The name Willie Mae’s Rib Haus definitely grabbed my attention, since I experienced the legendary fried chicken at the James-Beard-Award-winning Willie Mae’s Scotch House during a recent trip to New Orleans. Did the rundown-looking rib joint on Broadway in West Memphis, AR, have any connection to the recently recently returned-to-life New Orleans restaurant, which sits in an impoverished section of Saint Ann Street in the Seventh Ward and suffered devastating flooding during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
When I entered the restaurant it was empty except for an ancient-seeming black man who was watching an old western on a tube-style television with rabbit ears. I asked if there was any connection between the two restaurants while he took my order and he told me no. A younger worker who brought my food out told me the restaurant was named after his grandmother who opened the place. So the unrelated establishments are both named after deceased founding matriarchs who happened to have the same name.
With “Rib Haus” in the name, it seemed natural to order a rib dinner, especially with a price of just $8.49. The portion of ribs I got seemed small compared to what I am used to, but a barbecue sandwich is only $3.89 so you could put together a rib and pulled pork combo for less than $12.50. They were offered with either hot or mild sauce. I ordered the hot but it was syrupy sweet and not really spicy. The rib meat was tender and had a good smoke line, but there was still a lot of unrendered fat on them. The fat was soft and juicy and it easily pulled away from the meat, so I think the cooking time was just a little short of what it needed to be. The slaw was good but fairly standard. The bowl full of beans that came with the dinner was actually the best part of the meal. They had a generous amount of pulled pork in them and a good, thick sauce. Since the prices were so low I’ll be making a return visit to try the pulled pork, but I wouldn’t go there for the ribs unless I was already in West Memphis and craving some.
The section of Broadway where Willie Mae’s is located is like the main drag in many small towns. Located just south of the newer commercial developments, which are dominated by a Super Wal-Mart Center next to the Interstate, the old business district is economically distressed and struggling to find an identity. Inside the restaurant the floor is covered with aging, cracked linoleum and there is a random, haphazard mix of unmatched chairs around the tables. A lot of newer barbecue places try to create a rustic appearance through rough wood wall paneling and kitschy decorations. But Willie Mae’s wears the unfakeable, well-earned patina of a true survivor. Hopefully the pulled pork ends up being more impressive than the ribs since this is the kind of place that makes you hope you've stumbled across something special.