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Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

"Boiling 'em isn't right," Ike Gray says of his ribs. "You have to give them time."

Three local barbecue joints you must try

I was at work on a Friday, juggling schedules and putting out fires, when I received the phone call: “Barbecue. Find me some barbecue.” The cluttered desk, the ringing phone, impending deadlines—all receded from my consciousness. I pictured big black steel smokers. Meat roasted low and slow surrounded by savory smoke. Secret sauce. Coleslaw.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll find you some barbecue.”

The phone rang again. It was the Fillmore District office. Clearly this quest was meant to be. “Tell me,” I asked. “Where do I go for barbecue?”

“Call Ike Gray,” my informant advised me.

The next day, I called Ike Gray. I didn’t need directions, as it turned out. I turned onto Genesee Street from Bailey Avenue, and my nose led me to Ike Gray’s Rib Restaurant at 1646 Genesee. On the sidewalk are two huge steel smokers, wafting wonderful aromas throughout the neighborhood.

Ike Gray is originally from Chicago. When he moved to Buffalo, he missed his barbecue. He and his wife used to drive to Chicago almost every long weekend to fill up on and bring back their favorite ribs. Then, his brother offered to rent him some space in a building at Fillmore and A Street, and Ike’s Rib Restaurant was born. Eventually, Ike found his own building on Genesee Street, renovating it completely. That is where you can find him today, tending his smoker and serving homemade sides Thursday 11am-8pm, Friday 11am-midnight, and Saturday 11am-8pm. There is a small counter with a few stools, but most customers take their food to go.

“I feed the community,” said Gray. “I get my reward when they eat my food and they know it’s good. You have to have consistency.” He uses a meatier rib for a better product, and lets the smoker do the work. “Boiling ’em isn’t right,” he said. “You have to give them time.”

I bought a rib dinner for $13, a huge portion with coleslaw and bread. They also serve baked beans, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, and 7-Up pound cake. I asked Gray where else he would go for good ribs. “Chicago,” he said. “Lem’s.” Eventually he recommended two other Buffalo destinations. “And you can’t leave without trying my mac and cheese,” he said. Mac and cheese in hand, I headed to my next destination.

Lee’s Barbecue at 1269 Fillmore is part of the family business compound that also includes Lee’s Sports Bar and Lee’s Car Wash. Lee’s is open Monday to Saturday from 11am, and Sunday from 2 pm. Two young men were tending the indoor smoker grill and took my order—a rib dinner with coleslaw and bread for $13.50. They cut up my ribs and mopped on some sauce. And more sauce. And more sauce. So much sauce that they had to over-wrap the container with foil. They also serve chicken and fish, and you can order extra meat with your dinner. (Not that you need it.) This is strictly a takeout joint, and business is brisk and swift.

The whole car smelled wonderful as I drove down William Street to my last destination, Garris’s Bar-B-Que at 200 William Street, open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am. This restaurant has quite a few tables, although most customers were taking their food home. They serve chicken and fish as well as ribs, and offer combo platters as well. I asked for Mr. Garris, who immediately directed me to Mrs. Garris. “She’s the heart and soul of the operation,” he said. Born in Carolina, Mrs. Garris learned to cook at her grandmother’s knee. “She taught me to season my food, and to give people enough. I love to see people enjoy their food,” she said.

Mrs. Garris started cooking in their garage. “But Mr. Garris ran me out,” she said. “So I started cooking over at the Pratt Center. They didn’t like the amount of food I gave out, so my husband found me this place. He didn’t want to give up the garage again.”

My rib dinner for $12 included bread and two sides, so I chose coleslaw, green beans, and homemade cornbread.

Arriving home, I sat at the picnic table with a tall cold Pepsi, a pile of napkins, and a fork.

Ike’s ribs were meaty, meaty, fall-apart chunks of pork, in a rich, deep Chicago sauce. Not too vinegary, not too sweet, they melt in your mouth. Lee’s were tangier, more vinegary. The ribs were smaller, but there were plenty of them. And loads of sauce. Garris’s had that signature sweet Carolina sauce, and were served in slabs. They were meltingly tender, thick, and meaty.

Who made the best ribs? All of them, and all of them different. If you’ve been there, you know. If you haven’t, go now. And tell me—where would you go for good barbecue?

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