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The quest for BBQ in St. Louis takes me to Smokin’ Al’s

I’ve written many times before about my never-ending search for BBQ in St. Louis. It’s a lot easier to find now than it was 10 years ago. And, although it’s still not up to Kansas City standards, I do have to say it’s getting better.

This weekend’s adventure took me to Smokin’ Al’s, which is on Hampton, just north of I-44 and south of U.S. 40, within earshot of Forest Park. It’s in the city, so be sure to pack your concealed weapons.

I’m kidding. That part of St. Louis is safe, and Smokin’ Al’s seems to be popular with the police anyway. But what’s it like?The first thing I noticed was the prices. They’re very reasonable–higher than McDonald’s but no higher than, say, Subway. My girlfriend got the BBQ hamburger with fries and a drink. Posted price was $4.99. I got the BBQ brisket sandwich with fries and drank my usual water (I don’t drink caffeine after noon). Posted price was $5.75, I think. Our total came to $11.99.

Like a true BBQ joint, Smokin’ Al’s has a napkin dispenser on the table. On a recent BBQ excursion, someone handed me a single napkin. I held it up and told whoever would listen that this was a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with BBQ in St. Louis. If you can clean up afterward with a single napkin, it wasn’t BBQ.

When the food arrived, it came with reason to hope that the napkin dispenser would be necessary. It had BBQ sauce on it! Amazing!

Like the classic Kansas City joints, the brisket sandwich was served on Texas Toast. The girl at the counter was much friendlier than the people at the counter at Gates or Arthur Bryant’s though. (They make rudeness an art form at those places. It’s part of the atmosphere.)

The quality of the meat was very commendable. It wasn’t dry or tough, and it was about as lean as you’ll ever find at a BBQ joint. You could tell from looking at it that it was cooked the way it’s supposed to be: long and slow. And there was a lot of it.

The sauce is their own homemade blend. It’s a bit different. It wasn’t quite as spicy as, say, Gates, but it wasn’t sweet. I doubt there’s a lot of honey or molasses in it. It also wasn’t tangy like a lot of BBQ sauces. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty good, but it’s not much like anything I’ve had in other parts of the country. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say "St. Louis Style BBQ"–that’s what it says on the sign. And I know they don’t mean pork steaks, because those weren’t on the menu.

And yes, during the meal I went through about five napkins.

Best BBQ I’ve ever had? No. Best BBQ in St. Louis? Well, you’ve got me thinking, and I’ll grudgingly admit that the title of Best BBQ in St. Louis is no longer like the title of Tallest Building in Topeka. I might give a slight edge to Super Smokers, but Smokin’ Al’s is cheaper and the portions are a bit bigger. Best BBQ value in St. Louis? Absolutely.

So how’s it rank on the All-Time scale? It’s not quite in the same league as Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, or Smokestack, all in Kansas City. Second tier is Biffle’s in Concordia, Mo., Carson’s in Chicago, or Trotter’s, an old chain out of Springfield, Mo., which during its prime was as good as anyone’s but whose quality dropped off very quickly in the early ’90s. It disappeared soon after. But I remember it fondly.

I rank Super Smokers a notch below those two levels. I’ll put Smokin’ Al’s in that same category. But one must remember, both of these chains are mere rookies.

The quality of life in St. Louis just went up a notch. This Kansas Citian will be back. Especially seeing as it’s about a 10-minute drive from work, making it suitable lunchtime fare.

I can’t think of a higher compliment I could give.

A taste of… Missouri, I guess

I have no idea how much of this stuff is available outside of St. Louis, and I don’t normally write about what I ate for dinner because it bores me to tears when other people do it, but an idea came to me as I walked down the aisles at the local grocery store, and I think it’s a pretty good one.

John Goodman once said in a Saturday Night Live skit that there are three secrets to great barbecue: You need meat, bread, and sauce. He was right.The meat is salsiccia. I have no idea if this stuff is widely available, or if, like toasted ravioli and pork steaks, it’s a St. Louis thing. Basically it’s an Italian sausage, but the spices are a bit different. The Gatermanns introduced me to it, and they’ve always just cooked them like bratwursts.

The bread, well, was Healthy Choice whole-wheat hot dog buns. Nothing too special about that. Next time I’ll probably go to McArthur’s Bakery and pick up something. St. Louis has tons and tons of great bakeries–it’s as easy to find great bread in St. Louis as it is to find great barbecue in Kansas City. Ahem.

In Kansas City, the bread gets third billing. I think Gates serves the majority of its sandwiches on plain old Wonder Bread. That’s the main criticism I have of Gates. John Goodman was being sarcastic, but the right bread can steal the show.

Good bread from St. Louis is available nationally. The Panera Bread chain of sandwich shop/bakery/coffeehouse originated here in St. Louis.

And the sauce. I picked up Gates mild BBQ sauce. Gates is possibly the most famous of the Kansas City BBQ chains (and keep in mind that for something from Kansas City to have any market in St. Louis, there has to be something special about it), and it’s known for heat. Rather than calling their sauces mild, regular and spicy, they really probably should call them hot, hotter, and hottest.

I don’t know if Gates makes its sauce available nationally or not. If not, the KC Masterpiece brand really was developed in Kansas City, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But Gates has been around longer, and I was feeling traditional. And Gates, as far as BBQ sauces go, is very low in sugar.

Slather a fairly generous amount of Gates on the salsiccias, grill or broil them, then serve on the best bread you can find, and I think you’ve got something special. Especially considering the amount of effort that goes into it. We’re talking five minutes’ prep time and maybe 30 minutes’ cooking time.

It ain’t health food, but hey, we need to treat ourselves every once in a while.

Quirks about St. Louis

I guess one thing I like about St. Louis is that it isn’t completely cookie-cutter yet–I can still go to a place called MacArthur’s for a better doughnut than a Krispy Kreme and a much better sandwich than Subway, or to The Concord Grill for a much better hamburger than Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s, or to Fortel’s for the best pizza, period–but St. Louisans themselves have some delightful quirks to make fun of.

You can tell I’m not a St. Louis native because I haven’t asked you what high school you went to yet. You might be 48 years old and the president of the company you work for, but for some reason that’s more important than your name and what you do for a living. Because, after all, St. Louisans measure the quality of their weekend by the number of former classmates they ran into.

When Dick Gephardt decided to run for president, I’m sure the first paragraph of the news story read, “Southwest High School graduate Dick Gephardt announced Tuesday his intention to run for president–of the United States–in 2004.” The second or third paragraph should mention he graduated in 1958. And somewhere buried in the middle of the story, there’d be a mention that he served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 26 years. The mention of minor details such as his political party was probably cut to make room for a bigger photo of Southwest High School.

And the only quote from Gephardt ought to talk about how he manages to keep in touch with his old classmates from Washington D.C. and where to get a good pork steak outside of St. Louis.

At least that’s how I would have run the story if I’d been the editor and wanted St. Louisans to read it.

And I never have figured out what you’re supposed to do with a pork steak. Put it in your baseball glove for extra padding? What a true St. Louisan does is throw the fat- and gristle-laden thing on a grill, dry, cook it until charred, then wave a little bit of Maull’s over it and call it real BBQ.

No wonder Kansas City is on the opposite side of the state. It’s trying to stay as far away from that vile dish as possible.

Sorry about that. I got rolling in an e-mail message this morning so I’m cheating and posting that. I’ll answer someone’s writing and publishing question later this weekend.

Memorial Day in St. Louis

I made a big mistake at work yesterday. I let someone be unreasonable and ruin my day. No, I don’t want to talk about it. I’d rather go back to a happier time… like Monday.
On Monday, Gatermann and I went out shooting. He’s experimenting with high-contrast b&w photography and I wanted some harsh and stark pictures of myself in an urban setting, so we went driving around in the warehouse district. We found a great source of used car parts–drive around the right places, and you’ll find tires, hubs, car batteries, mufflers, and even gas tanks just sitting there, and no one complains if you take them. I even found a couple of tires mounted on hubs. They must make them in some of those old buildings or something.

But that wasn’t what we were looking for. We were looking for good shots. Well, we found a building that they’re tearing down, and one corner that’s still standing has a really big word painted on it, descending down the building: “Fresh.” Gatermann said he’d be coming back when more of the building was gone to get a shot of that. And Gatermann got a shot of a modern train running past the old, abandoned, St. Louis Southwestern Railroad (aka The Cotton Belt Route) freight depot on the riverfront.

And we found some neat-looking doorways for me to stand in while he took some shots.

We drove around some more, and Gatermann said he knew of a really neat-looking trestle nearby, so we went there. It’s been years since the trestle’s been used, but someone still mows under it. We got a few shots, then Gatermann looked over to the left. Next to a building, there were a few coal hoppers just sitting there. “Let’s get a shot of you standing between those two cars,” he said. I walked over there, then Gatermann said, “No, let’s go to the other side. With where the sun is, we’ll get backlighting there.” So we walked to the last car, stepped over a rope that was blocking our way and totally ignored the sign on the rope, and then one of us noticed a sign on the door of the building: Danger. Radioactive. Keep out. I looked at the signs on the fence next to the building: Radioactive contamination. Keep out. Gatermann and I looked at each other. “Maybe it’s not a good idea for us to be here.”

We stepped back over the rope and read the sign: Radiological buffer zone.

I looked at Gatermann. “Well, that was probably the smartest thing we’ll do all day.”

As we drove off, I noticed some more signs on that fence: Guard dog on duty. Guard dog? Isn’t radiation that’s bad for us bad for dogs too?

Chances are one of the sets of signs was lying. Maybe both of them. But that just didn’t seem to be the place to be that afternoon.

We weren’t the only ones to think that. Apparently some people think the thing to do in St. Louis on Memorial Day is to go find a warehouse, preferably with a loading dock that you can use like a porch, pack up the lawnchairs and the grill, and barbecue there with your family or a bunch of your buddies. You’ll have to ask Gatermann why that is, because I’m not a St. Louis native. I just live here. I don’t even like pork steaks.

But no one was BBQing at the House of Radioactivity. I guess no one wanted to know whether the barbecue would cook faster there. Or maybe they just didn’t want to share with the dog.