A large silver barbecue smoker is parked on the 200 block of Isabel Street on St. Paul’s West Side. It’s a neighborhood fixture. Pull up Google Maps and you’ll see it in the satellite photos. Every week, Robert Lorch-Benysek and his wife, Jill Moeller, load it with black cherry wood and stuff the racks full of ribs and shoulders.
Friday afternoons, they set up a table near the sidewalk. They wrap the baby backs in butcher paper. They put some extra pork shoulder in the baked beans. And then, at 5 o’clock, their neighbors come over for dinner.
Black Market StP is not a restaurant, and it’s barely even a business. Instead, this weekly scene is the continuation of a treasured St. Paul barbecue legacy, a point of pride for the West Side, and, almost incidentally, it serves what is arguably the best smoked meat in the Twin Cities.
“Barbecue is not about money,” Robert says. “It’s about people.”
Robert has always been feeding people. He moved to Lowertown St. Paul in the early ‘90s working, as he still does, as both a chef and a contractor. “When I was at Fuji Ya, I was tending block, pouring concrete, and then did sushi at night,” Robert says. “That’s been my whole life. I can’t not do both.” He made peach miele millefeuille for his starving artist friends in Lowertown. He cooked under Lenny Russo at W.A. Frost and Alexander Dixon at Zander Cafe.
But the culinary apprenticeship that would come define his life was with the legendary St. Paulite James Mann, one of the first black beat cops in St. Paul, and a leading figure in several community organizations throughout his lifetime. By the time Robert showed up, Jimmy had retired from the force and was known for the rickety tow-behind barbecue kitchen he’d shuffle down the High Bridge into Lowertown.
“When I met Jimmy, he was selling barbecue all-but-illegally in downtown St. Paul.” Robert recalls bonding instantly with Mann, who he eventually joined behind the smoker. “We didn’t have a peddler’s permit to be at the farmers market. Every now and then the farmers market people would get mad and they’d call a cop. On a weekend morning it’s usually a newer cop, and that new cop would show up and walk up to the back of the pit and see Jimmy. And he’d go ‘There’s no way in hell I’m giving this guy a ticket. He knows everybody plus my boss’ mom.’ And then he’d buy barbecue and come back with more cops, and they’d buy barbecue, and that’s how we rolled for a long, long time. It was all about making friends and this community around it just grew and grew.”
Robert and Jimmy barely needed a reason to fire up the pit. It was just about hanging out, shooting the breeze, drinking cold Heinekens, and meeting people. They’d smoke for church events, birthdays, and block parties. “It seemed like every Friday and Saturday I was hanging out with Jimmy, where the pit is now,” Robert says. “It’s been in that spot for that long.”
Mann became like a father to Robert. Robert moved to Isabel Street and became something of a caregiver to Mann at the end of his life—cheering him up, making him food when he didn’t feel like eating, taking him to Heimie’s for a shave.
“Jimmy was probably one of the first true friends I ever had,” Robert says. “There was no agenda. We had this thing in common, and we grew to love each other. He could count on me, and he helped me grow up. It’s not just barbecue. I owe him for what I get to do now more than anyone else. I wouldn’t have met my wife. Wouldn’t have these friends.”
When Mann passed away in 2011, Robert helped Mann’s widow, Anna Marie Ettel, through the excruciating process of sorting out his possessions. After storage spaces had been cleaned and his affairs managed, the only thing that remained was that barbecue smoker, the locus of so many smoky weekends, still parked out on the street.
“And I said ‘Hey what do you want to do with it?’ And [Anna Marie] didn’t know, and I said, ‘It sits in your front yard, you have to see it every day, it’s probably crushing you, and I see it from my front yard, and it’s like the sandbox that my buddy will never get to play with again.’ Yeah. It sucked.”
Neighbors and tray of barbecue // Photos by Madalyn Rowell; Beef short-rib and Jill Moeller serving // Photos by Tj Turner
The smoker needed a facelift—the paint was fading, it needed to be cleaned up. So Robert and Jill started this tiny business, so the pit could pay for itself. They obtained real permits. They set up a Facebook page. They told their neighbors to stop by—and did they ever. All of Robert and Jimmy’s old barbecue buddies came out of the woodwork.
“As it grew, this group grew, it never was, never is, and never will be about the money,” explains Robert. “It’s about this thing that people have some emotional equity in.”
Even if you don’t know Robert, or didn’t know Jimmy, or don’t even live in St. Paul, it’s easy to become invested after a couple Friday trips to Isabel Street. Music might break out on someone’s porch. You’re likely to run into the same people week after week.
“There’s never a lull,” Jill says. “It’s simple and evolving as people want it to. We don’t push. I’m not out marketing. We just want people to show up. And if people want good barbecue, they’ll find us.”
To “build community through food,” is an overused phrase—a worthy goal aspired to through abstract means. But this is a community that truly comes together over food. There’s nothing abstract about it. You can literally watch them leave their houses and come over to eat.
So place an order on Black Market StP’s website early in the week, and go to Isabel Street on Friday to pick it up. It doesn’t need sauce, but Robert suggests little bit of Wee Willy’s if you absolutely must. Even you’re eating it somewhere else, budget an extra half-hour to sit around the smoker and chat. The experience is as satisfying as the barbecue itself.