Throngs of guys with hungry eyes are crowded into the corner waiting area at Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, “Famous Dave” Anderson’s new restaurant concept in Linden Hills. This is the fourth location of Old Southern. The first three are located in Anderson’s native Wisconsin.
The new chain is something of a second act for the man who is possibly the most recognizable, if not the most famous name in barbecue -- a fact that’s both a blessing and a curse.
On a recent Sunday at dinner hour the weeks-old restaurant is doing a brisk business, but staff is keeping up with the rush admirably. It’s a counter-service format. The fixtures are made of sleek brushed steel, and the room is filled with kitschy “Southern” accents and nerve-grating country-pop music emanating from the sound system. Beer and wine are served, but this is the sort of place where you’ll want to eat up and go, and not necessarily linger as you might at a full-service Famous Dave’s, some of which actually host live music.
But here, unlike most of the Famous Dave's chain restaurants, the food is actually a draw. At least, it has the potential to be.
In the mid-90s, beloved barbecue joint Famous Dave’s made the decision to go public, as many companies did during those economic boom years, and you probably already know what happened next. The company grew too fast, too soon, and the low-and-slow pedigree of true Q tradition was lost. A former McDonald’s executive was even hired on as CEO, and the sauces went the way of corn syrup sticky-ickiness, portions were slashed, and fans were pissed.
Whether or not Anderson has high hopes for the original brand (he could not be immediately reached for comment), his move to start fresh with a new concept seems to indicate that he’s ready to re-establish himself as a high priest of smoked meats.
But can he?
Our first tastes of the Old Southern meats and sides were mostly impressive. Meat comes “naked” allowing the eater to finish things (or not) with a selection of five distinctive sauces. The sauces, Southern Sun, Diablo’s Batch, Chicago Blue, Dixie Red, and Southern Gal’s, are made with no added corn syrup, itself a serious improvement over the Famous Dave’s brand.
We liked the chicken best, an unexpected twist since barbecue can easily render poultry dry. Not here. The meat was moist, with an even more succulent layer beneath the crisp, smoky skin. Pulled pork did suffer from some dryness and told the tale of sitting in the hotbox an overly long time, but the ribs had a bright pink smoke ring and might even change the mind of a non-rib lover. The smoke flavor was moderate, striking an admirable balance of emphatic restraint. In other words, it’s there, yet not overdone.
Portion sizes were a little off-kilter. A party platter designed to feed four came with only two pieces of chicken, a scant half pound of pulled pork, and nine ribs. Those hungry-eyed guys would probably have broken out into fisticuffs trying to strike a fair division of protein. An easy fix would be to raise the price point just a little ($39.99 for four full portions is pretty low anyway) and satisfy customers with heftier quantities in the $12-$14 per diner range.
Happily, sides are more generous, and it’s a good thing, because most were very good. The best was a dill potato salad in clean, creamy dressing instead of mayo or egg, all of the green herb making a refreshing foil to the meat. Coleslaw was bright, classic, and unfussy, and “Jimmie Beans” were an excellent take on standard barbecue beans with brown and black beans, bell peppers, and sausage floating in a medium-bodied, savory sauce with no hint of cloying sugar. Only the mac and cheese stood out as just average, and could have used a bit more cheesy oomph.
While the pulled pork cried out for saucy moisture, the other meats posed an interesting conundrum: The unadorned meat is so great on its own, you might be torn over whether to use any of the five delectable sauces. But if you do, you'll find them singular in flavor. The apple cider and mustard sauce tasted of little more than those two things, and “Diablo’s Batch” was peppery and legitimately hot. Even the sweeter selections tasted of brown sugar, molasses, and spice cabinet rather than one-note sugar.
Old Southern has also hopped on the “bowl” train, with an option to dress up a base of beans and rice or mashed potatoes with your choice of meats and sides. At first blush this looks a little contradictory to the spirit of barbecue. But on second thought, it renders things like ribs and other difficult-to-maneuver items more convenient for an on-the-go lunch.
Few culinary traditions get people as frenzied as barbecue, and it’s inevitable you’re going to hear at least one of these terms get bandied around in any given conversation: “authentic,” “Kansas City,” or “bark.” As I recently told an Old Southern skeptic: Drive to KC if you want to, but our Twin Cities finally has its own true blue burgeoning barbecue scene, and Old Southern Smokehouse is a contender within it.
Will it need time to prove itself? Yes. Surely more than any unknown taking a first crack at putting meat over smoke. The fame behind this particular name will be difficult to shake, and the idea that Old Southern is just a “Famous Dave’s spin-off” is an already pervasive one, even though there’s no Dave in the new name.
New restaurant jitters and the unevenness we experienced with portion size might not be so easily shaken off, and first-time disappointments might not be forgiven.
And that’s a fate that could be a shame for all involved, because there seems to be really good stuff here. Good stuff that could help secure Midwestern barbecue a place on the serious smoked meats map.
4501 France Ave. S., Minneapolis