Signs are beginning to point toward a renaissance in Northern barbecue. For years, even some respectable independent places have served food that would be laughed outside of the South — dried-out meat, flavorless bark, syrup-sweet sauces, warmed-up leftovers served instead of fresh ’cue, and one-dimensional sides barely worth tasting.
But a constant drumbeat of cultural praise has begun focusing the public’s mind on a few key facts about barbecue: It’s authentically American, with diverse roots. It’s accessible to all, affordable, and unpretentious. And when it’s done with time, love, and care, it’s as good as any dish served up at any white-tablecloth spot in the land. People from California to Maine are starting to take it seriously, and that’s creating a customer base for restaurants that do the stuff well.
We’ve written in brief about the excellent Texas-style brisket at StormKing barbecue just off of Nicollet Avenue. Also relatively new and worth a trip is the barbecue being served at OMC Smokehouse in Duluth.
OMC (that’s “oink/moo/cluck”) is a restaurant established by the founders of the well-regarded Duluth Grill. It’s located in the increasingly hot Lincoln Park neighborhood — we toured the Frost River factory after lunch, followed by a flight of beers at Bent Paddle‘s taproom, all three spots located within paces of one another.
And OMC is good. Not “good for Minnesota” good, but “good for a diner who had eaten top-flight barbecue in northern Florida and Asheville, N.C. mere weeks ago.” Which is to say that it would hold up just about anywhere.
The most remarkable dish that we tried was also one of the most unexpected: the restaurant’s Cheesy Jalapeño Grits ($4), which were so light they were ethereal, with cheese and jalapeño flavor dispersed evenly throughout. This side was more a high-concept savory bread pudding than what normally passes for grits in the north, which is to say a wet, sullen glop of glue. And while the flavor of jalapeños was present throughout, the heat level was tame-to-moderate, making it a dish that was easy to enjoy in volume (and at a fast pace).
Another standout side was the Creamy Classic Coleslaw ($3). This is a dish that gets phoned in and massacred at mid-level barbecue places everywhere. Not at OMC. We thought our slaw had just the right amount of rich-but-balanced creamy dressing, and that its fine, even, and delicate texture was a total delight.
The restaurant’s St. Louis-style ribs ($19 for a half rack) were firm but yielding, the meat clinging to the bone gently but not tenaciously. They were fully infused with a robust but measured smoke flavor, and were good enough to eat without a speck of sauce. Speaking of which, our table sported four house-made sauces, all of which were good, and can be tried by diners before the meal on the complimentary (and complementary) pork rinds brought to the table as an amuse bouche.
The Classic Honey BBQ sauce had a pleasant depth and lacked the sugary syrup quality that so many half-serious places offer up; the Bent Paddle 14° ESB BBQ beer-mustard sauce sported a decent kick and a malty backbone; and the Alabama White BBQ sauce veered hard toward horseradish (we’re used to a stronger black pepper presence) but nonetheless was savory and compelling. We just wish the restaurant’s Chipotle-Cilantro BBQ sauce with rhubarb had more kick; our waitress, who hailed from Chicago, described it as a “Minnesota 7, but a Chicago 2.” Minnesota is evolving, but even for this state, the heat level on this stuff wouldn’t crack a 4.
Speaking of heat, our Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich ($11.50) must have been a Nashville 8 at the very least. Without the accompanying blue-cheese dipping sauce, it was hard for us to choke down more than a couple of fiery bites, but with the sauce it was a thing of beauty — crispy, crunch, creamy, and spicy as Hell itself.
A review of a place like OMC wouldn’t be complete without a few words on hospitality, and here they are: The folks are really friendly. Our waitress sported an enthusiasm for the food and the concept that was wonderfully gung-ho. She had strong recommendations. She knew the menu inside out. She knew the story of the restaurant’s founding. She legitimately wanted to know how we liked our food, what we liked about it, and why. And none of this felt forced. This was just a case of talking with someone enthusiastic about a restaurant that’s clearly on a culinary crusade.
Other staff we talked to at OMC were similarly enthusiastic, and even during a workday lunch the restaurant was buzzing with customers. Do something really well, and people notice. In this case, OMC is helping to lead the charge toward a brighter tomorrow for Upper Midwestern barbecue.
Barbecue in Lincoln Park, Duluth
1909 West Superior St
Duluth, MN 55806
11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Not so much
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$29
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Lot and street parking