pasty chili spread called "whammy sauce" — even if the kitchen may be backed up by the wall of customers. The wait staff, consisting mostly of pierced and tattooed ladies, is on the ball even when the kitchen is slow. But occasional gaffes like disappearing for extended periods of time and forgetting little things such as napkins and silverware do happen. Still, the faux pas tend to enhance the casual nature of the place rather than detract from it. The goal is clear: You're not here to rush in and out. Just drink a beer and relax for a while.
The menu features plenty of egalitarian barbecue and bar food fare, most of which has been named to match the restaurant's rock 'n' roll theme. There are straightforward items like the "house band salad" and "backstage chix sandwich," while the "lazy roadie wings" are boneless chicken wings, deep-fried and slathered with a choice of sauces that includes a superspicy blend called "Run to the Hills." Iron Maiden fans will get a kick out of that name, as well as a family-sized platter called "Appetite of the Beast," which throws down a rack and a half of ribs, a pound of pork and beef, half a chicken, plus sides for under 50 bucks. If one person manages to finish the whole platter, it's free.
I've sampled each bit of 'cue Rock 'N' Roll Ribs offers, and while I'd be hard-pressed to call it barbecue in the traditionalist sense, it is fine stuff. Take that phrase "fall off the bone," for example. To the kind of barbecue fanatics who populate gatherings like Memphis in May, those words don't mean as much as, say, "bark" or "smoke ring" (two traits these ribs definitely lack). But negating the value of meat this tender and juicy just because it doesn't adhere to a strict insider's code is like criticizing a Ferrari for not being a Lamborghini. Either way, you want to drive one.
The spareribs, in half- or full-rack portions ($12.95/$18.95), are a prime example of this. According to Baum, the racks are first smoked, then slathered in the house barbecue sauce and grilled, forming a sweet, caramelized char on the surface. My gang of friends cleaned them up in no time — all that was left after a few minutes was a pile of completely bare bones and the sounds of finger-smacking. Baby back ribs ($15.95 for a full rack) are equally satisfying in that grilled, wet sort of way. Each of these platters, like all the "headliners," comes with a choice of two sides. For my money, the baked beans — more like shredded pork with some beans thrown in for good measure — are among the best, but the corn, cole slaw, and fries are all good options too.
While Joanne and Scott polished off the ribs, my buddy Fenton and I were enthralled by the barbecue sandwiches made with garlicky Texas toast ($8.95). "This is how we should make our barbecue sandwiches," he told me in between heaping bites. Each slice of toast is an inch thick and supremely crunchy, piled on tall with the joint's slow-cooked pork, which is cut into big, meaty pieces. The brisket, though, is my favorite. It's pulled — not shredded — into long strips of beef that retain their hearty texture. Topped with a little bit of creamy cole slaw, it's about as perfect as a sandwich gets.
Wisely, the restaurant serves these sandwiches, as well as platters of beef and pork, with the sauce on the side. For me, all three of Rock 'N' Roll Ribs' sauces are a bit too sweet — there's almost no discernible difference between the "sweet" and "bbq" varieties, though the tangy sauce is the spiciest and thus the best of the bunch.
By the time we were finished, the gang and I had worked through more ribs and pork than a road crew after a sold-out show. Scott clutched his belly and moaned quietly. Gary, after working through a foot-long death dog ($8.95), somehow found room for a slice of chocolate cake the menu described as "gladiator-sized" ($3.95). Maybe it was the '80s rock tunes belting in the background that gave him the energy to take it all on; it sounded just like the iPod mixes he plays at his parties.
I, on the other hand, couldn't sit after all that plus a pork-stuffed baked potato slathered with baked beans and slaw ($8.95). I got up and walked around the restaurant, admiring the memorabilia on the walls. Among the dozens of guitars and concert posters are McBrain's gold records — there's even a decorative cassette tape commemorating the sale of Iron Maiden's album Somewhere in Time. "This was the first tape I ever bought," I told Gary. That it was on the wall here seemed fitting.
Of course, Rock 'N' Roll Ribs could make a few changes that would be equally fitting. The beer list is small (some more craft selections would be nice), and some greater variation in the sauces would be welcome. Regrettably, the kitchen is still backing up after two months of operation as well. But the overall sense that you're here to hang, drink a beer, and eat some home-style 'cue is intact. That Nicko McBrain, the drummer for perhaps the greatest metal band ever to hit the stage, would choose to open a place like this in suburban South Florida speaks volumes. What's better than being surrounded by food, tunes, and good friends on a nightly basis? Even for a traveled guy like McBrain, that answer is clear: Nothing.