Tour legendary St. Louis barbecue joints with Beast Craft BBQ's David Sandusky
David Sandusky is one of the new kids on the St. Louis barbecue block. The home of the pork steak and square-cut ribs has a long, vibrant history, joined more recently by a spate of chefs and owners with formal restaurant backgrounds and plenty of social media savvy like Sandusky.
He left a career in fine dining to enter the world of meat and fire, eventually opening Beast Craft BBQ Co. in Belleville with his wife, Meggan Sandusky, in late 2014. The next project in his budding empire, Beast Butcher & Block, is a restaurant/butcher shop/event space scheduled to open in The Grove later this year.
While he has received plenty of accolades since opening Beast, Sandusky is aware of how he fits into the tradition he’s a part of. New places like his wouldn’t exist without the many old-school mom-and-pop spots that are the bedrock of the scene.
“[St. Louis] is a new food city, but it has some grass roots that need to be addressed,” Sandusky said. “We all came from somewhere.”
Smoki O’s, established in 1997, is located on a fairly desolate strip of Broadway in North City. The building is a squat concrete bunker with only the smoker out back and sign out front hinting at the goodness within. The interior is more than cozy, consisting of an order window and micro seating area decorated with photos of old Negro League baseball teams. While we perused the menu, an older gentleman sat dozing with his head resting on his cane, waiting for his order while Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder played on the radio.
One of the guys in the kitchen recognized Sandusky from a barbecue event and came around the counter to say hi. He recommended we try the links, snoots (snout and jowls) and baked beans.
Quality snoots are a mark of a top-notch barbecue joint, Sandusky opined, acknowledging that many places won’t even attempt them because they’re so hard to do well. “Snoots are one of my favorite items on my menu,” he said.
Smoki O’s co-owner Otis Walker has been a particular inspiration to Sandusky because of his facility cooking that St. Louis signature dish. We dug in and gave Smoki O’s version the thumbs up – crispy with a little bit of chew to it. The sausage link was nicely smoky with a good consistency – not rubbery in the least, with just the right amount of give. The baked beans were a bit heavy on the cinnamon for my taste, but satisfying nonetheless.
It’s impossible to partake of quality barbecue without appreciating the time that goes into it. Walker is a paragon of hard work, something Sandusky highly values. “He’s like 65, and he’s still doing it all himself,” he said.
Roper’s Ribs in Jennings bills itself as the “Best BBQ in the Universe” – a bold statement we felt the need to put to the test. With ribs in the name of the restaurant, we started there. Both the beef and pork proved tender and flavorful, with the pork edging ahead in terms of texture. They were served with a side of chunky church picnic-style potato salad heavy on the mayo, and the whole repast required many, many napkins.
Denise and Carl Roper have run this barbecue shop for the last 25 years, though they’ve been in the business longer. When she found out the purpose of our visit, Denise laughed. “Just remember when you write them up, to call them ‘legends,’ not old folks.”
She was unconcerned about the attention “youngsters” like Sandusky are receiving and didn’t feel overlooked like Sandusky was worried about after hearing some longtime barbecue purveyors around town felt newer joints like his get all of the love. “Competition is something to be embraced, not feared,” she said. “We’re all part of a barbecue family.”
On our way out, Carl came out from the kitchen to regale us with stories of some of the pro wrestlers who’ve stopped by over the years to gorge themselves in hours-long eating sessions, from Jake “The Snake” Roberts to Harley Race. He then showed us a video of the time Roper’s won Best Ribs at Steve Harvey’s Hoodie Awards, held at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. A regular came in out of the rain to pick up his order and watched with us awhile, reminiscing with Carl about all the great barbecue places that are now long gone.
We left with a sample of Roper’s Rub and a sense of what it takes to make it in this business: both owners there on a weekday afternoon, cooking, serving and overseeing the operation.
Ms. Piggies Smokehouse
Ms. Piggies Smokehouse sits in an unassuming, spacious storefront in a strip mall on Page Avenue near Olivette, where it’s been churning out quality ’cue since 1999. Unlike Smoki O’s and Roper’s, it has a more traditional restaurant feel, with a separate dining area, plenty of tables and two flat-screens playing the game of the day.
While we worked on our rib tips (nicely crusted and with a bit of unctuous fat), pulled pork (which had a certain muskiness Sandusky chalked up to the use of commodity hogs) and brisket, the only other customers in the shop celebrated a raucous birthday in the back, party hats and all, feasting on what seemed like the entire menu piled in the center of their six-top table. On his way out, the guest of honor – a Ms. Piggies regular decked out in a sharp burgundy suit and matching fedora – went behind the counter to hug the owners.
As we drove home in Sandusky’s big-ass truck, it was that guy in the suit and the others like him that really stuck with us, more so than the food; the conversation we overheard at Smoki O’s between an elderly black man and a young white man wearing a reflective vest and work boots, both waiting for their orders, the older man surprised that the younger liked snoots and chitlins; the regular at Roper’s easily joining our conversation.
It takes more than food to survive multiple decades in the restaurant business, and these classic spots do much more than feed people. Not with professional design and custom-made furniture or boutique breeds in the smoker, but by offering simple hospitality and quality food. As Sandusky noted, they put out the best product they can, every day. It’s a lesson he’s taken to heart with his own business. In Denise Roper’s words, “That’s what barbecue does. It gives you that comfort.”
Matt Sorrell is staff writer at Sauce Magazine.
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