The Atkins diet craze had some casualties.
Its large following in the early aughts, almost 10 percent of the American population, brought on a significant decline in the sale of carbs. Chef Charlie Johnson felt it. “People weren’t really interested in pizza and pasta anymore.”
Can you imagine? People weren’t interested in pizza.
Johnson has never lost interest. He’s the owner and operator of Q Fanatic, one of the top barbecue joints in the Twin Cities, yet every time I get to talking about brisket and smoke, we’re suddenly discussing mascarpone and gorgonzola.
“I made my own mascarpone for cheesecakes,” he reminisces. “It’s easier to buy it, but the cost differential if you make your own is enormous. I made all my own pasta; I had organic everything.”
He also once paid $150 just to get a recipe for fresh mozzarella. “I still have it. It’s a great book,” he says.
Italian cooking was “absolutely” his first love. It wasn’t until the Atkins craze that he turned to the meats. Atkins may taketh away, but it also giveth. After graduating with a prestigious Culinary Institute of America degree, and spending 20 years cooking in, running, and owning restaurants that made everything from burritos to Danish cuisine, Johnson finally landed in the realm of barbecue.
He opened what is now one of the most respected barbecue spots in the Twin Cities, way out in tiny Champlin, Minnesota. He also recently opened a second location in Minneapolis. And, he says, he learned the craft without conjuring a single puff of smoke: “I studied the history of barbecue on the internet.”
Sound implausible? Not so, says Johnson.
“People have written their college papers on the evolution of barbecue. You find out that the sauce first started in Scotland (if you don’t believe it, look it up on the internet); that Barbacoa, where the name ‘barbecue’ comes from, came from the Indians. You find out all about the regional varieties.”
These days he’s less inclined to turn to the web when he’s looking to boost his craft. Instead he goes on barbecue “junkets,” traveling the country to buy smokers, take classes from the masters, and of course eat lots and lots of meat. His five kids, though they all work for him in some capacity, have had quite enough of eating barbecue on their family vacations.
But all the traveling and research has paid off. He calls the barbecue he serves at Q Fanatic a “portfolio of the best that represents all the regions.” His fans seem to agree.
It wasn’t always that way. When he converted an old pizzeria into the first Q Fanatic, he started with liquid smoke. “We had to use liquid smoke until I could afford a smoker. Then I drove to Wisconsin in my Geo Metro and took the back seats out so I could drive a chip smoker back. We did that until we could get our barbecue up to somewhat respectable.”
Now they’re serving extremely respectable versions of Texas-style brisket, Memphis dry-rub ribs, Kansas City-style sauces, and back ribs “to pacify people who grew up on them.” (That’s us Midwesterners, ya’ll.)
When I ask why barbecue seems to ignite people’s passion the way that it does, Johnson says simply, “Everybody thinks they can do it themselves.”
Chances are they’re not doing it like Q Fanatic does. Johnson’s pulled pork starts with a 20-or-so-ingredient rub. Then it gets smoked in hickory until a smoke ring appears (the lipstick-red hue that builds on the outer carapace of smoked meat, an emblem of good barbecue). The bone pulls off and more rub gets mixed in, along with all of the fat from the meat.
Johnson likes to smoke with hickory because he says it’s a happy medium. Fruit woods can be too aromatic, and you of course taste what you smell. “Mesquite is just too much.”
Q Fanatic’s meats are subtle, maybe even a little too subtle for lovers of heavily smoked barbecue. But subtlety is the mark of this classically trained chef, who cooked with open fire plenty before turning to barbecue, though back then it was veal chops and game hens instead of slab bacon and briskets.
The Texas-style brisket, heavily smoke-ringed and sliced in front of you (never falling apart beneath the knife, another mark of proper technique), is delicious enough to stand on its own without sauce, which is a Texas barbecue imperative.
Johnson turns to Memphis for the ribs. The rub is inspired by that of barbecue institution Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, and by a rub Johnson used on his own spicy potatoes at another restaurant long ago.
This is the way Johnson cooks: by marrying his 30 years of accumulated kitchen wisdom with what he perceives to be the best of the best of what tradition has to offer. The slaw dressing is also borrowed from his vast culinary experience, and you can taste it. Bright and acidic, this slaw has a citrusy edge that makes it a twinkling gem compared to the sloppy, dull slaws at lesser barbecue spots.
No individual dish is without similar, thoroughly considered processes. The smoked wings, like every other meat including the smoked slab bacon and maple ham, gets its own rub. It yields a cinnamon- and cane sugar-tinged char on the wings and drives Q Fanatic fans wild.
“We get yelled at if we run out,” Johnson tells me.
How can you yell at a guy who left behind his true love simply to bring the people what they want?
And people do indeed want barbecue, which is on the rise in the Twin Cities, thanks in no small part to Johnson’s trailblazing departure from marinara to pulled maple ham. As far as he’s concerned, the more pitmasters the merrier. It pushes him to work harder and better, and he expects newcomers will be looking to him for inspiration — possibly even to replicate what he’s already figured out.
Trend or no, Johnson says he has no desire to grow his business quickly. In barbecue especially, corner-cutting shows (look to Famous Dave’s for an example of that phenomenon). “As soon as you get too big, you have to compromise.”
You won’t find anything in the way of compromise at Q Fanatic, from the impeccable cleanliness of the space to the exuberant friendliness and professionalism of the staff. Johnson’s last compromise was leaving behind the pasta dough. Now he’s into the meat for good, and his next move will involve a food truck.
“I don’t know,” he says. “My crystal ball is broken.”
One prediction we can make with certainty: Barbecue never, ever goes out of style.
Check out more food porn-y Q Fanatic photos here.
6009 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis