11 Madison-area barbecue restaurants hot off the grill
Grab a stack of napkins and dig in
It was Tennessee Williams who gave us “Summer and Smoke,” but he most definitely was not talking about barbecue. Good thing the rest of us are. Summer and slow-smoked barbecue have always been one of the world’s most perfect seasonal pairings, with the scents of hickory and cherrywood wafting over backyards, smoke pits and dining room tables. Those of us lacking the diligence, fortitude and pit-ready backyards to invest hours into smoking our own meats can be grateful that Madison has a huge list of places that handle it expertly. Grab a stack of napkins. Let’s dig in.
Most Madisonians’ first experience with Blowin’ Smoke’s Kansas City-style barbecue came when they tasted the ridiculously delicious smoked-meat sandwiches offered at the Waunakee restaurant’s late and lamented food cart, which used to be a stone-cold lunch mainstay on Capitol Square. These days, tracking down Robert Bishop’s beef brisket, pulled pork shoulder and spareribs requires a well-worth-it drive to Waunakee, where the mothership has found a busy home. 1336 Montondon Ave., Waunakee, 850-9858 $$
Bob’s Bitchin’ BBQ
The sauce is so much more than boss at this popular establishment, one of several barbecue road trips worth taking in the Madison area. It’s also the genesis of Bob Page’s Dodgeville establishment, which first opened two years after Page began selling his gotta-have-it sauces at farmers’ markets. (It has since relocated to its current, larger space in Dodgeville.) With eight signature options to douse your tender, dry-rubbed ribs, chicken or brisket – including a pair of local-focused sauces that incorporate Sprecher’s root beer and New Glarus Spotted Cow – your meal might just become an unforgettable exercise in finger-dipping. 167 N. Iowa St., Dodgeville, 930-2227 $$
The menu at this multistory downtown joint is significantly more focused than it used to be, but there are still clear advantages to specialization. Your menu choices here amount to deliciously smoked beef brisket and pork shoulder, piled up on plates or served in a sandwich. Things get even more exciting from Friday to Sunday, when ribs make a welcome guest appearance on the menu. 408 W. Gorham St., 257-7675 $
One of Madison’s dark horses in the barbecue scene hides in plain sight at this near east side Southwestern specialty grill. After warming your palate with a few shots of tequila or mezcal, you can dive into KW’s Texas-smoked brisket, a massive plate of dry-rubbed goodness balanced out by the house-made peach barbecue sauce. Brisket not your thing? No worries. The peach sauce goes well with baby backs or pulled pork here, too. 744 Williamson St., 280-9378 $$$
Fat Jack’s BBQ
One of the true veteran mainstays of local barbecue continues to reliably serve up unforgettable hickory-smoked, dry-rubbed racks of pork spareribs and chicken, which go straight from the smoker to the charbroiler, giving them a tender, signature taste. Never has a golden slice of Texas toast been accompanied so smartly. Don’t dismiss the sauce options here as subpar: Several of them provide an unexpected kick. 6207 Monona Drive, Monona, 221-4220 $$$
North and South Seafood & Smokehouse
You can tell Keith and Erin Stoez’s purist approach to brisket, pork and Kansas City-style ribs is a huge hit, because the couple recently replicated their smokehouse formula at a second location in DeForest. In a nod to the falling-off-the-bone crowd, the couple also recently added spareribs to the growing array of meats offered. But truthfully, you can’t make a bad choice here. Just be sure you enjoy your choice with the sweet and delicious Kansas City sauce, one of several Erin creates herself. 6604 Mineral Point Road, 829-0083; 605 S. Main St., DeForest 842-2601 $$$
Red Rock Saloon
For those craving barbecue, this place often gets overlooked, and that’s a shame because the meats (brisket, pulled pork, black pepper turkey and more) that emerge from the massive on-site electric smoker are top-notch. It’s a perfect venue for those nights when you want to chase your plate of beef brisket with a round of darts and a ride on a mechanical bull. Do yourself a favor and plan ahead to avoid barbecue heartbreak – the yummy St. Louis-style ribs are available only on Friday and Saturday nights. 322. W. Johnson St., 709-5200 $$
Smoky Jon’s #1 BBQ
Smoking his racks of pork ribs with green hickory wood chips is where it starts, but the sweet secret to Jon Olson’s perennially award-winning barbecue is the fact that the sauces he uses to baste his racks of ribs aren’t smooth. And we’re not talking about taste here — we’re talking about the fact that you can’t see through them, because they’re packed with particles of sweet and tangy onion, the ingredient that’s helped Smoky Jon’s fill a warehouse with trophies and ribbons. 2310 Packers Ave., 249-7427 $$$
That BBQ Joint
Self-described “meat freak” Clement Henriques and his mom, Maureen White, continue to purvey the most essential barbecue on Madison’s near east side, treating the smoking process like a calculated chemical equation to be tweaked and managed into barbecue. The mother-and-son duo is a barbecue yin and yang team: White handles sauces and sides while Henriques smokes the meat. When you visit this gold-winning Best of Madison barbecue spot, make sure you sidle your preferred meat up to a mac ‘n’ cheese ball. 901 Williamson St., 709-1300 $$$
The Thirsty Goat
The Goat leads with its brewed-on-site beer, but it could just as easily lead with its barbecue, one of the newest and most underrated in the area. Similarly, chef Jeff Whitford’s sauces could be the main attraction – we’re especially fond of the sweet and tangy – but he also has an expansive spice rack. This renders everything from the brisket and pulled pork to baby back and St. Louis-style ribs an experience that can be savored sauce free. And ultimately, that’s the mark of solid barbecue. 3040 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, 422-5500 $$$
Wood BBQ and Catering
Tradition pours from this Sauk City operation like the smoke that billows from its massive drum rotisserie grill. At Wood BBQ, owner Cody Wood serves up St. Louis-style ribs and brisket five days a week. Tradition stops, however, when it comes to the house-made sauce options. Wood BBQ offers several head-turning sauces you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, including blueberry (!), the house special sweet cinnamon (try the punched-up Hellfire if you’d like to scorch your tastebuds) and a white garlic-based creation. Now that’s what we call saucily inventive. 739 Phillips Road, Sauk City, 370-8150 $$$
Hold the Meat
Clement Henriques remembers it vividly: A female customer, who also happened to be a vegetarian, walked into That BBQ Joint, scanned the obviously meat-packed menu, sighed and said, “I’ll just have the two sides.”
“That’s kind of sad,” Henriques recalls thinking. “I knew I had to do something about it.”
That something turned out to be the Boca Mo, a sloppy Joe-like sandwich constructed around smoked Boca veggie crumbles, pickles, lettuce and onions, united by That BBQ Joint co-owner Maureen White’s vegetarian sauce. Who says barbecue has to be for carnivores only?
Not Henriques, and not the Green Owl Cafe, either.
It doesn’t meet the barbecue purist’s definition of having been slow-smoked, but we’ll give a pass (and a thumbs-up) to the Owl’s BBQ Jackfruit Wrap, in which the fruit is shredded, paired with a homemade root beer barbecue sauce and wrapped in a flour tortilla.
Aaron R. Conklin writes about food and local theater for Madison Magazine
COPYRIGHT 2020 BY CHANNEL 3000. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.