929 Frontage Road W., Rochester; (507) 288-3936
1940 Broadway S., Rochester; (507) 281-1727
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
4180 18th Ave. NW, Rochester; (507) 281-4622
603 Fourth St. SE, Rochester; (507) 285-0501
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
It's no good to start a story with two beginnings, but I've got to do it anyway. The first thing you need to know is that I've been receiving shit on the subject of John Hardy's for the better part of two years. John Hardy's Bar-B-Q is a pair of barbecue joints in Rochester, Minnesota, and a lot of aficionados consider it beyond outrageous that I've neglected the place thus far.
An old e-mail from a reader named Kip, rebutting a review I wrote on a Minneapolis barbecue spot, nicely illustrates the point: "John Hardy's barbecue makes [the Minneapolis restaurant's] seem like dog food--that goes for the entire menu of both places," wrote Kip. "The baked beans at Hardy's make the beans [elsewhere] seem unfit to feed to animals," and, additionally, "better try the sauces before you order cuz the medium has been known to drop Yankees to their knees," etc., etc.
Why did I never make it down to John Hardy's? I don't know. Busy, I guess. Suspicious, too. I've gotten enough bum tips over the years that I don't jump in the car with every e-mail or letter. A lot of time people tell me about the "best" this or "best" that, but most of the time they mean the one nearest to their home, the one they grew up with, or the one their brother owns. So I got a lot of shit about John Hardy's, enough to make me feel guilty and derelict in my duties, but not enough to actually get me in the car.
The other beginning to this story is that if I am startled from sleep, I am certifiably insane for a few moments: I will give nonsensical answers to direct questions, I will agree to impossible things. I was on my way to southeast Minnesota for a camping trip, fast asleep in the passenger seat, head supported by nothing but a seat belt and dreams of s'mores. The car was speeding down Highway 52 when a billboard appeared advertising Roscoe's Barbeque. My companion in the driver's seat asked: "Hey, isn't that the place?" At which point I raised my head and said, "Absolutely, let's go there right now," heedless of the fact that first, we were due at dinner in two hours, and second, I've never heard of Roscoe's in my life. So we went to Roscoe's, and ordered a ton of food.
We got enormous mugs of homemade root beer ($1 for 16 ounces, $1.50 for 32 ounces), a plate of five ribs ($7.99) with jojo potatoes, coleslaw, garlic toast, and beans; half a chicken ($6.99) with French fries; and a couple of barbecue sandwiches ($5.49) stuffed with sliced beef and shredded pork shoulder. The food came heaped on colorful plates, and I marveled at it: If you can imagine candied pork ribs, Roscoe's serves them. They're bright pink and dense and have a texture almost like a flourless chocolate cake--nothing but sweet and rich. The shredded pork was, if possible, even sweeter; chunks of meat in a stew of sauce, and, with the slightly vinegared barbecue sauce, the pork reminded me of papaya chutney. The beef was forgettable, the chicken perfectly good, potato salad was a classic American composition of mayonnaise, mustard, and small potato cubes. But the beans and the root beer kicked ass: The beans, made with thin-sliced pickled peppers, were strong with vinegar and absolutely delicious, and the root beer had all kinds of notes of pie spice and old-fashioned candy fragrance.
Mostly, though, while I was at Roscoe's I was marveling at the many, many barbecue trophies that fill the room. Particularly impressive was one from 1993's Great American Rib Cook Off, a four-level, yard-high thing with a silvery cow and pig at the ground level, heraldic eagles on the next level, and, at the top, a cup bearing winged Victory, in all her curvy glory. What levels of cultural information do you need in order to know that the trophy means that you eat the pig and the cow--and not the heraldic eagles? And not winged Victory? Right about then was when I actually woke up, and realized I wasn't in John Hardy's at all.
A few days later, I made it to John Hardy's for real (the Broadway location). I managed to drive past twice without noticing, and this despite an enormous orange and yellow sign out front. The place is basically a shack at the back of a broken-looking parking lot, and none of your restaurant instincts will tell you it's a restaurant--your eyes read Bar-B-Q, but your head tells you muffler shop. Inside, the room is all fake wood paneling, low, sprayed ceilings, windows with the blinds half closed, cheap metal chairs, sticky booths, and vinyl tablecloths. It just screams joint--specifically manly, utilitarian joint; it seems like the perfect place to go between digging out an old stump and buying a used car.
Fittingly, the menu is all about the meat, available in dozens of combinations with or without potato and vegetable side dishes. Pork ribs can cost anywhere from $5.39 for a small plate with two sides to $24.99 for a full rack with four potato sides and four vegetable sides. Spice-rubbed chicken is priced similarly, from $6.50 to $21.19, and boneless meats like smoked turkey, sliced beef, double-smoked ham, and shredded pork, are available starting at $3.50 for a sandwich and ranging up to $9.25 for a large combo with two sides. Lucky for me, there is one gargantuan plate with nearly everything on it; the sampler, for $33.95, showcasing all six meats, along with a dozen side-dish portions, half potato, half vegetable.
I ordered it, and the miracles poured forth: A pile of double-smoked ham as dewy and tender as custard, with a deep, smoky taste I've never encountered before. It had none of the chemical taste that dominates so many hams today. Turkey breast, evocatively smoked, was also amazingly tender and tasted of turkey. Plied with the vinegar-touched bottles of sauce that sit on the tables, it came alive in a way that I've never known barbecued turkey to do before: creamy, smoky, mellow, tart. Remarkable. The shredded pork shoulder was understated, the crumbled meat radiating the taste of smoke. Dash some of the house barbecue sauce upon it and you've got the best pulled pork in Minnesota; hot, smoky, meaty, as big and various as the moments in a thunderstorm. The beef was unlike any I'd ever had before. Thin-cut, pale, bearing no visible fat, it reminded me most of an Italian deli roast beef.
And then, of course, there were the ribs. There were three on the sampler, big, six-inch-long bones bearing tons of meat, smoked at a low temperature so there was still fat in there, the meat having that gorgeous, gelatinous texture of duck confit or osso buco. Dress that pork with sauce, and the richness is cut perfectly. Indeed, these are the best pork ribs I've had in Minnesota.
And that sauce! All of John Hardy's sauces are doctored versions of Open Pit. I bought a jar of the medium, for $3.75 a pint, and from the label it looks like the additions were mayonnaise, Tabasco sauce, pickle juice, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice. But the unforgettable results belie the humble origins. The sauces, which run through six gradations, from mild to "bad-boy hot," seem to take on different character when paired with each meat. They make the pulled pork seem smokier, the moist ribs sweeter. There is genius in these sauces. (Doctoring Open Pit is a proud American tradition. When I used to work in an upscale, American-bistro restaurant, we used to doctor Open Pit with whole, smashed and roasted tangerines, cloves, and espresso.)
At John Hardy's the side dishes do everything they can to glorify the barbecue experience. Jo-jos here are irregular discs of deep-fried skin-on potatoes. But the various thicknesses of the discs result in some being crisp as potato chips, while others have the sweet fruitiness of home fries. Fried okra were crisp nuggets in a cornmeal crust; black-eyed peas were smoky and loaded with black pepper; baked beans were a must-have: Sweet and kissed by molasses, swimming with visible shreds of pork, they're nothing but great. Some of the other sides were indifferent. Stewed okra with tomatoes was very plain, macaroni salad tasted like nothing but pasta elbows and mayonnaise, the coleslaw was average, and the garlic bread that accompanies nearly every meal tasted like margarine.
But sometimes with barbecue I'm particularly glad for those strange, unsophisticated notes, the awful garlic bread, the 1973 basement-workshop interior design, the bottomless glass of pink Country Time lemonade--which John Hardy's sells for 99 cents. Why? For the same reason I'm glad I blundered into Roscoe's Barbeque first: Because it clarifies the point that no matter how much sugar, gloss, or popular appeal you infuse barbecue with, it will remain essentially agrarian and rural. It will stay essentially what you can do when you've got very little, when you've got nothing but a lot of time on your hands, and some beans and some sticks and some animals. Real barbecue is when things are hardscrabble and bony and fatty and somehow someone makes them great. And so, as sometimes happens in a shaggy tale with two heads, a story that started out as the receiving of shit and guff, and devolved into confusion and disorientation, ended up in insight and delight in a nothing-looking shack at the side of a four-lane highway.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.