Legend has it that God came in a dream to Tuscaloosa brick mason John “Big Daddy” Bishop, telling him his destiny was to make barbecue for the masses.
A hulking man who favored smoking a pipe, Big Daddy built a pit in his front yard on Jug Factory Road and started selling spareribs anointed in his special sauce to neighbors and others in the community.
That begat a restaurant in 1958, which Bishop named Dreamland Café after the divine vision that inspired it. His formula was simple: Do one thing and do it very well.
“When he started, he sold ribs, sauce, white bread, and chips—that’s it,” says Betsy McAtee, Dreamland’s current owner. “It stayed that way until 1996. Ribs are our signature item.”
Steadily, Dreamland’s reputation grew locally, regionally, and then nationally, leading one travel and food journalist writing for USA Today to declare it “arguably the most famous rib joint in the east.”
The famous ribs (Dreamland BBQ/Facebook)
Dreamland boasts “Ain’t nothing like them nowhere.” But that’s no empty hype. In celebration of National Barbecue Month in May, we pull back the curtain to explain why Dreamland’s ribs are legendary.
It starts in the prep room at each location—there are seven in Alabama, plus others in Georgia and Florida—where meaty racks of ribs are processed to meet Dreamland’s standards. The trim goes into the grind for Dreamland’s house-made smoked sausage.
Ribs are still made by the method Bishop perfected six decades ago, seasoned simply with salt and cooked over a pit fueled with hickory or white oak, depending on availability.
While the ribs are on the grill, they are periodically sopped with a blend of Dreamland’s barbecue sauce and vinegar, which adds moisture and flavor to the rendering meat. The racks sizzle over hot embers for up to an hour; the pit master pulls them when they feel ready.
Ribs in the pit (Dreamland BBQ/Facebook)
Dreamland’s sauce is different than the red sweet-hot tomato-based sauce generally served in this part of barbecue country. Dreamland’s is a yellow-orange, vinegar-based sauce with some tomato added for balance and a bit of heat at the finish. At the restaurants, bottles of the sauce for diners are kept warm for maximum flavor.
Asked what’s in the sauce, McAtee mostly demurs. “The recipe is a secret,” she says. “I can tell you two top ingredients: mustard, which gives it the orangey color, and jalapeño juice for the heat.”
McAtee’s father, Bobby Underwood, partnered with Bishop in the early 1990s, sparking an expansion that began with the Birmingham Southside location in 1993.
Aside from the Tuscaloosa original, Dreamland’s menu has evolved beyond its traditional rib, bread, and chips plates. Chopped pork for plates and sandwiches is cut from Boston butts cooked 8–10 hours, and basted with a barbecue sauce-vinegar mop like the ribs.
To broaden their potential customer base, most locations have barbecued half-chicken, smoked sausage, flash-fried smoked wings, sometimes chicken fingers and grilled chicken breast.
Sauced ribs (Dreamland BBQ/Facebook)
Menus cover favorite Southern barbecue sides like fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and baked beans. And its chips are made on-site.
Wash it all down with Big Daddy’s Iced Tea, or Big Daddy’s Squeeze lemonade. For dessert, Our Famous Banana Pudding is made with vanilla wafers from Hoover-based Bud’s Best Cookies.
But you owe it to yourself to at least sample Big Daddy Bishop’s ribs and sauce and discover what makes the combo so dreamy (we had to say it).