Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. So it goes at Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub, where smoke is applied to nearly everything on the menu. A non-comprehensive list includes sliced beef, egg salad, ham in a ham-and-split pea soup, and even some of the beer that’s made in house at this newly opened South Minneapolis brewpub and restaurant.

Here’s the crazy thing about this no-holds-barred smokefest: It really works. Under the guidance of Chef Bryce Strickler, the restaurant’s simple, honest bar food is elevated to an earthy and pleasing new level by the judicious addition of natural smoke flavor. Something as generally forgettable as an egg salad sandwich ($6.25) becomes a memorable bite with the deployment of high-quality bread and lightly (but perceptibly) smoked hard-boiled eggs. And the smoked chicken wings ($8.50) have shot to the top of our Minneapolis-St. Paul list, alongside the glorious, gourmet wing wackiness of :D-Spot.

James Norton / Heavy Table

Northbound’s smoked roast beef sandwich ($9) was a divine mess, a sloppy pile of tender strips of artfully smoked beef, melted Gouda, and horseradish mayo on a brioche bun that both physically supported and gastronomically complemented the rest of the package. This is the sort of sandwich that haunts your dreams with its unearthly deliciousness.

James Norton / Heavy Table

The brewpub’s whitefish dip ($9) must surely rank among the finest in the Upper Midwest (and therefore, by extension, the world) — the dip’s delicately smoked fish stands tall and proud, propped up by an airy cream cheese spread and unencumbered by the sort of runny, mayo-like filler that can be a buzzkill on a dish like this.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The restaurant’s house burger ($7.25 + extra for toppings) is 90 percent of the way there. The brioche bun is substantial without overwhelming the meat and toppings, and the interior of the bottom half is buttered and kicked up with a layer of spices that adds real interest to every bite. We ordered our burger medium rare on two consecutive visits, and it came out well done and medium well — an irritating problem that would be fixed with a small (but critical) bit of extra attention from the cooks.

Compared to other brewpubs in the area, Northbound stands up strong. Its high-class, clean, minimalist interior contrasts with its casual food-in-baskets approach to dining, but that’s OK — in contrast to some of its competitors, it takes the time to ensure that its food is a deliciously good value, not just window dressing in support of its beer. Speaking of which: We tried all of the restaurant’s available beers ($5 a pint) on a recent visit and came away with a positive overall impression of the house style — mellow, balanced, delicately carbonated, and eminently drinkable. Brewer Jamie Robinson (formerly of Town Hall) puts out a product that suggests confident technical mastery of the craft, and represents a clear point of view.

Wild Rice Amber: The allusion to wild rice might suggest unusual flavors (nuttiness, perhaps?), but this turned out to be a straightforward amber ale, full bodied and with a crisp finish. It’s easily sessionable and a perfect complement to a cool and sunny fall day. This beer boasts a grain-forward earthiness that, mixed with the crisp aftertaste, was just right. Northbound’s porter is a stronger beer than this, but the Amber makes a fine second choice.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Smokehouse Porter: The Smokehouse Porter was just smoky enough, well-carbonated and deep, yet with a clean finish. There was really no downside: The aroma was pleasant and full, the flavor strong without being overpowering, and the hints of vanilla and malt hit the spot. It was a perfect complement to the salty, beefy flavor of a burger and fries. Our group thought it amongst the best smoked beers we’d tasted.

Honey Wheat Ale: This packs a little more punch than Leinie’s Honey Weiss, but is similar in style. A well-stated sweetness at the start, but it’s backed up by a drier finish than your standard light honey ale. More palatable – as in flavorful – than other beers we’ve tried of this style.

Autumn Ale: This ale is a newly released and supremely enjoyable fall beer. It was described as a dark amber, but it reminded us of our favorite Oktoberfests. A subdued level of carbonation made for easy drinking goodness, almost creamy to start followed by a delightfully smooth boozy finish.

It’s also always nice to see brewpubs and breweries that respect and appreciate their peers. Northbound clearly gives and receives that type of respect, as some of the best local breweries occupied the few extra taps: Indeed, Lift Bridge, Badger Hill, Harriet, and Fulton. And being wet-hop-beer season, Northbound had both Indeed’s and Lift Bridge’s versions. All beers are available in 10-ounce pours as well as taps –  although a flight option would be nice, considering that every beer on the menu is one you’ll want to try.

If Northbound can maintain (or even positively tweak) its impressively focused, unpretentious approach to bar food and keep brewing up gorgeous house beers, its success as a neighborhood staple is assured — and, who knows, there could be franchise potential lurking within such a simple, cleanly executed concept.

Grant Boelter and Jason Walker contributed to this review.

Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub
Brewpub and bar food in South Minneapolis

2716 E 38th St
Minneapolis, MN 55406
612.328.1450

OWNERS / CHEF: Jamie Robinson and Amy Johnson / Bryce Strickler
HOURS:
Sun-Thu 11am-1am
Fri-Sat 11am-2am
BAR: Beer
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $6-9

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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13 Comments

  1. Ok, great review, but no mention of the porketta at all? That’s the gem of the menu, and something that isn’t available anywhere else in the city (right?). Oh, and the price of under $8 for all sandwiches is spot on.

    I have a few minor complaints of Northbound, a place I’ve now been to 4 times and enjoyed each visit. I’m going to be a regular. No doubt.

    1. The BBQ sauce isn’t great. But thankfully the meat stands on its own and isn’t really needed. But it’s way too tomato-y and not enough smoke.

    2. The south facing windows are going to be awesome this winter, but those tables are going to melt in the summer unless they get some shades, which will kinda take away from the place.

    3. It gets fairly loud inside. I really wish the place was a little more cozy and not just a big open space.

  2. Author

    You’re right – the porketta is stellar. I always struggle with what to include / what to leave out in reviews so that they don’t become endless laundry lists of individual dishes, but I’ll absolutely testify to the deliciousness of the porketta.

    Loud is also a fair judgment, but that cuts both ways – it also feels lively and convivial, a real neighborhood gathering place. Personally: I don’t hold high volume against a beers and burgers joint.

  3. Yep, very true. I’m probably in the minority, but if I wanted a loud place, I’d go to Northeast. South Mpls is sleepy, give me a quiet bar where I can drink my beers :)

    Also, I believe the buns are from Franklin Street Bakery, so that’s awesome.

  4. I’m with “Moe” on this one. It’s too loud inside. A couple of noise reduction panels, or some fabric somewhere would go a long way towards knock it back just a couple of decibles.

    Almost everything else about the place is lovable, though. The fries and onion rings were kinda lousy at first, but they were noticeably better the last time I was there. Hands down, this is my new favorite neighborhood joint.

  5. Good thing they are located in Minneapolis so I’m free to like the restaurant and not be ashamed of myself.

  6. Thanks for the write-up guys. More noise reduction is on the way. Its just a matter of finding time to get it done.

    Right now the priority is getting on a brewing schedule to match the demand for the Big Jim IPA and Light Rail Pale Ale. By Sunday night there will be a back-up batch of each. We will need to drop down to one seasonal for a while to do this, but with this adjustment Big Jim and Light Rail should never run out. By the middle of next week we should have all four year-round brews on tap.

  7. Jamie… One other complaint I’ve heard from a few others, is not knowing if they should seat themselves or wait to be seated. Maybe a sign up front for that? Thanks!

    At some point would you do a tour of the brewery and maybe even the smoker? I’d love to know the process for trying to always have the regular beers available, and what the brewing process is like for seasonals on a smallish scale set up like you have.

    Love the place, and looking forward to my next visit!

  8. Jamie Robinson10/11/2012Reply

    We’ll get a seat your self sign for the not so busy times. We’ve hired a hostess to manage a wait list during the busy times. Before we have tours we need to catch up on beer and food, then get growlers… Then tours.

  9. I was not super impressed with the wings, but I was there the first night they opened and they were obviously slammed so I’ll give those another chance. I couldn’t really detect much smoke in them and they kind of tasted like basic but a little too dry buffalo wings.

    My only suggestion would be to offer a side of fries with the sandwiches. If I’m eating by myself I don’t want a $4 basket of fries, and it would be nice to have another option.

  10. I too want an option of fries as side portion. Ive enjoyed most of the sandwhiches, but my complaint lies in the house vinagrette. I dont know what kind ih cheap salad oil you guys are ysing, but it is really gross. It totally ruined my smoke fish salad. Im not very picky, but it is really not good.

  11. There must be too many good things abouth Northbound to include in one review! The seasonal Columbus Pale Ale is up near the top of my list of any pale ale I’ve had the pleasure of drinking: truly top-notch. And, that fried chicken sandwich? Sorry, Town Hall Tap… you’ve just been replaced in that category. Couldn’t be happier with this addition to the neighborhood.

  12. Jamie, That outdoor area to the east is going to lay fallow this winter, any thought to having a bonfire out there for people to gather and have a few?

  13. Matthew, with the way the wait list has been every night, the possibility of a fire on the patio is on my radar. If we do decide to have a fire there are a lot of steps that need to be taken. First, we need to make sure that our liquor license even allows it. Stay tuned…

    We are discussing the fries issue. One of the things about our menu is that absolutely everything is made from scratch in-house (except the buns/bread that are scratch from Franklin Street Bakery). That means lots of labor cost and that means that keeping the prices reasonable is a challenge. Rather than charging everyone $10 to $12 for a sandwich and fries we decided to make the entire menu al a carte. We’ve also discussed adding half-orders of fries to the menu, but we don’t have the fryer space to add that option. Ultimately, whatever option we go with for the fries is going to have a downside.

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