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

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SMALLEY'S CARIBBEAN BARBEQUE AND PIRATE BAR
423 Main St., Stillwater
651.439.5375
appetizers $6-$10; entrées $9-$18

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.

Entrees are served with complementary sides, which, like the appetizers, were hit or miss. A scatter of shredded coconut added interest to peas and rice, and the beer-battered fries had a flavor as addictive as the ones at McDonald's back when they were fried in beef tallow. The Smalley's kitchen elevates its coleslaw with a kick of horseradish, and its macaroni and cheese with bits of bacon and jalapeño—the sorts of touches you'd expect accomplished chefs to add. At the same time, the beans and potato salad came out as drab as those from supermarket delis.

Ironically, the biggest disappointment about Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque was the Caribbean barbecue, as most meats had either flavor or moisture, but not both. The plump sugar-cane shrimp hadn't picked up any smokiness, tasting only of heat and char—even chewing a skewer didn't add any sweetness. The meats in the pork sampler—a super-salty sausage link, a hunk of pork shoulder, and a few spare ribs—gained flavor in exchange for moisture. The shoulder was drier than a pork chop cooked by a Midwestern mother-in-law, and the ribs, too, could have been more succulent. Smalley's ribs are quite different from the Southern-style ones common to these parts, sauced up sweet and tangy. These aren't fall-off-the-bone ribs, but rather, those inspired by the expression about sticking to them. The marinade is so black the ribs look charred, and their texture is almost jerky-like, so gnawing at 'em caveman style is a diner's best approach. I did like the flavor—piney, peppery, smoky, and caramelized. It was like a Caribbean version of curry or mole, with a smoky allspice flavor infused in the meat like wood barrels do for booze. Of all the barbecued meats I tried, the best was the brisket, which had picked up all those flavors yet managed to retain a tender texture.

As a song from The Little Mermaid played on the stereo, my friend summed up our party's mood: "I did not feel transported to the tropics," he said. "I felt transported to Famous Dave's." I had to agree. Was I holding Smalley and McKee to a higher standard because of their prior accomplishments? And, if so, was that fair?

Just because a guy's a star chef doesn't mean he should never be able to let his guard down, relax, and have some fun—or cash in on, say, a pirate trend. Still, I think my wish that Smalley's might have a bigger impact was justified, especially when benchmarked against a few of its possible local influences. Compared to, say, Marla's and Harry Singh's, Caribbean restaurants run by Caribbean natives, Smalley's didn't have nearly the range of authentic dishes. Compared to Brasa, another casual ethnic-food eatery run by a fine-dining chef, Smalley's didn't source naturally raised meats. Compared to La Belle Vie and Solera, McKee's other restaurants, Smalley's didn't deliver an experience that was nearly as delightful, or as boundary-pushing.

Then again, not only were these guys adopting a new cuisine, they were introducing it to an audience that knows jerk not as a food but as a Steve Martin movie. Smalley and McKee have their work cut out for them: It's tough to sell authenticity in a tourist town to crowds who would rather skip the spice at dinner and save it for the B&B. 

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