We have had the honor of meeting both Mike and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party and once at Memphis in May. We have “tasted” (never more than just a few ribs) Mike Mills famous Baby Back Ribs, fresh out of the Ole Hickory Smoker in NYC at the Block Party. We had never been to 17th Street Bar & Grill for the full experience, until last weekend when our pilgrimage brought us to BBQ Mecca.
We gathered the St. Louis BBQ crew, and met at the 17th Street Bar & Grill in O’Fallon Illinois, site of the old St. Louis classic Super Smokers and now home of the world famous Mike Mills BBQ joint. It was more than a joint, a great big restaurant with a large bar and walls lined with press clippings and photos of famous BBQ Pitmaster’s including many historical looking photos of a personal favorite of mine, Ed Mitchell.
We sat family style at a big square table in the back next to the winding staircase and started with some appetizers. First, pulled pork nachos, packed with Jalapeno peppers, cheese and topped with Mike’s tender smokey pulled pork. Next, smoked chicken wings with a nice smokey flavor, a little heat but were so much more tender and juicy than any deep fried wing could be. Finally, the house sampler arrived, full of smoked hot links, fried pickles, incredibly crunchy onion rings, more smoked wings and an array of dipping sauces. Fried pickles were a first for me and just awesome!
In between courses, the warm honey rolls arrived with a delicious cinnamon butter which we only sampled in order to save room for the BBQ onslaught that was coming. The meats arrived and most went with two meat combos of baby backs and brisket. Others had pork shoulder so we passed them around. First, the ribs were so delicious and rich that a half slab was plenty when combined with a second meat. All the meat comes dry, sprinkled with Mike Mills Famous Magic Dust which adds a flavor that works perfectly with the 17th Street sauce and apple smoke flavor.
The sleeper of the meal, besides the awesome hush puppies and corn muffins (which became the next mornings breakfast) had to be the brisket. It was smokey and very flavorful. The brisket was so tender you could cut it with your fork and it had a smokey bark that just went perfectly with 17th Street Spicy BBQ sauce. We were not surprised at all that it was so delicious, but I went for the baby backs and fell in love with the brisket!
The meal was the kick-off to Donna’s 50th birthday weekend and so our waitress (who promised not to sing or dance) brought out dessert, and it was as good as everything else was. We were served a delicious bread pudding and a strawberry shortcake that was passed around and enjoyed by all. Huge thanks to Amy Mills Tunnicliffe for the VIP treatment, to the Manager Sue, who took us all out back to see where the magic happens. Last but not least, our server Anna who made us feel like we were visiting family and made sure we tried some hot links!
Share and Enjoy
What makes a good rib? It starts with slow-and-low cooking over hardwood for just the right amount of time. That’s what gives the meat a hint, but not a wallop, of sultry smoke—the thin, pink smoke ring just below the crust of spices is your proof. The next test: A gentle tug should be all it takes to pull the meat from the bone. And finally, it should taste so good you can’t stop thinking about it. For daydream-worthy ribs, try these guys.
Uncle John’s We used to be in love with the hot links, then the tips, next the slab bacon and, recently, the fried chicken. Currently, the ribs have us swooning: firm but well-marbled meat and plenty of it, a solid smoke ring throughout the slab, and minimal seasoning with a tiny kick. 337 E 69th St (773-892-1233; half slab $9, full $14).
Smokin’ M’s You wouldn’t expect much from a strip-mall storefront, but this overlooked joint nails Southern staples (including down-home friendliness). The caramelized spice rub on the slabs of meaty St. Louis cuts (spareribs sans tips) gives them a slightly chewy crust. Underneath lurks a quarter-thin layer of smoke over a full inch of robust pork, and it takes just the right amount of effort to separate the meat from the bone. 7501 Roosevelt Rd, Forest Park (708-488-0123; half slab $11, full $18).
Big Ed’s You might expect a pit master like Big Ed to put up ribs that slam you with fat and smoke. After all, many of Ed’s customers are Chicago Bears, who practice nearby, and football players aren’t known for being nuanced. But while these ribs don’t skimp on the meat, overly fatty they’re not. And the smokiness comes second to the porkiness. Think of these ribs as tackling you with flavor—just, you know, gently. 2501 Martin Luther King Jr Dr, North Chicago (847-578-1901, bigedsllc.com; half slab $12, full $20).
Smoque The baby back and St. Louis ribs get a flavorful Memphis-style dry rub (we tasted paprika, garlic salt and plenty of black pepper) and slow smoke over both apple and oak wood. Delicate diners, go with the baby backs; cut closer to the backbone just under the loin, these deliver lean, but incredibly tender, meat. Ravenous carnivores, go with the St. Louis, the meatier of the two. No one will be disappointed. 3800 N Pulaski Rd (773-545-7427, smoquebbq.com; half slab $10–$11, full $17–$18).
Smokey’s BBQ How can a place execute solid ribs but bobble pulled pork and brisket? Let’s chalk it up to specialization. Menu options such as “Uncle Kenny’s Famous Mediterranean” might lure you, but original is the way to go. The caramelized spices get a glaze late in the game, moistening the exterior into a flavorful, slightly chewy crust. These meaty ribs stand up to the smoke well for good balance in every bite. 5481 N Northwest Hwy (773-763-2328, smokeysbbqchicago.com; half slab $11, full $19).
Share and Enjoy
Well I have returned safely from a business trip to Kansas City, MO and after sending out a Twitter post asking people what they thought the best places in KC were, the results are in. Some suggested Oklahoma Joes in downtown Kansas City and of course, the KC Classic, Arthur Bryants, Danna Kriser, a KC native called Bryants “an institution”. Monte brough in a wilde card, suggesting Danny Edwards Blvd Barbeque, which we later learned has a back story which made it the most intriguing of the bunch.
Thanks to all the Facebook friends who helped create this list. This is all great research for a return trip, we were on official business and after a long delayed flight, Gates BBQ showed up an exit on the way to our first meeting and within one hour of being on the ground, we were ordering gates famous Beef on Bun and fries! My partner Steve and I sampled each of the sauces and had to agree that the Gates Extra Hot Sauce, was the best sauce on the planet. It had that classic KC taste and when served with their brisket it was just perfect.
Now being from Chicago, fast food to me is a char grilled kosher hot dog, maybe an Italian Beef sandwich or a good italian sausage, but in KC, they have the luxury of fast food BBQ. Many turned up their noses at the thought of us having Gates, but many years ago in college, I fell in love with the “Hi, may I help you?” greeting that everyone gets when you cross the threshold at Gates. This was an absolute treat! Next time I will make sure that the schedule is cleared so that I can take up the suggestions of our friends, and enjoy a tour of KC BBQ!
Share and Enjoy
If you love BBQ and you love New York City, than this event is a must attend the next time it comes to town. We were persuaded to come out to see many of our suppliers, namely Mike Mills the inventor of Magic Dust and his wonderful daughter Amy Mills Tunnicliffe of OnCue Consulting. The crew at Hill Country BBQ, both of which www.bbqproshop.com sellsl their sauces and rubs. It was also a chance to see the best of the best and meet some of the masters, like Ed Mitchell, the North Carolina legend and true master of the whole hog and pork in general. Unfortunately we couldn’t try them all, but we did get to try many of them, so we will step you through our experience and share the flavors and sights along the way.
The Pit – Ed Mitchell: Pitmaster – Raleigh, NC
Ed is arguably one of the best of the best. When we first arrived on Friday to walk the grounds and start to record the weekend, we met Ed who gave a huge smile and a warm hug to Elizabeth Karmel, our BBQ Mentor. Ed had his whole hog pits lined up in a row and had the corner spot for the block party. He has the Eastern North Carolina style which usually means, a delicious coleslaw and a vinegar based sauce, and his used Apple Cider Vinegar and matched perfectly with the pork. I had no less than three of his pulled pork sandwiches, in one day, and each one was better than the other. At the end of the day on Saturday, Ed in true southern hospitality gave a box of baby back ribs and a rib clinic to MP and husband Carl, and Carl being the excellent attorney that he is, took copious notes. Ed’s joy is contagious and his love of BBQ is inspiring, he has recently started raising his own pigs to get them perfect, every time.
Pappy’s Smokehouse – Skip Steele: Pitmaster – St. Louis MO
We have done an extensive blog post on my visit to Pappy’s where brisket was the main priority, but in NYC, Skip brought the St. Louis Style Spare Rib to the party and they did not disappoint. Not only did Skip serve up his spare ribs, tender, caramelized and juicy, they had a consistency of a fine braised piece of meat, but they were pure BBQ. His line stretched down the block and by the end of the day Saturday, when most others had run out of food, Pappy’s was going strong and still continued to serve up some delicious ribs. We were very impressed with the ribs and Pappy’s first year at the Block Party was an excellent showing. According to this article in the River Front Times, these ribs were a special edition, and if you were a huge fan of Super Smokers, you will love Pappy’s! Nice work gentlemen.
Ken Callaghan – Blue Smoke – New York, NY – Kansas City Ribs & Pickled Okra
Although we did not hit Blue Smoke at the block party, we took them by storm the day before, it was our first meal and we chose the Rhapsody in ’Cue which consists of Kansas City Spareribs, Pulled Pork, Smoked Chicken and Sausage. This gave us a taste of Blue Smoke and how good that have it going on in NYC. A big thank you to Mark Maynard Parisi for giving us the hospitality and sharing their deviled eggs with us. Don’t miss the North Carolina Salt Peanuts either, the peanuts are authentically prepared by The First Methodist Church Men’s Club in Mount Olive N.C. and they are served warm at the restaurant. Hint: have them pour only half and you can take the other half of the bottle home and enjoy them on the plane ride home!
Jimmy Hagood BlackJack BBQ – Charleston, SC – Pulled Pork Shoulder & Coleslaw
We were told by many that we had to give BlackJack BBQ a try and we were not disappointed in the least. We took our cousins, who’s son will soon be married in Charleston, South Carolina next June (I know who should cater the rehearsal dinner!) and apparently tasting this BBQ is a treat reserved for catered events or BBQ festivals, we are happy to say we tasted it. This was one of the few pulled pork sandwiches that we tried, and their coleslaw and especially their Vinegar Sauce made the meal! It had a nice bite to it and the slaw was just perfect.
Patrick Martin Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint Nashville, TN Western Tennessee-Style Whole Hog
These guys were the talk of the Block Party, they had a rig that made my mouth water, the could smoke six whole hogs at once and they had the coals going all the time, keeping those babies warm. This sandwich was again another interesting taste as it was a different style of whole hog and had more of a red sauce then that of a vinegar based one. The slaw was just perfect and the red sauce had a great bite to it. The pork was tender and melted in the soft bun, just like it should.
This was a treat and a half in these guys were working really hard all day, but they had so much fun, which is why I love these events, people just have such a passion for what they do. Cool T-Shirts too!
Mike Mills 17th Street Bar & Grill Murphysboro, IL Baby Back Ribs
Now before I start, I need to preface this with the fact that Mr. Mills book, Peace, Love and Barbecue is literally my BBQ bible. It was given to me by my wife when she first met the Mills through Elizabeth Karmel, and prior to Elizabeth writing Taming the Flame. The first baby backs I ever smoked were done using his "system" and he is pretty much the pioneer in apple wood smoking. I owe all of my family fame for baby backs to Mike Mills and having a chance to shake his hand, and spend some time with his daughter Amy Mills Tunnicliffe was a dream come true.
Now for the ribs, I have been wanting to go to Murphysboro since reading about it in his book. But getting to taste them changed everything. I would go almost as far as to say that this was the perfect baby back rib. This coming from someone who was raised on Carson’s in Chicago. Perfect may in fact be an understatement, they had th
e perfect carmel crust and
the smoke flavor was just as it should be, understated yet all over your mouth. It was politely sauced in his world famous Original 17th Street Barbecue Sauce and rub in the Magic Dust. We ate at least a half rack and then tried some of the smoked sausage he had in his hospitality tent. The St. Louis Style Red Sauce that they only serve at the restaurant, it isn’t bottled for sale, was just excellent as well. Having it in a fountain, well that is just Amy working her BBQ magic!
Final word on Mike and Amy is that they love the sport more than anyone I have ever met. The fact that the two have made a career and no less a family business out of it and still love it is what makes them so special. I watched as a Mike Mills fan got her book signed for her boyfriend and the look on her face was priceless. Mike took the time to write her a personal note in the book and it killed me that I didn’t bring mine along for his signature, see y’all in Murphysboro as soon as I can get there. Mike says, "Life is too short to just eat half a slab." and I hope to get a full slab in me sooner rather than later.
That is our report from NYC, we couldn’t try all the places as there just wasn’t enough time nor do I have the patience for the long lines, but next year I have a strategy, and we will be back!
Share and Enjoy
Gretchen and I had the honor to go behind the scenes of Hill Country BBQ in NYC this past weekend. We were there on business, serious BBQ business, to eat our way through the Big Apple, via the Big Apple BBQ Block Party which was a slice of heaven in Manhattan. Elizabeth Karmel, the Executive Chef of Hill Country has made her mark on NYC bringing Texas BBQ, that’s real Texas BBQ to the Yankee’s and serving it up right.
To add to the enjoyment, David Knight, the genius behind Old Hickory Pits and his daughter Elizabeth joined us on the tour and when he is impressed, you know that Hill Country has something good. Karmel was going for that Lockhart Texas feel, complete with sausages imported from Kreuz in Lockhart and the same meat by the pound, wrapped in butcher paper and stored just like the do down in Texas. The sides bar are many of her recipes or those that have been handed down and eaten at many family BBQ’s over the years.
The cafeteria style of the place is the most fun, you get a card which is like a menu, and then you travel from station to station, filling up your tray with meat, then sides, then Blue Bell Ice Cream and fresh baked cupcakes. They add stickers on your card of what you have eaten. You check out at the end, after you have finished (which assumes you can still walk out of the place) and pay there. Very friendly waitresses wait on you bringing you drinks, water and anything else you might need.
Now let’s get to the meat of the matter. The brisket is unlike anything that I have ever tasted, we had the lean, which has a perfect smoked flavor and is a little more dry which is why they call it "lean" but delicious as can be. You can really taste the simple rub, but it is the Post Oak, a standard Texas smoking wood that makes the brisket stand out. The brisket "moist" is a must have, it is the way it is meant to be in my humble opinion and taste as can be, the consistency was perfect and the taste was sublime. (Can you tell I love brisket?) The ribs were special too, the simple rub and the post oak combined for some tasty spare ribs.
Let’s get down to the highlight of the tasting, the pork chop (bone in) which is smoked in the smoker and then they pull it out and slice it off the rack for you, and then cut up in small pieces, just like my momma used to! It was delicious, the rub is the one used on all else, but I have never had a pork chop so juicy and tender in all my days. Finally we tested the beef ribs and those too were delicious, but you need many of them to really get your fill. We also used some of the "If You Gotta Have It" BBQ sauce, which is a no-no in Lockhart, but in NYC, anything goes and this BBQ sauce is worth having.
Hats off to Pitmaster Pete Daversa, Elizabeth Karmel, Marc Glosserman, and John Shaw who rolled out the red carpet for us and treated us so well at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party we cannot wait until next year!