North Yacht Club

Caribbean comfort food and fried chicken shine at AJ’s Smoke House in North Minneapolis

AJ's Smoke House
1427 Lowry Ave. N., Minneapolis
612.588.9661

Why are there Hummers stacked up outside of a barely noticeable blip of a barbecue shack on the north side?

Maybe it's because rich people just have a nose for Alex John's cooking. AJ (Alex John's nickname), the spot's chef and owner, says that at his last restaurant--on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean--yachts would dock right in front of his door, letting loose passengers intent on his conch and dolphin. And those weren't just any rich people, says AJ; his diners included the ranks of Bill Gates and Sylvester Stallone--who had the dolphin. (By the way, that's not dolphin like Flipper, the mammal, but a Caribbean fish that goes by the same name.) Or maybe the draw at AJ's is not a force of wealth magnetism, maybe it's because certain AJ-devoted Timberwolves grew up in cities with more diverse restaurant cultures, and they understand the slow and subtle nature of true Caribbean home cooking, the simple pleasures of a dusky curried chicken served with rice and steamed carrots and cabbage, or stewed oxtails, the poor man's roast beef, tender as memories of mango-strewn vacations gone by.

He's on fire: AJ's exacting process pays off in remarkable ribs
Bill Kelley
He's on fire: AJ's exacting process pays off in remarkable ribs

Or maybe the attraction to AJ's is way simpler than that, and it's all about the beef ribs. That's what AJ suspects, as he's been noticing that some 20 percent of his customers get the beef ribs--and, as any barbecue hunter can tell you, that's an odd figure. See, beef ribs are often enough served (mostly, it seems to me, to placate people avoiding pork), but almost never served well. They tend to be dry, tough, cakey--as Tofurkey is to turkey, so are beef ribs to pork ribs. But not here. Here, AJ's beef ribs are the result of his tinkering for four months with a recipe, rejiggering the spice blend, the wood blend for the ribs' smoking, and even the meat. "I don't like one that's spent too many hours walking," explains AJ. "The meat company will try to push junk off on you if you don't know what you're doing." AJ clearly knows what he's doing: His various barbecuing techniques have resulted in three different kinds of smokers on the premises, and different blends of wood for beef, pork, and chicken. The beef ribs that come out of this exacting process are indeed remarkable. They're more like the best braised short ribs you've ever had, but smokier and more focused, the spare meat as dewy as custard, and as concentrated as chocolate. I hasten to add that there's not a lot of meat on these ribs ($8.99), because I don't want to send a lot of steak lovers scrambling out that way looking for new thrills. There's just a little bit of meat, like pork spare ribs, say. You're not in it for the quantity, but for the flavor--and what flavor it is.

The main problem with the beef ribs is that you feel a little decadent getting both those and the fried chicken--and you have to get the fried chicken. (Fried chicken is available in about a jillion different combinations and prices, from $1 for a single wing to $23 for a 24-piece chicken combo with fries.) It's tender, crisp, fantastically light. AJ's chicken goes right into the hall of fame with local treasures like Lucille's Kitchen and Arnellia's. That's some chicken. AJ says he and a French chef labored over the recipe for six months in a fancy resort's hotel kitchen--and it tastes that way, too. This light and golden treatment of the humble bird has a certain gilded French quality to it. No kidding! The wings are fragile and crisp, like molted crab shells on a windy beach, but, you know, tasty. To take a break from raving, I say skip the pork ribs. No matter how much I admire AJ, I have to report that I think his pork ribs aren't there yet. When I had them they were just simple and sweet.

The jerk chicken, though--that's another story. The perfectionism involved in AJ's jerk chicken is truly amazing to consider: First, he marinates the stuff for 24 hours in a special blend of fresh chiles and herbs, including an unusual thyme with thick, fuzzy, succulent leaves. Then he "vacuum tumbles" it to dry it off, then it's low-temperature smoked for longer than you would believe, and, finally, grilled to serve. The resulting bird is thick and pungent, herbal and spicy. If you thought jerk chicken was just about fire and heat, place a to-go order at AJ's posthaste. It is about so much more than that.

I recommend to-go orders, because the understaffed little place functions best as a takeout joint (but please note that it closes pretty early--at 8:00 p.m.); though there are tables and the service is very sweet-hearted, it still feels mostly like a waiting room. Yet it's only common sense that a good barbecue-and-takeout near your house is worth 20 destination restaurants in Stillwater, so be grateful. Especially all you Northeasters and Victory Parkway dwellers who have been pestering me to find something in your neighborhood. AJ's is on Lowry, about halfway between the Lowry Avenue Bridge and North Memorial Medical Center. I think it will function particularly well as takeout if one of you makes a pitcher of daiquiris while the other runs out for jerk chicken, and a third sprinkles the rec room with sand. If you did that, I think, you would be having quite a Caribbean party--without need of a yacht, or a Hummer, or even the exhausting visage of Sylvester Stallone.

Perhaps you could even put together a low-fat Caribbean party, if you called ahead. The last time I was at the restaurant AJ showed me a special batch of jerk chicken he was making for a customer who was on a diet and had called in with a request: This chicken was skin-free and soaking in AJ's homemade jerk marinade, a sauce bright with flecks of fresh red chile. Another call-ahead item is the red snapper ($12), served in a golden curry sauce loaded with julienne carrots, onions, and red bell peppers. And if that's not enough low-fat options for you, AJ says he's going to start selling smoked Caribbean-spiced turkeys. What's with all the low-fat cooking in a first-rate chicken-wing joint? Let's just say that wherever you see a yacht or a Hummer, the air will be perfumed by both a familiarity with Caribbean life and the haunting naggings of a personal trainer.

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