Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Beef brisket from Q Fanatic in Minneapolis
Brisket in a basket from Q Fanatic
A few years back, some prominent New York City restaurant critics took it upon themselves to declare that the Big Apple’s barbecue scene was now of such caliber that the country must acknowledge that New York City was a full-fledged barbecue capital of America, joining ranks with the cities of west Texas, the Carolinas, Missouri, and Tennessee. What? Innocent bystanders such as myself stood back and watched Texas rise up with murderous tweets, but the question was raised and could not be extinguished: Is American barbecue necessarily and forever fixed only to the South? Whether or not the Big Apple’s was any good, could it even join the firmament of top barbecue cities if it were?
The answer rides on your definition of history. If you believe it is a fixed thing in the past that dictates the present, then it would seem that barbecue belongs to the South, and we in the North cannot participate. We did not have the mixing of enslaved West Africans and Native people on hot and isolated plantations, nor did we have the subsequent in-migration to unwelcoming cities with stridently enforced underemployment. We did not pay those dues so we cannot have those all-day-smoked ribs. But here’s another way to define history: It’s fluid. As sure as you can never step in the same water in the Mississippi twice, you can not pin down anything alive in wax, and thus the Memphis of today has no more claim on this minute’s barbecue greatness than the Taino people of the 1500s who welcomed Columbus with what’s widely agreed to be the first barbecues (their word).
Who cares? You’re going to, because Minnesota suddenly has two excellent barbecue spots to contend with, and you probably won’t be able to understand how great they are unless we can put them in a meaningful context. First, let’s clasp hands in wonder for the second location of Q Fanatic, now open on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis. The original is up in Champlin and was sort of a testing ground for this new streamlined one, which is all killer, no weak links. And I do mean all killer—all of it.
Meet the first Minnesota barbecue restaurant that makes brisket worth standing in line for. Oh, this brisket! It’s the obvious product of a national-class pit-master: seven- or 10-hour smoked, depending, with an exterior bark as dark as espresso, an interior hitting that impossible balance between resilient and tender, and a residual numbing tingle from hours over hickory wood. That pit-master is Charlie Johnson, the grandson of Minnesota butchers and a Culinary Institute of America–trained chef who spent decades in Florida restaurants, golf club restaurants, and Italian restaurants before losing everything and starting afresh with barbecue.
Q Fanatic’s Charlie Johnson
Barbecue is his calling. His pork spare ribs are red-sealed and smoky on the outside, ivory and ideally meaty yet tender within. The best barbecue is perfect without sauce—this is that barbecue. The pulled smoked pork and chicken are very good, and kid-friendly, both smoky and firm and not soupy and Crock-Pot-evoking the way they are at lesser spots. The potato chips are handmade and served warm in paper bags, the way they probably are in heaven.
It’s that brisket, however, that will change everything around here. They slice it in front of you. You can even ask for burnt ends, which have this ultra-concentrated, gritty, beef-bacon quality that’s at once difficult and profound, like a truffle. Each time I received this brisket, I fell off a cliff of admiration. Brisket is so hard to do well. It’s so difficult to use smoke to make it tender while also preventing it from getting dry and tough. And it’s near impossible to maintain good beefy flavor in the face of so much smoke and spice.
I dragged a friend from Texas to Q Fanatic to get a reality check, and her review referenced an Austin institution: “It’s not the Salt Lick,” she said, “but it’s not far off.” Johnson tells me he’s been working on his brisket recipe up in Champlin since 2007, amassing enough cash to buy one smoker, then another, tweaking his 20-spice Memphis-style dry rub, and generally zeroing in on his own version of perfect barbecue. “We’ve taken ideas from all over the country, and it’s our own evolution,” he says. “I like to keep things simple, and then through that, we developed our own variation of barbecue in America.” If I had to describe Q Fanatic barbecue I couldn’t do better than that: It’s deceptively simple, tastes like good meat that not much was done to, and yet it’s also impossible to imagine how you could get it like that yourself.
There’s not much else happening at Q Fanatic yet, which perches by the side of the road near where the Crosstown meets I-35. Johnson told me he’s hoping to sell beer there, once he sells enough brisket to cover the license. I predict that by the time he does get the license, the place will be a cult favorite with lines out the door.
Handsome Hog’s half-rack pork ribs with mac ’n’ cheese and greens
Meanwhile, across the river in St. Paul’s Lowertown, Handsome Hog and young chef Justin Sutherland are taking barbecue in a 22nd century sort of direction. There are sous vide rosemary pear balls with the chicken and waffles, a Spanish Mangalitsa ham leg sold by the ounce at bankers’ prices, nightly specials that include bowls of handmade ramen, and a pastry chef who pours smoke on a whole complicated peachy situation. A lot of the food is pretty fantastic. Sutherland’s baby back ribs are a quivering succulence of pork, tender as panna cotta, richer than butter, nothing but a veil of spice and a blossom of indulgence, perfectly paired with plain toast and pickles. The 24-hour smoked beef brisket is worth showing up early for (I’ve seen it sell out by 6 p.m.). It’s impressively tender, fatty, lush, permeated with an umami mushroomy quality, the kind of primal food that reaches past your thinking mind and locks right into those caveman pleasure centers. Sutherland has a very contemporary biography. He grew up in Apple Valley, both African American and cooking at the side of his Japanese-born grandmother. He came to local prominence as the sous chef for elite French-technique restaurants, especially Meritage and Brasserie Zentral. While he is excellent at cooking simple things, you can sense his boredom with the basics, and much of the menu at Handsome Hog gallops into more esoteric directions. I didn’t ever feel that the “succotash panzanella” of rock-hard cornbread croutons with squash confit and a great number of other things was better than boring panzanella. I didn’t understand why chicken and waffles was better when made with tiny waffles like coasters for great big chicken pieces and sous vide rosemary pear balls. And I didn’t understand why the unmitigated fat of fried pigs’ tails was bedecked with a wig of the teensiest and most delicate micro greens.
Handsome Hog's buttermilk pie with Wisdom of J.J. Hill cocktail
But I did get why pastry chef Cheyenne Broughton was pushing the boundary of simple peaches by smoking them, spinning them into discs, and layering them on three sorts of textures of housemade creamy things. That peach dessert is off-the-hook delicious. Broughton also makes the pecan pie of the year, well toasted, with a gorgeous flaky crust.
My suspicion is that over time the restaurant will lose its more awkward cerebral stutters and glide into a purer place of instinct, intuition, and pleasure. It already has this in many dishes, and Sutherland clearly has the talent. If it does, Handsome Hog will join Q Fanatic on the road to becoming something very interesting in the story of American barbecue. Not a capital—but a freer place where the roads are just being drawn.