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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Living in Dreamland, Tuscaloosa, Alabama's best known rib shack


Editor's note: Barbecued Adventures will be relaunched in early 2014 with new posts about barbecue, pitmasters and related travel. This post dates back to April 27, 2011. Thank you for reading and place come back often.   

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This remembrance about Dreamland was written hours before devastating tornadoes tore through Tuscaloosa on April 27. While my thoughts are with the many people who lost lives and property throughout the Deep South that day, I am happy to report that Dreamland was open for business the next day and all of my friends are fine.

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Someone I respect tremendously recently asked me what my favorite barbecue restaurant was. It is a difficult question to answer, given the various styles and variations of BBQ nationwide, if not worldwide.

Feeling a little on the spot, I replied, “Dreamland, a place just outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama.”

It’s certainly more than a safe answer, although it’s also not a definitive response.

I first visited this place back in the fall of 1985, when my friend and IU classmate Joe Kiefer and I were starting our careers in journalism. We both had been accepted by The Birmingham News for its glorified stringers program and each of us started out by working from our apartments.

Joe was assigned to cover western Alabama, including the agricultural Black Belt region and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was based in Clanton, Ala., and covered activities in two “dry,” alcohol-free counties – Chilton and Bibb.

Needless to say, if a newspaper reporter in his early 20s wanted to go out for some excitement, he went to see his friend Joe.


Just south of Tuscaloosa, about two miles from the intersection of Highway 82 and Interstate 59, is a red shack that has been serving ribs, white bread and your choice of beverage since 1958. 

It’s been a few years since I’ve eaten at Dreamland, but pictures would suggest that it hasn’t changed much. First opened by John “Big Daddy” Bishop, it has been a successful family business.

As the story goes, Mr. Bishop was a brick mason who had always wanted to find another way to support his family. He narrowed his options down to opening up a mortuary or a restaurant. He believed that God told him in a dream to open a restaurant next to his home – which he did.

Another of my favorite barbecue places, Ken-Tex Barbecue, in Shelbyville, Ky., has a similar story of origin. It’s not something I personally believe, but it ought to place some extra pressure on the pit master.

I’ll never forget how succulent the ribs were my first time at Dreamland. The meat was so tender that it melted into the sauce immediate after it entered my mouth.

The sauce compliments the meat as well as a fine wine.

Among the people there on that occasion was an outdoors/hunting writer who also was an excellent journalist, Mike Bolton. He worked with me on my first story ever as a professional journalist.

I understand that Mike has now retired from the newspaper – probably a good decision. Until 2011, he operated his own barbecue restaurant, Big Bolton's BBQ in Springville, Ala.

Mike, if you ever read this, please accept my thanks for helping to turn this Yankee into a lifelong barbecue lover.

As I look back now, it hardly seems like 25 years have passed. I’ve been able to return to Dreamland only a few times since moving back up to Indiana.

Today, Dreamland has several locations in Alabama and Georgia. They’ve also expanded the menu to include sides, sausage and desserts. But I can’t see myself going anyplace else than the original location, on a two-lane road a few miles away from the home of the Crimson Tide and asking for ribs, bread and a beer.

Location we visited:
Dreamland
5535 15th Avenue, East
Tuscaloosa, Ala.
205-758-8135

Dreamland Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

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