Minnesota's barbecue tradition is a real, evolving thing, but there are a lot of opinions on what food qualifies. Texas and Memphis have specific styles, but it’s safe to say we’re still finding our way.
The good news is we’re no longer underserved where it comes to smoke-licked meats (and fish) – there’s something to be had in almost any style you like best.
See also: Is Minnesota BBQ actually a thing?
To prove that we’re coming into our own, here are five unique barbecue dishes to call our very own.
The BBQ Bowl (Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, Minneapolis)
At initial glance, “Chipotle-fying” barbecue hardly feels like the most nuanced contribution to the world of smoked meats. But at closer analysis, Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse's “BBQ Bowl” (pictured above) is a rather brilliant creation. While barbecue may be the original “slow food,” you may not always have a long, leisurely party or picnic to enjoy it. What to do? Have a sandwich. But then what about the sides? Pulled pork is hardly worth the plate it drips upon without slaw and mac & cheese.
Now what to do? Pile it all in a bowl, of course! It’s the American way. And more importantly, it’s the Midwestern way. It assuages our need for efficiency, and at $7.99, economy too. Says inventor “Famous” Dave Anderson: “Nobody else in America has had this before us. This is our contribution to the world of barbecue!” (Old Southern has Wisconsin locations as well as Minnesota, so we’ll share this particular claim to fame with our easternmost neighbor.)
The Flintstone Sandwich (Big Daddy’s, St. Paul)
The Flintstone at Big Daddy’s is the barbecue institution’s own creation. An accidental singular creation at that. An order for ordinary beef ribs was requested, and what arrived instead were beef short ribs, an altogether different animal for the men of Big Daddy’s. But in the true tradition of barbecue itself, the pitmasters made do. Initially, they served the entire rib, bone and all, between two pieces of bread, garnering the sandwich its distinctive name. In recent years, they’ve taken to serving the slices in more easy-to-maneuver slices, but the thing is no less fit for a carnivore. Ask for it by name, only at Big Daddy’s.
Lots of Nordic things (Erik the Red, Minneapolis)
Consider that Erik Forsberg opened his East Town restaurant Erik the Red with a “Nordic Manifesto,” and becomes clear why the place feels “Northier than thou.” In an effort to impose an explicit Nordic influence on their approach to barbecue, Erik the Red will gladly serve you lefse and lingonberries next to your short ribs and brisket.
But that’s only the beginning. Turn to them for the “Valhalla Dip,” a nod to Norwegian cured or smoked lamb tradition, but also Norse mythology. Onion jam and au jus on baguette completes this sandwich of mythic proportion. Get even more MN with “swished cucumbers,” with lemon shrub and fresh dill on the side.
Hmong-style barbecue (Hmongtown Marketplace, St. Paul)
Local Hmong chef and food expert Yia Vang tells me that Hmong people are not huge fans of heavy smoke flavors, but they are huge fans of pork. The spicy pork sausage at Hmongtown Marketplace is one of the great eating pleasures of Minnesota. Redolent with the floral-citrus of lemongrass, plus the fire of chile, they're comparable to Southern-style Hot Links, according to Vang.
Also see the enormous slabs of fatty pork belly, skin toasted and crunchy as popcorn. Hanging from the rafters, in many marketplace booths, it’s available by the pound. Hmong short ribs are beefy and approachable for any American palate, and come served with sticky rice and super duper hot sauce. Minnesota has the largest urban Hmong population in the country, making us the best place to sample Hmong barbecue pretty much anywhere in the U.S.
Many smoked fish and meat options (The Northern Waters Smokehaus & Restaurant, Duluth)
Get in touch with what may likely be Minnesota’s original barbecue at Northern Waters Smokehaus. This wee but mighty marketplace smokes many things, including one of Minnesota’s finest pastramis. But for a true taste of what Minnesota smoking is all about, you have to turn to their Lake Superior Whitefish and trout, fished from our very own icy waters, then cured, brined, and smoked on site. Nobody does it better.