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.