Step by painful step, Americans are reclaiming the proud culinary heritage of barbecue. Barbecue’s roots are deep, intertwining the foodways of the Caribbean’s indigenous people, traditions arising from the institution of Southern slavery, and regional variants that have become synonymous with hospitality in places as far flung as the Carolinas, Alabama, Texas, and Missouri. To say that this populist way of transforming affordable cuts of meat into tasty food is an art form does no disrespect to, for example, sculptors working in marble or painters working in oils. Done right, it’s freakin’ delicious.
But throughout the ’80s and ’90s, mainstream chain restaurants and poorly informed independents chipped away at barbecue’s legacy by reducing it to its broadest basics: just unite liquid smoke, overcooked meat, and a syrup-sweet, one-dimensional sauce and you were serving “barbecue,” never mind the careful tending actually required to turn a pork shoulder or rack of ribs into an unforgettable feast.
Fast forward to the current day, and we’re living in a time of barbecue renaissance. Minnesota shops like OMC Smokehouse, Q Fanatic, Jon Wipfli’s upcoming BBQ trailer, the future Minnesota BBQ Company project, and Black Market BBQ are putting real ’Q back on the map. That this is a statewide movement was made clear to us after a recent trip to the 3rd Street Tavern in St. Peter.
The restaurant, co-located with the Konsbruck Hotel and open since late 2016, seems to have a pretty straightforward mandate: Its website touts “Bourbon – BBQ – Blues!” and its menu is relatively short and focused. But that simplicity belies a serious interest in the food side of restaurant-running, something that often gets lost in the shuffle as interior design, branding, and marketing suck up the oxygen available while an eatery gets on its feet. We could tell that something good was going on the second that we walked through the front door—the place was enrobed in a sensuous haze of vaporized meat that set our stomachs rumbling.
We don’t naturally jump to wings when it comes to barbecue, but the smoked and flash-fried wings ($14 for 12) at 3rd Street Tavern made us reconsider. We got ours with a deep and flavorful Jamaican-style jerk rub, and they were crispy and chewy on the exterior, and beautifully smoked on the interior, perfect with the accompanying ranch and/or skillfully made (and not overly sweet) house barbecue sauce.
Our half-rack of baby back ribs ($17) came with two sides and—encouragingly—arrived at the table unsauced. Ribs that arrive slathered in sauce suggest insecurity about the meat and cooking technique; naked meat is a statement of confidence. We found the ribs pleasantly barked with a substantial but not-too-crusty exterior, and while they could have been cooked a bit less (we’ll always take “tug off the bone” to “fall off the bone”), they were well within the realm of properly prepared.
The restaurant’s half-pound Smoked Bacon Slab ($13) was perfectly cooked (tender throughout, but still holding together) and packed such an insane wallop of salt that only its nuclear-sweet shellacking of bourbon glaze could balance it out. But balanced it was, and it was delicious—an incredibly intense, fully flavored expression of salt, sugar, smoke, and (if you ate the accompanying jalapeno slices) heat.
Other touches (drinks and sides) were workmanlike-to-excellent. The Mac and Cheese ($4) was one note, but it was a creamy and mellow one; the Pit Baked Beans ($4) were, by contrast, a complex dish that balanced sweetness, earthiness, and pork-bequeathed saltiness to make for one of the best bites of the meal. The Coleslaw ($3) got the job done—it was nothing special, but also didn’t fall into the traditional traps of the food: it wasn’t too watery, too mayo-logged, or too sweet.
With OMC Smokehouse holding down the barbecue flag in the northeast and 3rd Street Tavern waving it proudly in the south, all we need is something good in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and we’ve got pretty strong statewide coverage. Stay tuned.
What: 3rd Street Tavern
Where: 408 S. 3rd St., St Peter, MN 56082
Hours: Monday–Thursday, 11am–11pm; Friday, 11am–1am; Saturday, 9am-1am; Sunday, 9am–10pm (brunch served Saturday and Sunday 9am–2pm)