My original plan had been to post the last of our Hong Kong trip meals this week (a wonderful lunch at Lung King Heen) or failing that to write up a recent dinner at Piccolo in Minneapolis. But the Lung King Heen writeup needs more time than I can give to it now (we’re about to move house) and the Piccolo writeup needs a couple of details filled in and I’ve not had much luck hearing back from the restaurant so far. So, I have instead a quick report on a far humbler meal picked up this last weekend from Big Daddy’s Barbecue in Saint Paul and eaten at the home of friends’ before a theater outing.
Minnesota leaps to no one’s mind when the word barbecue comes up and I don’t think even the most gung ho of the cheerleaders in the Twin Cities food media (which is to say, all of them) would claim that we have a particularly impressive barbecue scene. That said there are a few places that are more than acceptable. Among them is Big Daddy’s, a Saint Paul institution which has been around for more than three decades.
Located at the intersection of University and Dale in the historically black neighbourhood of Rondo, Big Daddy’s was founded by three friends, Ron Whyte, Bob Edmond, and Gene “Big Daddy” Sampson. Sampson and Whyte are originally from Kentucky and Edmond is a native of Georgia; though they’re often described as doing Kansas City-style barbecue, their style is not regionally specific: I asked them about this some years ago and they said what they do is more of a hybrid based on their own preferences. They started out casually, setting up their smokers and grills in parking lots but then in the nineties Sampson went through the Neighborhood Development Corporation’s entrepreneur development program and things began to get more formal. Sampson opened a restaurant but it didn’t last and they went back to grilling in parking lots.
That was the situation when we got here in 2007. A year later they opened another storefront—and this is when they flashed on our radar. But their digs were anything but impressive. The smokers were out back in an alleyway and the food was served in a somewhat dingy setting with not a whole lot of seating—their ribs, however, were fantastic. A few years later they moved up the street to a new location that was brighter and more welcoming but also smaller and with even less seating. The talk then was that they were going to move soon to the upcoming retail development across the street. This didn’t end up happening—I think the new outpost of Los Ocampo might be where they were supposed to have gone? Like many other businesses on University, they were hit by the disruptions caused by the light rail construction on University. They seem to have come through that, however; two years ago they expanded the restaurant, adding more seating inside and even some patio eating—they also incorporated catering into their business model.
They’ve weathered a lot of changes in their history, including the departure of founder Gene “Big Daddy” Sampson, but they’re still here. Hopefully, the light rail whose construction disrupted business will now bring them more customers (though parking is not a problem in the lot behind); and if the neighbourhood is indeed revitalized it will be fitting to have this black-owned business in the thick of it.
Okay, so how’s the food? Short answer: usually very good. In our experience there’s always been some variability, depending on how long before you place your order the meat came off the smokers, but it’s always been good at the least—and certainly always better than what’s on offer at Famous Dave’s and others of that ilk. The beef ribs are always the most dependable, in my view, and the chicken is usually very good too. When the pork rib tips are at their tender best they’re hard to beat. Of the sides, I’m partial to their collards, slaw and their potato salad (with little bursts of celery seed). Their bread is forgettable; the cornbread is better and while I’ve heard good things about their cake we’ve somehow never left room to try it. Their barbecue sauce is very good and comes in mild and hot formats.
Anyway, this was supposed to be a quick report—on to the food at this meal (which was our return after an unaccountable gap of a few years).
All of this came to $66 with tax and tip. Four adults and two kids ate well and we also brought some leftovers home. As you’ve seen, Big Daddy’s ribs are a treat for the whole family, and our dogs much enjoyed gnawing on the ribs after we were done.
Whether you’ve never been or, like us, haven’t been in a while: go! They could use the support; the neighbourhood and the city surely needs them. And tell me where else we should go for good barbecue in the area!
Oh, and a word about our theater outing as well: we went to see the excellent Penumbra theatre’s twinned production of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman and Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers. These one-act plays were both written and first produced in the mid-1960s, in the thick of the Black Arts movement. Both are challenging, formally and thematically, but their concerns remain, alas, all too urgent today. The production is very good and the set design is excellent. One of the two central performances in Dutchman is a bit too “big”: the role of Lula is a juicy one and Kate Guentzel seems to have been encouraged to take a very big bite out of it; Austene Van’s lead performance anchoring the surrealist The Owl Answers, however, is really excellent. The plays, which have the same cast, speak well to each other and I really recommend you go before the run ends at the end of March.