Sauce and the City

Scott Ja-Mama's
3 West Diamond Lake Rd., Mpls.; (612) 823-4450
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 1 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday, sort of; call if you're really hungry and see what happens.

Like a leathery, tough old bay leaf in the roiling chunky-ham-and-bean soup that is Minneapolis, the Waikiki Room's sauce recipe keeps surfacing. It may be gone for years at a stretch, but then it pops back up, does a slide around the top of the soup, shows its big, savory belly to the world, flaunts its never-die build. Maybe it cracks into a chunk of ham, gives it a good bruising, and then dives back under--once again invisible, but flavoring, flavoring, as the years go by.

Yeah, the metaphor has gotten away from me, but imagine. The Waikiki Room was the tiki-torch-lit, umbrella-drink-serving, Polynesian-themed restaurant in the old Hotel Nicollet downtown. The Polynesian barbecue sauce was the menu's connecting thread--everybody who tasted it wanted it.

Scott Woolsey's mother Dorie sweetly asked the chef for the sauce recipe. But the chef would not talk! That sauce was a Waikiki Room treasure, and in the Waikiki Room it would stay.

So Dorie Woolsey played Sherlock Holmes in her South Minneapolis kitchen, testing, stirring, simmering, bubble, bubble, toil and trouble! She got her recipe. (Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.) There was much rejoicing in the Woolsey household. Then, in the 1970s, tragedy. The Waikiki Room closed. The original sauce recipe was lost--lost!--to the citizenry.

The Woolseys laughed. The sauce was already a fixture of their summer family festivities. It perked up chicken. It jazzed up pork chops. It cloaked ribs like a queen's precious velvets. It kept the Woolseys close, and Scott's softball buddies closer. Shouts of "Scott, ya got ya mama's barbecue sauce?" filled the South Minneapolis sandlots.

Young Woolsey spent many kitchen hours helping his mom fill the enormous demand for the precious elixir. Then he turned into a teenager. His head filled with rebellious ideas. Stuff started going into the sauce--hot stuff. Cayenne. Horseradish. Scott grew up. He did a little bit of everything: bouncer, bartender, bricklayer, short-order cook, truck driver, Teamsters union rep. But he stayed around the old neighborhood ("I've lived my whole life under the airport," he says), and he hung on to the Waikiki Room sauce.

He started making and bottling it for friends in the late 1980s: "We didn't lock our doors, my old roommate and me, and I'd come home and there would be ten bucks sitting there, four or five jars [of sauce] missing, and empty jars just sitting there, waiting for me." The success got him thinking, he says: "If we do a decent job and don't screw anybody with our prices, we can make a living at this!" So he threw open the doors, or rather, door, to a little closet of a restaurant in 1991. And the Waikiki sauce has been drawing fans ever since.

It's a sweet sauce, bright and tangy--you can definitely taste its tiki-torch roots. But it's also a sauce uniquely suited to bringing out the depths of chicken and pork, which are just about all that's on Scott Ja-Mama's menu. The sugar in the sauce enhances the meat's natural sweetness while creating a contrast with the earthy smoke.

It's a sauce that wouldn't work for all the permutations of barbecue. Low-temperature smoking techniques like they use in the South sweeten the meat so much, the best sauce is a vinegar one. But Scott Ja-Mama's is barbecue in the Midwestern-backyard tradition: Fresh meat, never frozen, slathered with a spice mix and grilled at a high temperature on open flames. This makes for meaty ribs with the taste and texture of pork chops--pale, moist, with crisp corners and intact bits of fat. (Rib meals, each of which comes with coleslaw, a twice-baked potato, and a roll, run $4.65 for a quarter rack, $8.50 for a half rack, $12 for a half rack with a quarter chicken, and $14.50 for a full rack.)

Woolsey also serves a pulled-pork sandwich ($4.50 with coleslaw and chips), a mammoth pile of shredded pork that smothers a soft bun with its juice. His direct-cooking method makes the pork tough--at least when compared with the Southern-style, butter-soft barbecue of a place like St. Paul's Lee's & Dee's--but under the plucky sauce, the whole thing becomes quite addictive. Bringing home takeout, I found myself pinching bits of meat out of my sandwich, like puffs out of cotton candy. Barbecued chicken is a tender delectation, too--snowy-white meat, a sweet, sticky shell, like a sunny Memorial Day on a plate. (Chicken costs $4.50 for a quarter bird, $6.25 for a half; both come with coleslaw, a twice-baked potato, and a roll.)

The twice-baked potatoes (75 cents) are also habit-forming. Half russets are baked, hollowed out, mashed with butter and bacon, piled back into their shells, covered with cheese, and baked until they're a big Thanksgiving-on-the-farm-style mess of cheesy goodness. Beware: they reheat beautifully, and the temptation to order a dozen to stock in the freezer is fierce.

To go with the sweet meats, Woolsey also makes his own coleslaw, a fresh, salt-and-pepper toss of green cabbage with a bit of red cabbage and carrots thrown in for color. And be sure to pick up a side of the crazy baked beans (60 cents) he brews: They're a thick, sweet, mud-dark stew with a translucent, gelatinous texture, strung through with caramelized onions, and packing a powerful cayenne kick.

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