The only thing any barbecue lover passing through Alabama needs to know about Archibald's is how to get there.
This is the ultimate rib shack, literally. It's a cinderblock building plopped in the back yard of a house on the other side of the river from Tuscaloosa. A 60-mile detour from Interstate 65 in Birmingham and a 10-minute drive for anyone passing along I-20, Archibald's is a bit hard to get to. But trust me. This is the best barbecue I have ever tasted.
There are no billboards marking the way, and directions from the locals can be vague and incorrect. Even the simple sign in the front yard is mostly obscured by trees. And the hound dogs lazing on the deeply rutted yard give little hint of the culinary treat out back. The only giveaway is the driveway, which is as apt to be filled with shiny SUVs as with beat-up pickups.
No bigger than a good-size closet, the inside of Archibald's contains exactly four bar stools with vinyl seats (one had a former life as a kitchen stepladder), a Formica counter and a refrigerator. Large metal sliding doors directly behind the counter open directly into the smoking pit, and there stands one of the two employees on duty at any time. She jockeys slabs of ribs and chunks of picnics (the front shoulder of the pig) inside the big metal box, alternatively spraying down the crackling embers and mopping the succulent meat with homemade vinegar-based sauce. And between those motions, she slices fully cooked meat on a charred cutting board on the threshold of the smoke box.
The other employee tends to the customers, who have only the choice of sliced picnic on white bread served up on a paper plate, or rib slabs on white bread served on a paper plate. A rack on the back wall holds potato chips, the only available side dish. Cold soft drinks--Pepsi products only, despite the Coca-Cola sign--are the sole liquid refreshment. The wheezes of a single window air conditioner provide the background noise.
But the appearance (there is a health inspection report of 98 posted next to the doorway) of Archibald's keeps no one away. On a busy Saturday, construction guys in dust-covered work clothes line up inside the tiny building with 'Bama preppies in pristine Polo shirts and deck shoes, chatting amiably. It's hard to push the bill to more than $8 each. You can get a half-gallon of the barbecue sauce (packaged in a recycled milk jug) for $6.
Now for the crucial information: directions. From Tuscaloosa, cross the Lurleen Wallace Bridge on U.S. Route 43 toward Northport, and take the first exit at Sixth Street. At the bottom of the ramp, turn right onto Sixth Street and almost immediately turn left onto Bridge Avenue--as you make the turn, a service station will be on your right and a gun and sporting goods store will be on your left. Proceed along Bridge Avenue until just before you reach the Shell station (on the left), and turn right onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (a name that belies that this is a narrow two-lane street). Continue past the church on the left, and Archibald's is on the right. Look hard for the sign.
Archibald's Bar-B-Que, 1211 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Northport, Ala., 205-345-6861. Open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Tuesday.