Think Minnesota doesn’t have national-class barbecue? Think again. There is shockingly good barbecue all over Minnesota, if you only know where to eat. And we do.
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Two years ago, I set out to come up with Minnesota’s first, definitive, unimpeachable list of the best barbecue in the state. I went into this project with my mind on my enemy and my enemy on my mind. My enemy? Those know-it-alls and keepers of conventional wisdom who insist there is no barbecue in Minnesota. No good barbecue, anyway. No real barbecue. This is a lie.
It’s demonstrably a lie, empirically a lie, obviously a lie, but it’s such a powerful and pervasive lie that, in order to talk about Minnesota barbecue at all, we have to address it.
I’d argue this lie stems from a few assumptions, the main one being: barbecue is a Southern, mainly African-American tradition. Minnesota isn’t in the South, and has a scant African-American community, therefore, there is no Minnesota barbecue.
This chain of assumptions erases from existence some very skilled African-American barbecue geniuses. It erases Bob Lewis, the best barbecue artist in the state, who grew up in Arkansas but now works in the southern Minnesota farm town of Elgin. It erases Gene Sampson and Ron Whyte, childhood friends from Kentucky, who make barbecue in St. Paul under the name Big Daddy’s, with their friend Bob Edmond, who grew up in Georgia.
Furthermore, if you believe that barbecue is exclusively a Southern, African-American thing, it freezes American culture in some sort of post–World War II universe that doesn’t allow for the vitality and growth of the present. The present! The all-important present, the only moment we really have. The present, which is full of immigrants, cooking-school graduates, restaurant lifers, global cultural explorers, and amateur Food Network fans. The present, which gives us our next meal, which, even in Minnesota, can be great barbecue.
So let’s throw out the 20th-century’s conventional wisdom about Minnesota and barbecue and create a new definition. What is great barbecue? You know it when you taste it. It’s slow-cooked meat transformed by fire and skill into pleasure. To find the top 10 barbecue restaurants in Minnesota, I spent the last few months checking and double-checking the long list of dozens of likely contenders I had gathered over my two years of thinking about Minnesota barbecue. I crisscrossed the state, putting mile after mile on my car, visiting one, two, and once even three barbecue spots in a day. (Three barbecue spots in one day necessitates a nap in a parking lot, lest you get pulled over for duib: Driving Under the Influence of Barbecue.)
As I tasted, I learned a lot, not just about the state’s best barbecue, but about Minnesota as a whole. For instance, there are tens of thousands of Minnesotans who ignore the conventional wisdom about there being no barbecue in Minnesota. Every single outstate barbecue restaurant owner I spoke with told me that his or her eatery was kept in business by customers from out of town, by Minnesotans driving 60 or 90 miles out of their way for a meal.
We may not have a reputation for barbecue in Minnesota, but we have the actual barbecue. We have the barbecue believers, the barbecue fans, and the barbecue travelers. There’s national-class barbecue in Minnesota.
If you only know where to look. Turn the pages. Here’s the proof.
1. Bob’s Smoke Stack Ribs
120 Second Ave. SE, Elgin • 507-876-0152 • bobssmokestackribs.com
The best barbecue in Minnesota is to be found at Smoke Stack Ribs in Elgin, a little farm town in the rolling hog-filled country between Rochester and Winona. I know it’s the best barbecue because the first time I sat in the nothing of the dining room, a spare Sheetrocked space defined by nascar mirrors, nascar-Coke flags, and a nascar wall hanging, I ordered a rack of pork ribs. They came, and at the first bite it was as if the heavens parted and golden sunbeams came to alight on my plate, my hearing stopped working and the world fell away: Whoa, those are some ribs! Tender, intense, custardy, but weighty, preserving just a bit of al dente chew while also falling off the bone in sheets of tender spice.
Bob Lewis, the owner, grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, but made his way north decades ago. “I was a drug addict,” he recently told me over the phone. “I had a lawyer from Minnesota, from Rochester actually, and he and the judge got to talking and they said, ‘If you get back in with your same old bunch you’ll be back in jail, so let’s try to straighten you out.’ Next thing I know they put me on the bus to Rochester, Minnesota. I was drunk when I got here, and spent the next two-and-a-half years in treatment. I’ve been sober for 32 years now.”
Barbecue helped redeem Lewis: “My sponsor said I had to make a goal for myself if I wanted to stay alive, and my goal was to cook for people.” A series of cooking jobs ensued, including a few years working for Minnesota’s barbecue godfather, John Hardy (see number 10). “People say, ‘You know all John Hardy’s secrets,’” Lewis notes. “And I do know a lot of his secrets, but I don’t use his secrets.
I use my own secrets. John Hardy really had a Chicago style. I have an Arkansas style.”
Lewis’s style involves spicing and dry-aging local pork from Eyota, a small town just south of Elgin, then tending it carefully as it smokes. The time varies according to the particular animals at hand, he says. After that it’s just perseverance and strength. “A lot of people didn’t want to see me do this,” says Lewis. “When I went to the bank to get a loan they told me right to my face I wasn’t going to make it. John Hardy’s and Roscoe’s have the business all sewn up around here. I looked at the sky and said: Lord, what should I do? I got the message loud and clear: Keep going.” With ribs like these we’re glad he did.
2. Q Fanatic BBQ and Grill
180 Miller Rd., Champlin • 763-323-6550 • qfanatic.com
The last name I ever thought I’d encounter working on a barbecue story was that of Frédy Girardet. Girardet, a Swiss cook, is as legendary in culinary circles as Hank Aaron is in baseball circles, not just one of the greats, but possibly the greatest chef of the 20th century. ¶ Charlie Johnson, the mastermind behind Q Fanatic and a graduate of the nation’s most prestigious cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America, credits much of his cooking finesse to his time spent at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando, Florida, at the side of one of Girardet’s longtime sous chefs. Here’s something Johnson learned from Girardet’s disciple: “Work really hard, and never stop.”
That hard work is evident on every plate that comes out of Johnson’s kitchen. First and foremost, there’s the meat: His pork ribs are miraculously tender, soft and yielding as head cheese, but still have a savory spiced crust that offers resistance, chew, and the clear message that this is the primal union of meat and fire. This meat is cooked using a unique multistage process that Johnson developed which includes trimming and seasoning the meat, then smoking it, resting it in a moist environment, and finally grilling it—a method that Johnson reverse-engineered from knowing what he wanted: moist ribs available for customers who might come at any point during dinner service.
If you’re a sauce aficionado, there are no better slathers in the state than Q Fanatic’s. The pepper-vodka sauce, for which you’ll pay an extra 95 cents a serving, is particularly phenomenal: A piercing note of unsour pepper lights up a sweet-and-coffee-dark sauce, turning it into a bowing vibration of flavor. I’m also in love with Johnson’s simple peppered-vinegar sauce, in which chilies are suspended in apple-cider vinegar amended by a bit of sugar and spice. Dip the rich meat in the spiced vinegar and the barbecue suddenly seems like something farm-fresh and pared-down to its essentials, like it’s ready to be served on a white tablecloth to Alice Waters. The fact that you could twirl a bit of meat off a rib bone with a spoon adds to the sense of fine cooking here.
Oddly, Internet critics have given Johnson a pummeling: “People say it’s not authentic Texas barbecue,” he admits. It is, however, authentic Minnesota barbecue: Johnson’s ancestors came from Sweden to Minnesota in the 1880s and opened a processing facility and meat market. Johnson, who grew up on a small dairy farm between Foley and St. Cloud, opened his barbecue spot in Champlin, a quasi-suburban, quasi-rural area on the northern edge of Hennepin County, so he could continue to live in the country, without a commute into the city, and so his five children could help out in the restaurant.
It’s not just Johnson’s ancestry that makes his barbecue authentically Minnesotan. Nor is it the fact that his meat is so tender it seems to hold the spirit of the Crock-Pot close to its heart. It’s also his potatoes: the supper-club classic, Parmesan potatoes gratinée, and the creamy, spicy new-potato salad both taste like they were made by an elite chef—which they were. It just turns out that this elite chef runs a roadside barbecue joint in Champlin.