I made my first trip to Jim's Rib Haven, a hickory-smoked oasis at 38th Street and Ames Avenue, with both mouth-watering anticipation and a little bit of skepticism.
I'd heard it from a trusted source that Jim's was the place to go for good barbecue in Omaha. That caught my attention.
For three years during my mid-20s, I lived in Kansas City, Mo., and in that time I probably ate my weight in barbecue. Back ribs, spare ribs, brisket, burnt ends. The mere mention of pulled pork makes me misty-eyed.
In contrast, I've been back in Omaha for eight years now and have consumed hardly any barbecue at all. This is a problem.
So when Jim's was described as the ideal place to reinvigorate this part of my life, I was guardedly optimistic.
I should mention right off that I'm a something of a reverse snob about barbecue joints. Forget those massive chain establishments with their branded sauces, uniformed wait staffs and functioning restrooms. I'll take the place that looks like something from the first act of a horror movie. Eateries that double as gas stations and restaurants with the word “shack” in their names. These are my places.
Jim's Rib Haven doesn't serve petrol, and by no means is it a shack, but it is small. There are bars in some restaurants bigger than the entire structure of Jim's.
I took that as a good first sign.
Inside, Jim's is about 80 percent kitchen, another good sign. Eating in means ordering at the register and sitting down at a white, L-shaped counter that might seat 10 people if none were squeamish about personal space. Many diners carry out. Others take advantage of the drive-through.
On my first visit, I met a friend for an early lunch as a steady stream of to-go customers came and went. As we waited for our food, I spoke nostalgically about my favorite Kansas City barbecue spot, Lil Jake's Eat It & Beat It, once a downtown staple since displaced by the Goliath-like Power & Light District (“the Midwest's premiere entertainment epicenter”). For me, there wasn't a better lunch experience in town than a quick pulled pork sandwich at Lil Jake's.
With nostalgia in my gut, I ordered a pork sandwich at Jim's, baked beans and french fries on the side. If what arrived was slightly disappointing, it was my own fault. Jim's pork sandwich isn't served in the shredded style I adore but rather as thick slices stacked on a simple, white-bread bun. Still, the smoked, slightly fatty meat was succulent and served with an ideal amount of sauce — neither smothering the sandwich nor requiring me to add any.
There's not much to be said for the crinkle-cut french fries; they simply were. For my taste, Jim's baked beans, which do not contain pork, were bland. They could have been either sweeter or smokier, and instead fell somewhere in an unremarkable middle.
I soon realized, however, that I'd made the ultimate rookie mistake. Here I was at a place billed as a rib haven and I'd suddenly become the doofus who orders a chicken sandwich at a steak house.
Fortunately, my friend proved a thousand times wiser and ordered the rib tips, which came in such a generous serving that I was essentially afforded a second lunch. In a single bite, my near-decadelong barbecue hiatus seemed to evaporate. Jim's rib tips were the sort of melt-in-your-mouth experience that makes the messy ordeal of eating barbecue worth the hands-on adventure.
Rib tips aren't for everyone, although the very things that might turn some diners off are the qualities others admire. Separated from the sternum end of a pig's rib cage, rib tips are short, squarish cuts with a significant amount of fat (flavor). There may be a little bone, but for the most part the meat clings to cartilage, which can be a little weird for some people. Not me; I'll eat the cartilage.
More than my sandwich, the tips provided an opportunity to truly savor — and, let's be honest, judge — Jim's house barbecue sauce. You shouldn't take this lightly. Judging a restaurant's sauce is not merely a subjective matter of taste but the entry point to a much larger discussion loaded with geographical implications.
Is the sauce vinegary, and if so, how vinegary? Thin or thick? Hot? Smoky? Tomato-based or mustard-based? Is it sweet, and if so, is the sweetness derived more from sugar or molasses? Like a forensic analysis, the answers to such questions not only can pinpoint the barbecue you're eating to a particular state but a specific region of a state, if not the exact restaurant.
The origins of Jim's Rib Haven point in an unexpected direction: east. In 1967, a skilled barbecue hobbyist named Jim Overton Sr. opened the original Jim's Rib Haven in Rock Island, Ill.
Since then, Jim's nephew opened a second location in East Moline, Ill., and Jim's daughter, Lois Thompson, has operated a third in Omaha since 1988.
“Omaha for barbecue is a really a hard place,” Thompson said. “So being here for 24 years is pretty good.”
Thompson recalled being a young girl, tending to her father's barbecue pit as he retired to the kitchen to perfect his sauce — the same vinegar-based, semi-sweet recipe she serves today. The key to their longevity and customer loyalty is staying true to her father's original creations, Thompson said.
“I think if you're consistent, they crave it.”
I liked the sauce, which was similar if slightly less sweet than the Kansas City style that's common around here. Jim's offers a hot version of its sauce as well, and while I'm a solidly medium guy (read: wimpy) when it comes to such things, I found it completely tolerable.
On another trip to Jim's, I took advantage of what was for me a barbecue first: drive-through service.
I was pleasantly surprised to have my food in hand about seven or eight minutes after ordering, and I can assure you my car has never smelled as good as it did with a bag of hot barbecue sitting shotgun.
Since my wife and I would be sharing — and, in what surely disqualifies us from any parenting awards, introducing our 11-month-old daughter to her first tastes of smoked pork — I got an order of the more traditional spare ribs to compare against another order of rib tips.
As good as the rib tips were again, the spare ribs illustrated to a delicious degree an absolute barbecue truism: For all the attention paid to sauces, it's really all about the meat. The greater surface area of the spare ribs really emphasized the dry seasoning slowly cooked into the meat, which in turn brought out even more smoky flavor from the sauce. And that's just how it should be.
“We do it the old-fashioned way,” Thompson said. “The (hickory) wood, and standing over that pit and cooking for four or five hours. A lot of people don't do that. A lot of people do the gas stove. We don't do that.”
That scene is common in other parts of the country, where barbecue is a serious business — or as serious as something that comes with requisite wet naps can be. In Kansas City, they host the annual World Series of Barbecue. In Memphis, it's the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. The website for Texas Monthly magazine has an entire section devoted to barbecue, and it's beautiful thing.
In other words, the dots are connected, the maps are drawn and much of the groundwork is laid. In Omaha, it's not so easy. I've heard it said, and probably said myself, that searching for good barbecue in Omaha is a fool's errand, but that's just lazy thinking. There's barbecue to be found.
If anything, what Omaha lacks is barbecue culture — an intangible spirit that makes exploring a city for all of its smokestacked culinary goodness a matter of civic pride, if not outright duty. While you can't just manufacture that, you can take your own steps to filling the void.
And you can start at Jim's.