by Eric Ginsburg
For years, I upheld a promise to keep Crazy Ribman out of print, but the time has come to break the secret.
I’ve been making summertime pilgrimages to his stand on East Bessemer Avenue, at the edge of a gas station parking lot, for years — ever since I first tried his food at a Martin Luther King Day parade in southeast Greensboro.
My friend Saralee and I would swing down Summit Avenue and then Bessemer in the back of a flatbed truck, repeating the sticky-fingered ritual as often as we could. She had been there that January day when we first met the Ribman, and said in a tone that was more of a demand than a suggestion that it’d be better not to tell everyone about the secret. We’d hold those large ribs, doused in crazy sauce and atop a slice of white bread, over our Styrofoam trays and sit by the nearby train tracks, gleefully tearing in. It’s where she wanted to go for her birthday.
Saralee doesn’t live here anymore and the Ribman has moved to a new location too, though much closer, but more importantly it would be wrong — selfish — not to share this summer rite of passage.
I didn’t know Rex Durrett’s name until this week, and he didn’t know mine. I was probably easily recognizable as that tall white guy who rolled up, always with an eager grin and at least one friend along, too. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk; as the folks working with him prepared a plate for me last weekend, Durrett over-generously described me as one of his best customers.
Here’s why I’m such a familiar face at his roadside grill under a tent that Durrett and his crew assemble each time they set up: The food is unbelievably good.
Durrett hails from Memphis, where his mom taught him how to cook, and he’d been doing this for a long time before I discovered his talent — 10 to 15 years in Greensboro, he estimated. It’s mainly ribs, fish and chicken, but occasionally goat or lamb.
I find him at the corner of East Market and Gillespie streets, near the southeastern edge of NC A&T University, operating along the rim of the parking lot at a Marathon gas station not far from Skipper’s All Beef Hot Dogs. That’s where he plies his wares these days, rather than Bessemer Avenue, on Fridays and Saturdays for lunch and dinner.
It’s a location that would make some white people uncomfortable, people who might make excuses for why they don’t like the location by masking their latent racism with comments about a lack of seating. But the only real concern is whether you have grabbed enough napkins, and whether you came hungry enough.
Durrett is there until sunset or he runs out of food, whichever comes first. At 7:30 p.m. on May 23, I almost missed him — he had already climbed into his car, down to just a few pieces of remaining meat well before the sun disappeared.
Occasionally I’ll run into Crazy Ribman at an event; he figures he does about 10 festivals annually and 10 to 15 catering gigs a year. It’s enough to keep him cooking full time, but when I roll up for dinner, Durrett is usually manning the table, interacting with customers while a few people behind him pull it all together.
Skull is the man on the grill — that’s the name his mom calls him too, he told my inquisitive friend Ruth, revealing a shiny grill of his own when he smiles. The ribs were nearly gone when we showed up a few days ago, but Skull offered us what was left alongside a massive piece of beefsteak, sprinkled with flecks of parsley and covered in that unparalleled, smoky “crazy” sauce.
It normally takes four to five hours to cook a large rack of ribs right, Durrett said, working them up to that point where they’re good enough to close your eyes and daydream about for days after the fact. That’s the main fare here, not surprisingly, though quicker baby-back ribs are also part of the repertoire.
Once Durrett threw in some fried riblets for Saralee and me, telling us he had heard of the idea and researched it on YouTube before attempting it. They were every bit as deliciously sinful as they sound.
By now I’ve seen a considerable number of people try food from Crazy Ribman’s grill for the first time, whether at an event at Zeto wine shop, Hopfest beer festival in downtown Greensboro or accompanying me on a weekend jaunt to find Durrett at the gas station. The reaction is always the same: a mix of amazement and unadulterated pleasure.
Find Crazy Ribman on Fridays and Saturdays for lunch or dinner at the corner of East Market and Gillespie streets (GSO). Call him for catering or with questions at 336.254.6811.