Northbound Smokehouse riffs on old techniques
Smoking, drying, salting, and pickling are all methods of food preservation that have been applied to perishables since the very inception of agriculture. Whenever you're on a road trip and find yourself craving a protein-rich snack, say a little "thank you" to your ancestors. They're the reason beef jerky exists. Are you the type of person who snatches the pickle spear from everyone's box lunch? Your long-deceased relatives were the geniuses who figured out how to make veggies last practically forever by bathing them in brine. Of course on the flip side, should you ever find yourself at a church basement Christmas buffet, you may also silently curse your Viking predecessors for experimenting with cod and caustic lye. In any case, all these methods would be obsolete in our modern world, given the advances in technology and widespread access to cold storage (not to mention the invention of hyper-stabilized, mass-produced items like the Twinkie), if not for one very convincing detail: Plenty of preserved foods taste better that way. It's a fact that chef Bryce Strickler is patently aware of, and with a full menu of house-smoked meat, fish, cheese, and eggs at Northbound Smokehouse and Brewpub, he's making a mission of bringing it to the masses.
"I've always been fascinated by the process of smoking," says Strickler, who grew up in Virginia, Minnesota. "The rubs, the brining, all the time it takes, getting the right balance, right level of smoke ... all of that. Plus, when I knew we were going to also be opening as a brewpub, obviously smoked meat and saltier food goes great with beer."
It does indeed. Dip your toe into the whole Northbound experience by settling in with a round of brews and the Smokehouse platter to share. Served with rounds of toasted baguette, the sampling of smoked cheeses (ours had cheddar, gouda, and Swiss), killer flaked smoked trout, fatty and slightly sweet smoked salmon, and a cream-cheese-based whitefish dip with scallions was the perfect thing to graze on while looking over the menu. We did order the whitefish dip separately on another visit and found it to be way oversalted, but it was well balanced and well received as part of the platter. The smoked chicken wings were also big-time crowd-pleasers — flavorful, tender, and texturally very different from their deep-fried counterparts.
Both the house barbecue and buffalo sauce have a little ineffable kick to them, courtesy of Northbound's beers.
"We wanted to try and incorporate some of the beer into the food as well," Strickler explains. "I use our porter and our honey wheat ale in our sauces, to braise some of the meat, and to brine some of the fish."
He even uses it quite successfully in some of Northbound's desserts. His first experimental beer cheesecake was made with honey wheat ale and featured a topping of apples and caramel, but Strickler has already moved to the seasonally appropriate pumpkin cheesecake, and his is made with smoky porter. The texture of the filling is totally unique — somewhere between the fluffy, whipped chain-restaurant cheesecakes and the wet, custard-like, no-bake cheesecakes of the '80s. I only wish there was a little more buttery crust, but each bite hits you with a wallop of warm-all-over spicy flavor.
"Once Jamie starts doing more seasonals and stouts and things like that, I'm sure I'll be cooking and baking with those too," Strickler continues. "You just can't beat a chocolate and stout pairing. I'm sure I'll do a cake with that at some point."
Jamie is Jamie Robinson, Northbound's head brewer and one of the co-owners of the restaurant along with Strickler and manager Amy Johnson. The impressive trio had some professional crossover in the local service industry, as both Robinson and Strickler worked together at the venerable Town Hall Brewery, an admittedly major influence on the style of beer Northbound serves and the inspiration for the business itself. Robinson originally had the idea to open the brewpub, which incidentally is the first to open in the Twin Cities in nearly 11 years. When the team was struggling to come up with the last of the funds they needed to open, they launched a "free beer for life" campaign that promised exactly that to anyone who made an investment of $1,000 or more. They raised the money in three weeks, but as one might imagine, they constantly get asked by neighborhood regulars if they can "still get in on that."
In addition to the four flagship beers on tap — an IPA, a pale ale, a smoky porter, and the honey wheat — Robinson has at least one seasonal going (a really nice wild rice amber on our visits), and a few lines are reserved for guest beers from Lift Bridge, Harriet, and Rush River.
So the dessert is a wonderful surprise, the beer is solid, and the first bites are quite tasty, but you don't have two industrial smokers on the premises unless you're going to serve some major meat. Strickler says his Iron Range upbringing plays somewhat into the menu, especially with items like the porketta sandwich, an up-north classic.
"I knew I would have porketta on the menu no matter what type of restaurant we decided to open," Strickler admits. "That is a total childhood nostalgia taste for me, and I wanted to introduce it to people down here." You'll be glad he did. If for some reason you can only go to Northbound one time and order one sandwich, this should be it. The shredded pork has nice notes of fennel and garlic, offset by the sweetness of the onions and tang of the homemade barbecue sauce. I predict this will never go off the menu and will become Strickler's signature. If you can go more than once, I'd strongly advise getting the heavenly smoked beef sandwich, with rich mineral flavors and the traditional horseradish accoutrement — just a pleasure to eat, though a more substantial, more interesting bun would make it even more of a winner.
But the Iron Range influence is most evident in Strickler's approach and sensibility. "Just like where I grew up, I think this neighborhood is pretty blue-collar, and for the demographic and what's up and coming in the area, I wanted to do good, made-from-scratch, meat-and-potatoes type cooking."
To that end, Strickler says he plans to add some specials in the near future including a Friday fish fry, a monthly prime rib dinner, and another Iron Range classic: pasties. But that's all in due time.
"We don't want to run before we walk, so to speak," says Strickler. But judging from the line around the corner, bubbly late-night happy hours, and contented smiles of customers at the bar, Northbound already seems to be a runaway hit.
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