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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3. ToKen B.B.Q.
203 Main St., Mapleton • 507-524-4373 • tokenbbq.com
The Food Network brought so many changes to American food-life so quickly that it’s hard to catalog them all. Not only did it put fresh herbs and arugula in every grocery store seemingly overnight, not only did it elevate making dinner to an art worthy of the attention, but it also broadcast this idea: If you cook well enough, in whatever vernacular you prefer, whether it’s boy-meeting-grill or ace-meeting-cake, the world will beat a path to your door.
“I love the Food Network. I love Guy Fieri. My dream is that one of those guys will come here,” says ToKen owner Tony Gregor. A former systems administrator with Motorola, Gregor got his start in barbecue by doing competitions at county fairs in southern Minnesota. Inspired by the hour-long lines that would form for his ribs, and by the can-do stories on the Food Network, Gregor bought an abandoned restaurant in tiny downtown Mapleton, roughly 15 miles from Mankato. Now his wife fills the pastry case with fresh-baked bread, caramel rolls, coffeecake, scones, and cookies, and Tony turns pork into a unique, delicious, and uniquely Minnesotan creation he sometimes calls “Norwegian barbecue.”
A native of Pelican Rapids, Gregor attended college in Kansas City, where he learned to barbecue, and then joined the armed services, where he had a roommate from Arkansas. “We were in Fort Hood, Texas, and that was just a crash course in the difference between Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas City barbecue,” Gregor says. “After that I was stationed in the Carolinas, so I learned a lot about barbecue there. But my barbecue is something else: I do a dry rub like you would in Memphis, but it has brown sugar in it, like they do in Kansas City, and I cook it like a Norwegian likes. My mild and spicy red sauces are pretty standard Norwegian sauces, so they go over big.”
Whether the people of Oslo would consider ToKen’s barbecue comfort food is open to debate, but there’s no arguing that the Pelican Rapids–Norwegian point of view produces some amazing meat: The ribs here are thick and meaty, and are unlike any other ribs in the state due to their brown-sugar-and-spice rub, which caramelizes during cooking into a nubby, slightly glossy crust that bears some resemblance to the glossy top of a pan of brownies. That layer of sugar and spice adds a complex, slightly sweet, lightly spicy resonance to the meat, cooked so that it’s still firm—the result is a rack of ribs that are worth traveling for. Perhaps even from Oslo. Or the Food Network. Did you hear that, Guy?
4. Big Daddy’s BBQ
625 University Ave., St. Paul • 651-222-2516 • bigdaddysbbq-stpaul.com
The true keepers of Southern barbecue in the Twin Cities right now are the three men behind Big Daddy’s: Gene Sampson and Ron Whyte (childhood friends from Kentucky) and Bob Edmond (from Georgia). Local barbecue connoisseurs are, of course, already familiar with Big Daddy’s, which existed in fairs and occasionally in parking lots in the 1990s, in a 120-seat sit-down restaurant in downtown St. Paul in the late 1990s, and again in parking lots during the last decade. Today, the Big Daddy crew is to be found in a blindingly clean and well-lit new takeout space near the southeast corner of Dale and University.
Big Daddy’s beef has always been its cooks’ claim to fame. They have a way of transforming big on-the-bone cuts of beef into succulent, thunderous morsels of profound intensity and grace. The pork ribs are wonderful, too, weighty and tender, smoky but still recognizably porky and sweet, not candied or obscured by over-smoking.
“When we first came up here, I called what I do ‘old Kansas City’ barbecue, just so people could identify it in some sort of a way,” Sampson says. “People here are familiar with maybe Texas barbecue, but nothing else. When I started, very few people knew what rib tips were. They’d say, ‘What is this, a rib tip?’” Today Big Daddy’s sells about 1,000 pounds of rib tips a week. Those rib tips are so tender they’re practically jelly, and they make a wonderful first course to the serious meat of the best beef ribs in Minnesota.
5. Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque
423 Main St. S., Stillwater • 651-439-5375 • smalleysbbq.com
When Tim McKee, perhaps Minnesota’s best chef—ever—of La Belle Vie fame, opened this Stillwater Jamaican barbecue spot with his longtime sous chef Shawn Smalley, I didn’t understand it at all: Where were the fresh-as-morning-dew scallops dotted with a single olive tree’s oil? I didn’t grasp the importance of pimiento wood, the authentic, imported-from-Jamaica kindling that gives barbecue a signature tingle—not the tingle you get from chili spice, but the one you get from allspice, a substance familiar to Swedish-pickle makers for its sweet numbing finality.
It’s clear to me now that to really understand the brilliance of Smalley’s, I should have eaten 30 racks of other restaurants’ ribs first, because that’s what I did before heading to Smalley’s for this story, the last stop on my long, long list. It took only one bite to realize: These ribs are magnificent! Tender, spicy, silky, weighty. I also loved the coal-roasted pork shoulder, both cuts transformed brilliantly by McKee’s several-step process of brining in a classic Jamaican jerk marinade, then smoking the meat over pimiento wood, and finally grilling it over a mixture of pimiento and hardwoods. “We learned how to do it in Negril,” McKee told me, referring to a beach town in Jamaica. “I think we were the first non-natives to ever work in the kitchen we trained in. The other cooks thought it was as much a novelty as we did. We have a picture of the lead cook, Boss, on the wall in our kitchen in Smalley’s. He later contacted us and we sent him some money to set up his own stand in Negril.”
“And how are things going at Smalley’s?” I asked McKee.
“Slow,” he said. “I blame you.”
Yikes. We’ll see if we can change that: Don’t make my mistake and go to Smalley’s looking for La Belle Vie’s finery. Go there looking for all-American barbecue, Caribbean style—and you’ll be dazzled.
6. C&G’s Smoking Barbecue
4743 Nicollet Ave., Mpls. • 612-825-3400
Some barbecue connoisseurs may be surprised by the number of newcomers on this top 10 list: Nearly every spot here opened in the last decade. For instance, C&G’s, a little strip-mall storefront with nothing but a high counter and three tables beneath a television, opened just last year, and it’s already the best barbecue spot in Minneapolis.
“Minnesotans don’t like ribs with sauce on them, and I don’t either,” says Greg Alford, C&G’s owner and a cook capable of crafting ribs that are outlandishly good, meaty, smoky, and perfectly balanced. “If you make a good rib, you don’t need sauce. Just make the meat good.”
Alford, who grew up in Detroit, but spent the last 20 years living in Minneapolis and working as an auto mechanic, calls his barbecue style his own. It has been influenced by his Detroit childhood and his family’s Louisiana roots, but after that, it’s unique.