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I Tried the Ribs at 4 Popular Restaurant Chains & This Was the Hands-Down Winner

The winner had excellent barbecue at a great price.

If you ask people how they like baby back ribs cooked, many will say that falling off the bone is the only way to go. But if you ask chefs, most will say that the best ribs have a bit of chew, with meat that pulls easily from the bone but does not necessarily fall off. They'll also say that the best place to get true barbecue smoked ribs will always be a trusted authentic barbecue spot, because great ribs take time and a diesel smoker.

But not everyone is near a trusted barbecue joint, and if the craving strikes, you might not have time to take the red-eye to Texas or somewhere else down South. That's where your local chain restaurants come in—and frankly, many do a pretty good job. But which one serves the best ribs? We sampled the offerings at Texas Roadhouse, Outback Steakhouse, LongHorn Steakhouse, and Chili's, to find out who makes the best ribs.

What makes the best ribs?

First, we asked a few chefs to describe what makes the best ribs, and nearly all of them were in accord. "The best baby back ribs strike a balance between tenderness and a slight resistance when you bite into them," says Chef Norah Clark, whose culinary career spans several hotels and restaurants worldwide. "While many think fall off the bone tenderness is the ultimate goal, it can mean the ribs are overcooked."

As for the sauce, you can add it if you like it, but with a really great rub, it can be optional. "Some people prefer a tangy, vinegar-based sauce, while others enjoy a sweet and smoky barbecue sauce," says Clark. "You can experiment with different flavors and find the one that appeals most to you." But, again, it's the rub, not the sauce, that should provide the flavor and penetrate the meat during the cooking process.

While you absolutely can cook fabulous ribs at home, the low-and-slow approach will give you the best results. But that takes time! And if you don't have it, dining out is your answer.

For consistency, we tried a half-rack order of each chain's most popular sauced rib. Here's what we thought, from our least favorite to the absolute best.

RELATED: We Tried McDonald's, Burger King, & Wendy's Signature Burgers—and This One Is Still the Winner!


Chilis baby back ribs
Meaghan Cameron/Eat This, Not That!

You can probably hum the song, "I want my baby-back-baby-back-baby back…" which alone earns Chili's a place on this list. While not a steakhouse, the chain does offer several different cuts of steak, as well as baby back ribs in several varieties: the classic BBQ, Texas dry-rub, and honey chipotle. We went with the half-rack of the classic BBQ and had them delivered.

The look:
Chili's ribs just look different from the other ones. The sauce is significantly redder and the ribs themselves look drier. They don't have pleasing dips in between each rib that suggest a softness to the meat. They do, however, have visible spices and look hearty. The half rack costs just under $18.

The taste:
These ribs were a bit tougher than the others we've tried and they didn't taste slow-roasted or smoked. Though Chili's says they are smoked in-house over pecan wood, the fatty meatiness that you would expect in a smoked rib just isn't there. Since the visible bone is charred, it could be that these ribs just spent a little too long on the grill after roasting and became tough and dry. The BBQ sauce doesn't help the situation—it borders on sour instead of smoky and sweet. The sour sauce combined with the tough meat made the bites a bit hard to swallow.

If you like ribs with a good chew, then these are the ones for you. However, this could just be the execution of our half rack, I'd be open to trying these again with a different sauce.

Chili's ribs are also on the leaner side since they lack the melty fat you'd usually expect to see. In fact, compared to LongHorn's half rack, these have 100 fewer calories.

LongHorn Steakhouse

longhorn baby back ribs
Meaghan Cameron/Eat This, Not That!

LongHorn's ribs are slow-cooked and then seared on a flame grill and brushed with the chain's signature BBQ sauce. A half rack costs about $20, and we got them at the restaurant and took them home to try since the chain was so busy.

The look:
The LongHorn ribs look thick and meaty, but they also have a sauce that skews red. The meat looks oddly squished as though foil was pressed on them or perhaps they were sous vide before grilling.

The taste:
These ribs suffered from a lack of smokiness, and they were a bit lean, but they still had a good chew. They were definitely not dry but needed a bit more fat to reach the pro-level tenderness. Overall, while the sauce added much-needed moisture, it was too sweet. The char and spices were overpowered by the honey-sweet sauce which competed with the meat rather than enhancing it.

Outback Steakhouse

Outback baby back ribs
Meaghan Cameron/Eat This, Not That!

Outback's ribs are smoked and then grilled with BBQ sauce, according to the menu. They were also the most expensive we've tried at nearly $22 for a half rack of ribs (a full rack only cost $8 more). We had them delivered.

The look:
These were beautiful ribs, with a deep mahogany-colored shiny sauce that permeated every nook and cranny. They looked charred without being burned and the sauce clung to the ribs as though it was caramelized.

The taste:
Smoky and sweet with a good amount of melty fat and chewy meat, these ribs checked all the boxes. The rub penetrated deep into the meat and every bite was as good as the first, straight down to the cleanly picked bone.

There was only one thing that separated these decadent ribs from the #1 spot, and that was the price. It makes no sense to buy a half rack of ribs for $22 when you can get the full rack for $8. But obviously, a whole rack of ribs is a lot of food and double the calories, so that will drive some people away.

Texas Roadhouse

Texas Roadhouse baby back ribs
Meaghan Cameron/Eat This, Not That!

The ribs at Texas Roadhouses are cooked with a unique blend of seasonings over the course of three days, and feature a signature BBQ sauce. The chain has such faith in its ribs, it isn't afraid to show you how to cook them at home. A half rack set us back $17.99. Full disclosure: These were the only ribs we ate at the restaurant since Texas Roadhouse doesn't deliver.

The look:
We loved the way the meat pulled away from the bone slightly, suggesting tenderness. The dark and shiny sauce enrobed the ribs just as it did at Outback.

The taste:
What can we say, these were great! At first, the sauce was a little too thick but as the meat pulled from the bone, the melting fat gelled with the thick layer of charred spice and the sweet sauce. This added a wonderful crunch in places.

While advertised as fall-off-the-bone, the ribs were not too mushy and they were fully seasoned throughout. While Outback ribs could definitely stand up to the ones from Texas Roadhouse, the price left no question on the winner. At $17.99 versus $22.99, Texas Roadhouse wins by being both delicious and affordable. It seems the ribs are another reason this is currently the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America. And we already know that the steak is top-notch.

Meaghan Cameron
Meaghan Cameron is Deputy Editor of Restaurants at Eat This, Not That! Read more about Meaghan