Two years ago, if you'd have told David and Meggan Sandusky that they would be shutting down barbecue at their Grove restaurant BEAST Butcher & Block, they would have thought you were out of your mind. Barbecue, after all, is why the place even exists — it was David's success as a pitmaster at his first venture, Belleville's BEAST Craft BBQ, that thrust him into the national spotlight and gave him a platform to open more restaurants. It's more than what he does; it's who he is.
But beyond that, BEAST Butcher & Block was David's baby. Sure, opening a St. Louis outpost of his barbecue brand made sense business-wise, but the Grove smokehouse was never intended to be BEAST Craft BBQ Part Two. It was his flagship, the space where he could indulge in his creativity and push the limits of what barbecue could be — an ambitious, 6,000-square-foot behemoth with a traditional barbecue counter, a butcher shop and, as its centerpiece, a live-fire, test-kitchen, events-space showroom called the Skullery, which was designed to be his playground.
- MABEL SUEN
- Owner and pit master David Sandusky.
COVID-19 had other plans. Like every other restaurant trying to survive during this wretched pandemic, the two-year-old BEAST Butcher & Block was hemorrhaging money. Though David and Meggan had the robust support of their customers and a product that translated well for takeout, it just wasn't enough. The high cost of quality meat and sheer size of their Grove operation made for an overhead that was unsustainable when balanced with the reduced money coming in. They desperately tried to keep their staff employed, remaining open even when they couldn't pay the bills, but eventually there was no denying the fact that they could no longer go on with business as usual.
This February, David and Meggan took the bold step of shutting down BEAST Butcher & Block's barbecue operations — a tough decision, but one that they hoped would save the business in the long run. However, instead of shutting down completely, they decided to rely upon the butchery to serve as a bridge to when they could resume normal operations. In addition to the regular selection of meats, prepared goods and light groceries — part of the business that had actually increased during the pandemic — the Sanduskys decided to offer sandwiches that would take advantage of all the butchery could do.
- MABEL SUEN
- Pimento smash burger with two five-ounce patties, white pimento cheese, mayo, shaved onions, and bread and butter pickles.
It turns out, they can do a lot. Though the menu is small — just six sandwiches and a handful of sides — the butchery does a good job blending BEAST's barbecue background with quintessential deli-counter offerings. A pimento smash burger, for instance, shows off both the beauty of BEAST's high-quality, freshly ground meat and a little Southern influence with piquant pimento cheese spread. The cheese oozes into every crevice of the two patties; shaved white onions and bread-and-butter pickles cut through the decadence.
The Italian beef is possibly the best version of the Chicago-style sandwich I've had. The braised chuck is positively delicate in texture and infused with gentle smoke from being cooked directly over a wood fire. The meat is generously piled onto bread that is crusty on the outside but soft inside so that it acts like a sponge for the au jus and spicy giardiniera that brightens the dish. The total package shows why having a barbecue background amps up a traditional deli offering.
- MABEL SUEN
- Italian beef with braised chuck, giardiniera and jus.
That wood smoke also features prominently in the restaurant's signature dish, the Pit Roasted Beef & Cheese. Sandusky is particularly proud of this one — so proud that he publicly put it up against the king of St. Louis roast beef, Lion's Choice, leaving the fast-food brand no choice but to praise his efforts. How could anyone do otherwise? The thinly shaved beef is cooked directly over wood so that the sweet smoke is a prominent, but not overwhelming, flavor. The result is meat that is the beefiest beef taste you can get, underscored by the tallow-griddled bun. Before he caps it with the top half of the bun, he covers the meat in velvety white-cheddar cheese sauce, then sprinkles it with some barbecue seasoning for a little zest. Coming from someone who drinks her morning coffee out of a Lion's Choice-branded mug, BEAST's roast beef is legit.
Sandusky is also proud of BEAST's snoot sandwich, which is how he pays respect to the old-school St. Louis barbecue, brought to life by Black pitmasters, that paved the way for the city's barbecue boom. His version is as traditional as it gets: barbecue-sauce-slathered hunks of crunchy meat served on sliced white bread with housemade pickles. The snoot is like a crispy, saucy pork chip, akin to a hearty crackling. This makes it somewhat difficult to eat on the bread if it's sat too long, though when you pull it off and eat it on its own with the bread as a sauce-soaked side, it's quite delicious.
- MABEL SUEN
- Smoked meatball sub with bolognese and shaved cheese.
Though it's difficult to pick a favorite of BEAST's sandwiches, the Smoked Meatball Sub is a serious contender for first place. The butchery team makes theirs from smoked pork, resulting in a salty-sweet, rich meatball that's adequately fatty without being over the top. Set inside a crusty hoagie roll and smothered in bright tomato sauce and shaved cheese, the balls are like a porky Bolognese in spherical form.
Sandusky is toying around with the idea of keeping items like the meatball sub and pit-roasted beef on the restaurant menu when that side of the business reopens. In fact, he might have the butcher-shop side of the business — not barbecue — serve as the overall inspiration for the place. This means that, in addition to traditional smokehouse offerings, guests might be treated to chops, sausages and even those smoked meatballs over a pile of spaghetti. It's a big change from his and Meggan's original plan for BEAST Butcher & Block, but if this dreadful year has shown them anything, it's that their talents go far beyond barbecue.
- MABEL SUEN
- BEAST Butcher & Block's flagship in the Grove now hosts a top-class sandwich pop-up.