My better half swears that the ribs cooked by his sister-in-law’s father are the best in the world (ooh, that was a mouthful!) He swears nothing even comes close, not Smitty’s, not Cooper’s. Then, where does the East Texas Rib Master go for ribs when he wants to eat out? He gives the same answer as half of the resident in East Texas, Country Tavern (State Highway 31 & FM 2767, Kilgore).
The Country Tavern, we’re told, has been around for at least 30 years. There’s a nice exact figure for the history books. The place used to be a total dive, a rowdy honky tonk with a cramped dance floor and a worn out pool table. After a tragic car accident, Country Tavern took on new ownership and cosmetic updates a few years ago. Country Tavern is no longer a dingy dark warehouse, but the essence of the haphazardly thrown-together watering hole is still there. Smoking is now only allowed at the bar and not at the tables. A newer pool table accompanies the jukebox in the bar area.
There’s no menu at the Country Tavern. And even though the kitchen offers other items (namely brisket and sausage), everyone knows Country Tavern is a ribs and draft kind of joint. No beer for us on this visit, we had a long drive back to Dallas after dinner. We started off with a large rib plate ($17) and two glasses of sweet tea.
It’s a standard Texas order of ribs, forgettable potato salad, white bread, and pickle slices. The sauce is warmed in the bottle and brought out with your order. East Texas BBQ follows the tradition of pork and sauce focused Arkansas and Tennesee BBQ rather than beef-heavy sauce-free Central Texas BBQ (with the exception of brisket, though brisket in East Texas is typically consumed with BBQ sauce). Country Tavern’s sweet, thick sauce is no exception to the rule. Instead of a “no sauce needed” attitude, the focus here is on the slightly tangy, sweet sauce.
The ribs cannot be compared to those at Smitty’s or Cooper’s of the Central Texas school of BBQ philosophy. These are simply a different style. The fall off the bone tender, finger-licking good ribs remind me of high school road trips to Memphis. The ribs from Country Tavern lacked smoke compared to typical Central Texas BBQ. I found the ribs enjoyable, but by personal preference, yearned for more smoke. The combination of the sweet BBQ sauce and the sweet tea was too much for my low sugar-tolerance self. But my better half opted for a second order of just ribs.
This close-up photo shows the nice (but sticky from a sugary glaze) bark on the ribs. The burnt, almost caramelized, ends of the bark were my favorite part of the ribs. But again, low on smoke.
The fun-loving, carefree atmosphere at Country Tavern is a complete contrast to the stiff BBQ purist attitude of Central Texas. Through its long history, the ribs at Country Tavern have evolved into legendary status in their own right. But unlike the legends in Central Texas, the service at Country Tavern comes complete with silverware, sauce, and even a hot towel for clean up when you’re done with your messy dinner. However, would I trade these creature comforts for pit-smoked perfection in my ribs? Well, call me a purist, but most definitely yes.