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.
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.
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.
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.
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
OWNERS / CHEF: Jamie Robinson and Amy Johnson / Bryce Strickler
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $6-9