Pandemic Takeout 16: Smoke in the Pit (Minneapolis)

Smoke in the Pit is located at 3733 Chicago Avenue in S. Minneapolis, just a hundred feet or two from 38th St.. Even if you don’t know South Minneapolis you should know that intersection. It was right by it, in front of Cup Foods, that George Floyd was murdered on May 25 of this year. The protests and unrest that followed, coupled as they were with various revelations and confirmations of racism within the industry’s own precincts, led to an outpouring of declarations of affiliation with Black Lives Matter from most of American food media. Almost two months on, it’s not very clear what’s become of all those declarations, what their afterlife will be or what forms it will take. One hopes that there will be more to the statements than a few weeks or months of conspicuous coverage. We’ll see, I guess.

Here in the Twin Cities metro the coverage of the local food scene by the Star Tribune continues, as I noted on Sunday, to be business mostly as usual. As it happens, Smoke in the Pit was one of the few minority/immigrant restaurants included so far in their “5 best things…” series whose lily-whiteness I made fun of on Sunday. Though you won’t get much of a sense from that brief entry of the transformation of that intersection in the wake of the murder of Floyd beyond a reference to the streets being closed. Perhaps this is as it should be; perhaps yoking those issues to talk of smoked meat risks trivializing them.

It seems to me though that it is hard to talk about Smoke in the Pit now, a rare black-owned restaurant in the Twin Cities, serving up—like Ted Cook’s 19th Hole a few miles away up 38th St.—food that comes out of the Black experience in a space that is a Black space, without acknowledging the shrine to Black Lives Matter that the intersection of those streets has become. The closed-off street right in front of Smoke in the Pit bears the names—far too many—of Black people murdered by an America that has not yet come to terms with its foundational pathologies. That there should be a Black-owned barbecue restaurant there is on the one hand a coincidence. On the other hand, to get food from Smoke in the Pit now—it was a takeout-only spot even before the pandemic—is to be reminded both of the Twin Cities’ sorry history of structural racism and of the fact that Black space, Black culture survives in the Twin Cities despite it. Supporting Black-owned businesses is not a sufficient politics and should not be a substitute for more direct political action; but it does also seem important to acknowledge that these spaces exist and that it is important they survive. And it seems important when talking about Black food and culture to not abstract that discussion away from the reality of the violence visited all too often on Black bodies.

And so to Smoke in the Pit. We were there on Saturday to pick up food for a picnic lunch for the younger boy’s ninth birthday. Ribs were one of the things he wanted to eat on his birthday and we took the opportunity to show him and his brother the shrines and street art that cover those streets and to talk them a little about it all. After that we took our food to Minnehaha Falls and had a very tasty lunch. Alas, we couldn’t walk around on the trails after lunch as they were teeming with young people, most of whom were not wearing masks and who seemed to think that being outdoors means you can be right on top of other people.

The first slideshow has a look at the restaurant and its environs. The next has pictures of our food.

It’s a pretty straightforward system. There’s a large menu on the wall as you enter. You make your selections and pay at one window. You then go outside and wait (and it’s only one customer inside at a time during the pandemic). When your food is ready you pick it up from another window and you’re done. The easiest way, of course, is to call your order in ahead of time. To do this take a look at the menu on their website.

What did we get? The 3 wings/3 ribs combo; the 3 ribs/fish combo; the pulled pork sandwich; and rib tips. I’d wanted to try the brisket but they didn’t have any. Everything came with fries; in addition we got cole slaw with two of the combos and baked beans with the two others. Plus a side of mac and cheese and four corn muffins. Those corn muffins were the only things we did not like—they were too dry. The meats were uniformly good and we particularly liked the smoked wings and the rib tips. The fish in the ribs/fish combo was perfectly executed, moist under a crisp, seasoned crust. The sides were all very good as well: the cole slaw and the mac and cheese both had a peppery, mustardy zing and the beans were infused with smoke. The slightly spicy fries were excellent as well. And oh, we quite liked the barbecue sauce too. We passed on dessert as we were headed after lunch to the home of friends in St. Paul for socially-distanced cake in their yard.

All of the above plus tax and a big tip came to just under $70. Which is a very good deal for the quality and the quantity—we got another meal out of the leftovers. We’ll be back again before too long and next time I hope to try both the brisket and their “Alexander Smokedburger” the sign for which I unfortunately didn’t notice on the door till after I’d placed our order (it’s not on the menu).

If all you’re interested in on the blog is my Twin Cities restaurant reports, come back next week when I’ll probably have a review from St. Paul. Before that though I’ll have a recipe, my last Calcutta food report and a few more booze reviews.

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