Review: The Midwestern in downtown St. Louis
If you’re in St. Louis, you’re never far from great barbecue, and with the recent addition of The Midwestern, the boom shows no sign of subsiding. Located a fast pitch away from Busch Stadium in the former Flying Saucer Draught Emporium space, the 6-month-old restaurant is the brainchild of Stephen Savage, Nick Del Gaiso and Jared Ater – the guys behind the wildly successful Wheelhouse and arcade-centric Start Bar up the street.
The Midwestern’s biggest coup was attaining barbecue maestro Ben Welch, who was brought in as managing partner and executive chef. Along with his dad, Bennie Welch, he previously ran Big Baby Q and Smokehouse in a Maryland Heights strip mall with one smoker and a couple tables. Before they shuttered it earlier this year, Big Baby Q was one of the best spots in town for Memphis-style barbecue, named Missouri’s best barbecue restaurant in 2018 by Food & Wine.
Now the old Big Baby Q sign, with its cartoony pig head “Q,” hangs over The Midwestern kitchen. Given full rein, Welch is the reason the place is a barbecue restaurant instead of just another burgers-and-wings sports bar. The veteran chef has four giant, wood-fired Heartland Smokers, stacks of cherry and white oak logs and a 10,000-square-foot space with inside and outdoor seating for about 250 diners.
But if you do want burgers and wings, they don’t get much better. With two course-ground patties of dry-aged brisket, gooey house-made pub cheese, zingy fry sauce and a tart tomato jam between a fluffy-soft egg bun, the burger is worthy of regular visits. The wings are one of several dishes that migrated from Big Baby Q’s menu. Welch smokes then deep-fries whole chicken wings dry-rubbed with his Love Rub, a brown sugar- and cumin-forward, sweet-hot blend. After another hit of Love Rub, the wings are dressed in a tangy, peppery Alabama white barbecue sauce for even deeper flavor.
Welch’s St. Louis-style ribs best exemplify the evolution of traditional St. Louis barbecue from bake, sauce, grill, fall-off-bone to Memphis-style, with its emphasis on slow-smoked, spice-rubbed ribs with a satisfying, chewy tug. Oak and cherry smoke imbue sweet, slightly spicy notes, while the dry rub contributes enough flavor to forgo sauce. (Welch makes two tomato-based St. Louis styles, an Alabama white and a Carolina-style sweet mustard labeled Carolina Gold.)
I prefer more intense smoke like hickory for larger cuts of meat, which was why, despite a good smoke ring, I found the oak-cherry combination too anemic for the brisket. It also lacked the fatty tenderness typical of the smokehouse staple. However, when brined, cured, smoked and transformed into pastrami, it made one superb sandwich.
Wood smoke is more evident with the beef ribs (only available on weekends). Cured overnight with a generous cloak of brown sugar, salt, black pepper and dried herbs, the mammoth ribs are deeply smoked before cooked hot and fast, giving them a crisp, savory bark that bites back. Poke a rib with a knife and the richly marbled, meltingly tender meat slides readily off the bone.
A Flintstone-sized smoked beef bone marrow appetizer may seem like an unusual way to start a meal. It comes sliced length-wise, topped with an anchovy gremolata and served with a roasted garlic clove along with thick slices of Mr. Meowski’s sourdough. It’s so rich you know you should stop, but can’t.
Bypass the smoked turkey breast – it’s fine, but still turkey breast – and indulge in the monster turkey leg. Like the wings, it’s dry-rubbed and smoked. Welch then packs it in duck fat, confit-style, before deep-frying to order, tossing it in more seasoning and drenching it in Alabama white sauce. The juicy, savory-sweet result transcends any Thanksgiving or Renaissance Festival turkey leg you’ve sunk your teeth into.
The Crispy Pig Head is not only Welch’s way of demonstrating his mad ’cue skills; it distinguishes The Midwestern from every other barbecue restaurant in town. Crispy snoots and ears are staples at old-time neighborhood joints, but it’s not every day you get half the head served to you on a platter. At The Midwestern, it’s only with 48-hour notice. Similar to the turkey leg, Welch smokes half a pig’s head for three hours, then confits it in lard 12 hours before roasting at high heat until burnished and crispy.
Served on a large butcher block, it makes for a dramatic and arresting presentation. Cracking through the skin with a knife, fork or fingers is downright primal. Once mastered, thick layers of luscious fat slip effortlessly from the bone, revealing collops of slightly smoky, juicy meat to be piled onto corn tortillas with accompanying taco toppings: candied jalapenos, pickled red onion, cilantro, lime wedges, chimichurri and Korean barbecue sauce. Sure, the kitchen could do the work for us, but where’s the fun in that? We’re here for the experience – and photo op.
At The Midwestern, sides are just as notable as the barbecue: collard greens simmered with ham hocks to a tender sweetness, bechamel-based macaroni and cheese punched up with pepper, potato salad with a sneaky kick, pit beans and fries triple-cooked for extra crispness. Only the dry cornbread disappointed during my visits.
With Tony Saputo running the beverage program – and 85-foot-long bar – count on an impressive drink lineup that never disappoints. His tequila Manhattan for instance, one of the monthly Manhattan concoctions, was utterly surprising and surprisingly delicious. Also count on a high level of hospitality from staff; every server seems to possess that elusive quality of casual-but-engaged attention conveyed with genuine interest and friendliness. I can still recall each pleasant interaction.
While I still long for hickory smoke and crispy burnt ends on every menu, there is no denying that in 2019, St. Louis is a nationally recognized barbecue city beyond Pappy’s Smokehouse. With Welch’s meat, Saputo’s drinks and a team focused on the art of hospitality, The Midwestern is playing its part in keeping the Golden Age bright.
Where // 900 Spruce St., St. Louis, 314.696.2573, midwesternstl.com
Don’t-Miss Dishes // Turkey leg, beef ribs, cheeseburger
Vibe // Lively atmosphere in expansive space with floor-to-ceiling windows, outdoor patios and live music
Entree Prices // $10 to $45
When // Mon., Wed. and Thurs. – 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Fri. – 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Sat. – 10 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.; Sun. – 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Michael Renner is a longtime critic for Sauce Magazine.