This story was underwritten by Atomic Data, the Minneapolis-based technology solutions company dedicated to making IT serve the needs of business — and to delicious barbecue.
If you step into the world of barbecue, you enter a place of high passions. From brining to bark to cook-time to perfect texture to saucing, barbecue is a delicious but divisive food. We were curious what would happen if we tried, through the application of much eating and much arguing, to determine the best of barbecue in the area.
In an effort to get our collective heads around Minneapolis-St. Paul barbecue, we went out and pitted wings from eight places against each other in a bracket contest, and did the same for pork ribs.
We were generously supported in this mission by Atomic Data, the company that hosts Heavy Table and keeps our magazine online. Atomic Data has a serious barbecue culture — its monthly get-togethers with friends, neighbors and clients are catered by the company’s in-house experts, who turn out barbecue that (as you’ll see) can hold its head high with anything else being served in the state.
We often like to spice up our blind taste-offs with a homemade ringer or two (see also: pumpkin pie), so we invited Atomic Data to throw some of its ribs and wings into the fracas.
ON METHODOLOGY: We tasted eight different wings and eight different ribs in a bracket format. All were tasted blind, and the initial bracket match-ups were randomly determined. Whenever possible, we got wings that were properly smoked, but at least one of the entries was from a well-regarded wing joint but not strictly barbecued.
ON JUDGES: Our judges included two Heavy Table contributors (John Garland and Becca Dilley), two barbecue-proficient, passionate amateurs (Douglas Niemela and Chris Bjork), and two folks from the Atomic Data team (Mark Abbott and Carleton Hitchcock.) Neither of the Atomic Data folks cooked the company’s entries — Dwayne Sapp (bottom photo, on right) did the ribs, and Chris Becker (above) made the wings.
ON RESTAURANT SELECTION: Our brackets (necessarily) contain an incomplete collection of barbecue and / or wing joints from throughout the Twin Cities metro area. We went to our readers (on Twitter), our friends, Heavy Table contributors, and the Atomic Data team to pick out a range of places that would reflect many different approaches to wings and ribs and highlight some of the best-known contenders.
Are there enough places that we missed to populate another bracket competition? Absolutely.
ON HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: As you’re about to discover, the Atomic Data barbecue fared well (with all of our judges). Two points: First, the Atomic folks had the advantages of cooking on site and not having to worry about any of the factors (economic scalability, massive quantity demand, a changing roster of chefs, etc.) that make running a restaurant the hellishly challenging affair that it is. Second, they put out some damn fine BBQ.
ON LOGISTICS, SAUCE, AND WARMERS: All of our ribs and wings were kept warm in Sterno-heated aluminum pans. Anything that arrived pre-sauced, we tasted sauced; we didn’t apply sauce to anything else, preferring to let the smoke, cooking technique, and meat speak for themselves. The high performance of the unsauced Q Fanatic entries suggests that being tasted unsauced probably helped as much as it hurt. All of our food arrived between 6 and 6:30 p.m., and we got through initial tastings for both brackets within an hour of our 6:30 start.
THE WINGS BRACKET
Hickory Hut vs. Monte Carlo
Judges praised wings from Hickory Hut (above) for having “complete flavor throughout,” and a “nice dry rub with mesquite.” This “well-cooked, full wing” could have “been a little more tender,” and one judge thought the spice was “a little aggressive.”
One taster thought the meat of Monte Carlo’s famous wings was “just right,” with a “nice heat”; another praised the salt level and “deep pepper aroma.” But the naysayers carried the day, saying that the wings’ flavor faded, was “bland,” that the skin “lacked texture,” and, overall, there was “smoke flavor and that’s all.”
WINNER: Hickory Hut
Ted Cook’s vs. Atomic Data
Ted Cook’s offering (not wings per se, but a half chicken, barbecued, above) got complimented for a “nice sweet / heat combo,” but thoroughly slammed for being “dry — sooooo dry,” with “no integration of flavor.” Most damningly: “This is how I learned to BBQ in the frat — throw it on the grill, then slather sauce on it. Not good.”
Atomic Data’s wings (above) were knocked by most judges for being undercooked (“a tad undercooked,” wrote one), but praised for “lots of herbs and heat,” “great flavor in the sauce,” “good lingering flavor,” and “overall great concept and balance.”
WINNER: Atomic Data
Runyon’s vs. Q Fanatic
The wings of Runyon’s (above) would be “great with my fourth or fifth” beer and were “fun …” but “very conventional Buffalo wings (Frank’s [Red Hot]?)” evoking “soggy Frank’s and butter,” and “wings at a St. Cloud bar.” The general zeitgeist can be summed up like this: “there’s a special place in my heart for this kind of crappy wing.”
Q Fanatic’s “undersalted” wings (above) otherwise won raves for their “great sweet smokiness,” a “beautiful smoke component,” “gorgeous mahogany color,” and a “moist, nice, lingering pepper heat.”
WINNER: Q Fanatic
Northbound Smokehouse vs. C&G Smoking Barbecue
The smoked wings from Northbound Smokehouse (above) divided our tasters, some of whom “didn’t like the sauce” for its “horrible flavor” (“I’m offended,” one wrote). Others found the wings “flavorful throughout” with “good texture,” “depth of BBQ flavor,” and a beer-inflected, “insanely juicy” taste.
The wings of C&G Smoking Barbecue were praised for the fact that their meat “separated beautifully from the bone,” but knocked for a flavor that was “basic pepper and salt,” and a texture that “kind of felt like it had been under a lamp,” which “might have been better fresh.”
SEMI-FINALS: Atomic Data trumped Hickory Hut; Q Fanatic beat out Northbound Smokehouse.
FINALS: Atomic Data vs. Q Fanatic with Atomic Data coming out on top.
THE RIBS BRACKET
Big Daddy’s vs. Q Fanatic
Big Daddy’s ribs (above) had a “nice smoke-ring …” but “… barely any flavor,” wrote one judge. They were “falling off the bone overdone,” and “hammy,” and prompted one judge to ask “does no one brine their ribs?”
Q Fanatic ribs (above) took a bit of heat for being “dry” and “too clingy to the bone,” but won praise for their “good cap” and “better texture,” a “good meat + spice harmony,” “great smoke,” and the “perfect texture for ribs.”
WINNER: Q Fanatic
Butcher and the Boar vs. Ted Cook’s
Butcher and the Boar sesame-seeded ribs (above) “look ugly but taste great,” wrote one judge, but another said, “not digging the sesame,” while a third suggested, “do not bring these to a rib contest” due to their “sloppy meat with irregular texture” and a “cap that was like jerky in spots.”
The “perfectly tender” ribs of Ted Cook’s (above) were praised for “good texture and OK flavor,” although another judge disagreed, calling them “flavorless.” Overall, even if the sauce was “a little sweet,” judges found them “well-executed.”
WINNER: Ted Cook’s
C&G Smoking Barbecue vs. Baker’s Ribs
C&G Smoking ribs (above) had “little spice,” wrote one judge, but “true pork flavor” that meant they were “good without sauce.” As for texture: “just a little tough, but that keeps it on the bone,” wrote one judge, approvingly.
Baker’s Ribs (above) were praised by some as “great ribs” with “great bark” and “just enough tang to the sauce,” although others called them “dry and not great” with “no flavor — like cardboard.”
WINNER: C&G Smoking
Market BBQ vs. Atomic Data
Market BBQ’s ribs (above) were roundly slaughtered as “tough” and “flavorless,” “chewy and awful,” “tough, dry, and lifeless,” and “too pork choppy.”
“This one,” wrote a judge about Atomic Data’s ribs, which were praised for “great, sweet rib flavor” and a “nice cap,” plus “pure smoke flavor.” “This is real,” wrote one judge — “the only one I want to know the recipe for.” “WOW,” wrote another, “finally real BBQ.”
WINNER: Atomic Data
SEMI-FINALS: Atomic Data beat C&G Smoking Barbecue; Ted Cook’s triumphed over Q Fanatic.
FINALS: Ted Cook’s vs. Atomic Data with Atomic Data decisively taking the prize.