The first pandemic takeout meal for May saw me driving up to St. Paul to pick up barbecue and bring it home to eat with friends on our deck. The last pandemic takeout meal for May saw me driving up tp St. Paul to pick up barbecue and bring it home to eat with friends on our deck. Three weeks ago it was Firebox’s St. Paul location on Marshall at Snelling that was my port of call. This past weekend it was Black Market StP just off the High Bridge. I wish I could tell you the name of the neighbourhood but I am terrible with my Twin Cities geography. I can tell you that it’s right where Smith meets Cherokee as you get off the High Bridge going south and that you’d have to really not be paying attention to miss it. We were paying attention and turned and parked on Cherokee and in a matter of minutes had picked up our order and were headed back home. Here’s what we thought of the food once we actually ate it.
But first let me tell you a little bit about how it all works. It’s a small operation run by a couple. He handles the smoking of the meats (black cherry is the wood they use for said smoking); she handles the “front of house”. I put “front of house” in quotes because while there are physical premises they operate primarily in the parking lot—“we only go in when it’s really cold”, she said. And they only operate two evenings a week, for a couple of hours each. Yes, the sign on the street says Fridays only but they now dispense smoked meats for two hours on both Fridays and Saturdays and the whole menu is now available only on Saturdays. You order from said menu on their website and show up with your order number to pick up between 5 and 7 on whichever day you selected. In practice it appears they start dispensing orders before 5 pm but don’t quote me on that.
You don’t have to order ahead—it’s possible to just show up and buy on the spot—but when you’re driving nearly an hour each way you want to be sure you get everything you want; and so I had indeed ordered ahead. The menu is fairly stripped down. Mostly they do meat: beef and pork. The options for pork are pulled pork and baby back ribs; the options for beef are brisket and short rib. The only side they offer is smoked beans (which though not billed as such have a crazy amount of meat in them). This means that if you’re making a meal of it you would be well off planning to prepare some sides of your own. (This is something we did—more below.) They do offer Bebe Zito ice cream by the pint but I’d failed to bring a cooler and so decided against returning home with a couple of pints of melted ice cream.
What did we get?
On Saturdays you can get what they call the Magic Meat Pack for $58. This includes a whole rack of baby back ribs, 1 lb of brisket and an order of smoked beans. It seemed rash not to get this and so we did. Be warned that this sells out fastest on their site and so if you want it you should place your order as early in the week as possible. To this we added on 1 lb of pork shoulder ($22) and two orders of the beef short rib ($28 apiece). And to be safe we got a second order of the smoked beans ($10) as there were going to be nine of us eating including the boys.
We supplemented all this meat with sides brought by our friends. Our friend Stephanie made fancy cornbread; Greg made potato salad and cole slaw; and Natalie made lime-chiffon pie for dessert.
And what did we make of it all? Well, the sides our friends bought were all excellent. The main event was a little more variable. In fact, the one item that met with universal acclaim was also a side: the smoked beans. It was a good thing we got that second order because we almost finished it all. Most of us also liked the baby back ribs and the pulled pork a lot. The beef, however, didn’t fare as well. The brisket really needed to have been trimmed better and the short rib was incredibly fatty as well. More to the point, both were inconsistently smoked: while parts of each were properly done other parts were overcooked/dry/hard. I really regretted that second order of the short rib as we could really have done without it.
More on this below. But first you might want to launch the slideshow to get a look at the setup and the food.
So, back to our overall estimation of what we got.
Their slogan is “So good you just can’t call it bbq”—which I find a bit odd because calling good bbq bbq seems appropriately high praise—but we didn’t find it, on the whole, to be anything so very special. Frankly we preferred Firebox’s versions of all the things in common in our orders—from the brisket to the pulled pork to the ribs. And, of course, Firebox offers a full complement of sides and is a bit cheaper. It is true Firebox does not do beef short rib but Black Market’s version did not impress anyway (and really made me miss the beef ribs at Big Daddy’s in their heyday).
I don’t mean to make it sound like a bad meal for it wasn’t that at all. On the whole, it was a good meal. But it fit neither the very positive descriptions I’ve received from some quarters online or the sense projected by the proprietors that this is barbecue to end all barbecue in the area. Of course it’s possible we had bad luck and that it’s a lot better on other days. But if our experience is representative I’d say that it’s not really worth a long drive. If we lived close by we’d stop in every once in a while to get some of the ribs and the pulled pork and a side of beans. And I’d suggest that’s probably the safest bet for most people too, giving the beef a miss. If you’ve had a very different experience there do feel free to write in and pour coals (perhaps of black cherry wood) on my head.
Price? The billed price was $146. They don’t seem to expect a tip but I felt uncomfortable not leaving one. I didn’t have cash and so asked for $28 to be added to the bill. When the receipt from Square arrived by email I saw she’d in fact added only $20. So $166 for 8 adults (counting our two boys as one adult) but probably enough food for 10. So between $15 and $17/head for real cost depending on whether you leave a tip or not. Again, comparable to Firebox for a meal we didn’t like quite as much. Your mileage, again, may vary.
Oh yes, two of the things we’d unexpectedly really enjoyed about our meal at Firebox were 1) that sticky rice was a side and 2) eating the meats with said rice and Mama’s Sauce, a hot pepper sauce. Accordingly, I’d prepared a pot of sticky rice and we had some sambal on hand. Black Market says their barbecue is so good that it doesn’t need sauce but I have to say many of us enjoyed especially their beef more with a bit of sambal and sticky rice.
What’s next on the pandemic takeout front? I’m not sure. There might not be a pandemic takeout report next week as Tuesday is the first of the month and that’s when I do my look ahead posts each month. Well, maybe I’ll do a takeout report later in the week. What it would be of I really don’t know at this point.
*NOTE*: I just want to emphasize Kathy Jenkins’ comment below in which she notes—while agreeing with my general evaluation of the food—that Black Market StP has become a major social gathering point for its neighbourhood, making it important for more than just their meat. As I note in my reply, its place in a neighbourhood/community is a very important quality in any restaurant, perhaps even the most important one. These kinds of things are not usually apparent to someone like me, driving in from an hour away to pick up food (or in non-pandemic times, to eat it). And so I really appreciate when people who know this contextual information share it.
The neighborhood is called The West Side, even though it is south of downtown. River geography: this is the only part of St Paul that is actually on the west side of the river. Most people who live in St Paul cross the river once to get to Minneapolis, West Siders cross twice. One of the simple pleasures of living here, the bluff views of the Capitol and Cathedral any time I go anywhere (we live about 8blocks from Black Market).
I have to agree, good but not outstanding. we have only had the pulled pork shoulder , brisket and beans. We got a lot of pandemic takeout from there because it was so great for outdoors socializing. Also, they did stay open most of the winter. We did not like the brisket, too fatty. But I once had brisket in a small town in Texas at a funeral lunch and no brisket has met that standard. I once sent brisket back to the kitchen at Famous Dave’s saying this could not possibly be brisket, they must have made a mistake! the looked at me like i was detached from reality.
We did like the pork and frequently get an extra pond to freeze for tacos, chili, arepa filling etc.
The thing about this place is that it has become a real social gathering spot. Frequently there is live music and people walk over with coolers, chairs etc and pass the evening. Good cheer and good will abound, which is part of the reason for their popularity.
Have you been to El Cubano yet? Amazing roast pork to be found there, and very near Black Market.
Thanks very much for all of that. Yes, I could see how as a neighbourhood gathering spot with music etc. it would become an enhanced experience. And, of course, its place in a neighbourhood/community is a very important quality in a restaurant, perhaps even the most important one.
And no, I have not been to El Cubano yet. Will add it to the list.
This review depresses me. I love Black Market bbq. Maybe I just love fatty meats. I for sure love the whole backstory about how the proprietors picked up the smoker and smoking skills up from a long time St. Paul cop friend, started their business, turned it into a community event, etc etc. Will have to try Firebox and see how it compares.
Ditto on the recommendation to try the local El Cubano, offspring of the original food truck of the same name. I have especially liked their ropa vieja, fried plantains, empanadas and sancocho stew. I haven’t tried their Cubano sandwich yet but it gets great reviews, as do their fruity drinks like the mango shakes I’ve seen recommended. They stayed open all throughout the pandemic, and have outdoor seating now too. Every time I go there it seems to be getting lots of custom; great to see that particular spot maybe, finally, occupied by a successful business that’ll stick around. I live just a few blocks away and that building has been a revolving door throughout my decades in the neighborhood.
Speaking of West Side restaurants, there’s a family-owned Mexican restaurant that took over the old Jerebek’s bakery site you might want to try. It’s getting solid attention and reviews. https://www.facebook.com/Taco-N-Madre-taqueria-y-cevicheria-2062693080694364/
I’m sorry the review was a bummer. I really didn’t mean it to be one. As I say, it was good, on the whole. The talk had just made me expect a bit more and it didn’t quite live up to that, especially factoring in the drive. But as I said in the note at the bottom of the review—made in response to Kathy Jenkins’ comment—I do recognize that what a restaurant comes to mean to its neighbourhood is a very large part of what makes it important. A drive-by review like mine can’t quite capture that.
I imagine it’s like you set up a great friend with another great friend and are eagerly, confidently awaiting the next morning to hear all about how much they liked each other, only to have them both weigh in with “It was OK, but….” lol