It’s been a 20-year on-again-off-again affair for Dave Anderson and Famous Dave’s, the national chain of barbecue restaurants that bears his name. But the man must have barbecue sauce running in his veins, because he just can’t stay away from the barbecue business. In 2015, he opened the first branch of Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse in Hayward, Wis. (the same town in which he opened his first Famous Dave’s), and just one year later, there are additional Old Southern BBQ locations in Rice Lake and Hudson, Wis.
We visited the Hudson location, tucked inconspicuously into a strip mall a short jaunt off Interstate 94. Friday lunch found the restaurant busy, with every table occupied and a line from the register to the door. It’s a light and airy room, with an indoor pergola, unfinished pine paneling, lots of windows, and a faux farmers market stand, complete with real fruit and vegetables (probably the restaurant’s stock). All of the signage is in the style of chalk drawings — cartoonish and colorful.
We had a Southern Sampler ($22), which includes a little of each meat, and we found it all to surpass the quality of Famous Dave’s. In ranking order from fair to outstanding, we tried the Texas hot link, beef brisket, pork, ribs, and chicken. The Texas hot link was mediocre, a little too much like a plain hot dog. There was nothing particularly “Texas” or “hot” about it. The brisket split the table. It had a mild smokiness, it was tender and juicy like properly slow-cooked brisket, and the beefy flavor really came through. The pulled pork had a great fall-apart texture and a whiff of real wood smoke, but it could have benefited from more aromatics. The ribs had a great crusty exterior and were likewise tender. The definite highlight was the chicken. It had a deeply infused smoky flavor and was well-spiced and juicy as can be.
None of the meats really wanted for barbecue sauce, but the full line of colorfully branded bottles on each table called out for meat. So we obliged. Again in order from meh to yeh: the Southern Sun was a disappointment, too mustardy and Heinzy, ironic for a Carolina-style sauce. The Southern Gal’s was too sweet. Chicago Blue was a little peppery, so just use the Dixie Red, which was more peppery. We liked the Diablo’s Batch, which falls short of satanically hot but has a tricky heat that sticks with you and multiplies, even after you stop eating it.
We found the sides ($2 for a single portion) to be a little spottier than the meat. The mac and cheese, normally a pretty low bar to clear, was a disappointment: dry and more cheese-colored than cheesy. We were divided on the potato salad. The tubers themselves were bland, and one diner suggested that the potatoes would have benefited from being boiled in saltier water. The dressing was creamy with a dill flavor, and the salad had a nice celery crunch. It rose to the level of a solid grocery store version. The tangy slaw might have oversold its tang, but with all the meat, a lightly dressed vinegar slaw hit the spot. It was crunchy and refreshing.
You can order meat and sides or sandwiches as at any barbecue joint. But where Old Southern has broken the mold is by applying the “Chipotle effect” to barbecue and offering bowls ($8). It’s basically meat and sides served right on top of one another and drizzled with barbecue sour cream. There are three pre-made options, but you can create your own with a choice of one meat and two bases (generally starches and beans), and with as many toppers (pickled onion, pickled cukes, corn etc.) as you’d like. The Dixie Bowl (rice and barbecue beans, tangy slaw, pork topped with tomatoes, jalapeños, and corn) was a harmonious balance of flavor and texture that we’d definitely order again. For the price, it’s an enormous value. On a later visit to the Hayward branch, we tried the Soul Bowl (mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, chicken, and creamy coleslaw), which we found to be a mess of starch and cream. Creamy coleslaw, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes can live on a plate together, but all in one bite they do not create a symphony.
It’s impossible not to compare Old Southern with Famous Dave’s. One could easily imagine that Old Southern is what Dave Anderson would have done with Famous Dave’s if he had his druthers. The concept appeals to the modern fast-casual diner’s taste and DIY preference. Most importantly, the food is well made and consistently enjoyable. This feels like a readily scalable concept, so if you live in the Twin Cities, and Hudson is too far for you to travel, give it time: We wouldn’t be surprised to see an Old Southern BBQ pop up in the cities sooner or later.
Old Southern BBQ
Fast casual barbecue and smokehouse in Wisconsin
2421 Hanley Rd
Hudson, Wis 54016
Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Vegetarian / Vegan: Very limited
Entree range: $5-$22
Sound level: Noisy, but no need to shout