26004 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44132
By Beau Cadiyo
When I was in Mrs. Thomas’ 12th grade English class, Frank Tunstall and I got into an argument about Green Day. Basically, I considered Frank a “follower” of a band that had “sold out.” I knew nothing about Green Day, nor about their early work, nor even if they had any early work; I only knew that she liked Dookie, and that everyone liked Dookie. She loved what everyone else loved, and was therefore a “follower.” Mrs. Thomas eventually called me out in front of the whole class for, among other things, being on a “high horse,” which Frank, in her high-pitched, lilting voice, repeated: “Yeah – get off your high horse, Beau!”
But what is selling out, though? Really, isn’t it just success – commercial success? Why is it bad to produce something everyone likes? Must a band, to forever stay “authentic,” make music people don’t like, just to please a few die-hard fans? Try telling that to my 17-year-old self.
Anyways, I was reminded of that because of a conflict I’m going through. I’ve stumbled upon an absolutely incredible sandwich which I firmly believe everyone should like. At the same time, I don’t want it to become too popular. I want it to retain its edge, its authenticity, its high-quality ingredients. I don’t want everyone to suddenly be talking about it; I don’t want it to suddenly show up on every food blog in town; I definitely don’t want Guy Fieri to “ruin it.” Part of me realizes, of course, that it is pure hubris to think that the CSB could popularize a restaurant merely by featuring it (even if we are the “best-written food blog in Cleveland”). It’s even more ludicrous when one considers that this restaurant has been around for about as long as I’ve been alive, already has more paying customers than I’ve had hot dinners, and has customers ranging from lawyers to construction workers to computer engineers to Mayor Frank Jackson. However, until this past winter, I didn’t know about it, and I never met anyone else who had eaten here. I suspect there are many people who have driven past it a thousand times over the years and never actually walked in the door. They know of it, but they don’t know it.
Fourteen years after that English class, I re-examined my long-held opposition to followers and selling out, to commercial success and popular acclaim. The question I asked myself was this: do I want my friends and associates to know about this restaurant?
Well, yes, actually. That’s why I’ve been purchasing Polish Boys here for everyone I can find who appreciates amazing food, from Scarlet Pumpernickel and Edward Sandwichhands to my roommate and my landscaper. On top of that, I want everyone who reads this blog, ever, to know about it, to eat here, to be amazed and inspired and to tell everyone they know to do the same. I want it to become the standard of barbecue in Northeast Ohio. So I present to you: R. Ribs.
R. Ribs is on Euclid, among a bunch of stand-alone fast-food joints. It looks, from almost all outward appearances, to be abandoned, but it’s very much open. The owner, Al, sits behind the counter and talks. The first time I ate there, our conversation ranged from the inherent superiority of the Napoleonic legal system over the American one to the way animals and humans adapt to inclement conditions. Since then, we’ve talked about the Napoleonic code and the conduction of discovery, local politics, the Napoleonic code and the presentation of evidence in court, the property rights of Americans in Mexico, the Napoleonic code and the roles of lawyers and judges, and various other subjects (mostly involving the Napoleonic code). Most of the time, it’s Al holding court with the two or three customers who are ordering, or waiting to pick up their orders, or who have already picked up their orders and are just waiting around to listen to him. To his immense credit, Al is also one of the too-rare human beings who really listens. He greets many customers – including, now, me – by name, and I think this is a big reason people come back over and over again. This is evidenced by the walls: R. Ribs is wallpapered with small cut-out pictures of his multitudinous customers. In order to get on the wall (and, probably, to be remembered by Al), all you have to do is eat at R. Ribs three times. There is a big basket of pictures waiting to be put up.
R. Ribs smells only faintly like barbecue. This is odd, because its open-pit barbecue uses charcoal, and an immense amount of smoke is produced. The pit flames up behind a glass shield and under a huge trap, which constantly sucks air out of the restaurant. When I first visited, in February, it was frigid because so much air was being pulled out. Al sat in front of a focused dish heater; I had to sit in my coat to make it bearable. Apparently the regulars know how cold it gets in the winter and order takeout, to eat in the warmth of their own homes.
I know Esquire said that Freddie’s Southern Style Grill has the best Polish Boy in America. But I’d be willing to bet that the Esquire editors have never been to R. Ribs. Freddie’s was delicious – don’t get me wrong on that. Years later I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the bright pink of the sausage peeking out from under its hood of fries and stringy coleslaw, between the two lips of the bun, and I want to lick up the juices from end to end, to nibble it softly, delicately, lovingly. However, I haven’t been back since. Freddie’s was good for a one-meal stand; R. Ribs deserves a Facebook relationship status.
The combination of R. Ribs’ individual ingredients sets it apart from Freddie’s or any other competitor, and keeps me going back for more. R. Ribs’ Polish Boys use fresh-cut potato fries, which are often slightly undercooked to offer a bit of resistance to the teeth. The coleslaw is similarly fresh-tasting, as if it had been made only a few hours earlier. The bread soaks up every liquid in the sandwich, including the sweet barbecue sauce, yet doesn’t degenerate into mush – an incredible feat, considering how much sweet barbecue is slathered on everything. So many delicious liquids drip out that one would be well-advised to take the sandwich out of the foil wrapper and eat it over a bowl or on a large plate to prevent stains to one’s clothing and furnishings. (I once attempted to eat a Polish Boy while driving. It did not end well.)
But the sausage is the centerpiece. After eating R. Ribs’ Polish Boy for the first time, my roommate developed a theory: spicy sausage is spicy because the makers need to cover up defects – like if a sausage is stale, or fatty, or grisly, or overcooked – in their food. When you can truly taste the meat and the smoke in a sausage, you know that it is of a high quality. Al’s sausage is like that – honest and true. It sticks out of each end of the Polish Boy under the coleslaw and fries, with a reddish-brown color that no dye can fake. It is tender and juicy and now that I’ve tasted it, I can’t imagine my life without it.
Sigh. I guess I’ve let the cat out of the bag. Will you Sandwich Scientists™ now flock to R. Ribs? If so, I’m sure it won’t be any more than Al can handle. At most, maybe a few of the people who read this blog – the true food lovers, the ones who appreciate tastes, textures and that elusive thing called quality, will stop in and be convinced. If you do want to eat at this gem, do it soon, since Al wants to move to Mexico for his golden years and has put R. Ribs up for sale. I can’t opine on what a new owner will mean for this place: Al is as much a part of R. Ribs as George was of Hoagie Haven, and it’s probably unavoidable that the new owners will change something about the place – the meats, the sauces, the care put into the preparation – and the amazingness of R. Ribs will slip away, only to be rediscovered 2,100 miles to the south, dancing on tropical beaches and drinking margaritas. It’s worth going immediately and making sure you have plenty of time to hang around. Word to the wise: you might want to learn a bit about the Napoleonic code first.