Jason DeRusha revisits Minnesota barbecue in this post from 2018: “The Best Barbecue in Minnesota“
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.
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.
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.