I was happy to stop by Baldy’s BBQ and meet the Bald Man himself who happens to be a Missouri transplant to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. The original Baldy’s location south of Minneapolis in the small town of Lakeville is right off the highway and a favorite of truckers. The food is served almost like fast food to keep the truckers…well…trucking along.
I always appreciate a restaurant with something unique on the menu and three things stood out to me at Baldy’s. First, The Beast is a sandwich composed of brisket, sauce, slaw, bacon and two onion rings. The onion rings reminded me of the Z-Man at Oklahoma Joe’s and brings up a very valid question: why does the Z-Man not have bacon? The next unique menu item that caught my eye was an appetizer. I did not remember seeing deep fried cauliflower before Baldy’s and I wanted to give it a try.
Finally, possibly the most intimidating dish I have seen to date is “Da Pooper” from Baldy’s. In what sounds like torture to anyone planning to drive for hours on end, Da Pooper is three pounds of food and comes with a mandatory 20 ounce Guinness for anyone 21 and older. The base of cornbread is topped with layers of pork, brisket, chicken, beans, cheesy corn bake, slaw, pickles, onion rings and the homemade Blazin’ sauce. I got no where near Da Pooper, but would love to see someone give it a try.
Scott Ja-Mama’s is tucked into a little old building in South Minneapolis. Easily the smallest of the brick and mortar restaurants I’ve visited, the kitchen is smaller than some I’ve seen in food trucks. Much of Scott Ja-Mama’s business is carry out which is good since the tall pub table Scott found on the side of the road and miniature church pew probably maxes out at about 6 people…and that uncomfortably.
Scott always wanted to be in the barbecue sauce business. His mother’s barbecue recipe was a hit at a local hotel restaurant. When Scott opened the restaurant, guests said “Scott- that’s Ja-Mama’s sauce recipe”. It turned into a name!
Scott’s ribs were dubbed the best in the Twin Cities a few years ago by a local publication, but that’s not what I recommend. I enjoyed the pulled pork sandwich with hot sauce, but the best thing at Scott Ja-Mama’s are the beans. You will not find them on the menu, so call ahead to see if Scott has a batch cooking that day. They really are excellent barbecue beans and I hope we can put enough pressure on him to bring them back to the menu full time.
Q Fanatic in Champlin, Minnesota is a family friendly restaurant operated by the friendly Johnson family. Patriarch and Chef, Charlie Johnson, has made his own sauces and smoked ribs since the 80’s. Combining his restaurant experience and passion for barbecue, Charlie perfected his barbecue skills through catering before opening the brick and mortar Q Fanatic.
With 15 sides and 8 sauces accompanying the variety of meat combinations, the menu at Q Fanatic is a bit intimidating. Charlie recommends trying the slab bacon, brisket and pulled ham with sides of beans, potato salad and spicy potato wedges.
I sampled a little bit of everything and was quite impressed! The smoked slab bacon is absolutely decadent and delicious. The brisket was fantastic with a perfect flavor profile. The burnt ends were great as well. I appreciate a restaurant with thoughtful sides and the grilled seasonal vegetables, beans and mac n’ cheese were all excellent additions to the meal. A trip to Q Fanatic is incomplete without the Monster Cookie Sunday. Vanilla ice cream with caramel and chocolate sauce is always good, but when added to the top of a warm, gooey, fresh baked oatmeal cookie, you almost forget about the ice cream and go digging for the cookie.
I enjoyed my visit to Q Fanatic and recommend a short drive north of Minneapolis the next time you are in the Twin Cities.
Jethro’s BBQ has received as much press in the last 5 years as any barbecue restaurant in the country. Most of this attention has been from the likes of ESPN (2011 National Fanwich Runner Up) and Man Vs. Food (Adam Emmenecker Challenge of a huge sandwich and pile of fries). I love both ESPN and Man Vs. Food, but the sandwich isn’t really barbecue and with it’s TV heavy seating area and prominent bar, Jethro’s is really more of a sports bar that serves barbecue than a true barbecue restaurant. With that said, though, a brew and game never hurt a plate of barbecue!
Jethro’s works to provide the complete dining experience with friendly waiter service, quality sides and a fun atmosphere. Chef Dominic Iannarelli recommends trying the barbecue rub wings, Texas style brisket and dry rub ribs. I thought the barbecue rub wings were great and that’s what I would get every time at Jethro’s.
Woody and Cheryl Wasson operate a little place just south of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa called Woody’s Smoke Shack. Like many popular barbecue restaurants, Woody’s grew out of success on the competition circuit and an ever increasing demand for it’s catering.
The interior seating is quite limited, but the large outdoor space accommodates live music and has enough space for kids to kick a soccer ball around. When the weather is nice, the yard turns into a gathering place where people come to enjoy the evening.
Receiving much success on the competition circuit, Woody takes his meats seriously. Cheryl takes a lot of pride in the home made sides and desserts and my favorites were the ribs and cheesy jalapeno grits.
Woody and Cheryl made a strong case for me to head back to Iowa for RAGBRAI - the annual bike ride across the state. I’m not sure the barbecue schedule will allow this, but, if it does, I’ll certainly stop in at Woody’s again.
Craig DeDecker was in the food business a long time before teaming up with Robert “Bob” Prince to open Cactus Bob’s BBQ Corral in Johnston, Iowa. Craig started out our conversation by saying that barbecue is to America what grapes are to Italy or lavender is to France. I enjoyed this analogy as it pulls out some of the deeper essence of barbecue. Just as generations of Italians have perfected the art of growing grapes, American barbecue is built on generations of knowledge and tradition. Just as grape varieties change from region to region - if not hill to hill - American barbecue varies region to region and can even vary from block to block. As the fragrance of idyllic lavender fields transport one to Southern France, the aroma of smoked meats transports one to the American South.
Craig is most proud of his brisket, but it was the turkey and some of the sides that I enjoyed the most. The beans incorporated bits of nearly all of the smoked meats and were fantastic. The home made pickles were great and, while it’s not fit for all taste buds, the vinegar based, chopped, greenish slaw, made from Craig’s Belgian Grandmother’s recipe was also a highlight.
In addition to the standard barbecue items, Cactus Bob’s Wall of Flame makes it a destination for Chiliheads. Craig makes some of the hottest sauces you will find anywhere and I enjoyed sampling some on the cooler end of the spectrum.
The road taken by Darren and Sherry Warth that led to the opening of Smokey D’s BBQ is common, but rarely does this road lead to such great success. Darren and Sherry turned a hobby into a small, weekend business by selling barbecue out of a trailer in their driveway. Success on the competition circuit increased visibility, helped them learn the art of barbecue and eventually led them to leave corporate jobs and turn their side business into a real business.
Teaming up with local Chef Shad Kirton, a tiny catering space quickly turned into multiple locations including the 11,000 square foot space which seats 400+ people on the north side of Des Moines. Smokey D’s still fills three competition teams - one lead by Darrin, one by Shad and one for the rest of the staff - and consider each other their biggest rivals. Being named Grand Champions at the American Royal, Kingsford and Jack Daniel’s competitions in 2013, there might not be a hotter barbecue duo than Darren and Shad right now.
I sampled the ribs, pork and burnt ends right out of the Ole Hickory Pits smoker and my favorite had to be the burnt ends. While some burnt ends are dry, overly charred, or need sauce, these balanced the charred goodness of the bark with the moistness of the interior brisket perfectly. For a side, the mac ‘n cheese and potato casserole both make tasty pairs for any meat on the menu.
Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon is a cavernous space on the edge of Iowa City. With a mechanical bull and live country music, It’s a mix of restaurant and line dancing bar. I’m intrigued by any place that claims to have the “best” barbecue, so I visited on yet another snowy day in February.
The best thing I tasted were the brown sugar heavy ribs. I was also intrigued by a couple of the items on the menu including the Smoked Meat Bowl. Stretching the definition of traditional barbecue, it’s a large cube of sweet cornbread topped with either brisket, pork, pork loin or turkey and covered with chili and cheddar cheese. Probably not the healthiest thing you will ever eat…
If country music is your thing, Wildwood would probably be fun. If you are just looking for barbecue, though, I would keep looking.
I ventured north into the frozen tundra of Iowa to visit Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack in Iowa City. In addition to Jimmy Jack’s, owners James “Jimmy” Adrian and Jack Piper operate Iowa City’s hottest restaurant, Atlas, and the popular Italian restaurant Basta Pizzeria Ristorante. Adrian’s background in fine dining includes having trained at the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and he’s at least the 10th fine dining chef I have met who has successfully transitioned to barbecue.
Despite producing more hogs than another other state, Iowa has never been known as a barbecue haven. It lacks a distinctive style, cut, sauce, rub, dish or the prevalence in local life that defines other centers of barbecue. Des Moines has more of a vibrant barbecue scene, but Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were lacking quality barbecue until Jimmy Jack’s stepped in to fill the void. I recommend trying the ribs and beans, but wait until the weather is nice so that you can enjoy the patio on a less snowy day!
It was a pleasure to meet “Sarge” from Whole Hog Cafe in Little Rock, Arkansas. Sarge is one of the most decorated competitors on the competition scene having walked across the stage in Memphis around 15 times and having placed in the top 5 in ribs four times. Not many people in the barbecue world can claim the same level of consistent excellence.
With 14 locations, Whole Hog Cafe has grown rapidly since it first opened on August 17, 2000. I stopped by the original brick and mortar location in Little Rock, Arkansas and the 150 seat dining room was hopping - even at mid-afternoon in January. Sarge gave me a detailed tour of the kitchen which included stops by two Ole Hickory Pit smokers.
My favorite item on the menu are the tangy, shorter, meaty ribs. The potato salad is also a highlight. With strong notes of sour cream and cream cheese, how could you go wrong?
It was a pleasure to hear some great stories from a barbecue legend and get to visit one of the most successful barbecue brands in America.