Florida is a special type of tacky. And few foods illustrate this more than rib rolls: Fried to a crackly crisp, rib rolls take the standard egg roll and stuff it with a gooey blend of shredded meats, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce. It’s a dish following in the grand tradition of taking a classic of American gastronomy—in this case, barbecue—and packaging it in hand-held, deep-fried form.
Rib rolls originated at Flanigan’s Seafood Bar And Grill, a Florida chain established at a Miami liquor store in 1959. At one of the most popular outposts in Coral Gables, the restaurant sits in a green building nestled in a quiet residential area. Finding a parking space during happy hour is nearly impossible. Signs at the adjacent liquor store threaten to tow even regular patrons’ cars. Plastic replicas of fish and Flanigan family photos make up the interior decor. The cartoon visage of the restaurant’s founder, Joe “Big Daddy” Flanigan, is everywhere: on the cups, the tables, at the bar—even inside a large fish tank outfitted with beer jugs that double as air pumps.
Rib rolls get their official name, Joe’s Rockin’ Rib Rolls, from the O.G. Big Daddy. The dish utilizes the classic combination of cheese and grilled onions, alongside molasses-kissed baby-back ribs and pulled pork. All this is flavored with a sweet-tangy barbecue sauce, while some opt for a creamy jalapeño ranch sauce as a dipping accompaniment. The point of this dish isn’t subtlety, nuance, nor balance; it’s about compacting sugar, tang, fat, and meat into an object so tight and dense it has its own gravitational pull. Southern flavors, Asian delivery vehicle, deep-fried and sauced: There may not be a more unabashedly American dish.
Teri Cecil, supervisor of kitchen operations, tells The Takeout that the appetizer was added as a menu item in April 2004. Three months later, the company trademarked the name, and today, between its 23 Florida restaurants, up to 400 pounds of rib rolls are made, cooked, and gleefully consumed each day.
To me, the rib rolls taste like a mistake born out of a Guy Fieri fan fiction: It’s as if the ribs co-mingled with mac-and-cheese on someone’s plate and an enterprising cook thought it was a million-dollar idea. It just so happens this actually was a million-dollar idea (even if I personally think it could use more cheese).
Rib rolls admittedly aren’t the most ambitious of culinary creations, and outsiders might even think stuffing an egg roll with baby-back ribs is an affront to decency. Floridians, though, might just roll their eyes or extend a rude appendage to such close-mindedness. But they’re delicious, period, and as much a part of South Florida’s culinary heritage as stone crabs and Cuban coffee. Plus, there’s a matter of civic pride: Generations of South Florida families would rather say they’d support a family-owned restaurants than the multi-national corporate chains.
Much like Waffle Houses or Whataburgers are to the towns they inhabit, Flanigan’s acts as sort of a town square. When hurricanes strike in this part of the country, Flanigan’s seems to be among the earliest to re-open. Owning one of the restaurant’s signature green tumblers is a Miami rite of passage—and a staple in the cabinet of many area twentysomethings. So while some restaurants feel like businesses, Flanigan’s has seemingly crossed a threshold to a place you’d defend against haters. Sure, make fun of Applebee’s. Crack wise about T.G.I. Friday’s. But egg rolls stuffed with baby-back ribs, pulled pork, cheese, and onions? Tacky, yes; junky, fine—but you can pry them from our sweaty, dead hands.