My Three Fathers

Just as odd, the menu's low points did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this ambitious family affair. Somehow, when you're sitting in that bewitchingly comfortable dining room, basking in the staff's friendly attentions, chewing on a rib and sipping a julep, Big Daddy's seems like the best thing to have happened to downtown St. Paul since preservationists saved the Landmark Center. Big Daddy's is also, as far as I know, St. Paul's only black-owned white-tablecloth restaurant, and on a couple of my visits it made the city look like some kind of racial utopia, with families of many colors knit together in appreciation of old-fashioned smokehouse skills.

There were also times when the year-old operation seemed newer than it is. Periods of fluid service would be interrupted by strange half-hours when everything seemed to come to a standstill--no food delivered, no iced tea refilled, no checks processed. Maybe serving the sweet, dense corn bread or the light, flaky biscuits before the meal, or offering a selection of appetizers beyond the bar-food standards, would help assuage the sense of utter inertia followed by frenzied activity. Or is that the Curse of the Ladies' Waiting Room? And if so, is the same spell behind the apparent anti-dessert bias among the waitstaff?

The first time I went to Big Daddy's, my table planned to have dessert, but the check was delivered without the waitress giving us a chance to order that course. The next time the same thing happened, but I insisted that we could not live without dessert--and what a revelation it was. We were served a slice of the best white cake I've ever had in the Cities--a three-layer, eight-inch-high showpiece in the Southern tradition of the glossy Lady Baltimore. The cake itself was dense, richly flavored with lemon and bits of candied zest in the crumb, and it was coated with luxuriously creamy, bright white lemon buttercream. Wholesale wonder broke out at our table, followed by a rapid-fire fork attack--and this in the presence of a couple of pieces of fantastic pie. Foremost among the latter was a great chess pie (basically a pecan pie without the pecans), whose quivering, perfect filling resided on a crust that was toasty, flaky, and crisp as a new deck of playing cards. The pecan pie was equally fabulous, the roasty, eggy composition reflecting some high-temperature baking genius. Here's this week's insider tip: Big Daddy's sells whole pies for only $14 each--if you buy a couple to take to your family reunion, you'll knock grandma's socks off. (But don't push it. If you bring a lemon cake, which costs $24, no one will believe you made it. And skip the sweet potato pie, which didn't live up to my admittedly high expectations.)

"My love and passion had always been barbecue--and when I met him, it all made sense. I figured it had to be something in my genes."
Diana Watters
"My love and passion had always been barbecue--and when I met him, it all made sense. I figured it had to be something in my genes."

The desserts are all the work of Gene Sampson's talented brother, Greg VanLear. In fact, there's kin everywhere you turn in the restaurant: Sampson's daughter is a bartender, some of his nephews serve as waiters, a sister-in-law is a hostess, and other family members pitch in during big catering events. "It's a family affair," laughs Sampson. "Everybody used to be scattered around the country, but this place pulled the family back together."

Speaking of family: Careful readers will have noticed that there are a lot of different last names in the Big Daddy clan, and it turns out that Sampson essentially has three fathers: The stepfather who raised him, his biological father who now cooks with him, and his mother's current husband. For a restaurant so rich with story and myth, it seems only fitting that the word "Daddy" would have many layers of meaning; indeed, there's a fourth layer in the fact that Sampson got his nickname of "Big Daddy" when he was cooking on the street. "People would come up and beg for something to eat, and I'd always give them a little something. My friend one day said: 'Why, you're just everyone's big old daddy, aren't you? And it kind of stuck. The street people started calling me Big Daddy--'Big Daddy, can we get something to eat, Big Daddy, where you been all winter?' I guess it's here to stay now."

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