Rib City: How Dexter became Missouri’s barbecue capital

Dexter, Missouri, is known as “Rib City,” and West Business U.S. Highway 60 is where that name truly comes to life. On that highway, all within less than a mile of each other, exist some of the most popular and well-known barbecue restaurants in Southeast Missouri. And it goes beyond restaurants. Convenience stores, gas stations and small mom-and-pop shops are all advertising their barbecue products.

For the rest of this article, let’s refer to West Business U.S. Highway 60 in Dexter as Rib Road or Barbecue Highway — honestly, there isn’t a more accurate name to describe the insane haven of smoked meats and sauces.

This Southeast Missouri town’s identity is barbecue, and Dexter’s Chamber of Commerce executive director Alisha Trammell agrees.

“That’s how people know us. A lot of times when I travel, especially when I travel for work and say I’m from Dexter, [People say,] ‘Oh my, you all have the best barbecue.’ I get it almost every time,” Trammell said. “So, I think it’s that longevity of the businesses being here, and the consistency of their barbecue that sets them apart.”

Now entering barbecue country

Dexter Queen opened its doors in 1949, helping kick-start Dexter’s legacy as Rib City. The restaurant was founded by Leon and Gwen McGarrity, and previously went by the name Leon’s Daisy Queen and later, Leon’s Dexter Queen. The restaurant is known for its “Lotta Pig Basket” and hot mustard sauce. Current owner, Lori Thrower, says they still use Leon’s original recipes for their signature items.

“We are still following his recipes today,” Thrower said. “We’re still in the exact same building, we’re cooking everything out of the original kitchen that Leon and Gwen stood in 1949.”

In 1953, Hickory Log was established down the street from Dexter Queen. After some early changes in ownership, the small restaurant has been owned and operated by longtime owners John and LaVeda Banken since 1967. The couple’s sons now manage the restaurant, but John still makes all the barbecue sauce and spices used to season their ribs.

“It’s been good to us and our family. The whole family has worked [in the restaurant], and they’re still doing it. Our boys are doing a great job,” LaVeda Banken said.

A third major player entered the barbecue scene in 1983: Dexter Bar-B-Que. According to their website, the restaurant was founded by Bruce Vancil as a mobile barbecue service, before moving into its first brick-and-mortar in 1991. Today, Dexter Bar-B-Que has locations in Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Farmington, Poplar Bluff, Sikeston, and of course, Dexter.

Trammell says having three long-standing barbecue restaurants in town is what sets Dexter apart. Still, this legacy hasn’t stopped newcomers from firing up their barbecue pits.

Brooster’s Butts, Bones, and Pie opened their brick-and-mortar this year, also located on Barbecue Highway. They started as a food truck in 2021. Owner Todd Stroder is from Dexter, and says he wouldn’t have opened a barbecue restaurant in town 25 years ago. But today, he felt Dexter was “ready for a change.”

“This was always a strong barbecue town,” Stroder said. “You had to have your A-game on to play ball in this town.”

Brooster’s serves brick oven pizzas, along with ribs, other barbecue items and what Stroder calls “the biggest pork steak in Southeast Missouri.”

Tooties, a gas station and convenience store located on Missouri State Highway 25, is a local favorite for barbecue. The store was purchased by John and Tootie Sifford in 2007, named Tootie’s 225, and transformed from a simple convenience store to a popular spot for fast, quality barbecue. Current owner, John Neely, purchased the spot in 2020.

Barbecue could be a mascot for the town, as it’s truly everywhere.

“Every gas station you go in [in Dexter], it seems everyone serves some type of barbecue,” Neely said.

No need for competition

With such a high concentration of barbecue in a town with a population under 8,000 people, it seems like competition between restaurants would be fierce. But in Dexter, this is not the case.

“We all have our unique way about us,” Thrower said. “Hickory Log came near the same time [as Dexter Queen]. Hickory Log was famous for their ribs. They’re amazing. I still love it. I still eat there. … There’s Dexter Bar-B-Que, has multiple locations, and they offer a variety of things. Now, they also have mustard sauce on their menu, but it’s nothing like ours. So, we all have our own version of a barbecue sandwich on our menus, but nobody’s is the same. And I appreciate that.”

What makes the difference between these establishments is mostly in the sauce.

“Most of our restaurants have their own housemade sauce, or at least one housemade sauce,” Trammel said. “You can get pulled pork sandwiches and put different sauces on it and get a different flavor. I think that’s also why it's versatile, too. It appeals to more people.”

Thrower says Dexter Queen is known for their Carolina-style spicy mustard sauce. Thrower says people are usually shocked when they come in for the first time, and realize the restaurant doesn’t carry traditional barbecue sauce.

Meanwhile, Jason Banken, LaVeda’s son, says Hickory Log’s highest selling items are their ribs, pork shoulders and beef sirloin. Trammell says she’d describe Hickory Log’s sauce as thinner and more vinegar-based.

Dexter Bar-B-Que offers a variety of sauces including Kansas City Sweet Smokey Sauce, Louisiana Red Hot Sauce, North Carolina Mustard Sauce and Southeast Missouri Vinegar Sauce.

Stroder says Brooster’s sauce includes elements from many different styles of barbecue.

“My sauce it’s kind of in-between, you’ll taste a little KC [Kansas City] style, but it’s a lot of Southern ingredients. We get all the way down into sorghum, molasses, those kinds of things, but it also has some Cajun spice in it,” Stroder said. “A little tang at the front, and then it goes away, and it’s sweet the rest of the way through. That amazes a lot of people.”

Neely said Tooties specializes in “take and go” barbecue. They have a case of barbecue sandwiches, and a case of ribs and other products — mostly pork-based. Neely says their sauce is on the sweeter side.

Willing to drive (or fly) for ribs

Trammell says Dexter’s barbecue reputation is a major draw for tourists.

Hickory Log actually has a helicopter pad behind their restaurant for those flying in to eat barbecue, or those who want to grab it to-go. LaVeda Banken says staff will also deliver ribs to Dexter’s airport; They do this quite often.

“We have people from St. Louis fly down here to get [barbecue]. It’s popular everywhere through the holiday season. Our Christmas parties are from St. Louis and Bonne Terre and Fredericktown,” LaVeda said. “They take a bus and come down to our restaurant. [Our barbecue] has taken off all over Missouri.”

Hickory Log is an especially popular spot for Christmas parties, as they deck their dining room in floor-to-ceiling lights, wreaths and holiday decorations.

Thrower says they get a lot of former Dexter residents visiting Dexter Queen to get the barbecue they remember from childhood. While people are in town, she says they usually eat at Hickory Log and Dexter Bar-B-Que, too.

“They can’t leave [town] without hitting that circuit,” Thrower said.

Even the newer players in town experience customers traveling far to get a taste of their barbecue. Stroder says Brooster’s gets a lot of customers driving down from Perryville, Cape Girardeau and Sikeston “looking for something new.”

Close-knit community made closer

The Dexter community is closely connected to its barbecue legacy, and almost everyone who grew up in the town has memories associated with the three long-standing restaurants.

Thrower says for many teenagers, a job at Dexter Queen or another barbecue establishment, is their first job. To commemorate this, Thrower had a mural painted on the side of Dexter Queen with pigs dressed in Dexter High School Bearcats regalia — painted by artist Katie Coleman.

“When we purchased [Dexter Queen], it became very clear that not only was it nostalgic for me to own a business that’s been around for so long and I grew up on and my whole family loved … I realized, the whole community and people who live out of the county [and] grew up on it, think of Dexter Queen as part of their own,” Thrower said.

Trammell says there are numerous community events named after, or dedicated to, Dexter’s barbecue tradition. Among them, the Grille It Up event hosted by Dexter Parks & Recreation, and Rib City Shootout, a summer tournament series for high school basketball and volleyball teams.

Trammell isn’t native to Dexter, but since moving to her husband’s hometown 13 years ago, she’s noticed something. She now eats a lot more barbecue. Recently, Trammell and her husband bought their own smoker, so they can make barbecue favorites from home.

Barbecue is not just a style of food for this town, but also a vital source of tourism steeped in culture and tradition. It is a true community connector for the people of Dexter, something everyone can talk about and enjoy together.

“Dexter has always been known as Rib City, Missouri,” Stroder said. “As much as Kansas City would like to take that title, for a town this size, per capita, [this is the] number one barbecue place in the state.”