What Is 'Minnesota Barbecue,' Anyway? Because It's Getting Good
"I’m not sure it has got to a point where we can consider ourselves a 'barbecue town,'" said Twin Cities pit master Kale Thome, "but the scene is evolving into something."
Animales is the barbecue truck to beat in the Twin Cities right now, but Jon Wipfli isn't the only local chef or restaurateur slaying a smoker right now. Here is how a handful of meat tamers see their cooking style going along or against the grain of Minnesota's new-school BBQ scene, along with their thoughts on its history as a whole.
Thomas Boemer (executive chef/co-owner, Revival Smoked Meats)
"Barbecue is having a moment in Minnesota right now as chefs celebrate the quality of our Midwestern livestock. We are bringing a level of sourcing and relationships from our fine-dining restaurants into that realm. I really enjoy what Animales is doing. They are using great technique with the meat cookery and incredible sides that emphasize local farms and seasonal vegetables.
Revival Smoked Meats is more of a traditional counter-service style restaurant, but people familiar with Revival will find the same dedication to our sides, like the oven-baked mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, and white cheddar grits. This was very important to me; the sides are just as important as the mains/meats for a well-rounded BBQ experience."
Justin Sutherland (executive chef of Handsome Hog)
"I think barbecue has always been a part of Minnesota's culture. Everyone tries to milk as much as possible of our too-short summers by cooking and just being outside. Grilling is a summer pastime and every person has their own secret sauce or burger or hot dog or brat.
Over the past three years, the top sellers at Handsome Hog have been our brisket, chicken and waffles, and ribs. When we first opened, we wanted to showcase additional items to broaden the menu and 'chef it up', if you will. No matter what, your customers will tell you what they want, though. You have to be respectful and responsive to that while still putting your own passion into the food. We're currently upgrading our brisket to wagyu from Snake River Farms and I'm working with Beeler's on our rib program.
Fun fact: In our 60-seat restaurant, we sell 600 pounds of brisket per week."
Josh Clarin (pitmaster, Clarin Family BBQ)
"When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I thought barbecue meant beer brats on the grill. After college, I moved down to Kansas City. My new co-workers brought me to the original Oklahoma Joe’s location on my first day. It’s this hole-in-the-wall joint with a smoky interior and a line out the door. The barbecue was on another level from anything I had ever experienced. I was hooked.
Fast-forward a few years; I'm missing the Upper Midwest, so I move to Minnesota. The big thing I really missed about KC was that barbecue experience, so I eventually started making my own. My goal right now is to really work on and respect the process of the cook. Making sure I have a clean consistent fire, knowing how the meat is progressing through the cook, mastering pulling brisket and ribs by feel versus temperature. The hodgepodge path is 100-percent my approach. There are so many amazing styles from around the country and world that have been perfected over the course of generations. Mastering a couple of these and combining them into my own personal repertoire will take the rest of my life."
Nick Rancone (co-owner, Revival Smoked Meats)
"Brisket will always get all the love, and I get it! You have this hulking, beautiful meat with an amazing smoke ring and beautiful bark just staring at you while you are in line. I don't hate on that at all, but our chopped pork BBQ is where it's at because it tells a story. It gives you the regional identity of its origin (North Carolina) through the sauce and rub. And you can tell the pork is heritage and local due to the beautiful rendering of the fat and its clean texture. The smoke is present throughout the whole experience, too, due to the chopping and mixing of the bits. It's the thing that transports me out of MN the most when I eat it. I think that nostalgia is exactly how the greatest food connects with people."
Kale Thome (executive chef of the eagerly anticipated Minnesota BBQ Co.)
"MNBBQCO is the name and ultimate goal. No one knows what that means yet, but I would like to play around and see. As a hunter, I am interested in game, fish, and wild vegetables or fruits. Southern Minnesota also has one of, if not the best, foie farms in the U.S., so I hope duck is a huge part of the menu. As far as techniques, I believe barbecue's only limitation is cooking with fire. Most commercial smokers are derivatives of an offset style. Ours is no different.
There is a wide variety of barbecue in the Twin Cities, everything from grandfathered-in spots from decades ago to the newer spots. I have ran across some very good cooks. Some have locations, trucks, or just do monthly pop-ups. Clarin Family BBQ is a good one in St. Paul, and there are many others I haven't had a chance to try. I’m not sure it has got to a point where we can consider ourselves a barbecue town, but the scene is evolving into something. I can only imagine that it’s gonna create some competition, which will hopefully push the scene and quality of barbecue in the two cities forward."