“I couldn’t complain if I wanted to. It’s Friday, and I’m cooking BBQ,” Robert Lorch-Benysek announced from the step of his large, mobile barbecue smoker. Wearing bright blue rubber gloves and waving tongs like an orchestra conductor, Lorch-Benysek was in the zone. We’d found Black Market StP.
From 5-7 p.m. on Fridays, Lorch-Benysek holds court on Isabel Street in West St. Paul. He tells stories, doles out brisket and pork shoulder, chops and wraps ribs, gives spot tours of the pit, and smiles, ear to ear. Shortly after arriving on a recent Friday evening, we were smiling, too.
It’s hard not to smile when eating Black Market’s gargantuan, smoky, tender Beef Ribs (above, $25 per rack, aka Flintstone meatsicles) with a side of rich, ever-so-sweet beans and pork shoulder ($10 for beans and pork, $25 for a tin of pork shoulder). Though they look intimidating, the beef ribs are irresistible: Rendered fat melds with rich layers of meat under a candied, crackly outer shell. The combination of textures and flavors makes this not just one of the tastiest treats in town, but also one of the most interesting.
Though reluctant to put aside the first course, we happily dug into a juicy chunk of Beef Brisket ($25, serves a family of four, or so); cooked “slow and low” for 24 hours, the beef was fork-tender, its bark thick and flavorful. This is major-league brisket — a legitimate contender for best in state (with StormKing and Revival on the scene, the Twin-Cities-league competition is suddenly quite fierce).
Before succumbing to a food coma, we also tucked into Lorch-Benysek’s Baby Back Pork Ribs (above, $25 per rack). Though not as spectacular as the beef ribs or brisket, they still impressed. Black cherrywood smoke deeply penetrated the meat, leaving the brown sugar rubbed pork ribs (served “naked”) sweet and fruity.
Fridays on Isabel revolve around Lorch-Benysek’s smoker, where fellowship is the lifeblood of the weekly event. What beer was to Cheers, barbecue is to Black Market StP: It’s a tasty reason to gather, to swap stories and catch up, and to look forward to the next lively community hangout. Lorch-Benysek’s wife, Jill Moeller, is the Diane to Lorch-Benysek’s barkeep Sam, welcoming newcomers, taking orders and payments, situating diners at a folding table, popping caps off soda bottles, introducing strangers, and answering questions about the food and cooking process. Moeller runs the “front-of-the-house” like a seasoned pro, making everybody feel like a beloved neighbor.
And like the regulars at Cheers, the locals standing around the barbecue pit on Friday night seem to enjoy each other as much as anything. One young neighbor boy comes weekly for a tin of pork and beans and light chatter with the grownups. A couple whose wedding Lorch-Benysek and Moeller catered arrives and digs into an order of beef ribs. The new groom’s brother is standing nearby, patiently waiting to chat with the tong-wielding chef. The brother owns a local pizza joint, and Lorch-Benysek is smoking a bunch of sausage for him.
There’s an extremely friendly woman who shows up with a case of King of the North grape juice (named for the grape, not the Game of Thrones character). Lorch-Benysek opens the box like a kid at Christmas and drains nearly half a bottle in one gulp. Wiping the purple nectar from his face, he instructs us to crack open a bottle — the unsweetened, undiluted juice is deliciously intense, and mixed with a splash of sparkling water pairs wonderfully with the fatty brisket.
And then there’s Anna Marie Ettel, who proudly recounts the story behind Friday’s on Isabel. It began when her husband, James (“Jimmy”) Mann, a retired St. Paul cop and community leader who sold barbecue at the Lowertown farmers market, took Lorch-Benysek under his wing. Mann’s barbecue bug proved contagious (see Heavy Table alum John Garland’s excellent article on their relationship). When Mann passed away in 2011, Lorch-Benysek fixed up the mobile pit to carry on their shared tradition of bringing people together through barbecue. Ettel showed us a picture of the two men, laughing raucously in the cab of the truck. It perfectly captured the spirit of this weekly feast.
When we asked Lorch-Benysek if Black Market’s Friday’s on Isabel continues into the winter, he seemed genuinely confused. Not ending the week with barbecue and friends simply hadn’t occurred to him — rain, shine, or snow. After spending an hour with Lorch-Benysek, Moeller, and their friends, we understood. This is their happy place — and now it’s ours, too.
Black Market StP
Outdoor Barbecue, Fridays on Isabel Street in West St. Paul
207 Isabel St W
Saint Paul, MN 55107
OWNERS / CHEF: Robert Lorch-Benysek and Jill Moeller / Robert Lorch-Benysek
HOURS: Fridays 5-7 p.m.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$25