We’ve done it! We’ve made it!
365 Barbecue Restaurants.
I began this project on October 22, 2013 at Pappy’s Smokehouse and ended on October 21, 2014 at Salt + Smoke. I will provide updates as the book progresses, but the Barbecue Rankings Tour has officially been completed!
I didn’t expect to find much that I hadn’t already seen on my 359th visit, but I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of things at McGonigle’s Market. When McGonigle’s opened in 1951, it was located at the spot where the pavement of Kansas City turned into a gravel country road. McGonigle’s hasn’t moved, but now it is located in what is relatively central when considering the greater KC metropolitan area. McGonigle’s still operates as an independent market with it’s specialty being unique cuts of meat. In addition to being able to find the likes of beef kidney, one can also purchase McGonigle’s refrigerated barbecue for a fresh, yet convenient barbecue option to take home or to Arrowhead.
McGonigle’s began serving barbecue from a trailer years before food trucks were a thing in Kansas City. Business took off, but, despite it’s loyal following and substantial sales, I had to ask why I never hear it brought up in conversations about Kansas City barbecue restaurants. Some of it probably has to do with it being a take out place rather than brick and mortar, sit down restaurant, but some of it probably has to do with it simply being a neighborhood place more than a tourist destination.
The most unique food item from McGonigle’s - well, the barbecue trailer at least - is the Italian sausage roll. Rather than fill a casing with sausage, McGonigle’s makes their sausage as a pork loin sized loaf with a few extra binding agents to hold it together. The lack of casing allows the sausage to easily absorb smoke and creates a different texture experience I expect most people to prefer over the traditional tube sausage.
I made a swing back through Kansas City on my way to St. Louis. One of my stops was Wyandot Bar-B-Q.
Wyandot turned out to be an interesting experience due to the service. I don’t think every restaurant has to provide self-esteem boosting, overly-friendly service, and, in some ways, service that would make a restaurant chain manager cringe helps make an authentic dining experience. With that in mind, I relay this story as I think it serves as a snapshot of Wyandot.
As I opened the front door, I noticed the large, handwritten sign taped to it that said “No Cell Phones while Ordering”. There were a couple of families ahead of me and I noticed a second sign on the register that again read “No Cell Phones while Ordering”. This must be a real problem.
Behind the cash register was a lady who appeared to be in her mid-late 40’s. I wouldn’t put money on my age appraisal, though, because she just looked like life had worn her down. While her short jean shorts did not appeal to me, I bet those very shorts had won her big tips at the bar 20 years earlier. After every customer, she said a quick “Thank you” with the emphasis on “you” so that it almost sounded like she were saying “F..k you” to each of her customers.
An elderly coulple and someone who appeared to be their 20ish year old granddaughter received their food and paid a $39 bill. The granddaughter asked for sauce and, without looking, the cashier grabbed a small, covered styrofoam cup from behind her and added 50 cents to the tab. Money was exchanged and then the granddaughter noticed that the tray of food was missing a pickle. Pickles at Wyandot are not added to the plate complimentary, but a full pickle may be purchased. The cashier responded “Shit, I didn’t charge you for it. Still want it?” The granddaughter responded in a slightly defeated way, “No, it’s OK.”
Whereas most restaurants would simply give the customer a pickle, at Wyandot, our cashier approached the situation as if it would be an inconvenience for her to sell the customer a pickle.
The barbecue was forgettable, but my experience was not.
Before arriving in town, I heard that good barbecue was not to be found in Omaha. ”How could a city just a short drive from Kansas City in a state known for steaks be that bad?” I asked myself.
My first stop was at Hartland Bar-B-Que who broadcasts the accolades of being named the best in Omaha at any given opportunity. I took a picture smiling by the window before my meal…but after my meal, decided to snap another one that more accurately reflected how I felt about the experience.
Between visits, I texted a friend I knew from Kansas City who grew up in suburban Omaha and now lives in the South. I asked for barbecue recommendations and after saying that his father’s backyard is the place to find the best ribs in town, continued “We always just went to Famous Dave’s if that tells you anything.”
Nevertheless, I gave Big Horn Mountain Barbecue a chance…
I didn’t shoot another less smiley picture, but I sure could have.
Omaha: a city where the barbecue is even worse than the winters!
The first Backyard Grill opened in Brookings, South Dakota, in 2007 and the Sioux Falls location, which I visited, opened this past spring. Backyard serves Memphis style barbecue and smokes over a combination of oak and ash woods with a little bit of hickory, apple or maple when they can get their hands on it.
Every restaurant has their own combination of smoking methods and tricks. Backyard is no exception. Searing the spare ribs on the smoker first, they then wrap the racks in foil before smoking at the very low and slow temperature of 150-175.
I enjoyed the ribs, which Backyard identifies as their signature item, and found them to be all around quality ribs. While I’m normally not a chopped guy, I enjoyed the chopped brisket at Backyard and their sweeter, cake-like cornbread is served just the way I like it. I was surprised to find barbecue spaghetti this far from Memphis and give Backyard credit for doing more than paying lip service to Memphis.
All in all, Backyard was an enjoyable experience. You never know what you will find in places where a grilled burger is considered barbecue, but Sioux Falls should be glad to have an authentic barbecue restaurant to call its own.
Two more stops in Minneapolis
I visited Q Fanatic, Rack Shack, Scott Ja-Mama’s, Brasa, and Baldy’s on my previous visit to Minneapolis, but found myself in town again and decided to make two more stops. I had already covered what seemed to be the true barbecue restaurants, so I was left with a couple where barbecue is a significant part of the menu, but not the full menu.
Rudolph’s may be the oldest name in Minneapolis barbecue, but today it is more of a tavern serving steaks, fish and burgers in addition to barbecue. Mr. BBQ Express is the kind of place that serves all variety of soul and friend foods, but you can find a variety of barbecue options as well.
Tim, the man behind the barbecue at Spitfire Bar and Grill in Fargo, North Dakota, acquired a taste for barbecue while living in Oklahoma. Unable to find those flavors upon his return to Fargo, he started doing it himself and feeding neighbors and friends. This led to a truck which led to the 200+ seat with a line out the door brick and mortar Spitfire calls home today.
I tried a bit of everything, but my favorite item was one of the more unusual things on the menu. The Gourmet Raspberry Ribs are glazed with a sticky, pucker-up sweet raspberry sauce that reminded me more of a jam than barbecue sauce. While I typically enjoy more savory rubs, mops and sauces, I enjoyed these ribs. They were perfectly cooked and a nice departure from the normal spectrum of rib flavors. I recommend giving them a try. I also enjoyed the barbecue eggrolls which worked really well with their creamy mustard sauce.
I did not have any stops planned in Bismarck, North Dakota as my research turned up nothing but the big chains. I pulled into the visitor center to ask if there was anything local and was given two options: a Brazilian steakhouse or Space Aliens. I was skeptical of Space Aliens since it serves all kinds of food including pizza, burgers and steaks. I found on the menu, however, that they claim to have “America’s Best Ribs” and also registered the title of “Best Ribs in the Entire Universe”. I found my spot.
Space Aliens is part Chuck E. Cheese, part Roswell gift shop, part 1950’s roadside diner and 100% foodie nightmare. I asked my server who decided that these were the best ribs in America and was told “Well…they were named best in North Dakota, but I don’t think America voted”. A quick look at the website revealed that they won the top prize in ribs at a barbecue competition…like thousands of other teams and restaurants.
I found the ribs to be lean, blackened and crunchy…not all together terrible, but not even the best I found in North Dakota. Nevertheless, I might chalk this one up as the oddest of my restaurant visits to date.
Live long and prosper.
After making a stop by Mt. Rushmore, I took my barbecue belly into Rapid City, South Dakota. On my way, someone tipped me off to Black Hills BBQ, so I made a stop by the location they share with a used car lot.
I found everything to be solid across the board, but nothing that really blew me away.
My second stop in Rapid City was JR’s Rhodehouse BBQ Pit and JR’s made the many hours of driving across the Dakotas worthwhile.
JR’s Rhodehouse became homeless earlier this year when an arson fire damaged the restaurant in June. They moved into the local VFW and are making due as best they can. I fully expect JR’s to look back at this experience as a hurdle rather than the event that knocked them out and I say this because they are making some excellent barbecue.
The brisket was terrific, but the turkey and burnt ends were even better. The brisket is a simple, but well executed, salt/pepper-rubbed, foil-wrapped, oak-smoked brisket. The burnt ends were rich, plump and moist with tremendous amounts of char. The turkey was moist and perfectly smoked. For an absolutely perfect side, try the mac n’ cheese. The two-cheese mac n’ cheese with bacon and a little bit of Frank’s hot sauce is smoked for about 20 minutes and spot on. This is what mac n cheese at a barbecue restaurant should be.
Part of this project is giving the local guys in places like Rapid City the opportunity to compete against the big boys in barbecue. More often than not they don’t stack up well, but JR’s Rhodehouse shows that great barbecue can be found outside of traditional barbecue country.
In my Denver, Part 1 post, I wrote about Georgia Boys being the kind of spot I wanted to cheer for going into my visit. I had a similar feeling about Frank’s Bar-B-Que. Frank’s started in Bay City, Texas, in 1969 and relocated to Denver in 1980. Today it’s run by the second and third generations and Frank’s business is mostly catering. To stop in for a single plate of food, you have to call to make sure they are open and smoking. I liked this aspect of Frank’s and also enjoyed seeing the walls adorned with pictures of the family with Willie Nelson, Reba McIntyre, Dwight Yoakam, Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., Roy Clark and Chuck Berry.
Let’s just say that Frank’s was better than my next visit…
If you have followed me long, you may have noticed that I generally do not like to be overly negative. The purpose of my project is to identify the best in barbecue, not the worst. Even if I’m generally unimpressed with a restaurant, I often highlight what I liked best. Bennett’s is celebrating it’s 30th year, so I assumed that it must be at least passable, but, unfortunately, there was little to like at Bennett’s Bar-B-Que & Steaks. When I asked about the brisket, I was told that they do not use a rub, but instead braise with a mixture that includes liquid smoke. The pork shoulder wasn’t even tender enough to be pulled, so instead it is sliced like a ham.
Russell’s Smokehouse was opened in 2011 by Chef/Restaurateur Frank Bonanno and I think it was my favorite stop in Denver. In some ways, I hesitate to call it my favorite barbecue restaurant in Denver because my favorite beef or pork main dish was the pulled pork from Georgia Boys. Nevertheless, I found my two best bites in Denver at Russell’s - even though they came from more periphery dishes.
First, the Loaded Chips with pulled pork, peppers, tomatoes and Gorgonzola were phenomenal. Second, the half chicken was perfectly smoked and moist. I also found the vinegar heavy mustard sauce to be excellent. Add the three of these things up and I think it’s fair to say that it was the best in town.