Sauce and the City
3 West Diamond Lake Rd., Mpls.; (612) 823-4450
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 1 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday, sort of; call if you're really hungry and see what happens.
Like a leathery, tough old bay leaf in the roiling chunky-ham-and-bean soup that is Minneapolis, the Waikiki Room's sauce recipe keeps surfacing. It may be gone for years at a stretch, but then it pops back up, does a slide around the top of the soup, shows its big, savory belly to the world, flaunts its never-die build. Maybe it cracks into a chunk of ham, gives it a good bruising, and then dives back under--once again invisible, but flavoring, flavoring, as the years go by.
Yeah, the metaphor has gotten away from me, but imagine. The Waikiki Room was the tiki-torch-lit, umbrella-drink-serving, Polynesian-themed restaurant in the old Hotel Nicollet downtown. The Polynesian barbecue sauce was the menu's connecting thread--everybody who tasted it wanted it.
Scott Woolsey's mother Dorie sweetly asked the chef for the sauce recipe. But the chef would not talk! That sauce was a Waikiki Room treasure, and in the Waikiki Room it would stay.
So Dorie Woolsey played Sherlock Holmes in her South Minneapolis kitchen, testing, stirring, simmering, bubble, bubble, toil and trouble! She got her recipe. (Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.) There was much rejoicing in the Woolsey household. Then, in the 1970s, tragedy. The Waikiki Room closed. The original sauce recipe was lost--lost!--to the citizenry.
The Woolseys laughed. The sauce was already a fixture of their summer family festivities. It perked up chicken. It jazzed up pork chops. It cloaked ribs like a queen's precious velvets. It kept the Woolseys close, and Scott's softball buddies closer. Shouts of "Scott, ya got ya mama's barbecue sauce?" filled the South Minneapolis sandlots.
Young Woolsey spent many kitchen hours helping his mom fill the enormous demand for the precious elixir. Then he turned into a teenager. His head filled with rebellious ideas. Stuff started going into the sauce--hot stuff. Cayenne. Horseradish. Scott grew up. He did a little bit of everything: bouncer, bartender, bricklayer, short-order cook, truck driver, Teamsters union rep. But he stayed around the old neighborhood ("I've lived my whole life under the airport," he says), and he hung on to the Waikiki Room sauce.
He started making and bottling it for friends in the late 1980s: "We didn't lock our doors, my old roommate and me, and I'd come home and there would be ten bucks sitting there, four or five jars [of sauce] missing, and empty jars just sitting there, waiting for me." The success got him thinking, he says: "If we do a decent job and don't screw anybody with our prices, we can make a living at this!" So he threw open the doors, or rather, door, to a little closet of a restaurant in 1991. And the Waikiki sauce has been drawing fans ever since.
It's a sweet sauce, bright and tangy--you can definitely taste its tiki-torch roots. But it's also a sauce uniquely suited to bringing out the depths of chicken and pork, which are just about all that's on Scott Ja-Mama's menu. The sugar in the sauce enhances the meat's natural sweetness while creating a contrast with the earthy smoke.
It's a sauce that wouldn't work for all the permutations of barbecue. Low-temperature smoking techniques like they use in the South sweeten the meat so much, the best sauce is a vinegar one. But Scott Ja-Mama's is barbecue in the Midwestern-backyard tradition: Fresh meat, never frozen, slathered with a spice mix and grilled at a high temperature on open flames. This makes for meaty ribs with the taste and texture of pork chops--pale, moist, with crisp corners and intact bits of fat. (Rib meals, each of which comes with coleslaw, a twice-baked potato, and a roll, run $4.65 for a quarter rack, $8.50 for a half rack, $12 for a half rack with a quarter chicken, and $14.50 for a full rack.)
Woolsey also serves a pulled-pork sandwich ($4.50 with coleslaw and chips), a mammoth pile of shredded pork that smothers a soft bun with its juice. His direct-cooking method makes the pork tough--at least when compared with the Southern-style, butter-soft barbecue of a place like St. Paul's Lee's & Dee's--but under the plucky sauce, the whole thing becomes quite addictive. Bringing home takeout, I found myself pinching bits of meat out of my sandwich, like puffs out of cotton candy. Barbecued chicken is a tender delectation, too--snowy-white meat, a sweet, sticky shell, like a sunny Memorial Day on a plate. (Chicken costs $4.50 for a quarter bird, $6.25 for a half; both come with coleslaw, a twice-baked potato, and a roll.)
The twice-baked potatoes (75 cents) are also habit-forming. Half russets are baked, hollowed out, mashed with butter and bacon, piled back into their shells, covered with cheese, and baked until they're a big Thanksgiving-on-the-farm-style mess of cheesy goodness. Beware: they reheat beautifully, and the temptation to order a dozen to stock in the freezer is fierce.
To go with the sweet meats, Woolsey also makes his own coleslaw, a fresh, salt-and-pepper toss of green cabbage with a bit of red cabbage and carrots thrown in for color. And be sure to pick up a side of the crazy baked beans (60 cents) he brews: They're a thick, sweet, mud-dark stew with a translucent, gelatinous texture, strung through with caramelized onions, and packing a powerful cayenne kick.
Well, actually, I don't know if you should pick up those beans. There are merits to delivery, mainly that Woolsey brings his neighborly style even to the tough world of food on the go: He's one of the few restaurateurs who eschew restrictive zones. If you want delivery, generally you get delivery, even if you live way out in Ridgedale, or way up in Uptown. On the other hand, if you go to pick up your food, you get to see all the movie memorabilia that crowd the place--such as a room list from the Hotel Nicollet when James Cagney and Greer Garson were in town; a poster from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and a whole lot of Wizard of Oz stuff. (Sitting on extra Cowardly Lion geegaws? Woolsey trades food for Oz.)
I've said before that Minneapolis barbecue is like no other, and I've always thought of the brisket and fried potatoes at Ted Cook's as the quintessential Minnesota-grown, meat-and-potatoes barbecue. But now I'm adding Scott Ja-Mama's to the list of decidedly idiosyncratic regional 'cue. It's Waikiki Room-derived, devotedly backyard cookout-style barbecue. It's meat on the grill, cooler of beer on the deck, the swoosh of elm leaves and the roar of airplanes landing.
"It sounds corny," says Woolsey, "But I got exactly what I wanted. I just wanted to have a nice little store in the neighborhood I grew up in. I don't need to be the rib king, it doesn't interest me. This is enough for me. I grew up on 46th and Clinton, a mile and a half from here. My eight brothers and sisters, my folks still live around here, we always have friends of the family coming in. We had a guy come in here one day--he ate right here, got done, and then he said, 'I only had sauce like this one place in my life. There used to be a place downtown called the Waikiki Room..."
YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Well, sort of. Eaters' Digest connoisseurs will recall that a year and a half ago, I wrote that downtown Minneapolis's most beloved pizza place, the venerable Lucé, was looking for an Uptown or South Minneapolis location. Patience is a virtue, folks, because the location has been announced: Sometime this spring, or summer, or absolutely by the fall, there will be a Pizza Lucé on the corner of 32nd and Lyndale.
Jason Husby, general manager, says Lucé lovers are in a frenzy, but "there's not a lot to tell yet, because we still haven't purchased the building, so it's hard to know any kind of a schedule [for opening]." More, more! "It will be exactly the same menu as we have downtown, beer and wine like we have downtown, late hours. We've gone door-to-door talking to neighbors, and everyone seems to be happy about us coming in there." Delivery area? "At least to 40th [Street] or something, and we'll definitely cover the Uptown area. We already get like 10 people that call down here every night begging us to deliver to Uptown." For now, those beggars will have to haul their butts to the original Lucé, (119 N. Fourth St.; (612) 333-7359), where they serve all that precious Lucé grub Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Friday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.
IT'S MANORIFIC: When I first started going to the Manor, St. Paul's Love Boat-style dining-and-dancing stronghold, I felt like the only person without a big white Chrysler and a timeshare at a snowbird getaway. But the swing craze has changed all that, and the place is now a judicious, pleasing mix of Reagan babies and FDR survivors, all shimmying between the brass guardrails to the big band and swing of Jim Tolkes. When much-beloved chanteuse Donna Dee returns in June for her band's summer run--well, my prediction is that the Manor (2550 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; (651) 690-1771) will be the Next Big Thing.
Remember, too, you don't have to dine on prime rib to enjoy the no-cover magnificence. The bar by the dance floor serves as a perfect cheap perch. Meanwhile, in the attached lounge, ace piano-bar singer/player/leader/enthusiast/den master/Zen master Bob Pine is finally getting the following he deserves, which I offer to you as evidence that the universe is not only sometimes age-balanced, but even occasionally just.
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