Saturday, October 29, 2011

Polar Opposites on Old Summer - Jack's versus the McRib

For Friday I felt compelled to do a taste comparison test. The McDonald’s at Summer and Old Summer had a sign out front announcing the return of the “big, bold McRib.” So I parked at Jack’s Bar-B-Q Rib Shack on Old Summer and walked to McDonald’s, using a pedometer to measure the distance between the two places as a mere one-tenth of a mile.

Jack’s has been my gold standard for dry ribs for a couple decades now, and I’ve always wondered why anyone would order the McDonald’s version of “ribs” in a city with so many places offering outstanding renditions of the real thing. But since I’m attempting to try all the variations of barbecued pork in Memphis, and the McRib is currently being sold here, I decided I needed to try one. Especially if they were going to show the disrespect for their customers necessary to offer the thing one-tenth of a mile from rib heaven.

Of course, the McRib isn’t actually barbecue. The word barbecue implies an identifiable piece of meat that has been slow cooked over low heat. A McRib sandwich is an industrial product manufactured from roughly 70 ingredients:

McRib Ingredients
McRib Patty: Boneless pork (Pork, water, salt, dextrose, citric acid, BHA, TBHQ).
McRib Bun: Flour (wheat flour bleached and enriched with thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, folic acid, malted barley flour), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, cottonseed oil). Contains 2 percent or less of dextrose, fumaric acid, calcium sulphate, salt, acetic acid, soy flour, monocalcium phosphate, ammonium sulphate, cornstarch, fungal protease, natural culture, ammonium chloride, ascorbic acid, azodicarbomide, mono- and diglycerides, propionic acid, phosphoric acid, corn flour, calcium peroxide, calcium propionate, dicetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides.
McRib Sauce: Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor, modified food starch, salt, sugar, soybean oil, spices, dehydrated onion, mustard flour, dehydrated garlic, xanthan gum, caramel color, sodium benzoate (preservative), natural flavor (vegetable source), corn oil.
Pickle Slices: Cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, natural flavorings (vegetable source), polysorbate 80, turmeric (color).
Slivered Onions

 "Ribs" in the same sense that Taco Bell serves "Mexican" food.

The patty is actually a mix of various pork scraps, that may or may not contain any actual rib meat, that have been formed into the shape of a small slab of ribs. It has small ridges that are supposed to represent bones molded into it. Someone in McDonald’s marketing department must have assumed that would help with the “rib" illusion, but all it really does is serve as a reminder that there is nothing natural about what you are eating.

My standard ordering rules call for me to try the meat, slaw and beans with no bread. Since McDonald’s doesn’t offer beans and slaw, I took a bite of the McRib in its as-served sandwich form before removing the bun and eating the patty as an alleged serving of barbecued pork. As a sandwich, the bun dominates the taste to a point that you barely notice anything else. Even when eating just the little meat patty, the McRib is surprisingly bland for something that combines so many ingredient. "Big, bold McRib" is wrong on three counts. Like most McDonald’s menu items, the majority of the ingredients are either preservatives or flavor additives that are attempting to mimic natural flavors that have been processed out of the food.

The sauce was too sweet, but still extremely bland. Bites that included some pickle and onion in them had at least a little of the tang you expect from real barbecue, but the result was still underwhelming at best. The meat patty itself had a soggy texture and a flavor that resembled a bland, unseasoned pork chop. A McRib patty by itself is also a very unfilling meal, so I was ready to head back to Jack’s.

One of the reasons I love Jack’s, beyond the excellent barbecue, is the cheap beer. A 16 oz. draft Bud Light is only $1.75, which I needed to cleanse my palate before diving into some real ribs. If you prefer liquor, they don’t mind you bringing in a bottle to mix with your drink. A lunch order of ribs, which includes beans, slaw and bread, is only $5.69. So While the $7.64 pre-tax and tip price for my meal may have been more than the $2.75 McRib retail, it was still a far better bargain.

A single McRib is $2.75. All this costs $4.89 more.

I always order my ribs at Jack’s dry with sauce on the side, and like always, they hit all the perfect notes of taste and texture. As I’ve noted before, “dry” means coated with a paprika-based rub but no liquid sauce. The meat itself is tender, juicy and delicious. In fact, by the end of the meal I had an equal number of dirty paper towels and clean rib bones in front of me.

Notice that loaf of bread in the picture of my meal? It’s cooked in a deep fryer. That’s right, every meal at Jack’s includes a loaf of deep-fried bread. It is one of the most unhealthy substances on the planet and it tastes amazing. Eating it goes against several of my rules for the quest, but I still ate a few pieces. Unlike McDonald’s, when Jack’s serves up unhealthy junk they make it worth it.

NOTE: The excellent Ken's Food Find blog recently posted a review of Jack's ribs. Ken was disappointed by the ribs available on the lunch buffet but loved the ones he ordered off the menu. I made a note in the past about similar responses to my review of the dry ribs at Leonard's, where I love the ribs I've ordered off the menu but have also heard complaints about the ones on the buffet. Some foods do okay under buffet heat lamps, but dry rub ribs seem to dry out quickly. If they're what you want and you're presented with a choice of ordering them off menu or getting them from a buffet, always get an order fresh from the kitchen even if it means spending a little more. The pain of spending a few extra dollars is quickly forgotten while the heartbreak that accompanies a tough order of ribs lingers in your soul.

Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack on Urbanspoon


  1. A 70-ingredient, unidentified piece of are a brave man!
    Love your blog, love the concept of your blog and thanks for pointing me to Jack's. Six years in Memphis and still looking for 'my fav rib shack'.

    1. Thanks. The hidden gems like Jack's are what make my quest so fun.