Welcome to a special Barbecue Week edition of The Hot Dish, a behind the scenes look at the making of the dishes of the moment. Eater's photographers visited Phoenicia in Birmingham to observe the step-by-step process of the fine-dining Lebanese restaurant's most unexpected hit — pork ribs.
Phoenicia in Birmingham is one of those places where white tablecloths are still the rule and hospitality is a lifestyle. The staff has been there for years and the food is exceptionally consistent. But among the plates of hummus and kibby neyee one dish stands as an outlier, the seeming antithesis of the Phoenicia fine-dining Lebanese cuisine ethos — dry-rubbed baby back ribs. This is not to say that they don't live up to the standards of other items on Phoenicia's menu. If you're fortunate enough to order them, you'll likely be converted by the slightly spicy and charred meat, with crispy edges. But the idea of pork ribs on a Lebanese menu is as unusual as they are addictive.
"It's like that crunch and that chew. If you're coming here thinking fall off the bone rib, you're not going to like this."
The story behind Birmingham eatery Phoenicia's most unexpected menu item starts many years ago in Texas, when draper and future proprietor of Phoenicia, Sameer Eid, arrived in the U.S. from Lebanon. Living in the Lone Star state — as his son Samy Eid tells it — Sameer "got really spoiled on great barbecue." Sameer eventually moved to Michigan and in an unexpected move traded a life of window treatments for the restaurant business, purchasing a restaurant in Highland Park. The first iteration of Phoenicia, says Samy, became extremely popular, achieving a local following and national accolades. Sameer earned enough money through the venture to invest in a restaurant space in Birmingham, which in time became the new home of Phoenicia.
Moving to Michigan had some drawbacks. The local barbecue restaurants did not live up to Sameer's Texas-shaped expectations. Wanting to introduce his wife and young children to the exceptional barbecue he'd experienced in the south, Sameer called for a family dinner at the restaurant on a Monday night with his special homemade rib recipe on the menu. Samy recalls sitting in the "family booth" at Phoenicia more than 30 years ago with his parents and sibling, feasting on the ribs. "We wouldn't even talk we were just so enjoying these ribs," he says. That's when a customer walked by. "He says, 'Sameer, what are you feeding the kids? What did you make tonight?' and my dad says, 'I made them ribs.' And the guy says, 'I'm coming next Monday. I want to try your ribs.'"
The following Monday, the guest returned with five fellow diners to try the ribs, "and they thought they were the best ribs they'd ever had in their lives — unique to whatever they'd known," Samy says. Week after week, they returned with more friends, until Monday night ribs became a special at Phoenicia. "We had a line out the door every single Monday trying to get to the ribs, and it boomed," he says. "From that point it kind of took on a life of its own."
Sameer's ribs became a staple at the restaurant, drawing in customers on slow nights. In lean economic times, the rib special became a regular menu item. Today, Samy estimates the baby backs account for 15 percent of Phoenicia's total entree sales. The secret is the house dry rub recipe (which Samy claims other restaurants have tried and failed to reproduce) and the restaurant's 35-year-old salamander. The meat also matters, though Phoenicia won't disclose where it gets its ultra-lean baby back racks. "They're like gold," Samy says.
For the uninitiated diner, the standard recipe will be enough to satisfy a rib craving. However, regulars with a fondness for the crispy bits and seasoning know to order them "Samy-style." Samy says he was annoyed when he first saw a order for ribs labeled with his name, but has warmed up to it. "I like them bone-dry and I like them with extra dry rub, so I order them that way."
Asked what makes the rib so delicious, Samy puts it this way: "It's like that crunch and that chew. If you're coming here thinking fall off the bone rib, you're not going to like this." For Barbecue Week, Eater's photographers visited Birmingham to get a step-by-step look at the process of making Phoenicia's house rib recipe. Get a walkthrough in the photos below.
- "They're an extremely lean baby back rib," Samy Eid says of the rack.
- The fresh ribs are broiled in a 35-year-old salamander for 25 minutes.
- The partially cooked ribs are then soaked in a red colored white vinegar-based brine with a special secret mixture of spices.
- Ribs soak up op flavor in the brine.
- The brined ribs are then placed back into the salamander to crisp.
- A house dry rub is generously sprinkled on the cooking ribs.
- The finished ribs, slightly charred and crusted with dry rub are sliced for plating.
- The finished ribs are stack neatly for delivery to the table.
- For a juicier rib diners can order the standard recipe.
- For a drier, rib with crispier bits and more of the special seasoning order them "Samy-style."