Throughout the northern Midwest in the '80s and '90s and even early oughts, the reigning perception of barbecue is that of a damp, gooey pile of pulled pork blasted with sugar and liquid smoke and served as a sandwich, says James Norton, food editor at The Growler magazine.
The failure to do barbecue right is linked to two misconceptions, he said: That barbecue is easy to execute, and that it's simple or straightforward food.
"You can spend 10 years working on barbecue in your backyard smoker and still struggle with aspects of it, to say nothing of trying to translate that skill into a business setting," Norton said.
And within the greater umbrella of "barbecue," you have dozens of traditions — North Carolina barbecue, Texas pit barbecue, Kansas City barbecue, Korean barbecue, Alabama barbecue, Hmong or Vietnamese barbecue, Filipino barbecue, Mexican barbacoa and more. These traditions all have their own specialty dishes, condiments, smoking methods, sauces and complex expectations, he said.
But if you're hankering for some good barbecue, there are some folks who are getting it right in the eyes of Norton. Here are a few of his favorite spots, both new and old:
• Ted Cook's in south Minneapolis — a foundational classic.
• Jellybean and Julia's in Anoka — where Norton had one of the best brisket sandwiches of his life.
• Animales BBQ at Able Brewing in northeast Minneapolis — serving up really impeccable barbecue including pork shoulder that'll knock your socks off, whether it's served in taco format or not.
• Smoke in the Pit in south Minneapolis — their smoked ribs are tasty, particularly with their house barbecue sauce, which is more about heat and tartness than sweetness.
• Q Fanatic in Champlin — their ribs are classic and served with the sauce on the side as they should be.
• OMC Smokehouse in Duluth — one of the best barbecue spots in the state.
• 3rd Street Tavern in St. Peter — some of the best smoked wings Norton has eaten and some really respectable baby back ribs, too.
• Smoqehouse in Northfield — does a great job with both pulled pork and porchetta.