Bayport BBQ could be your favorite cousin’s cabin in the woods. It’s airy, bright, and a turquoise rooster jeers at you from the mantel of a beautiful fireplace in the dining room. But what you can’t see is the Little Red Smoker in the kitchen that makes it all happen.
“We’ve got a real wood-burning pit,” says owner Chris Johnson, who spent 25 years doing financial work before opening the restaurant last October.
Johnson’s frequent trips to Austin, Texas while running a Deep Blues festival sparked his interest in Texas style barbecue, which highlights the essential flavor of meats without sauces or marinades. Accordingly, Johnson is committed to intensifying his meats with real wood smoke. Every cut at Bayport takes a sauna in the smoker.
“It’s not gas, it’s not gas assist, it’s not pellets,” Johnson explains. “We burn logs. We burn oak, white oak.”
When you enter the “deep blues juke joint,” you order your meal at the bejeweled counter up front. Meats (including pork, chicken, beef, turkey, and sometimes salmon) and sides run slightly cheaper than places like Q Fanatic and Ted Cook’s 19th Hole. They are served in fractions of a pound (even sixteenths!), making the menu conducive to family style dining. The menu also features classics like pecan pie and blackberry cobbler.
Before choosing a table, the staff will load up a half sheet pan with your beer, whisky, or mason jars of sweet tea and lemonade. And before you can greedily dip your finger in a puddle of the house made hot sauce, your food arrives, nestled in leaves of parchment on another half sheet pan. Service is lightning fast.
The smoked chicken comes dramatically whole ($6.50 for a half). It is perfectly juicy with a spicy gusto that tops the more uneventful and dry pulled chicken ($6 / half pound) and turkey ($7 / half pound). The brisket ($7 / half pound)—a Texas-style favorite—also boasts enormous flavor and a crispy bark. It’s egotistically beefy. However, several different tastings by several different people revealed that the brisket is not always consistent. At times it can be stringy and a little over cooked, though rarely lacking in flavor. The house made hot links ($3.25 / quarter pound), of beef and pork, are also excellent. A snappy, burnished red skin and a peppery, almost venison-like interior make them the star of the meats.
The sides are simple picnic fare like coleslaw, baked beans, house made pickles, and au gratin potatoes. Both the coleslaw ($1.25 / quarter pound) and the potatoes ($1.25 / quarter pound) lack salt and individuality, but the baked beans ($1.25 / quarter pound) are explosive. Mustardy and sweet, they are studded with bits of the richly flavored brisket. The pickled onions and cucumbers ($1.50 / quarter pound) are also a must, adding sass to the rest of the soft earthy flavors.
One of the most unique things about Bayport’s barbecue arsenal is the bread ($0.30 a slice). Johnson baked professionally throughout high school and college, and it shows. Many typical barbecue joints offer cloudy Wonder-like white bread, but Bayport’s bread is yeasty, tender and moist, and baked fresh every morning. A slight cornmeal crust makes it substantial enough for impromptu everything-on-it sandwiches and sauce-to-mouth vehicles.
Johnson doesn’t source his meats locally, but his theory on this is about as barbecue as you can get. “We’re taking very common meats and just doing nice things to them and really trying to bring out their best flavors,” he says.
At its heart, barbecue is about making the less desirable bits of an animal soar. Johnson isn’t out to impress, rather to offer a different point of view, both with barbecue and the bluegrass and folk musicians he features a couple times a week at the restaurant.
“I hope that [people] are open-minded, just like with music, to go out and try some new things and I hope that they enjoy it.” Bayport BBQ certainly feels like the sort of cool, quiet spot for a beginner’s course in barbecue education, and later a swig of whisky and a sleepy tune.
Texas style barbecue and blues joint.
328 5th Avenue N
Bayport, MN 55003
OWNER / CHEF: Chris Johnson
HOURS: Tue-Sun 11am-close (usually around 9pm)
BAR: Beer + Wine + Whisky
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Only for musical performances
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes, limited / No
ENTREE RANGE: meats from 5.25 / half pound to 10.50 / half pound (Cash or check ONLY)