When you eat at restaurants for a living, it's hard to complain that you haven't had a vacation in a long while. People tend to look at you kind of funny. Or they just glare. Then they ask incisive questions. What would you consider a vacation, anyway? A week of nothing but home-cooked meals? (That sounds pretty good, really.) A week of nothing but fast food?
OK, so I don't expect sympathy. Put it this way: Like many of you, I suspect, as the heat and humidity soar, as the construction on Highway 40 starts in earnest, as the Cards fall further and further behind the pack, as the hot summer single becomes so infectious that you find yourself singing the damn thing under your breath at funerals, I wouldn't mind getting out of St. Louis for a few days. Even if I still have to do my job.
So this month I'm leaving our fine city to spend some time across the river in the Illinois suburbs. And since few things say summer around here better than barbecue, I'm starting my travels at the 17th Street Bar & Grill in O'Fallon, home to the multi-award-winning barbecue of Mike Mills.
Actually, this is the third 17th Street Bar & Grill, following the original in Murphysboro, Illinois, and a second in Marion. The O'Fallon location is the first 17th Street Bar & Grill not located on a 17th Street. Instead it occupies a sprawling, faux-Tudorish building along the commercial stretch of West Highway 50. Just look for the sign with the smiling pig.
Even before you pull into the parking lot, you'll smell the wood-smoke. And if that doesn't alert you that this place is Pork Valhalla, then the benches out front certainly will. They are in the shape of pigs; the pigs have a glazed, contented look. You would, too, if you knew your ribs would turn out so delicious.
If you're unfamiliar with Mike Mills, spend a few minutes browsing the framed reviews and feature articles in the restaurant's spacious lobby. You'll find glowing praise from local media and from such national publications as Gourmet. You'll see copies of Mills' James Beard Award-nominated cookbook Peace, Love, and Barbecue. Of course, you can purchase Peace, Love, and Barbecue, among several other souvenirs, including the restaurant's house barbecue sauce and its "Magic Dust" spice blend.
Mills has opened barbecue joints in Las Vegas under the name Memphis Championship Barbecue, and he consulted with famed restaurateur Danny Meyer on Blue Smoke in New York City.
The man knows barbecue.
Mills' greatest claim to fame is that he has been named grand champion at the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest not once, not twice, but three times. This is a run of success as remarkable as the Yankees' dynasty of the late 1990s or the Patriots' of this decade. The contest rightfully refers to itself as the "Super Bowl of Swine," and if the Food Network has yet to air a special on this year's contest, I'm sure one is in the works.
With this in mind, I invited my buddy Shannon to come along on my first visit to 17th Street. Besides knowing as much about food — both on the plate and in the ground — as anyone I've met, Shannon was a long-time Memphis resident and remains a lover of all things barbecue.
Naturally, we ordered the wrong thing to start.
What we ordered is almost beside the point. Ordering an appetizer before you eat barbecue is a just plain bad idea. Two reasons: First, no matter what you order as your main course, you're going to get a whole lotta barbecue. Second, that 'cue is going to leave the kitchen fairly quickly. Shannon and I had barely touched our basket of onion straws when our main courses arrived.
Those onion straws, like most of 17th Street's appetizers, follow the T.J. O'Pootertoot's model: breaded, deep-fried and served in a portion big enough for six. The onion straws were very thin and unavoidably flimsy, but tasty. They were sprinkled with "Magic Dust," which sounds like a euphemism for MSG but is actually Mills' proprietary dry rub. Tasty on ribs, but not especially notable on onion straws. On a later visit, friends and I split the wonderfully goopy chili cheese fries and a basket of good (though a tad overbreaded for my taste) fried crawfish tails.
But you're driving out to O'Fallon for barbecue, not onion straws and crawfish tails.
There's a lot to choose from. On my first visit, Shannon and I split a full rack of baby-back ribs and a pound of chopped pork shoulder. The ribs were incredible. According to 17th Street's menu (which is packed not only with descriptions of food, but also with the barbecue lore of Mills and his family), these are smoked in a pit over apple- and cherrywood for as long as seven hours. The result was a wonderful exterior — a little crisp, but not overly charred — and a tender, pink-hued interior that tasted like it came from a pig raised on pure autumn sunshine.
(For those unfamiliar with barbecue — both of you — I should mention that the pink hue does not mean medium-rare; it's a natural result of the smoking process. The menu helpfully reminds you of this at several different points, and I'll admit I sometimes do a double-take when I first cut into a piece of barbecued chicken.)
The ribs were served with just a squiggle of the restaurant's signature sauce. As it should be. You want more, you'll find a bottle of sauce (and a canister of Magic Dust) on every table. The sauce is a coppery brown color. Though the first ingredient listed is ketchup, the tangy, sweet sauce reveals itself one layer of flavor at a time. I detected clove at one point, a strong note of cumin at another.
Shannon and I differed about the pork shoulder, which is cooked for eighteen to twenty hours, then served chopped. It wasn't as flavorful as the ribs, but I thought it was very good, especially in sandwich form with a little slaw on top. (The platter didn't come with bread, but when we asked, our server promptly brought us two freshly toasted buns.) Shannon seemed torn. He didn't dislike it. Still. He shook his head. "I don't know."
You can also order combination platters: two or three meats of your choice, or the "Grand Champion Plate," which features six meats. I took advantage of the three-meat platter to try the smoked chicken, which had a very nice smoky flavor, though the meat itself was, as a result of the smoking process, not quite as moist as I like my chicken. I used the sauce most liberally here. The incredibly flavorful — and spicy — slices of smoked beef sausage didn't need any sauce at all. The only disappointment of the trio was the brisket. It was sliced thin and was very tender but just not as flavorful as everything else. (Though brisket has never been my favorite cut.)
You get two sides with most entrées, and they are generally excellent — especially the baked beans and the slaw, which has the tartness of cider vinegar. The creamed corn was also very good.
Still there was the question of the pork shoulder. The day after my first visit, Shannon called.
"We should've ordered it pulled, not chopped."
"OK," I said, shaking my head at the intricacies of barbecue technique.
"If you go back, try to order it pulled."
I'll certainly go back. There's all of summer left for eating barbecue. Beats working for a living.