Smalley's Jamaican Barbeque: Jerked around

A trip is sometimes like finding buried treasure, and sometimes like walking the plank

I can't say I wasn't warned. When the waiter explained the sauces on the table at Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque, he held up the squeeze bottle labeled "Scotchie's" and advised, "This one's really hot. Be careful."

But he'd also cautioned us about the roasted jalapeño peppers, served with salt and lime. And they were hot, like he'd said. Enough to make my lips sting, sure, but it wasn't any more painful than what girls suffer to puff their kissers like Angelina Jolie's. So when I squirted myself a generous sample of the Scotchie's, I treated the waiter's warning like a Level Orange Threat, which is to say, I ignored it.

As the sauce hit my tongue, my first impression was of a tangy, citrus flavor, like tomatillo salsa. My second impression was that I'd just sloughed off a thick layer of skin from the inside of my mouth. I reached for my water glass, but it was too late. The burning sensation started to migrate down the back of my throat. There was no watering of the eyes, no tickle of the nose, no steam spraying from my ears, cartoon-style. Just a pain I'd imagine to be like swallowing a burning coal. Was this the sort of thing covered by workers' comp?

Not an actual pirate: Shawn Smalley, with cannon
Jana Freiband
Not an actual pirate: Shawn Smalley, with cannon

I had anticipated that Smalley's would make an impression: It's the brainchild of Shawn Smalley, who spent the previous seven years as a grill cook at La Belle Vie, and his former boss, La Belle Vie chef/co-owner Tim McKee, who's been lauded with more national accolades—multiple James Beard award nominations, a Food & Wine magazine "Best New Chef" award—than perhaps any other chef in town.

After joking about opening a barbecue place for years, Smalley and McKee got serious about the idea and booked a weeklong trip to Jamaica to collect recipes and learn cooking techniques from the locals. With the help of a little alcohol, they persuaded the cooks at their favorite eatery to train them in the nuances of jerk, Jamaica's famous spicy barbecue. In the process, they discovered that bringing home every spice on the island wouldn't be enough to replicate true jerk flavor—the secret was in the smoke from burning pimento wood, the tree that allspice comes from. Jamaican pimento wood was only recently allowed into the United States, and it just so happens that the sole importer is located in the Twin Cities. Smalley's is their first, and only, restaurant customer to date.

Smalley's barbecue process involves various stages of brining, marinating, and smoking meats, from one to 12 hours. While the traditional jerk seasoning palette is dominated by the flavors of allspice, thyme, and Scotch Bonnet peppers (a cousin of the habanero, it's one of the hottest peppers in the world), Smalley and McKee tamed the spice for their Midwestern clientele, encouraging diners to add their own heat with the house-made sauces on the tables. They wanted to introduce Minnesotans to authentic island barbecue, while comforting them with a few familiar foods from the American South, such as ribs, brisket, and picnic sides.

Smalley's space, at the south end of Stillwater's Main Street, feels mostly like a sports bar, though it has a few island touches—the scent of smoking meat, a mural advertising Red Stripe beer, another of a Jolly Roger that reads, "Time flies when you're having rum." Smalley's, in fact, has an extensive list of rums and features the local libation in its list of fruity cocktails (created by Johnny Michaels, the bartender behind the stellar drinks at Cafe Maude and La Belle Vie).

While I appreciated the depth of the drink list, gaps in the ability to educate customers and in quality control diluted its potential to impress. When asked for some guidance in choosing rum, our server seemed only knowledgeable about the brand her T-shirt advertised. Cocktails left the impression that something had been lost in translation, as most of the half-dozen drinks I sipped had better names than flavors. The Green Eyed Lady and the Old Cuban, two variations on the mojito, made with green tea and Cava, respectively, weren't improvements on the standard. The Sunsplash punch tasted nonalcoholic, like Tang. The Kingston was the best example of Michaels's craft: the tart, refreshing mix of allspice rum and grapefruit spritzer was perfect for patio sipping.

When it came to ordering food, some dishes were like discovering buried treasure, others like walking the plank. The kitchen aced the fried green tomatoes—they were perfectly browned, crisp without being oily, and served with a luscious aioli—while the fritters were salty and bland, made edible only by a dunk in their accompanying side of ginger-rum butter.

The dish worth the drive was the smoked chicken sandwich. As often as the bird is good, so rarely is it memorable. But this chicken came off the bone sweet and smoky, a perfect partner to cheese and scallions and pillowy bun—branded on top with a badass skull and crossbones. (P.S.: Where can I get one of those?) The pulled pork, too, paired smoke-kissed meat with cheddar cheese, crispy onions, and pickles, an homage to a post-shift sandwich enjoyed by the La Belle Vie staff.

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