Not for the first time, I was forced to consider the odd discrepancy between a phalanx of awards from major cooking competitions and the supposed awesomeness of what the winners of these competitions serve in their restaurants. Either the two are not anywhere close to being the same, or the judges of these competitions have an entirely different set of criteria than I do for what makes good barbecue. Of course, the written word often doesn’t have any nuance whatsoever, and I’m not saying that I’ve ever had a bad meal at a restaurant with one of those larger-than-a-child Memphis in May trophies, but I sure have had better.
I had been intending to visit Big Bob Gibson’s, one of the south’s best-known barbecue joints, for many, many years now, most of this time weighing this weird discrepancy in the back of my mind. On one hand, there’s the perfectly reasonable fact that Gibson’s pitmaster Chris Lilly has won so many of these Memphis in May awards that it would not be hard to literally stumble over them, stacked as they are in the restaurant lobby. But why is it that so few of the many barbecue-loving writers in our hobby have penned glowing pages of praise about this place? Some agree that it’s pretty good, but few have argued in print that it’s much better. (In fact, while I usually collect positive reviews for the “other blog posts about” section below, those were pretty thin on the ground compared to the negative ones. Check those out when you finish here.)
And, sure as shooting, the self-fulfilling prophecy was right on the nose and we had a pretty good meal here. This was not at all bad. I’ve had much worse barbecue in Alabama. But I’ve also had far, far better in this state. This is perfectly fine, middle-of-the-pack barbecue, but bettered by at least three places within a short distance.
Marie and our son and I took the three-hour drive to Decatur to start a day of eating and playing in the Huntsville area. We started out at Big Bob Gibson’s, which was the furthest point on our trip, and worked our way back to the other end of the Huntsville metro. Big Bob Gibson’s history has passed into legend in our hobby. The man allegedly sold his first barbecue sandwich for profit as a young man in 1925, and spent the next three decades selling at everything from festivals to church revivals to other peoples’ restaurants. He finally opened his own place in 1952, next door to the present location. The original site was destroyed in a fire in 1988. One of Gibson’s many grandchildren, Don McLemore, runs the operation today, with his son-in-law Chris Lilly manning the pits.
Marie ordered a barbecue baked potato, and I had a plate with beans and cole slaw. The slaw’s color is outshined in the poor photo above by the pickle, but this slaw is indeed green. Our server described it as vinegar slaw, and what they serve seems to be very finely chopped cabbage with a hint of sugar and vinegar. It was very interesting. The beans were really good, and the pork was not bad. It wasn’t very smoky, and it wanted some sauce.
The deal with white sauce is that many people say that it’s for chicken, but I like it on pork, and the two worked very well together. In fact, the white sauce mixed with the barbecue a whole lot better than the red sauce did. The red-brown sauce might win an unhappy award for boasting the longest ingredients list of any sauce I have ever seen. I’ve just checked the three different commercial barbecue sauces in our fridge and, together, their ingredients lists runs as long as this bottle’s. I wish that all restaurants, not just this one, would mix up fresh batches of sauce for the tables instead of using their grocery store overstock.
The bottom line? It’s pretty good. A restaurant with this big a reputation, however, should be somewhat better than that. We’d eat better barbecue before the sun set.
Other blog posts about Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q:
3rd Degree Berns Barbecue Sabbatical (Sep. 1 2009)
Davwud’s Food Court (July 5 2010)
The Great North Alabama BBQ Quest (June 10 2011)
Hominy Homily (Nov. 13 2011)
Pinstripe Pulpit (Oct. 22 2012)
The Barbecue Fiend (Sep. 20 2014)
Are you planning a barbecue road trip? You can see all the barbecue restaurants that we have visited for our blog (more than 360 !) on this map, with links back to the original blog posts!