Review: Sugarfire Smoke House
For years when people asked me who had the best ribs, the most piquant sauce or the tender-est brisket in town, their questions were met with a raised eyebrow and a smug “I grew up in Kansas City.” And for years, that was all that needed to be said on the matter.
St. Louis barbecue was unremarkable. Where was the deep hickory smoke flavor? Where were the crispy, charred nuggets of well-marbled brisket we in Kansas City called burnt ends? While Kansas City sauce was a brass band of sweet, spicy, smoky, tomato-y flavors thickened with molasses and painted on meat in layers, St. Louis’ was thinner, more like tangy, watery ketchup. Most distressing were the ribs, which were more often than not stewed so long in oceans of sauce as to render the bones soft and the meat sagging like a bad facelift. And what the hell was a pork steak? Kansas City was World Series barbecue; St. Louis was bush-league.
Roughly 15 years ago, Super Smokers, Bandana’s, and 17th Street Bar and Grill changed all that. And in the past five years, Pappy’s (with its Super Smokers lineage) and later Bogart’s (a Pappy’s spinoff) have set a new standard. Just as we’ve recently seen an explosion of local breweries, St. Louis has witnessed a surge in barbecue eateries.
At least 10 barbecue restaurants have opened in just the past 18 months, including Sugarfire Smoke House, the latest venture by restaurateur Mike Johnson (Cyrano’s, Boogaloo, Roxane, Fu Manchu and a few more) and his partners, Charlie and Carolyn Downs of Cyrano’s fame.
Housed in a modern strip mall on Olive Boulevard, just west of I-170, Sugarfire shoots for the rustic roadhouse look: dark-stained walls with inlaid squares of pressed tin, heavy plank tables and chairs, multicolored retro metal lawn chairs, and galvanized steel pendants.
But first, you have to get inside. Lesson learned: Enter through the left door, the one that leads down the hallway toward the ordering area and the soda fountain (which dispenses only Excel-brand, real sugar sodas made in Breese, Ill.). The door on the right lands you smack in the middle of the dining room, looking foolish as you “excuse me, pardon me” your way to the back of the cafeteria-style line.
Once in the queue, there are sandwiches, plates, sides and meat by the ounce and pound to choose from. While there are several smoked turkey offerings, there is no chicken (except as a special sometimes). Here, the focus is on pork, grass-fed beef and sausage. At the cash register, there is beer – craft and otherwise – wine and boozy milkshakes. Everything but the sides is served on butcher-paper-lined jellyroll pans.
Another lesson: Be prepared for disappointment. Like other small, local ’cue joints, Sugarfire makes only so much, and when it’s gone, it’s gone for the day. Looking forward to brisket and ribs on my first visit – the two items by which every barbecue place is judged – I found none. On subsequent visits, when both were plentiful, I was still disappointed.
It wasn’t the quality of the meat. The brisket was dry-rubbed, smoked all night and cut thicker than normal by hand. It was tender, with a meaty texture and deep, beefy flavor. And the baby-back pork ribs had a beautiful mahogany hue on the outside, a vivid pink tint inside and that toothsome chew that makes gnawing ribs such a primal delight. It’s enough to eat them as is, dry-rubbed with a sweet, salty, pepper mixture. Is that onion powder? Paprika? Some cayenne? Brown sugar? The kitchen won’t tell, but you can buy a jar to take home.
So, no, it wasn’t the meat I found disappointing. It was the lack of smoke flavor. Sugarfire uses hickory and cherry logs in its smokers – you can smell the smoke, you leave smelling like it – but I tasted none of it. Not when eating in the restaurant, not at home with takeout.
Maybe some smoky barbecue sauce would help. Sugarfire covers all geographic regions with its sauce styles, each made in-house, excluding ketchup and mustard. I’m partial to KC sauce and Sugarfire’s is a good contender. There’s also the Texas Hot (more a medium-hot); Carolina mustard; white barbecue sauce made with a horseradish base; Sugarfire 47 made with onion, apples and raisins; and an intriguing coffee-based version. It’d be nice to know more about the sauces; maybe a table tent that explains each one.
All sides are made in-house but are not always well executed. There are baked beans (a mix of black, pinto and Navy that was too runny), fries (sometimes crisp and perfect, sometimes soggy and puny), and daily specials like cheesy grits, jambalaya and brisket-barley soup. The sweet potato salad of the day was chock-full of big, juicy whole cranberries, crunchy celery and salty pecans but overloaded with mayonnaise. Creamy, tangy coleslaw and a special of chunky, skin-on red potato salad were the stars.
Then there’s the burger, which, like the brisket, boasts grass-fed beef from Doniphan, Mo.’s Rain Crow Ranch – a blend of brisket, short-rib and chuck that gets ground daily in the kitchen. It’s hand-pattied, smashed thin and griddled to get those crispy edges. Salt and pepper are all the seasoning this delicious patty gets while cooking, before being served on a bun that’s soft enough that your fingers leave little indentations. There’s also the damn fine Big Muddy, a delicious towering mess of a sandwich piled high with scraps of brisket, slices of house-smoked sausage, lettuce and pickles. It’s drenched with so much sweet and white barbecue sauces that bibs should be issued, or at least a roll of paper towels.
With pastry chef Carolyn Downs doing the baking, cookies and pies are no afterthought. Her apple pie is layered high, has a flaky crust and exudes just enough sweetness to be called pie. Crack pie, a cross between gooey butter cake and chess pie, is as addictive as its name implies.
Calvin Trillin, the New York journalist and food writer who grew up in Kansas City, once said, “Ten or fifteen years ago, if someone asked me what to do if you had a barbecue craving in New York, I’d say, ‘Get in a cab, go to LaGuardia Airport and fly to Kansas City.’” I would have recommended the same, from Lambert. Nowadays, while I think KC still smokes St. Louis ’cue, my trips west are less frequent.
Sugarfire Smoke House, 9200 Olive Blvd., Olivette, 314.997.2301, sugarfiresmokehouse.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Ribs, Big Muddy sandwich, burger.
Made to look like a roadhouse barbecue joint, even if a bit forced. The dining room can be challenging to navigate with a full tray. The cafeteria line and clear-your-own-table practice mean extra work.
Sandwiches: $4.50 to $9.50. Plates: $11 to $14.
Daily – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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