The Battle of Ribs and Wings: The Atomic Data BBQ Bracket Challenge

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

This story was underwritten by Atomic Data, the Minneapolis-based technology solutions company dedicated to making IT serve the needs of business — and to delicious barbecue.

If you step into the world of barbecue, you enter a place of high passions. From brining to bark to cook-time to perfect texture to saucing, barbecue is a delicious but divisive food. We were curious what would happen if we tried, through the application of much eating and much arguing, to determine the best of barbecue in the area.

In an effort to get our collective heads around Minneapolis-St. Paul barbecue, we went out and pitted wings from eight places against each other in a bracket contest, and did the same for pork ribs.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

We were generously supported in this mission by Atomic Data, the company that hosts Heavy Table and keeps our magazine online. Atomic Data has a serious barbecue culture — its monthly get-togethers with friends, neighbors and clients are catered by the company’s in-house experts, who turn out barbecue that (as you’ll see) can hold its head high with anything else being served in the state.

We often like to spice up our blind taste-offs with a homemade ringer or two (see also: pumpkin pie), so we invited Atomic Data to throw some of its ribs and wings into the fracas.

ON METHODOLOGY: We tasted eight different wings and eight different ribs in a bracket format. All were tasted blind, and the initial bracket match-ups were randomly determined. Whenever possible, we got wings that were properly smoked, but at least one of the entries was from a well-regarded wing joint but not strictly barbecued.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

ON JUDGES: Our judges included two Heavy Table contributors (John Garland and Becca Dilley), two barbecue-proficient, passionate amateurs (Douglas Niemela and Chris Bjork), and two folks from the Atomic Data team (Mark Abbott and Carleton Hitchcock.) Neither of the Atomic Data folks cooked the company’s entries — Dwayne Sapp (bottom photo, on right) did the ribs, and Chris Becker (above) made the wings.

HeavyTableBBQBracketBannerON RESTAURANT SELECTION: Our brackets (necessarily) contain an incomplete collection of barbecue and / or wing joints from throughout the Twin Cities metro area. We went to our readers (on Twitter), our friends, Heavy Table contributors, and the Atomic Data team to pick out a range of places that would reflect many different approaches to wings and ribs and highlight some of the best-known contenders.

Are there enough places that we missed to populate another bracket competition? Absolutely.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

ON HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: As you’re about to discover, the Atomic Data barbecue fared well (with all of our judges). Two points: First, the Atomic folks had the advantages of cooking on site and not having to worry about any of the factors (economic scalability, massive quantity demand, a changing roster of chefs, etc.) that make running a restaurant the hellishly challenging affair that it is. Second, they put out some damn fine BBQ.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

ON LOGISTICS, SAUCE, AND WARMERS: All of our ribs and wings were kept warm in Sterno-heated aluminum pans. Anything that arrived pre-sauced, we tasted sauced; we didn’t apply sauce to anything else, preferring to let the smoke, cooking technique, and meat speak for themselves. The high performance of the unsauced Q Fanatic entries suggests that being tasted unsauced probably helped as much as it hurt. All of our food arrived between 6 and 6:30 p.m., and we got through initial tastings for both brackets within an hour of our 6:30 start.

THE WINGS BRACKET

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Hickory Hut vs. Monte Carlo

Judges praised wings from Hickory Hut (above) for having “complete flavor throughout,” and a “nice dry rub with mesquite.” This “well-cooked, full wing” could have “been a little more tender,” and one judge thought the spice was “a little aggressive.”

One taster thought the meat of Monte Carlo’s famous wings was “just right,” with a “nice heat”; another praised the salt level and “deep pepper aroma.” But the naysayers carried the day, saying that the wings’ flavor faded, was “bland,” that the skin “lacked texture,” and, overall, there was “smoke flavor and that’s all.”

WINNER: Hickory Hut

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Ted Cook’s vs. Atomic Data

Ted Cook’s offering (not wings per se, but a half chicken, barbecued, above) got complimented for a “nice sweet / heat combo,” but thoroughly slammed for being “dry — sooooo dry,” with “no integration of flavor.” Most damningly: “This is how I learned to BBQ in the frat — throw it on the grill, then slather sauce on it. Not good.”

atomic-wings-winning-entry

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Atomic Data’s wings (above) were knocked by most judges for being undercooked (“a tad undercooked,” wrote one), but praised for “lots of herbs and heat,” “great flavor in the sauce,” “good lingering flavor,” and “overall great concept and balance.”

WINNER: Atomic Data

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Runyon’s vs. Q Fanatic

The wings of Runyon’s (above) would be “great with my fourth or fifth” beer and were “fun …” but “very conventional Buffalo wings (Frank’s [Red Hot]?)” evoking “soggy Frank’s and butter,” and “wings at a St. Cloud bar.” The general zeitgeist can be summed up like this: “there’s a special place in my heart for this kind of crappy wing.”

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Q Fanatic’s “undersalted” wings (above) otherwise won raves for their “great sweet smokiness,” a “beautiful smoke component,” “gorgeous mahogany color,” and a “moist, nice, lingering pepper heat.”

WINNER: Q Fanatic

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Northbound Smokehouse vs. C&G Smoking Barbecue

The smoked wings from Northbound Smokehouse (above) divided our tasters, some of whom “didn’t like the sauce” for its “horrible flavor” (“I’m offended,” one wrote). Others found the wings “flavorful throughout” with “good texture,” “depth of BBQ flavor,” and a beer-inflected, “insanely juicy” taste.

The wings of C&G Smoking Barbecue were praised for the fact that their meat “separated beautifully from the bone,” but knocked for a flavor that was “basic pepper and salt,” and a texture that “kind of felt like it had been under a lamp,” which “might have been better fresh.”

WINNER: Northbound

SEMI-FINALS: Atomic Data trumped Hickory Hut; Q Fanatic beat out Northbound Smokehouse.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

FINALS: Atomic Data vs. Q Fanatic with Atomic Data coming out on top.

THE RIBS BRACKET

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Big Daddy’s vs. Q Fanatic

Big Daddy’s ribs (above) had a “nice smoke-ring …” but “… barely any flavor,” wrote one judge. They were “falling off the bone overdone,” and “hammy,” and prompted one judge to ask “does no one brine their ribs?”

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Q Fanatic ribs (above) took a bit of heat for being “dry” and “too clingy to the bone,” but won praise for their “good cap” and “better texture,” a “good meat + spice harmony,” “great smoke,” and the “perfect texture for ribs.”

WINNER: Q Fanatic

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Butcher and the Boar vs. Ted Cook’s

Butcher and the Boar sesame-seeded ribs (above) “look ugly but taste great,” wrote one judge, but another said, “not digging the sesame,” while a third suggested, “do not bring these to a rib contest” due to their “sloppy meat with irregular texture” and a “cap that was like jerky in spots.”

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

The “perfectly tender” ribs of Ted Cook’s (above) were praised for “good texture and OK flavor,” although another judge disagreed, calling them “flavorless.” Overall, even if the sauce was “a little sweet,” judges found them “well-executed.”

WINNER: Ted Cook’s

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

C&G Smoking Barbecue vs. Baker’s Ribs

C&G Smoking ribs (above) had “little spice,” wrote one judge, but “true pork flavor” that meant they were “good without sauce.” As for texture: “just a little tough, but that keeps it on the bone,” wrote one judge, approvingly.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Baker’s Ribs (above) were praised by some as “great ribs” with “great bark” and “just enough tang to the sauce,” although others called them “dry and not great” with “no flavor — like cardboard.”

WINNER: C&G Smoking

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Market BBQ vs. Atomic Data

Market BBQ’s ribs (above) were roundly slaughtered as “tough” and “flavorless,” “chewy and awful,” “tough, dry, and lifeless,” and “too pork choppy.”

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

This one,” wrote a judge about Atomic Data’s ribs, which were praised for “great, sweet rib flavor” and a “nice cap,” plus “pure smoke flavor.” “This is real,” wrote one judge — “the only one I want to know the recipe for.” “WOW,” wrote another, “finally real BBQ.”

WINNER: Atomic Data

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

SEMI-FINALS: Atomic Data beat C&G Smoking Barbecue; Ted Cook’s triumphed over Q Fanatic.

FINALS: Ted Cook’s vs. Atomic Data with Atomic Data decisively taking the prize.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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11 Comments

  1. I’m not one to troll articles, and I usually like what the Heavy Table puts out for these types of challenges and reviews… But this article was. Just. So. Bad.

    The IT company that sponsored the challenge won. Wow. How groundbreaking.

    “The Atomic folks had the advantages of cooking on site and not having to worry about any of the factors (economic scalability, massive quantity demand, a changing roster of chefs, etc.) that make running a restaurant the hellishly challenging affair that it is.”

    This isn’t even a fair competition. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

  2. really? 05/19/2015 Reply

    so atomic data, the tech company that underwrote this article and also hosts heavytable, won the wings and rib challenge?

  3. Eric Larsen 05/19/2015 Reply

    Thank you! Both City Pages and the Star Tribune have recently published their “best of” lists, and both failed to take a stand on BBQ. Wimps!

    • andthewinneris 05/19/2015 Reply

      and the winner is…. the geeks from atomic data!

  4. KJBoldon 05/19/2015 Reply

    How can the rest of us enjoy the Atomic Data BBQ excellence?

  5. What was the point of including options that are not available to the public?

  6. Author

    All these comments? Totally fair. All I can say in our defense is that we always like to throw homemade ringers into these things as a control, we tasted blind, and Atomic’s stuff was great. If that for you somehow invalidates the other 14 things we tasted and wrote notes on, so be it – but, seriously, we’re all about process regardless of outcome. And as soon as we got all the scores in, I thought: “Well… if we were rigging this, we’d rig it to look less boot-licky.”

    For anyone who wants to try their stuff, Atomic’s promoting a company BBQ on Twitter.

    • andthewinneris 05/20/2015 Reply

      “Well… if we were rigging this, we’d rig it to look less boot-licky.”

      nice try but pathetic.

  7. bmorebbq 05/19/2015 Reply

    I was excited to maybe find a new BBQ place to try, but I am not inspired to try any of these places. I may not be inspired to continue reading Heavy Table after this either. This was a waste of everyone’s time, except Atomic Data.

  8. On the surface, this looked rigged but look at those pictures. The Atomic Data stuff looks great. It doesn’t take much to fire up a smoker and put out some good bbq, which is a wonder why it’s so hard to find in the Twin Cities. This article just validates my decision to smoke my own…

  9. Arrakon 05/29/2015 Reply

    Dwayne needs to open his own BBQ joint, then the public can check these items out. Word on the street he is planning this in the near future.

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