Ted Cook's Family of Alchemists

Ted Cook's 19th Hole Barbeque
2814 E. 38th St., Minneapolis; 721-2023.

Barbecue is alchemy. It's the art of taking the least desirable parts of animals--their ribs, shoulders, briskets and such--and transforming them to culinary gold. It's an art that requires time, attention, care, a good wood fire, and a willingness to toil for years in obscurity, or if not in obscurity, certainly without a whole lot of fame and fortune.

Barbecue does have its stars, like Big Daddy Bishop from Tuscaloosa, Alabama's Dreamland Drive-In Barbecue, and Ray Robinson Sr. from Memphis, Tennessee's Cozy Corner, both of whom are immortalized in my favorite barbecue book, Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. It's an anecdotal and absorbing book about a road trip undertaken by New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Lolis Eric Elie and photographer Frank Stewart in which they scoured the back roads of the South and Central Midwest for the best, and most regionally specific, barbecues. They found mutton barbecue in Owensboro, Kentucky, and pig-snoot barbecue in East St. Louis, but they never did make it northwest of Chicago, which is a pity because then they could have dropped by Ted Cook's 19th Hole Barbeque and gotten some true, down-home, genuine Minnesota barbecue.

Ted Cook was a barbecuer and an avid golfer (hence the 19th hole in the name) when he opened his restaurant and equipped it with a room-sized "pit" in 1968. Over the years, he employed a succession of neighbor Priscilla Davis's children, as after-school floor sweepers and errand runners, and eventually as prep cooks and barbecue tenders. Michael Davis, for example, worked there starting when he was 13, and stayed all through junior high, high school, and college. He credits Ted Cook as the reason he attended culinary school, and when Michael graduated he went on to cook at the IDS's Orion Room, a tie-and-jacket spot, and one from which a good eye could look southwest and pick out the lights of Ted Cook's.

When Ted retired in 1986, he didn't have to look far for the logical heirs to his traditions, recipes, and family of customers, and he sold the restaurant to Priscilla and Michael Davis, who have been running things ever since. Priscilla added a raft of soul-food side dishes like greens and black-eyed peas, but the basic offerings, the ribs, chicken, and sliced beef, have stayed true to Cook's original recipes.

I asked Michael how he resisted the temptation to gourmet-ize some of the menu. "I guess I felt it was a humbling experience," he said. "I walked into a place that was already successful, already played a substantial role for a certain community, so it was more of a challenge to me to carry on the tradition than it was to change things. This is a real responsibility for me, to maintain the traditions." Then he went on to tell me that he reserves his gourmet tendencies for family holidays, and told me all about a recent whole prime rib he served with a shallot-herb butter, and a cornbread dressing with pecans he made for Thanksgiving.

Some customers have been coming to Ted Cook's for 30 years; children who grew up following their fathers to Ted Cook's now take their own children there, and when the holidays roll around people return from all over the country to renew their love for the ribs they grew up with. The weekend after Thanksgiving, Priscilla and Michael were kept busy packing up specially brought Tupperware and coolers for cross-country journeys--10 racks of pork ribs bound for San Antonio, four chickens and two pints of baked beans winging their way to D.C.

It's not mere sentimentality that draws Minneapolis's far-flung sons and daughters back to the 19th Hole. The barbecue, slow-cooked over a cherry-wood fire, is great. The barbecued beef might be the best: Thin-sliced pieces of lean, inside round, cooked all day until spoon-tender, it's slightly delicate, sort of earthy. They serve it slathered with homemade barbecue sauce and a pile of jo-jo potatoes, which are fresh potato slices that can be ordered either lightly fried and tender, almost like home-fries, or "extra crispy" so that they're like meaty potato chips. The combination of the tender meat, the crisp potatoes, and the tangy sauce is delicious, and seems to me like a genuine bit of Minnesota barbecue--it's meat-and-potatoes barbecue.

The four main dishes at Ted Cook's can be ordered either as dinners--which include the jo-jos, coleslaw, and a cute little wax-paper bag holding one slice of white bread and one slice of wheat--or à la carte. Barbecue beef is $8.75, or $7.85 à la carte, and is available as a sandwich with jo-jos at lunch for $4.25. Meats all come with a sweet, peppery, vinegar-laced mild sauce with the consistency and cling of ketchup, and if you order yours hot or super-hot they'll get progressively kickier, both more peppery and more vinegary.

The chicken is also wonderful, meaty, plump, and meltingly tender with the gamey sweetness you only get by cooking it skin-on and on the bone at a low heat. Most barbecued chickens treat the chicken like it's a mere vehicle for sauce--but that's not true here (a half-chicken dinner is $6.25, $5.45 à la carte). Pork ribs tend to drive people wild, and Ted Cook's are tender, meaty, and moist, but I find their delicate flavor gets overwhelmed by the sweet and vinegar of the sauce, and I like them better with the sauce on the side ($15.95/$8.75 for a full- or half-rack dinner, or $13.95/$7.95 à la carte). The beef ribs are incredibly flavorful and utterly delicious, but, like all beef ribs, frustratingly bony.

But try telling this to the men and their dogs who line up late at night here; it's not every day people and dogs can successively enjoy the same meal (beef ribs are $8.50 for the dinner, $7.85 à la carte). One of Minneapolis's great unkept secrets is that if you get to Ted Cook's right before they close the portions become absolutely enormous, as they endeavor not to let any food go to waste, and while you risk missing out on your favorite, it's hard to go wrong.

Priscilla Davis's coleslaw and desserts are perfectly balanced to go along with the hot and saucy meats; the coleslaw is light, slightly sweet, and laced with celery seeds; her peach cobbler is the spiciest I've ever had, and features big cling peaches heartily laced with cloves and nutmeg; and the sweet-potato pie is also tops--spicy-rich and toothsome, it's the perfect thing to eat when your mouth is still tingling from a plate of ribs. (Desserts are $2.) Sides like her fresh, smoky greens and her long-baked beans are justly famous. "The things I put in my beans you wouldn't believe," says Priscilla Davis, "and you'll never get it out of me, it's in the vault." I should have known better than to ask; secrets are alchemists' stock in trade.

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