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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7. Louie’s Bucket of Bones
101 Fourth St., Ironton • 218-545-3232
Louie’s Bucket of Bones is the best-looking barbecue joint in the state, a true-blue bit of flame-painted Americana that would be on the cover of every Twin Cities guidebook if it were in Minneapolis. But it isn’t—it’s in Ironton, a tiny town on the border of the Iron Range and the Brainerd Lakes area.
“Originally, I just painted flames on the pillars,” explains Joyce Hoggarth, Louie’s owner and barbecue master. “I’d get calls from people who couldn’t find the place, and I’d say, ‘Honey, there are four corners where I am, and two of them are vacant lots. How did you miss me?’ But after hearing that one too many times, I came home and flamed the whole damn building.”
Hoggarth comes from an old St. Paul Italian family. After a long career in restaurants in St. Paul, Hoggarth decided, in 2002, to open her own restaurant to showcase her fantastic barbecue and just-as-tasty baked goods. Her country-style pork ribs are the best thing she does: They’re meaty and cake-like, offering both chew and profound flavor. The St. Louis ribs are nearly as good and far more popular. With these, Hoggarth takes the fatty cut and renders it concentrated, meaty, and savory, like a whole pork roast on Popsicle sticks.
Hoggarth is also a supremely talented baker: I’ve eaten Texas toast a thousand times in my life, but Hoggarth’s, made from big loaves of white bread baked fresh every day, was so light and crisp and toasty that I suddenly saw for the first time in my life why anyone wanted to eat Texas toast in the first place. “People drive for many, many hours to eat here,” Hoggarth says. “I have one set of couples that has been coming for five years. They drive three hours to get here. I have one gal who drives up from the Cities with her husband every winter for her birthday.” And if someone is driving three hours to eat in Ironton in the winter, you better bet it’s not just because the building looks good.
8. One Stop Restaurant
217 Como Ave., St. Paul • 651-487-3700 • hmongtownmarketplace.com
American barbecue, like American jazz, American art, or American culture, must grow, live, and change or it risks becoming a theme park—or a museum piece.
The Hmongtown Marketplace, in a former lumberyard near the state capitol in St. Paul, is the newest place of cross-cultural barbecue pollination and the site of the most exciting innovations in the history of Minnesota barbecue ever.
The marketplace has a food court with a half-dozen vendors, most of whom sell the Hmong version of barbecue: pork, chicken, and beef, cooked at fierce temperatures in special barbecue ovens, then served with sticky rice and little pots of house-made chili sauce for dipping. What’s the difference between Hmong barbecue and traditional southern American barbecue? Wood smoke. Can you have real barbecue without wood smoke? I’d argue yes, the spirit of barbecue is the spirit of eating big chunks of meat, celebrating a bit of prosperity and taking a break from the endless toil of working life.
In the end, you know Hmong barbecue belongs in the noble American barbecue tradition as soon as you taste it. Try the ribs, or the pork belly, or the flattened chicken sections at One Stop, the farthest of the barbecue stands in the food court of Hmongtown International Marketplace. The “crispy pork,” that is, salted whole pork bellies, are as rich and lush as pound cake, the pork ribs are crackling and plush, the chicken is dense and moist. Add a side of papaya salad—the coleslaw of Southeast Asia! (Okay, perhaps not, but it’s tasty.)
I predict that this rich, new barbecue will eventually trickle up to fine-dining restaurants and then trickle down to mass-market outlets. Will there be a day when Hmong chili-rice-vinegar sauce will be on offer alongside honey-mustard and ginger-teriyaki options at your local barbecue joint? Chances are good that the answer is yes, and that’s what makes America so American.
9. Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que
323 Main St. N., Austin • 507-434-8485 • piggybluesbbq.com
Southern Minnesota is hog country, and nowhere is this more true than in SPAM-town itself, Austin, the world headquarters of Hormel. And if you want to know what the people who live, breathe, and sleep hogs eat when they want barbecue, here it is: Piggy Blue’s, in downtown Austin. The place opened in 2002, and is most notable from the outside because its windows are jam-packed with pig memorabilia. It’s most notable from the inside because of its firm, yet still gorgeously tender and deeply smoky, hickory-smoked pork ribs, which can be adorned with one of the many, many house sauces (the Inferno is actually not that hot, but good in a directly spicy way).
Piggy Blue’s is a family restaurant, owned and run by Josh Diaz and his father-in-law, Ronald Meyer, both of whom used to be butchers and work in southern Minnesota meat departments before heading out on their own. “We went on a couple road trips down south, to Tennessee, Alabama, Kansas City, all over. We’d say: We need something like this in Austin!” explains Diaz. “But to a more Minnesota taste.”
What’s that taste? Please consult the “Bourbon Cheddar Taters,” appetizer, essentially a pile of thinly sliced deep-fried potatoes covered in sliced beef brisket, which is itself covered in sweet bourbon barbecue sauce, melted Cheddar cheese, and grill-fried onions. It’s a casserole of barbecue. It’s what hog farmers and Hormel plant workers eat after a long hard day. (Needless to say, Piggy Blue’s only serves Hormel pork.)
“A lot of my friends are hog farmers,” says Diaz. “Sometimes I look out at my dining room and I see the guy who raises the hogs, the guy from the plant who butchers the hogs, the guy from the office who works in sales and marketing selling the hogs, and the finance guy who’s working the loans to finance the hogs.” What are all these in-the-know hog folks eating? Piggy Blue’s barbecue.
10. John Hardy’s Bar-B-Q
1940 S. Broadway Ave., Rochester, 507-281-1727
929 Frontage Road W., Rochester, 507-288-3936
Cedarwood Plaza NW, Rochester, 507-424-3100
John Hardy single-handedly established Southern barbecue culture in Minnesota in the 1970s, after he came to Rochester’s Mayo Clinic from Alabama to get an eye injury tended to. John passed away in 1986, but his legacy lives on. Manager Mike Molitor credits the enduring success of the chain to two factors: One, they buy only local meat from the hog- and turkey-rich farms of southern Minnesota; and two, they run their apple-wood and cherry-wood smokers at the three locations 18 hours a day, so the meat is always fresh from the smoker.
John Hardy’s is also astonishingly consistent across the wide variety of meats they offer: The smoked ham is wonderful—so tender you can cut it with a fork, so pure, saline, and sweetly porky it tastes almost as if it has been whipped into a froth and solidified again, like mortadella. The smoked turkey is equally light, tender, and perfectly smoked. It’s the only barbecued turkey I’ve ever had that’s worth eating. The classic offerings, like shredded pork, sliced beef, well-smoked chicken, and pork ribs, are all smoky and light yet tender and assured.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.