Barbecue is like politics, religion and sports—it’s an often-polarizing topic that can mean different things to different people. Everyone has their own idea of what makes good barbecue, often tied to where they grew up and what they grew up eating and liking. For some, it’s all about tender meat rubbed with a blend of mouthwatering spices, while for others, it’s about drowning a hefty rack of something slathered in a sweet, thick sauce. As with religion, politics and sports, there’s room to find some areas of agreement. But first, you’ve got to set some ground rules. The first one? Grasping the core definition of the word.
Or, as Mary Baryenbruch, half of the husband-and-wife team that’s been slinging ribs at Fat Jack’s BBQ in Monona for the past three decades, puts it, “Barbecue’s a cooking technique, not a condiment.”
She’s right. It matters less what kind of quality meat you’re choosing—everything from barbecue mainstays like pork and beef to turkey and fish—than how that meat is cooked. To qualify as genuine barbecue, it’s got to be slowly smoked in a smoker or over a fire pit low and long—as in a low temperature for as long as 10 to 12 hours. After that, everything’s wide open.
Jon Olson—the man always and forever known as Smoky Jon of Smoky Jon’s #1 BBQ restaurant, Madison’s All-Time Barbeque King—likes to refer to his award-winning ribs as a marriage. It’s actually a three-way relationship: a mouthwatering union between racks of tender pork, smoked six-plus hours with green hickory in his wood-burning rotisserie pit, his signature Flavor Magic savory seasoning and two gourmet barbecue sauces that’ve amassed literally hundreds of national awards. Unlike other joints that serve dry only, Olson serves his ribs sauced, too, and once you taste them, you’ll have zero trouble buying into his vision of marital bliss. “We’re not trying to be the flavor of the month,” says the 62-year-old Olson, who’s been plying his lip-smacking rib trade for 40-plus years, including 21 at his restaurant’s longtime Packers Avenue location. “We don’t need to be artisan.”
On the west side, you can’t really miss Keith and Erin Stoesz’s barbecue manifesto—it’s emblazoned on a huge chalkboard in the entryway of North and South Seafood & Smokehouse in Madison’s Clock Tower Court. One of the lines that jumps out immediately is “100 percent smoker. No boiling, steaming or roasting.” That’s both a delicious and a purist’s approach, and Erin admits that it’s led to some serious horizon-broadening for patrons who come in searching for that clichéd “falling off the bone” vibe. The Stoeszs use Kansas City-style baby back (not spare) ribs, which means the meat stays on when you lift the rack toward your mouth, all the better for you to gnaw that delicious, brown-sugar rubbed pork.
The ribs at Fat Jack’s BBQ in Monona have been the mainstay of many Saturday night suppers, picnics and American Players Theater adventures, and it’s never been difficult to understand why: The two-step cooking process works magic. Starting at 6 a.m. each day, the chefs pack Jack’s oversized smoker with as many as 45 dry-rubbed racks of pork spareribs and hickory wood chips. Once the racks are fully smoked, they’re charbroiled on the grill and basted in a citrus glaze before being served alongside garlic bread. The charbroiling is a culinary curveball unique to Dan and Mary Baryenbruch’s operation, and it’s a winning formula.
If there’s one thing you learn quickly about Madison’s barbecue scene, it’s this: We’re a brisket-first town, and it’s not even remotely close. Lean and tender beef brisket is a particular specialty at Brickhouse BBQ in downtown Madison, where earnest chef Brad Anderson has always loved smoky things and dreamed of working in a smokehouse. He’s gotten his wish, and we’re the beneficiaries. Brickhouse’s Texas-style brisket is rubbed with a homemade mix that relies on paprika and chili powder for its kick, then smoked low and slow with applewood. The results recline perfectly on a big ol’ slab of Texas toast.
Shon Jones, one half of the friendly culinary team at Double S BBQ on Monroe Street (Madison native Sarah Jones is the other half) grew up in Orange, Texas, on the Louisiana border. And that fact informs his approach to his award-winning Cajun-meets-Texas-style chopped beef brisket. Due to neighborhood concerns near his shop, Shon has to smoke his meat at his Deerfield home, a good 10-12 hours over an expansive all-wood barbecue pit, seasoned with just a touch of cherry and hickory chips. (“Not a lot, or it overpowers the meat,” he notes.) The rub, which (surprise!) relies on Cajun seasonings—not salt and pepper—gives Double S brisket its consistently solid flavor. Circle Thursdays on your calendar, since that’s the day the Joneses go Tex-Mex, serving up homemade tamales and brisket nachos.
Maureen White fondly describes her son, Clement Henriques, as a “meat freak,” and she’s not wrong. Listen to the soft-spoken smokemaster at That BBQ Joint, one of Willy Street’s most essential stops, describe the perfect cut of pork butt for pulled pork, and you’ll know he takes his craft both seriously and scientifically. “People get nervous about it, but what you really want to keep is a pink hue when you smoke it,” he says. He also makes a point of not actually pulling the pork apart until the last possible moment: “Oxygen is the enemy of all things.” Like everything on the menu, the pulled pork smoked with hickory wood is informed by the barbecue White enjoyed as a child in Florida—moist, sugary and utterly delicious.
As we’ve noted elsewhere, The Thirsty Goat’s barbecue chef, Jeff Whitford, wields an oversized spice rack, a weapon he puts to effective use in concert with his 750-pound-capacity smoker, a beast big enough to fit the meat from six whole hogs. Whitford’s rub, the secret that helps give the Goat’s pulled pork its gotta-have-it, melt-in-your mouth flavor, is something he’s been refining since he was a teenager. (Let’s just say it’s not about the black pepper and salt.) The other tent poles of Whitford’s smoking strategy include oak and applewood split logs in the smoker and using fattier cuts of meat for a more flavorful mix.
The cats at downtown’s Red Rock Saloon deploy a couple of clever tricks to punch up the pulled pork. Every day, it’s smoked a good 10-12 hours in an enormous electric smoker, but purists needn’t freak—the voltage just helps control the temperature. The pork’s infused (yes, infused) with Angry Orchard cider and then covered with its own trimmings to keep it moist and flavorful. Three types of wood chips (cherry, pecan and applewood) combine to complete the formula. Not surprisingly, the pork out-pulls the brisket on Red Rock’s menu by a wide margin. “Pulled pork is people’s traditional sense of barbecue,” says general manager Brano Kruger. When it tastes this delicious, we’ll go with traditional every time.
Just because barbecue is the ultimate in Americana doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all of the genre. Madison also has a growing number of Korean-style barbecue options—but in this case, the meat’s marinated and grilled rather than slow-smoked. (Remember, barbecue is different things to different people.)
We’ve already talked about Brickhouse BBQ’s killer brisket, but owners Hyungirl and Jongyean Lee also offer marinated bulgogi flank steak served in a spicy gochujang—that’s red chili paste—BBQ sauce. They’ll even serve it in a taco shell if you prefer.
You'll hunt just a little harder to find barbecue on the menu at Tory Miller’s pan-Asian extravaganza Sujeo, but once you do, you won’t forget it. Smoked brisket fried rice tastes like the height of Americana barbecue fusion, while the grilled short rib bulgogi is about as traditional—and flavorful—as Korean barbecue gets.
Sometimes, bulgogi on a platter is all you really need, and when that’s the case, Sol’s on the Square has it covered from every angle—char-grilled beef, spicy pork, spicy chicken and even squid. They all come with uber-spicy ssamjang dipping (or, more accurately, wrapping) sauce that may sear your tongue into next Tuesday.
Sneaky Good BBQ
A place doesn’t actually have to have the word barbecue in its name or dominating its menu to serve ’cue that’s worthy of your attention and appetite. Exhibit A: The Eldorado Grill, a place that’s known for its killer brunch and head-spinning tequila list, devotes an entire section of its menu to barbecue. You could agonize and choose between the brisket, ribs and pulled pork, or you could just order a Big Texan and devour them all. Everything’s served with a peach barbecue sauce—and Texas toast, naturally—to sweeten the experience.
Bonfyre American Grille slow-roasts its baby back ribs over a wood fire rather than smoke them, so the fall-off-the bone crowd has definitely discovered a rack in the rough, so to speak. Fans of a more traditional sweet-tasting barbecue sauce will find it pairs just about perfectly.
Ian’s Pizza. Now we’re just messing with you, right? Not so fast: Perhaps you’ve managed to miss the Smoked Brisket and Tots, a slice (or, heck, a whole pie) dotted with tender smoked beef, sweet house barbecue sauce and enough tots to satisfy even Napoleon Dynamite. And, hey, if you pair it with a slice of Ian’s famed Mac and Cheese, you’re nearly halfway to a traditional barbecue plate.