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

The pork ribs—$10 for a half rack or $17 for a full one—are great, too. And so is the chicken ($11 per whole chicken, $7 for a half), so smoky that a bite of bird leaves your mouth echoing with tang and fire for 10 or 20 minutes at a time. The chicken is so intensely flavored that you could justify cutting it into centimeter squares and serving it like caviar.

The only thing not to love about Big Daddy's is the tenuousness of the situation. Sampson told me they will almost definitely be in this parking lot through November, and will be somewhere on University forevermore after that, probably. You can call him for updates, or to cater your Christmas party. What, you never wanted ribs for Christmas? You will.

Once you've had the richest barbecue of the modern era, you will certainly want to chase it down with cupcakes bejeweled with real buttercream frosting, right? To find them, you must drive to Uptown, park in the lot on Hennepin just north of 28th Street and the Kinh-Do restaurant (the one with the futon store and the candle company), and find Letterbox, a wonderful stationer and gift shop that sells Miel y Leche cupcakes every Saturday.

Paradise in a parking lot: A rare sighting of Big Daddy‘s BBQ
Darin Back for City Pages
Paradise in a parking lot: A rare sighting of Big Daddy‘s BBQ

Miel y Leche is the brainchild of St. Paul native and Hamline MBA candidate Sheela Namakkal, a punk-rock princess who took her strong belief that she would start screaming and never stop if she had to go to Cafe Latté one more time for dessert, and came up with the idea for a bar that serves bars—you know, the whiskey kind plus the seven-layer kind. She spent some time in cooking school and started talking up the idea with her friends, and the next thing you know, the folks who own Letterbox asked her to start bringing in cupcakes to sell at their store. Then, she says, "It started spiraling into insanity. People started calling me up to bring cupcakes to their birthday parties—you know, five dozen to Grumpy's on a Saturday night, six dozen for a wedding—and now sometimes I bake cupcakes for 11 hours straight." Her pain, our gain: Miel y Leche's cupcakes are nothing short of jaw-droppingly good.

They're so good partly because Namakkal brings a chef's sophistication about flavor and ingredients to the process. For instance, for her Mexican hot chocolate cupcakes Namakkal incorporates cornmeal into the batter to mimic the coarse texture of real Mexican hot chocolate. Then she seasons the batter with enough cinnamon and cayenne to lend the little darlings a lingering finish and a lot of zing. She makes her own fresh lemon curd for her limoncello cupcakes and haunts the St. Paul Farmers' Market looking for in-season local fruit to use either as a filling or a topping—or both, in the case of her chocolate cupcakes with raspberry-rhubarb jam and fresh raspberries.

Just as important as her chef's palate, Namakkal brings a sense of whimsy and a wedding-cake decorator's insane ambition: Her peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcakes start with a plain vanilla cupcake, layer in homemade Concord grape jelly and a peanut-butter mousse, and are topped with two fresh little Concord grapes. Each cake is nothing less than a teensy edible sculpture on the theme of peanut butter and jelly. Her s'mores cupcakes are made by baking graham-cracker-flavored cupcakes in a graham-cracker crust, filling them with chocolate ganache and marshmallow fluff, and topping them with a dollhouse-perfect mini-s'more, itself topped with a bit of marshmallow that has been sliced thinly, cut into a decorative flower, and toasted with a culinary torch—for $3.

All the Miel y Leche cupcakes are $3. I could not count, I could not even estimate, the number of super-expensive restaurants where I have shelled out two or three times that much for a dessert that required one-tenth as much creativity or work. For her signature Letterbox chocolate-orange cupcakes, Namakkal tops each with candied orange peel and tiny little marzipan envelopes that she fashions by hand. Her vegan carrot-cake cupcakes are each decorated with tiny handmade marzipan carrots with carefully feathered green tops cut from fondant.

If you own a restaurant and despair of ever figuring out the whole dessert part of the meal, pilot yourself to MySpace and make a friend. While you're there, enjoy the postings of fellow cupcake lovers who declare things like: "I want to marry your cupcakes." Who doesn't? But before you book the chapel, check your calendar—these nuptials can only take place for a few scant hours on a Saturday. 

BIG DADDY'S: THE GIANTS OF OUTDOOR COOKING

The parking lot on the northeast corner of University and Dale
(609 University Avenue West, St. Paul);
Saturdays, about 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., or until the food runs out
651.276.3101

MIEL Y LECHE CUPCAKES AT LETTERBOX

2741 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis;
Saturdays, noon to 6:00 p.m., or until the food runs out
651.246.2524
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