In 2008 Nancy and I went on a scouting trip to find a place to live during my stint with the Alabama Law Institute in Tuscaloosa. We arrived in the early evening and the first place I took Nancy was the Original Dreamland. The Original Dreamland is an institution in Tuscaloosa. “Big Daddy” Bishop opened it in 1958 having received a vision from God to sell barbecue. Anyone skeptical of Divine intervention should remember that 1958 also was the year Bear Bryant came to Tuscaloosa. Nancy enjoyed Dreamland, the apartment we found, and the people of Tuscaloosa. At the end of the scouting trip Nancy observed that every meal we had eaten in Tuscaloosa had included barbecue and/or bacon. Well, yeah. Roll Tide!
My own first trip to Dreamland had been during a voting rights lawsuit against Bessemer, Alabama. Opposing counsel and I made it a policy to “strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.” We shared some meals at the Bright Star and took an end-of-case trip to Dreamland. At that time, there was only one Dreamland, and the menu was simple: ribs, sauce, white bread, potato chips, beer, and soft drinks. They were the best ribs I had ever eaten.
Dreamland has seven additional branches now, and they offer not only ribs but pork, chicken and all sorts of sides. The first outpost was in Birmingham, and the initial reaction was that they had gone all fancy – they offered wet wipes. There now are additional branches in Tuscaloosa, Mobile, Montgomery, and two in the Atlanta suburbs. The Original still focuses on ribs, but also has sausage and some sides – cole slaw and potato salad – but that’s it.
The Original Dreamland looks pretty much the same as during my first visit.
You enter with confidence that is undiminished by the interior, with its poor lighting, once-crimson booths, impressive collection of football memorabilia, and customer-provided finishing touches.
But, inspiring as it is, you don’t go to Dreamland for the atmosphere. You go for the ribs. And the white bread and sauce. And the sausage.
We went with our good friends Bob and Babs McCurley.
Bob related that in its first years, Dreamland did not have a cash register and accepted only cash. This proved a source of tension with the state and federal tax authorities. The matter was resolved by (1) Dreamland getting a cash register and saving receipts going forward, and (2) Dreamland feeding the then-thousands of residents of the state mental institutions in Tuscaloosa once a year for a period. That’s how we should treat the mentally ill, and that’s how the IRS should treat us.
I think that Bob, Babs and Nancy enjoyed the ribs, but to be honest I was so busy eating more than my share of ribs (and sausage and white bread with sauce) that I didn’t pay attention. The ribs are oh so good – big, meaty, with a good char, good smoke taste, and good texture – al dente. The sausage was good. The sauce is great, perhaps the best rib sauce in the world. It is relatively thin, so it doesn’t glop all over the meat like most rib sauces, and it’s pretty spicy in a way that complements the pork flavor. In addition to its primary purpose of serving as a vehicle for the sauce, the white bread can help with cleaning off your fingers, although no matter what you do, you need to wash your hands after the meal.
The ribs, are, of course, cooked over a pit, which I believe was part of God’s direction to Big Daddy Bishop. And they keep adding slabs throughout the day so that the ribs always are fresh.
Service is as good and as friendly as you could ever hope.
You definitely should go to Tuscaloosa, and you should definitely go to the Original Dreamland. Some people say that the quality of ribs has fallen off some since Big Daddy passed, although I suspect much of that is based on the not-as-good-but pretty-dang-good Dreamland branches. I’ve always had good luck at the original. And some people, including me, think that Archibald’s has better ribs. That’s just the sort of question you need to resolve for yourself – after extensive research. But there is no question that the Original Dreamland has some of the best ribs on earth.
Note: don’t try going on Game Day unless you go very early and get a few slabs to go. Then take them to the Quad and you’ll be extra welcome at any tailgate.