Only on Saturday

The Best Cupcakes and Barbecue in Minnesota Are Available Only a Few Hours a Week, But They're Worth Building Your Weekend Around

For some, Saturday is a day of strenuous outdoor play. For others, it is a holy day of rest. For still others, it is a day reserved for pulling the neighbor's Buick out of the fish pond after his weekly all-you-can-drink Friday fish fry at the VFW. But this story is not for any of those people. This story is for people who love cupcakes and ribs so much they won't mind spending their Saturday pursuing the best iterations of the genre currently, or possibly ever, available in this great state.

Actually, you don't even get the whole Saturday—you get a scant few hours beginning at 11:00 a.m., when the Big Daddy's crew starts selling ribs and chicken out of a parking lot on the northeast corner of University and Dale, and simultaneously, miles away, Sheela Namakkal sets out her astonishing cupcakes in the Uptown stationery store Letterbox, in preparation for the store's noontime opening. At noon, supplies of both treats are abundant, but then things go downhill. Letterbox frequently sells all of its cupcakes by 3:00, and Big Daddy's might run out of a particular menu item, like the chicken, that early, too. So why am I telling you? How can I expect you to cleave yourself in two and be simultaneously in Uptown and Frogtown? I don't know, kiddo, but I'm confident you'll figure it out, because it's beyond worth it.

Let's start with Big Daddy's—a name familiar to Twin Cities barbecue lovers. The tale of Big Daddy's is a little tangled, but once upon a time, three men—Gene Sampson, Bob Edmond, and Ron Whyte—were the closest of friends and took to barbecuing together. That led to barbecuing at festivals and catering, which eventually led to Sampson opening his own wonderful barbecue palace of a restaurant called Big Daddy's, in the grand old train depot in downtown St. Paul.

At the time, I thought Gene Sampson was Big Daddy, and so did everyone. When the restaurant closed, a whopping seven years ago, I thought that was the end of the Big Daddy barbecue phenomenon. But not so fast! Not only is Sampson back, but he says now that Big Daddy is really the joint creation of the three friends. They are all Big Daddy, and now that all three are working together again, Big Daddy is back, too—and unstoppable. So the three friends will be barbecuing together every Saturday for the foreseeable future in the parking lot on the corner of University and Dale.

So much for the genealogy—here's the important part: The barbecue that the new-old Big Daddy crew is selling is just phenomenal.

The menu is limited—pork rib tips, pork ribs, beef ribs, and chicken—but I am about to tear myself limb from limb deciding what to recommend most strongly. I guess it's got to be the beef ribs. For these, the Big Daddy crew cuts a three-rib section of short ribs continuous with a chunk of brisket, seasons it all with a dry rub, lets it sit for 24 hours, and then smokes and grills the meat till the bones are as dark as leather and the whole bundle glistens like a piece of mahogany.

When you order these beef ribs, someone takes them from the grill (or the picnic cooler where they're kept warm), slips the bones from the meat as easily as slipping pins from satin, carefully slides a cleaver through the meat so that it is rendered to you in slices, and—ay, caramba! The barbecued beef has alternating sections that are as soft as jelly and as chewy as a good steak. Parts dissolve on your tongue, parts engage you to chew, and every bit of it tastes as big, rich, profound, meaty, earthy, wild, and fat as your dreams of a vacation beside a Texas fire pit. If you've ever thought to yourself, "To hell with Minnesota barbecue—I'm getting on I-35 and driving to Austin and all y'all can jump, in your parkas and duck boots, into your 10,000 lakes"—step away from your steering wheel! These beef ribs might just rob Texas of Minnesota barbecue tourists forevermore.

They're also a bargain. A "half order" of beef ribs, which Sampson says starts with a pre-cooking weight of more than five pounds, easily feeds two or three for $16. You can also get a $28 whole rack of beef ribs, like the guy ahead of me on line who cackled, "I'm in good with my boss now. I keep bringing in these ribs, I'll probably get a raise!"

As great as the beef ribs are, the crowd favorite when I've been to Big Daddy's is invariably the pork rib tips, which are so over-the-top decadent they're the pork equivalent of a diamond-encrusted private jet. The rib tips run $7 for a very generous pound, and, like the beef ribs, when you order them, one of the Big Daddy's helpers slips a big, gelatinous, well-grilled hunk of pork from its warmer and floats a cleaver through it. Yes, the cleaver floats, it doesn't cut. In fact, I would argue that the English language needs a whole new vocabulary to describe exactly how a cleaver goes through these Big Daddy rib tips: It glides through, like the blade of an ice skate through clean slush. It swoons through, like a teenager at a dance. It balloons through, like something lighter than air, tethered to earth by a string. In any event, once the cleaver is done ballooning and swooning, the pork rib tips are placed in a box alongside a little container of tangy barbecue sauce. You'll find that each bite reveals tangy pork candy: sweet, rich, smoky, decadent, and lush.

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