Truly we are living in a Golden Age of BBQ. Pitmasters like Aaron Franklin and Rodney Scott have won the prestigious James Beard Award and given BBQ restaurants notoriety and respect long overdue. As the world of BBQ continues to expand across the country and fledgling pit masters chase dreams and open BBQ stands, it’s good to know that there is at least one BBQ joint in the deep south keeping barbecue traditions alive for well over 60 years. Reminding us all that newer isn’t always better. Dreamland BBQ is such a place and they have been making BBQ the same way since 1958, the same year another Alabama legend named Bear Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Under the watchful eye of the mighty Vulcan and his epic butt, near the UAB campus in downtown Birmingham sits Dreamland, a place as much a part of Alabama as the towering statue standing on high. For any BBQ fan a stop at Dreamland should be on the list of places to visit not only for the food, but the lore.
It Started With a Dream
“Big Daddy” Don Bishop was a former brick mason torn between building a mortuary or a restaurant. He prayed on the decision and God visited him in a dream and told to open a restaurant. Being a God-fearing man, he did as commanded and opened Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In the beginning the small restaurant sold everything from burgers to stamps, anything to make a buck but it was the hickory fired ribs that customers continued to come back for. At the end of each day Big Daddy never had any ribs left so they became the only thing on the menu. As the saying goes “aint nothin’ like em nowhere”.
Digging into the history there’s not a ton of information on Alabama style ribs so I asked a local expert what she knew, and mom came through. Having grown up in the area during the 1960’s I thought she might have some insights and did she ever. She said that back in the day, black churches in Alabama would use ribs to raise funds. They would set up impromptu rib shacks in the parking lot and grill ribs all day for anyone that stopped by. Ribs would cook all weekend long until they ran out. You could drive along the road during the weekend and see people grilling ribs and selling them. It was normal to pull the car over and buy a rib sandwich for a couple bucks. And no, it’s not a rib sandwich from a fast-food place that unfortunately we’ve grown accustomed to. In the south a rib sandwich is 4 to 5 ribs in between 2 slices of white bread wrapped in paper. Everyone was accepted and everyone participated. This practice was completely normal and gave rise to what could be called Alabama style BBQ. And This kind of BBQ is what Dreamland makes; old traditional southern food that is shared history, living on today.
Since those early days, Dreamland has expanded to 11 locations in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. On this day I visited the Birmingham spot. On the south side of town, this location has been around for many years, still looking like it has for decades. I had been there a couple of times in my youth and enjoyed it, I think. Now that I am on a BBQ vision quest, I had to return, having felt I never truly appreciated the full Dreamland experience, it was time to go back.
A Different Kind of BBQ
What sets this place apart from other joints around the country is the cooking method and style of BBQ they make. Big Daddy didn’t cook low and slow, like most places today. He cooked in the only way he knew how, long thin ribs, cooked hot and fast with plenty of tangy sauce. You can see the tools of that style today in the back of the restaurant, hot fires burning and the cast iron grills waiting for racks upon racks of fatty ribs.
If you’re lucky, like me, you might witness the pitmaster at work. This gentleman has been working at the Birmingham location for over 20 years and has achieved his final form, and possesses the kind of BBQ knowledge that can only come from years of watching, learning, and cooking. The process looks simple enough, the pitmaster organized the ribs over the burning hickory and let them cook on the grill for a half an hour or so. What happened after that is a trade secret known to few. Its doubtful the ribs are going into a giant oven for another 5 hours. How do I know this? I don’t but because the meat tastes more grilled than smoked, there are tiny bits of char speckled about each bone and the meat has the consistency of a steak, I’m making an educated guess. Plus, the place isn’t big enough for massive ovens. The final clue is the time of day those ribs went on the fire. It was around 2 pm, so my guess is those were for the dinner crowd due in around 5 which didn’t leave enough time for a prolonged cook and rest. If you go to Dreamland don’t expect “fall off the bone” ribs because you’re gonna be disappointed. Expect to eat big meaty ribs, with some gorgeous char on them, that you will have to work at eating. The meat pulls from the bone but is still tender.
What You Can Expect
Dreamland is a BBQ experience unto itself. Yes, it offers similar food that you can get across the south like smoked sausages, pulled pork sandwiches, fried okra, mac & cheese, fried green tomatoes, and ice-cold sweet tea, and beer, with the standard stack of white bread for the table. That’s not where they set themselves apart, their mark is in how they cook the ribs, grilled rather than smoked with a vinegar based sauce with just the right amount of heat. If nothing else this place is proof that different cooking methods still deliver a great outcome, yep low and slow works but it’s not the only way and 60 plus years of success is proof of that. If you’re cooking at home, don’t get hung up time, temp, the right kind of wood, the tilt of the planet and the absolute humidity in your backyard. BBQ is not and should not be a science. Experiment and create something new.
The atmosphere of the place was laid back and easy-going, with a warm and welcoming vibe complete with photos of famous customers hanging on the wooden walls. It had the old charm of a place that’s been there for decades but didn’t look run down. Dreamland is absolutely a must stop on any BBQ pilgrimage.