My Three Fathers

"My love and passion had always been barbecue--and when I met him, it all made sense. I figured it had to be something in my genes."
Diana Watters

Big Daddy's Bar B Que
214 E. Fourth St. (Union Depot), St. Paul; (651) 848-0788
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; lunch buffet Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; Sunday buffet 11:30 a.m.-9:00 p.m.

You won't believe this, but it's a true story. And not only that, it's a true story that includes lemon cake, and you don't see that every day. It all started--well, probably it started during the Honeywell layoffs in the last recession. Or on the edges of the Midway parking lots. Or maybe it started way back, in the small town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where one Gene Sampson grew up learning the art of barbecue from his grandmother, an opinionated lady who was big on the fundamentals.

"You don't torture the meat," she'd tell him. "You don't poke it and prod it. You let the cooker do the work." She also taught that sauce should be to ribs as the flower garden is to a house--showy, special, but never the main event. She initiated young Gene into the lore of burgoo, the stew that's a mainstay of social gatherings in that part of the country.

Sampson grew up to become an engineer and moved to the Twin Cities to work at Honeywell. But he kept barbecuing for friends, parties, and eventually his own small catering business. When a round of big Honeywell layoffs in 1989 put him out of work, he took his severance package and opened a barbecue stand--or actually a series of barbecue stands in various St. Paul locations. From 1990 to 1998 you could taste Big Daddy's barbecue near Tiger Jack's on Dale, on Payne Avenue, and in the Cub Foods parking off University.

Then Sampson--who had been raised by his mother and stepfather--met his biological father, Gene Merriwether. And, wouldn't you know it, turned out Dad was an expert barbecuer and had worked his whole life as a railroad chef. "I was just in shock," Sampson recalls. "My love and passion had always been barbecue--and when I met him, it all made sense. I figured it had to be something in my genes." Sampson and Merriwether got to talking about Sampson's dreams, one of which was to open a full-service restaurant. Merriwether said he'd share his recipes from the trains. When Sampson finally did negotiate a lease for a space in the old Union Depot station, he called Merriwether to let him know: "Isn't that ironic," observed the elder Gene. "I used to come through there cooking on the railroad." The same genes (the same Genes!), joined in culinary synchronicity.

Can barbecue pull on your DNA? Could pork ribs and coleslaw be the ghosts in the global machine, arranging lives and shaping cities? It's something to think about as you sip a mint julep ($4.50)--a thin, sweet, refreshing version of the Kentucky classic made with mint, bourbon, and a sugar syrup--in Big Daddy's high-ceilinged main dining room. The space, says Sampson, used to be the train station's ladies' waiting room, and it retains a bit of old-fashioned gentility with its capacious chairs, fresh carnations on the tables, and Southern touches, including two varieties of lemonade (pink or yellow) and the sort of warm, chatty, friendly service I associate with the land where peach trees grow.

The main attraction at Big Daddy's is, of course, the barbecue, and fans of the smokehouse arts will find a couple of dishes that seem destined for the 'cue hall of fame--foremost the sweet, long-smoked pork spareribs. Most restaurant ribs are smoked, then cooled, then heated up on the grill, which gives them a crusty exterior. But Big Daddy's are brought to temperature in the cooker--meaning they are moist, fork-tender all over and drenched in smoke and savor. (A full rack of ribs costs $17.95, a half rack $10.75, four bones $8.95.)

Chicken dishes are the other standouts: The fried birds are as tender as custard, the result of Sampson's special low-temperature, long-duration cooking technique. Barbecued chicken, rubbed with Big Daddy's proprietary blend of spices, arrives smoky and light as fog on a pond. (A whole bird is $17.95, a half $10.95, a quarter $7.95.) Catfish is also very good, either deep-fried and potato-chip crisp, or dipped in a spicy marinade and broiled ($13.95); both methods yield a remarkably tender fillet.

For a barbecue place, Big Daddy's offers an uncommon quantity of vegetarian dishes. I didn't try the hickory-smoked-cheese- and vegetable-stuffed potatoes ($6.95), but the hickory-smoked portobello mushrooms are very good, with an intensely smoky flavor that distinguishes them from mere grilled portobellos. You can have them on a bed of rice with a piquant creole tomato sauce and sautéed peppers ($7.95), or as a "burger" with fries ($5.95). Most entrées come with corn bread or biscuits and a choice of two side dishes, following the Southern "meat-and-three" tradition.  

Curiously, while the restaurant seems to pride itself on the side dishes, I didn't find them particularly distinguished: Big Daddy's coleslaw is homemade, but too sweet and rich for my taste. The candied yams are toothache sweet and out-of-the-can-crumbly. The collard greens don't have the deep, resonant liquor you expect in really great greens, and "Big Daddy's Killer Baked Beans" offer little besides a cayenne kick. The macaroni and cheese, however, is mysteriously addictive: Every time the pale, bland goop showed up at my table, people would keep spearing forkfuls of it while saying, "This isn't very good." No, it's not--but there it goes, all of it.

Just as odd, the menu's low points did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this ambitious family affair. Somehow, when you're sitting in that bewitchingly comfortable dining room, basking in the staff's friendly attentions, chewing on a rib and sipping a julep, Big Daddy's seems like the best thing to have happened to downtown St. Paul since preservationists saved the Landmark Center. Big Daddy's is also, as far as I know, St. Paul's only black-owned white-tablecloth restaurant, and on a couple of my visits it made the city look like some kind of racial utopia, with families of many colors knit together in appreciation of old-fashioned smokehouse skills.

There were also times when the year-old operation seemed newer than it is. Periods of fluid service would be interrupted by strange half-hours when everything seemed to come to a standstill--no food delivered, no iced tea refilled, no checks processed. Maybe serving the sweet, dense corn bread or the light, flaky biscuits before the meal, or offering a selection of appetizers beyond the bar-food standards, would help assuage the sense of utter inertia followed by frenzied activity. Or is that the Curse of the Ladies' Waiting Room? And if so, is the same spell behind the apparent anti-dessert bias among the waitstaff?

The first time I went to Big Daddy's, my table planned to have dessert, but the check was delivered without the waitress giving us a chance to order that course. The next time the same thing happened, but I insisted that we could not live without dessert--and what a revelation it was. We were served a slice of the best white cake I've ever had in the Cities--a three-layer, eight-inch-high showpiece in the Southern tradition of the glossy Lady Baltimore. The cake itself was dense, richly flavored with lemon and bits of candied zest in the crumb, and it was coated with luxuriously creamy, bright white lemon buttercream. Wholesale wonder broke out at our table, followed by a rapid-fire fork attack--and this in the presence of a couple of pieces of fantastic pie. Foremost among the latter was a great chess pie (basically a pecan pie without the pecans), whose quivering, perfect filling resided on a crust that was toasty, flaky, and crisp as a new deck of playing cards. The pecan pie was equally fabulous, the roasty, eggy composition reflecting some high-temperature baking genius. Here's this week's insider tip: Big Daddy's sells whole pies for only $14 each--if you buy a couple to take to your family reunion, you'll knock grandma's socks off. (But don't push it. If you bring a lemon cake, which costs $24, no one will believe you made it. And skip the sweet potato pie, which didn't live up to my admittedly high expectations.)

The desserts are all the work of Gene Sampson's talented brother, Greg VanLear. In fact, there's kin everywhere you turn in the restaurant: Sampson's daughter is a bartender, some of his nephews serve as waiters, a sister-in-law is a hostess, and other family members pitch in during big catering events. "It's a family affair," laughs Sampson. "Everybody used to be scattered around the country, but this place pulled the family back together."

Speaking of family: Careful readers will have noticed that there are a lot of different last names in the Big Daddy clan, and it turns out that Sampson essentially has three fathers: The stepfather who raised him, his biological father who now cooks with him, and his mother's current husband. For a restaurant so rich with story and myth, it seems only fitting that the word "Daddy" would have many layers of meaning; indeed, there's a fourth layer in the fact that Sampson got his nickname of "Big Daddy" when he was cooking on the street. "People would come up and beg for something to eat, and I'd always give them a little something. My friend one day said: 'Why, you're just everyone's big old daddy, aren't you? And it kind of stuck. The street people started calling me Big Daddy--'Big Daddy, can we get something to eat, Big Daddy, where you been all winter?' I guess it's here to stay now."

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