Kenny Gilbert’s Coffee-Rubbed Spareribs with Poblano Apple Slaw

Earthy flavors and espresso enhance classic ribs and slaw

Photo: Kristen Penoyer

I worked with a chef from the Big Island of Hawaii many moons ago. One day on the job, he shared with me a Kona coffee rub that he grew up eating in Hawaii. He used his coffee rub on a rack of lamb, and I remember how beautiful the flavors were. I began to play with it, and instead of using Kona coffee, I tried it with a Colombian and Costa Rican blend. I felt like it really lent itself to Spanish flavors, like poblano peppers, cumin, cinnamon, and coriander. Different cultures that grow coffee use it in different ways, and cooking with it is a wonderful way to experience the flavors of those cultures. —Kenny Gilbert, from his new cookbook Southern Cooking, Global Flavors

Get Gilbert’s recipe for jerk-spiced spareribs here.

Get Gilbert’s recipe for wasabi, honey, and soy-glazed baby back ribs here.

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  • Coffee-Rubbed Spareribs with Poblano Apple Slaw (Yield: 6 servings)

  • Coffee-Rubbed Spareribs with Poblano Apple Slaw

    • ½ cup instant coffee granules

    • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. Cajun seasoning (Chef Kenny’s Raging Cajun Spice, or other store-bought)

    • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. cumin

    • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. cinnamon

    • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. coriander


    • 4 cups ketchup

    • 1 cup molasses

    • 1 cup packed brown sugar

    • 1 cup apple cider vinegar

    • 1 cup freshly brewed espresso or coffee

    • Juice or 2 navel oranges (½ cup)

    • Juice of 2 lemons (¼ cup)

    • 3 tbsp. cinnamon-coffee rub (see above)

    • 2 tbsp. Cajun seasoning

    • 2 tbsp. poultry seasoning (Chef Kenny’s Fried Chicken Seasoning, or other store-bought)

    • 1 tbsp. ground cumin

    • 1 tbsp. kosher salt

    • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper


    • 1 cup sour cream

    • ½ cup agave nectar

    • Juice of 2 or 3 limes (¼ cup)

    • 1 tbsp. kosher salt

    • 2 Granny Smith apples, thinly sliced

    • 1½ lb. green cabbage, grated (6 cups)

    • ¼ large poblano pepper, finely diced (¼ cup)

    • ¼ red onion, sliced (¼ cup)

    • ¼ bunch cilantro, chopped (¼ cup)

    • ¼ cup dill pickle relish

    • 1 tsp. poultry seasoning


    • 3 slabs St. Louis–style ribs

    • ½ cup cinnamon-coffee rub (see above)

    • 3 cups Espresso BBQ Sauce (see above)


    • 12 flour tortillas


  1. Make the cinnamon-coffee rub: Combine all ingredients. Store leftover rub in a spice jar.

  2. Make the Espresso BBQ Sauce: In a medium saucepan over a medium heat, whisk the ketchup, molasses, brown sugar, vinegar, espresso, orange and lemon juice, coffee rub, chicken seasoning, cumin, salt, and crushed red pepper. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes.

  3. Remove from the heat and set aside until ready to use. (Any leftover sauce can be stored in an airtight container, in the refrigerator, for up to 6 months. It can be used as a substitute for any barbecue sauce.)

  4. Make the ribs: Preheat a smoker with charcoal and hickory wood to 275° or 300°F, or preheat an oven to 300°F. 

  5. Season the ribs on both sides with the coffee rub. 

  6. Set the ribs on the grate of the smoker, backbone side down, and cook for 1½ to 2 hours, or until the internal temperature is 165°F. Keep the smoker on. If cooking in the oven, put the ribs on sheet pans lined with foil and cook for 1½ to 2 hours, or until they reach an internal temperature of 165°F. Keep the oven on. 

  7. Transfer each of the slabs to a large sheet of foil, backbone side down. Pour 1 cup of the barbecue sauce over each slab and wrap them in the foil. 

  8. Return the ribs to the smoker or oven and cook for another 1¼ hours, or until they reach an internal temperature of 195°F. 

  9. Rest the foil-wrapped cooked ribs in a cooler (without ice) for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 3 hours before serving.

  10. Make the slaw: Whisk the sour cream, agave nectar, lime juice, and salt in a large bowl.

  11. Add the apple, cabbage, poblano, onion, cilantro, pickle relish, and chicken seasoning to the bowl and toss. Set aside until ready to serve.

  12. Build: Using a sharp chef’s knife, cut the slabs of ribs into three-rib portions. Be sure to cut close to the bone of the next rib; that way every rib will have meat on the bone.

  13. Heat a large cast-iron skillet on medium-high. Warm the tortillas on each side for 10 to 15 seconds, until lightly charred.

  14. Place two griddled tortillas on a plate and top with three ribs. Add a small cup of barbecue sauce and some slaw. Plate the remaining servings, and serve additional slaw and barbecue sauce alongside.