After 20 years as a Minneapolis auto mechanic, Greg Alford got tired of having cracked knuckles and wrenched wrists every night. He switched careers to something he’d been doing even longer: cooking.
It’s his true calling. At his restaurant, C&G’s Smoking Barbecue at 4743 Nicollet Ave., Alford (top, right) smokes a mean rib, fries a fine wing, and makes delectable sandwiches with a Detroit flavor. Alford, 51, moved to Minnesota in 1984 from Detroit, but he had been cooking long before that. Growing up in Motown, Alford had 11 siblings and started helping in the kitchen at a young age.
“I’ve been cooking actually since I was 5 years old,” Alford said. “I caught on fire when I was 5 cooking grits. I kept going. Figured, ‘Hey, just don’t cook me. Cook the food.’ My mom taught all of us how to cook. There was 12 of us, so we had to learn to take care of each other. She stayed sick a lot in the hospital; there were times she was sick in the hospital two, three months at a time. My dad had to work, so we had to cook. So, you know, we took care of one another.”
He kept it up as an adult and developed a small following for his cooking in his Detroit neighborhood, giving him something to fall back on. His family is originally from Louisiana, so growing up Alford learned Southern tricks from his mother, aunts, and other relatives. Cooking became more and more valuable.
“Used to pay my rent that way,” he said. “I lived in a garage apartment. So I used to pull the grill out to the edge of the driveway, you know, and put a sign out there and sell rib dinners and fish dinners.”
He kept it up after moving to Minnesota. Despite spending his days as owner of an auto shop, Alford never lost his edge, even if it was just in the backyard.
“Just cooking for people, having parties, barbecuing,” he said. “After that, people liked the barbecue, so I figured it would be a good thing to try, the business.”
Alford smokes his ribs for three hours in his electric smoker and keeps them simple, well-spiced, and tender. City ordinance prohibits wood-burning smokers for new businesses, he said, unless you’re grandfathered in. He’d prefer an outdoor, wood-fired smoker.
“They don’t want you to use charcoal and stuff like that, so you gotta use electric smokers now,” he said. “If they could stop people from barbecuing in the outside, they would.”
At C&G’s, sauce is on the side, as it should be, and Alford’s succulent ribs don’t need it anyway. What’s impressive is the way he gives the entire rack a uniform tenderness: no too-crunchy short ends or semi-tough big ends.
“I think that a barbecue place that puts a lot of barbecue sauce on their ribs is covering up something,” he said. “I can do sauce on rib tips, little bite size, but usually I like my ribs dry. Good ribs, you don’t need sauce. You know, I never really been a sauce person anyway because I could eat a sandwich – just put the meat on the bread. I don’t like a lot of mayo, don’t like a lot of barbecue sauce.
“I think it [no sauce] works better. I know some guys who boil their ribs, put a rub on them, then smoke them. I know some people who fry ribs. Everybody’s got their own way. I just like to smoke mine, with not too much wood smoke in it. Just kid of give it that touch of wood smoke and season them up real good.
“No two ribs are the same. Some thick, some thin, some fattier than other ones, so it all depends. I turn them upside down when I put them in the smoker because the heat rises, so I turn them upside down and with the big end up so the big end cooks quicker than the small end.”
Now to those Detroit sandwiches. Alford’s menu includes Coney Islands (chili-cheese dogs) and what he calls the Motor City Corned Beef, with or without slaw. It’s basically what Arby’s wishes it could be — slightly pungent, homemade corned beef sliced so thinly you’ll wonder how it has so much flavor. Topped with mustard and slaw on an onion roll, it’s a unique and unexpected treat.
“I like Coney Islands and I like corned beef sandwiches, and a lot of places don’t serve those foods,” he said. “A lot of those foods like the Coney Islands are from Detroit. In Detroit, we eat corned beef on an onion roll. And most places in Minnesota, it’s hard to find a corned beef sandwich on an onion roll. So I figured, that’s something different. See, I don’t like a reuben. Give me the meat, put some mustard on it. See, the onion roll gives it the sweetness of the bun, then you put the mustard on it, you got your bitter taste. Then with the sweet corned beef, it all blends together.
“And it has to be real meat, can’t use that deli meat. Has to be real, cooked corned beef. It’s something different from what everybody else is doing. Everybody’s doing Chicago this, Chicago, Chicago. I figured, hey, let’s put some Detroit in there.”
Alford also fries several kinds of fish in season, including perch, catfish, and even sunnies. The perch is crispy, not at all greasy, and just barely coated in a cornmeal mixture, which doesn’t mask the freshwater flavor of the fish. Even an avowed tartar sauce devotee like myself doesn’t need it with this fish. It’s the best I’ve had in a while. Wings, served sans sauce, are similarly crisp, non-greasy, and perfectly seasoned.
Reflecting on Alford’s menu, it’s clear this is a unique array of foods. A kid from Detroit with Southern roots grows up cooking, basically self-taught, for his huge family, then eventually opens his restaurant in Minnesota. It’s a crafty mix of comfortable and fresh.
So, what’s the most popular item?
“I think my ribs, and the next would be the barbecue beef brisket sandwich,” he said. “They love that, because it’s nice and tender and juicy. A lot of places you go you get beef brisket, it’s dry. And kind of chewy. And so what I do with mine, when I cook it, I cool it and slice it in really thin slices so that makes the beef from being so chewy. When you bite in it, it just melts.
“Everything I put up, like my beans and all that stuff, the greens, man, I’ve been cooking that for years. So I just do it all the same way.”
C&G’s Smoking Barbecue
Barbecue in South Minneapolis
4743 Nicollet Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55419