Dreamland, Tuscaloosa, AL

Visited August 21.

We got a late start heading from Birmingham with Karen Rapkin to Tuscaloosa. And Jug Factory Road, where Dreamland is located, isn't the easiest to find, especially at night. So it was pretty dark when we got there, and my point-and-shoot camera doesn't have much of a flash. But here are two photos of Rib Heaven.

I'll cut to the chase. The ribs at Dreamland were by far the best I've ever had. Anywhere. Much better than the best I've ever made.

Ribs are the only thing they make at Dreamland. Well, the ribs and the BBQ sauce that they come with. Ordering is an information-theoretic dream. All you say is, "Give me an order." 0 bits are needed. They bring you about half a rack of ribs per person (1 1/2 racks for Nicole, Karen, and me.) And some white bread. They'll sell you a bag of potato chips if you want. And the beers are big: 20 oz. bottles of Bud, good and cold.

But the ribs...I can see why this place is famous. And they were much better than I had expected. That's partly because in Smokestack Lightning, Lolis Eric Elie doesn't go bananas over Dreamland. He likes it. But he doesn't rave. Like I'm doing right now.

The ribs seem to be cooked over direct heat, rather than slow cooked. But I'd guess that they're quite a bit above the flame, not right near it.

What's so good about them? The meat is sweet. Not the sauce (which is a perfect complement for the meat). The meat. I don't know how they do it. Maybe they marinate the ribs in Nutrasweet. Probably not. And the meat is reasonably tender, considering that it's direct-cooked.

We sat at a long table that had three other fellows at it when we sat down. We assumed they were all together, but only two were. The third started talking to us. A nice man named Tommy James who's an orthopedist in Jackson, MS. We had a good time talking to Tommy James while the four of us gorged on the best damned ribs on the planet.

When we finished our 1 1/2 racks, I was full. But Nicole wanted more ribs. So we ordered another 1/2 rack. And even though I was full, I had absolutely no trouble polishing off another 3 or 4 ribs. Good call, Nicole.

How did we hear of Dreamland? It's mentioned in Smokestack Lightning. The Sterns liked it in Eat Your Way Across the USA, but they like anything. And Dawne Shand introduced us to the sauce by giving a gallon of it to our friends Paul and Becky Daro as a wedding present. It was served at the rehearsal dinner (which Craig Ward and I smoked on a NBBD that was our wedding present to the Daros), along with a very good sauce that Craig had made. At the end of the evening, the Dreamland bowl (on the left) was empty, and the bowl of Craig's sauce (on the right) was still almost full.

As Craig put it, "The people have spoken."

You can mail-order Dreamland's sauce, but it'll cost you around $32 per gallon. Instead, I make it from a recipe in the BBQ FAQ that is believed to be close to the actual Dreamland recipe.

I have got to get someone at the University of Alabama to invite me to give a talk there so that I can return to Dreamland.

Update: Return visit!!

In November 2002, I was contacted by Joel Jones, a professor at the University of Alabama. He is in charge of arranging talks for the Computer Science department, he had seen the above plea, and he invited me to come and give a talk!

Nicole came down to Alabama with me in March 2003. I was very nicely received at the U of A. The trip resulted in four BBQ meals in Alabama:

  1. Miss Myra's in Birmingham (with Nicole and Karen)
  2. Mike and Ed's in Tuscaloosa (with my hosts from U of A)
  3. Dreamland (with Nicole and Karen)
  4. Golden Rule, the original location in Birmingham (with Nicole and Karen)

Miss Myra's was great. It's your basic hole-in-the-wall in a neighborhood. We got pulled pork plates and they were excellent.

I also enjoyed Mike and Ed's. There I had "cubed pork," which was very good. Not quite as good as the pulled pork at Miss Myra's, but still well above the line. The real notable dish at Mike and Ed's is the Brunswick stew. That was good stuff. Lots of meat in it, and a very nice, deep flavor.

Dreamland...we enjoyed it thoroughly once again. Having had lunch at Mike and Ed's this time, I wasn't quite as hungry as I had been when we were there in 1998, but still the ribs were terrific. The strange thing about this trip is that our server was a policewoman. In uniform and armed.

The Golden Rule was not as good as the other places on this trip. Still a lot better than anything you'll find in northern New England, but just not of the same caliber as Miss Myra's, Mike and Ed's, or Dreamland.

Thanks again to Joel Jones and the University of Alabama for inviting me back to Tuscaloosa!

Thomas H. Cormen <thc@cs.dartmouth.edu>
Last modified: Thu Apr 13 21:14:02 2006