It’s all about the ribs. They’re huge and meaty—we’re talking spareribs, no puny baby backs—and a half rack is almost too much to consume in one sitting. Almost. Each tender bite meets standard “fall off the bone” criteria, but this is not a texture-over-flavor situation. The meat is rich with smoke and generously spiced with a signature dry rub, saturated with notes of black pepper, paprika and garlic. Sauce is absolutely unnecessary; it would only get in the way.
- Top Notch Barbeque
- At Doc Holliday’s, 9310 S. Eastern Ave., 883-1555.
- Daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
These are the ribs of Top Notch Barbeque, lovingly slow-smoked by Jimmy Cole. Though Top Notch has only been around for a few years as a catering company and food truck, local barbecue aficionados know this is some of the best stuff ever to exist in Las Vegas. Even though it’s only been open for a few weeks, Top Notch Barbeque the restaurant is already in the running for best barbecue joint in the city.
Cole, from Cincinnati, moved to Las Vegas around 12 years ago and fell in love with the desert. His barbecue is influenced by his midwestern roots (St. Louis-style spareribs are a big deal) but is not directly derivative of any one style. His aim is to add a little “wild west” flavor to his ribs, chicken, pulled pork and hot links while maintaining a purist’s methodology. “It’s just the way I like to do things,” he says. “To this day if I order ribs and they come all sauced up, I won’t eat them. My dad used to make them that way, saucing them all up on the grill, and I used to wonder why he was doing it that way.”
Apart from his secret recipe dry rub, Cole doesn’t use a lot of extras on his ‘cue, preferring to let the meat speak for itself. Not surprisingly, his pork really shines. The ribs are a must, but the sweet, juicy, slightly smoky pulled pork may also be the best in Vegas. “I just like the way the seasoning in the dry rub flavors the meat, and if you do it right, it tastes so good you don’t need any sauce.”
Cole’s dedication to doing barbecue right helped him build a reputation quickly when his Top Notch food truck was roaming the streets. He always intended to expand with a restaurant but had to make some adjustments when the owner of the truck he was leasing suffered financial problems and had to sell it. Cole’s mobile kitchen was suddenly gone. He shopped around for a restaurant space, keeping in contact with the friendly network of local food truck operators and taking a temporary cooking job at a Strip resort.
On December 1, he opened Top Notch the Joint in the restaurant space adjacent to Doc Holliday’s Bar in Henderson’s Beltway Plaza, on Eastern and Serene Avenues. If a food trucker opening a restaurant within a bar sounds like a sketchy dinner option, you’re in for a surprise. The space is big, clean and wide open, with big windows and a dash of cowboy decor to match Cole’s barbecue. There’s even live music some nights and original art on the walls, colorful desert landscapes for sale from Downtown artist Maria VanderMolen.
As the restaurant business always is, food trucks transitioning to brick-and-mortar locations in Las Vegas has been a dicey proposition. Bobby Q Grille, a westside restaurant from the owner of food trucks Sin City Wings and Ben’s BBQ, opened and closed this year. Great Bao went from truck to tiny eatery (in a hair salon) back to truck, and its owner is readying a new project for an early 2013 opening, Fat Choy at the Eureka Casino on East Sahara Avenue. Last year, popular truck Slidin’ Thru opened a restaurant, closed it, then opened a drive-through restaurant in Centennial Hills. That closed and re-opened this year. Grouchy John’s, a coffee trailer, opened a store in early 2012 in the southwest, on Maryland Parkway.
For Top Notch’s restaurant, Cole has the advantage of a high traffic area, though there are tons of restaurants competing along Eastern. Not many have a smoker outside advertising the goods. “The food truck game isn’t easy,” he says. “If I would have concentrated more on special events, that would have been the best move.” Still, he would like to get a new truck eventually and add mobile service to his business plan.
For now, the focus is on this new neighborhood restaurant. Dinners range from $12.99 to $17.99, and a two-meat combo with garlic butter Texas toast and two side dishes is $18.99. There are a la carte options and a few sandwiches, including the near-legendary pulled pork sandwich topped with Cincinnati chili and coleslaw ($9.99), something you have to taste to believe. The side dishes are solid, especially baked macaroni and cheese, rich baked beans and sweet, addictive sweet potato casserole.