Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Three kinds of ribs at Piggyback Ribs in Folsom

Ribs hit the gas-fueled char-grill at Piggyback Ribs in Folsom.
Ribs hit the gas-fueled char-grill at Piggyback Ribs in Folsom.

Let’s get one thing up front: Piggyback Ribs co-owner Dave O’Brien (with wife Trish) doesn’t cook his restaurant’s signature ribs in a smoker out back. Instead, he uses an oven-roasting/char-grilling process, what he calls “my version of indoor barbecuing.”

That said, purists should note that the juicy, well-handled pork baby back ribs and spareribs, and beef ribs arrive at the table with just the right crispy-tender texture and bite. Though no hardwood charcoal is involved – and thus no naturally infused smoke taste – the flavors are intense enough to let that one go. (Ribs and rib combos are $7 to $55.)

Though this is the couple’s first restaurant venture, Dave O’Brien has some expertise. He ran the kitchen of a Tony Roma’s outlet in Salt Lake City (one of 150 worldwide) and later had a career as a meat cutter. He built out the immaculate interior of Piggyback Ribs restaurant himself, perhaps leaving it too well-lit and needful of the rustic touches that usually define a ’cue joint. This is, however, stand-up-straight Folsom.

O’Brien’s cooking process goes like this: The ribs are first cleaned, trimmed and seasoned with a simple rub and placed in trays partly filled with “a liquid smoke-based mixture.” During cooking. the smoky flavor is “steamed into the ribs,” he said. “I cook them to the point where they’re tender but not ‘fall off the bone.’ 

Let’s pause to consider that term. Some ’cue-lovers think “fall off the bone tender” is a good sign, but professional pitmasters agree it means the meat is overcooked (parboiling the ribs is one culprit). The ideal texture is known as “bite to bite,” defined at the all-things-’cue blog BBQ Beat this way: “A properly cooked rib should be moist and tender, yet yield just enough so that when you bite into it you see a rounded bite mark (and the bone).”

Further, a veteran judge/event coordinator with the Kansas City Barbeque Society (which sanctions more than 450 international throwdowns a year) once confided to me, “We judges have a joke among us, only it’s not a joke, it’s reality: If you’re making barbecue for the public, you want to over-salt it, overcook it and over-sauce it, and they’ll love it.”

Back to O’Brien’s process: After the ribs leave the oven, they’re “stack-marinated” in tubs in layers, with the juices from the trays poured on top of them. Next, they’re placed in a cooler at 34 degrees. Shortly before meal service, “The ribs are brought back out, warmed and put on the (gas-fueled) char-grill and finished to order,” he said.

At that point, O’Brien lightly bastes them with his proprietary sauce. “One of my mantas is, ‘Don’t bury the meat in sauce,’ ” he said.

The ribs get their thin layer of crispy texture, or “bark,” from a chemical phenomenon called the Maillard reaction, produced when heat meets seasoned meat. Part of it involves the marriage of amino acids and sugars, resulting in caramelization, and enhanced texture and flavor.

“Everyone has their own preference for the amount of sauce and char they want,” O’Brien said. “Just tell me and I will adjust to your tastes. One guy who was in last Saturday night said, ‘I want a full rack of spareribs and I want you to burn ’em.’ 

Our table of lunch pals loved the trio of sauces on the table. The proprietary Piggyback sauce is a tangy, ginger-based blend of tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, spicy brown mustard, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and more. The “hot” version is a 50-50 mix of that sauce with Louisiana hot sauce. The squeeze bottle of “buffalo” sauce is filled with Frank’s Original RedHot Hot Buffalo Wings Sauce, “because you can’t improve on it.” O’Brien said.

As for sides, the trio we settled on earned mixed reviews, though I’ve always thought canned Ranch Style-brand beans are just fine (O’Brien doctors them with bell pepper, onion and spices, then simmers the concoction). Ditto the reviews for the coleslaw, a house-made mix of green and red cabbages, apples, pineapple and carrots in honey mustard-based dressing, topped with peanuts; again, I liked it better than my companions did. The cornbread muffins lost us, though. While it it looked interesting, we saved the three-cheese pasta shells ’n’ cheese (with onion, garlic and celery) for another day.

We didn’t find homemade fruit cobbler or sweet potato pie on the menu, but we appreciated the twist of two unexpected desserts. Berry-covered Jon Donaire-brand cheesecake and Hershey’s triple-chocolate cake vanished under a flurry of forks.

“I could sit here all night and eat ribs,” said one lunch pal, a physician. “I wouldn’t feel good afterward, but it would be enjoyable while I did.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Piggyback Ribs

Where: 25004 Blue Ravine Road, Suite 121, Folsom

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays



How much: $-$$$

Information: 916-985-4711,