For some, Saturday is a day of strenuous outdoor play. For others, it is a holy day of rest. For still others, it is a day reserved for pulling the neighbor's Buick out of the fish pond after his weekly all-you-can-drink Friday fish fry at the VFW. But this story is not for any of those people. This story is for people who love cupcakes and ribs so much they won't mind spending their Saturday pursuing the best iterations of the genre currently, or possibly ever, available in this great state.
Actually, you don't even get the whole Saturday—you get a scant few hours beginning at 11:00 a.m., when the Big Daddy's crew starts selling ribs and chicken out of a parking lot on the northeast corner of University and Dale, and simultaneously, miles away, Sheela Namakkal sets out her astonishing cupcakes in the Uptown stationery store Letterbox, in preparation for the store's noontime opening. At noon, supplies of both treats are abundant, but then things go downhill. Letterbox frequently sells all of its cupcakes by 3:00, and Big Daddy's might run out of a particular menu item, like the chicken, that early, too. So why am I telling you? How can I expect you to cleave yourself in two and be simultaneously in Uptown and Frogtown? I don't know, kiddo, but I'm confident you'll figure it out, because it's beyond worth it.
Let's start with Big Daddy's—a name familiar to Twin Cities barbecue lovers. The tale of Big Daddy's is a little tangled, but once upon a time, three men—Gene Sampson, Bob Edmond, and Ron Whyte—were the closest of friends and took to barbecuing together. That led to barbecuing at festivals and catering, which eventually led to Sampson opening his own wonderful barbecue palace of a restaurant called Big Daddy's, in the grand old train depot in downtown St. Paul.
At the time, I thought Gene Sampson was Big Daddy, and so did everyone. When the restaurant closed, a whopping seven years ago, I thought that was the end of the Big Daddy barbecue phenomenon. But not so fast! Not only is Sampson back, but he says now that Big Daddy is really the joint creation of the three friends. They are all Big Daddy, and now that all three are working together again, Big Daddy is back, too—and unstoppable. So the three friends will be barbecuing together every Saturday for the foreseeable future in the parking lot on the corner of University and Dale.
So much for the genealogy—here's the important part: The barbecue that the new-old Big Daddy crew is selling is just phenomenal.
The menu is limited—pork rib tips, pork ribs, beef ribs, and chicken—but I am about to tear myself limb from limb deciding what to recommend most strongly. I guess it's got to be the beef ribs. For these, the Big Daddy crew cuts a three-rib section of short ribs continuous with a chunk of brisket, seasons it all with a dry rub, lets it sit for 24 hours, and then smokes and grills the meat till the bones are as dark as leather and the whole bundle glistens like a piece of mahogany.
When you order these beef ribs, someone takes them from the grill (or the picnic cooler where they're kept warm), slips the bones from the meat as easily as slipping pins from satin, carefully slides a cleaver through the meat so that it is rendered to you in slices, and—ay, caramba! The barbecued beef has alternating sections that are as soft as jelly and as chewy as a good steak. Parts dissolve on your tongue, parts engage you to chew, and every bit of it tastes as big, rich, profound, meaty, earthy, wild, and fat as your dreams of a vacation beside a Texas fire pit. If you've ever thought to yourself, "To hell with Minnesota barbecue—I'm getting on I-35 and driving to Austin and all y'all can jump, in your parkas and duck boots, into your 10,000 lakes"—step away from your steering wheel! These beef ribs might just rob Texas of Minnesota barbecue tourists forevermore.
They're also a bargain. A "half order" of beef ribs, which Sampson says starts with a pre-cooking weight of more than five pounds, easily feeds two or three for $16. You can also get a $28 whole rack of beef ribs, like the guy ahead of me on line who cackled, "I'm in good with my boss now. I keep bringing in these ribs, I'll probably get a raise!"
As great as the beef ribs are, the crowd favorite when I've been to Big Daddy's is invariably the pork rib tips, which are so over-the-top decadent they're the pork equivalent of a diamond-encrusted private jet. The rib tips run $7 for a very generous pound, and, like the beef ribs, when you order them, one of the Big Daddy's helpers slips a big, gelatinous, well-grilled hunk of pork from its warmer and floats a cleaver through it. Yes, the cleaver floats, it doesn't cut. In fact, I would argue that the English language needs a whole new vocabulary to describe exactly how a cleaver goes through these Big Daddy rib tips: It glides through, like the blade of an ice skate through clean slush. It swoons through, like a teenager at a dance. It balloons through, like something lighter than air, tethered to earth by a string. In any event, once the cleaver is done ballooning and swooning, the pork rib tips are placed in a box alongside a little container of tangy barbecue sauce. You'll find that each bite reveals tangy pork candy: sweet, rich, smoky, decadent, and lush.
The pork ribs—$10 for a half rack or $17 for a full one—are great, too. And so is the chicken ($11 per whole chicken, $7 for a half), so smoky that a bite of bird leaves your mouth echoing with tang and fire for 10 or 20 minutes at a time. The chicken is so intensely flavored that you could justify cutting it into centimeter squares and serving it like caviar.
The only thing not to love about Big Daddy's is the tenuousness of the situation. Sampson told me they will almost definitely be in this parking lot through November, and will be somewhere on University forevermore after that, probably. You can call him for updates, or to cater your Christmas party. What, you never wanted ribs for Christmas? You will.
Once you've had the richest barbecue of the modern era, you will certainly want to chase it down with cupcakes bejeweled with real buttercream frosting, right? To find them, you must drive to Uptown, park in the lot on Hennepin just north of 28th Street and the Kinh-Do restaurant (the one with the futon store and the candle company), and find Letterbox, a wonderful stationer and gift shop that sells Miel y Leche cupcakes every Saturday.
Miel y Leche is the brainchild of St. Paul native and Hamline MBA candidate Sheela Namakkal, a punk-rock princess who took her strong belief that she would start screaming and never stop if she had to go to Cafe Latté one more time for dessert, and came up with the idea for a bar that serves bars—you know, the whiskey kind plus the seven-layer kind. She spent some time in cooking school and started talking up the idea with her friends, and the next thing you know, the folks who own Letterbox asked her to start bringing in cupcakes to sell at their store. Then, she says, "It started spiraling into insanity. People started calling me up to bring cupcakes to their birthday parties—you know, five dozen to Grumpy's on a Saturday night, six dozen for a wedding—and now sometimes I bake cupcakes for 11 hours straight." Her pain, our gain: Miel y Leche's cupcakes are nothing short of jaw-droppingly good.
They're so good partly because Namakkal brings a chef's sophistication about flavor and ingredients to the process. For instance, for her Mexican hot chocolate cupcakes Namakkal incorporates cornmeal into the batter to mimic the coarse texture of real Mexican hot chocolate. Then she seasons the batter with enough cinnamon and cayenne to lend the little darlings a lingering finish and a lot of zing. She makes her own fresh lemon curd for her limoncello cupcakes and haunts the St. Paul Farmers' Market looking for in-season local fruit to use either as a filling or a topping—or both, in the case of her chocolate cupcakes with raspberry-rhubarb jam and fresh raspberries.
Just as important as her chef's palate, Namakkal brings a sense of whimsy and a wedding-cake decorator's insane ambition: Her peanut-butter-and-jelly cupcakes start with a plain vanilla cupcake, layer in homemade Concord grape jelly and a peanut-butter mousse, and are topped with two fresh little Concord grapes. Each cake is nothing less than a teensy edible sculpture on the theme of peanut butter and jelly. Her s'mores cupcakes are made by baking graham-cracker-flavored cupcakes in a graham-cracker crust, filling them with chocolate ganache and marshmallow fluff, and topping them with a dollhouse-perfect mini-s'more, itself topped with a bit of marshmallow that has been sliced thinly, cut into a decorative flower, and toasted with a culinary torch—for $3.
All the Miel y Leche cupcakes are $3. I could not count, I could not even estimate, the number of super-expensive restaurants where I have shelled out two or three times that much for a dessert that required one-tenth as much creativity or work. For her signature Letterbox chocolate-orange cupcakes, Namakkal tops each with candied orange peel and tiny little marzipan envelopes that she fashions by hand. Her vegan carrot-cake cupcakes are each decorated with tiny handmade marzipan carrots with carefully feathered green tops cut from fondant.
If you own a restaurant and despair of ever figuring out the whole dessert part of the meal, pilot yourself to MySpace and make a friend. While you're there, enjoy the postings of fellow cupcake lovers who declare things like: "I want to marry your cupcakes." Who doesn't? But before you book the chapel, check your calendar—these nuptials can only take place for a few scant hours on a Saturday.
BIG DADDY'S: THE GIANTS OF OUTDOOR COOKINGThe parking lot on the northeast corner of University and Dale
(609 University Avenue West, St. Paul);
Saturdays, about 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., or until the food runs out
MIEL Y LECHE CUPCAKES AT LETTERBOX2741 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis;
Saturdays, noon to 6:00 p.m., or until the food runs out