Cue the Next Act

With the market primed for smoked meats, barbecue joints are on fire.

 

WAVE AFTER WAVE, new restaurants are attempting to satisfy St. Louisans’ craving for melt-in-your-mouth meats. Apparently we’re insatiable. And apparently we’ve developed a taste for smoke. Unlike traditional St. Louis barbecue, which is grilled and sauced, STL’s latest joints lean heavily toward Kansas Citystyle smoking and dry rubs.

But with so many newcomers, gaining a foothold is no easy matter. To set themselves apart, 2014’s barbecue destinations are doing some interesting flavor combinations—starting with WildSmoke’s early 2014 opening in Creve Coeur. Owners Andy and Dee Dee Kohn and partner Chris LaRocca piloted their smoked and triple-rubbed ‘cue as a Sunday special at EdgeWild Restaurant & Winery, where its popularity convinced them it deserved its own location. At WildSmoke, protein-heavy “backyard favorites” are punched up with creative, freshly made additions such as “pig candy” (pork belly and brown sugar) and house-made sauces like spicy maple syrup, and chipotle and green chili cumin aiolis. White Trash Tacos with corn and black bean salsa, cabbage and aioli offer a twist on the traditional taco (and barbecue, for that matter) with a choice of pulled pork, brisket or pulled chicken—or all three. For those hankering for meat by the pound, the burnt ends are a delight that’s tough to find in STL.

At The Salted Pig in Frontenac, which opened in March, it’s all about the Southern influence. Fried chicken is among the signature dishes on a menu from Executive Chef Brian Steinman and pitmaster Ken Dennison, formerly at DC’s Smokin’ BBQ. It’s the eighth restaurant for Michael Del Pietro—and it’s notably not Italian like the other seven. But because Pietro and his team have opening a new restaurant practically down to a science, they had the luxury of spending six to eight months developing the menu, right down to the type of cheddar for the homey cheese grits, says Ryan French, a partner at Tavolo V, who’s filling a district manager role as Del Pietro’s empire expands.

In terms of ambiance, these are not your grandfather’s barbecue restaurants. The Salted Pig, for example, models itself on Sugo’s in terms of price and service. It features reclaimed wood sourced within 100 miles, including some from the property itself, which pitmaster Dennison fashioned into an eye-catching wall. Other repurposed decor includes a glass window from Cupples Station, through which customers can catch the kitchen action.

Similarly upscale is the upcoming Hendricks Smokehouse location in Edwardsville. The 15,000-square-foot temple to all things smoked (including steaks, game and pastrami) will seat about 350 indoors and out, with space for live music similar to the weekend setup at the original Hendricks BBQ location in St. Charles. Another hook is an on-site whiskey micro-distillery.

If this all sounds a bit far afield for the barbecue purist, then Mike Johnson is your man. The prolific restaurateur opens a Sugarfire Smoke House location in St. Charles this month, and he expects his first franchise at Winghaven in O’Fallon to follow soon. The throwback joint has canned beer, minimal table service— and an out-the-door line every day. It’s a formula that caught the attention of TV’s “BBQ Pitmasters,” under the Discovery Channel umbrella, for an episode airing this month. And it has Johnson loving every minute of it. The high volume— the Olivette location alone goes through 700 pounds of brisket a day—lets him indulge in high-end certified Angus beef and Berskhire hogs. And with more franchises on the horizon, Sugarfire’s old-school approach is a sure-fire hit.

 

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Photo credit: Christopher Gibbons

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