You’re likely seeing corn ribs all over Instagram this summer, posted by buzzy new pizzerias, top Portland chefs, and notable food influencers: a tangle of corn, cut lengthwise into quarters, then fried or roasted to draw out the sweetness of the peak-season kernels. Think of them as the slender, more shareable cousin to the hefty summer standby that is corn on the cob. Some chefs simply fry them, drizzle them with sauce, and serve them with a lime wedge; others marinate and roast them. The idea is to eat them like spareribs, but instead of sucking juicy meat off a bone, diners gnaw plump kernels off a rigid core.
Corn ribs went viral on Tik Tok in February, but it was a notable corn rib dish by Momofuku Ssäm Bar executive chef Max Ng that most directly influenced the trend we’re seeing now in Portland, at the very least coining the term “corn ribs” (an Austin restaurant, Hai Hai Ramen, says they’ve been serving corn this way under a different moniker since 2016). The restaurant shared Ng’s version, a quartered-and-fried corn cob with squid ink aioli and whipped ricotta, on Instagram in the summer of 2017, catching the attention of restaurant critics and chefs across the country. Chef Kasey Mills of Sesame Collective, the restaurant group behind places like Shalom Y’all and Lil’ Shalom, credited that Instagram post as inspiration to add corn ribs to his menu every summer since 2017.
Despite corn ribs’ status as a national phenomenon, their presence on Portland menus feels specific to a city that is known for its championing of vegetable-heavy dining, historically and even more persistently within the last year, in part influenced by climate change-induced wildfires and heat waves. But while the dish has existed on menus in some form for four (or more) years, 2021 is really the year of the corn rib. In 2020, corn ribs were far less common on Portland menus, when the city locked down and dining options were limited to takeout or restricted outdoor seating. For chefs in Portland, corn ribs became a way to share peak-season produce that feels true to how people can dine now when straddling post-vaccine life and the continued threat of the delta variant. Ultimately, this dish is a celebration of the fact that Portlanders are still able to dine out and chefs are still able to innovate in kitchens, even amid the tacky muck of the pandemic and its related food and labor shortages.
Corn ribs, by their very nature, are meant to be shared: A corn rib is a cleaner and easier way to divvy up a single ear of corn, a quick bite in a larger, more interesting meal. At Canard, the focus has always been on smaller plates rather than conventional entrees; a single meal may include foie gras dumplings, fried chicken, oysters on the half shell, and duck sausage gravy-smothered pancakes — plus a plate of summer corn. So when Canard sous chef Patrick Ayers was looking to create a blueberry and corn dish, corn ribs were a natural choice. He knew he wanted a smoked component to play off the sweetness of the corn, opting to smoke the blueberries instead of the kernels, due to the size of their in-house smoker.
Canard’s approach to corn ribs also nods at the natural comparison, right in the name: The smoked blueberries and barbecue sauce play off the concept of a meatless barbecue rib. Portland has always been a produce-heavy city, with its numerous urban farms and substantial vegan scene, but in the last two years, Portland’s vegetable-centric dining world has begun to reinvent itself, emerging in new and varied ways. Vegan pop-ups like Mama Dut, Mirisata, and Plant-Based Papi have found permanent homes, leaning on things like mushrooms and jackfruit instead of animal protein. But the interest in roughage-heavy dining extends into the kitchens of those who do sear a steak from time to time: Some of the most exciting upcoming openings are focused on more sustainable culinary practices, including vegetable-heavy, foraged dishes and Oregon-grown produce paired with whole-animal butchery.
The country’s ongoing focus on health related to the pandemic has nudged some people away from animal protein, and locally, the mounting crises related to the warming of the planet — Portland’s multiple heat waves, Oregon’s ongoing wildfires — have convinced some Portlanders to reduce their personal carbon footprint by eating less meat. As a result, culinary circles have begun to play up and focus on vegetable dishes, even at restaurants known for food reliant on dairy or meat. At the New Haven-informed pizzeria Dimo’s Apizza, chef Doug Miriello was aware that most people associate his restaurant with huge pizzas and meat-packed grinders, and wanted customers to see the focus and attention his team pays to the vegetables they serve. So he added “Italian elotes’’ to the menu, a nod to the cuisine of his Mexican wife and in-laws, while still maintaining his Italian flair. Miriello sources Brentwood corn from Dwelley Family Farms in Northern California, which he praises as some of the best corn he’s ever tasted. He uses the standard elotes recipe as a jumping-off point, but uses Calabrian chiles in place of chipotle, feta and parmesan instead of queso fresco or cotija, and parsley and lemon in place of cilantro and lime.
Corn ribs reflect the ways chefs are building their menus during the pandemic: The labor shortage has left many kitchens understaffed, so more chefs are leaning on dishes that can be prepped earlier in the day, to be assembled quickly during service with fewer people involved. Still, the streamlined prep lends to dishes that customers wouldn’t normally make at home. Langbaan culinary consultant Jonathan Maristela tops his fried corn ribs with Northern Thai spices and Sichuan peppercorns, then drizzles them with coconut milk- and fish sauce-infused chile jam. The result is a salty, slightly spicy dish with a satisfying burst of sweet corn. For Maristela, corn ribs were a way to show off technical skill, and he could do much of the prep in the downtime ahead of service.
Under Mills’ guidance, Sesame Collective’s restaurants serve an even more intricate version of the dish: The team pre-poaches corn ribs in milk and butter, then reduces the cooking liquid and whips it until it breaks, resulting in a corn-infused compound butter. During service, the corn is fried, tossed in the corn butter, and doused with harissa and smoky Urfa pepper; the dish, developed by Yalla chef de cuisine Dan Valley, was enough of a hit that it’s now available at Lil’ Shalom, Shalom Y’all, and Yalla.
With supply chains regularly disrupted and food prices rising, part of corn ribs’ appeal, from a business perspective, is their low cost and ubiquity: Corn is generally available in abundance in the summer, at a lower price point than, say, heirloom tomatoes. According to Mills, vegetable dishes are lower-cost items that allow chefs to keep the higher-cost dishes at a reasonable price on their menus, an especially pressing concern in times of financial and social instability.
But the Portland chefs adding corn ribs to menus aren’t just approaching food and beverage as a cost-value assessment. Each one of them felt a creative pull toward a dish that is, at its core, whimsical. “The world sucks in a lot of ways right now,” says Ayers. “It needs more playful and fun dishes.”