Driving from the southern tip of Interstate 35 in Laredo to the northern end in Duluth, Minnesota, you’ll be well-fed with the smoked meat stops in Texas. Aside from joints in Kansas City, there aren’t many other worthy spots that come to mind north of Red River. But after spending a few days in Minnesota, I can say with confidence that KC is only halfway to some of the best barbecue available on this journey.
About the only barbecue history or reputation Minnesota has is thanks to the Famous Dave’s chain, which is headquartered in Minnetonka. Dylan Boerboom, owner of Boomin BBQ in Minneapolis, requested Famous Dave’s barbecue for his birthday meals as a child. When the Minneapolis native was pursuing a degree in food science, he became interested in cooking his own barbecue but looked outside his home state for inspiration. “I discovered Texas brisket almost ten years ago online,” Boerboom said. He recalled watching Aaron Franklin’s BBQ With Franklin videos and noticing how different the black bark on the surface of the brisket looked when compared with the barbecue he’d grown up on.
Boerboom left school to hone his cooking skills in kitchens. He met chef Garrison Sherwood while working at Handsome Hog, which serves upscale barbecue and Southern food in St. Paul. After purchasing a food trailer, the pair left Handsome Hog and opened Boomin BBQ in the parking lot of Ombibulous, a beer store with a mesmerizing selection of Minnesota-brewed craft beers, in June 2021. I first visited a month after they opened. Boerboom’s five-hundred-gallon wood-fired smoker was parked in plain sight, and the food was promising. When I visited a year later, he’d added a thousand-gallon Moberg smoker, several menu items, and chef Patrick Mellon. And Boerboom’s mother, Naomi, takes the orders at the trailer.
If you’ve enjoyed the beef cheeks and smoked burgers at LeRoy and Lewis BBQ in Austin, you’ll feel right at home at Boomin BBQ. “His is the closest to what we do,” Boerboom said of Evan LeRoy’s style, though he studied a wide array of ’cue. His Texas trips have included visits to LeRoy and Lewis, Snow’s BBQ, Louie Mueller Barbecue, Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, and Valentina’s, which he loved so much that he went back the next day. He first saw smoked beef cheeks in the Australia-based Boomas BBQ videos. Later, LeRoy’s videos persuaded Boerboom to abandon the smoke/braise method for a smoke/confit version, and now Boomin is a dead ringer for one of Texas’s best barbecue joints. Try the cheeks with the mango blueberry hot sauce it helped develop with the local Salsa Collaborative, and don’t miss sides like charred corn salad and the intensely cheesy mac and cheese made with cavatappi pasta.
Boomin BBQ also excels at ribs. The melted fat in the St. Louis pork ribs seemed to help usher the meat off the bone. Boomin also serves rib tips, which are equally juicy and smoky. The seasoning goes beyond salt and pepper, but not by much. The bark on the beef short ribs is heavy with black pepper. Boerboom smokes the beef ribs individually rather than by the whole rack so those who preorder barbecue can choose from the various sizes available. This also allows for seasoning on every surface of the beef ribs, which are expertly smoked and pull-apart tender. It’s this rib that solidified Boomin BBQ in my mind as one of the best Texas-style barbecue joints outside of Texas. Those ribs were great alone, as a Texas beef rib should be, but I also enjoyed them dipped in the classic barbecue sauce or the mojo sauce, which is heavy on parsley and cilantro and gets its zing from pickled lime zest.
Boomin BBQ’s greatest contribution to American barbecue culture is the smoked Juicy Lucy. Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis made the cheese-stuffed burger famous, but Boomin BBQ took it up a notch. The joint makes its own American cheese, stuffs it between two patties of locally raised Fellers Ranch ground beef, seasons the patties heavily with salt and pepper, and smokes them over Minnesota oak. “We Minnesota’d a Texas burger,” Boerboom said of his signature sandwich, which is also topped with a slice of cheese and chopped onions sautéed in beef fat. After a few bites, it’s a glorious mess, but nothing a few napkins won’t fix.
Scotty Barvir’s parents, Tom and Dora, moved to Northfield, Minnesota, about an hour south of Minneapolis, from North Carolina before he was born. They traveled back to visit family, and Scotty took a liking to North Carolina chopped pork. He swore it off in middle school, along with all other meat products, when he became a vegetarian. While he was in college, something snapped in Scotty’s determination to remain meat-free. Dora remembers taking him to Hursey’s Bar-B-Q in Burlington, North Carolina. “I knew he was just dying and couldn’t stand not eating it,” she said, remembering his longing looks while she enjoyed the pork barbecue. He asked for a bite, then for a plate of his own. Scotty was a vegetarian no more.
“Living up here without barbecue is terrible,” Tom said. When they got back to Northfield, he helped Scotty build a block pit in their backyard. Scotty started by cooking pork shoulders. Dora didn’t love what happened to her lawn, but she welcomed the barbecue that came off the pit. “There is no place that replicates the flavor,” she said of Minnesota’s interpretations of North Carolina–style barbecue. Scotty graduated to whole hog and served it at festivals in downtown Northfield under the name Scotty’s Whole Hog BBQ. In 2020, he set up a permanent spot on the property of Loon Liquors and now offers a lot more than whole hog.
Brisket, ribs, and turkey breasts come off Scotty’s Mill Scale smoker that he hauled up from Lockhart. They’re all incredibly good. I took a chance on lean brisket and was impressed with the tenderness, juiciness, and smoke flavor. A light, sweet glaze is brushed onto the well-smoked pork ribs, and the slices of turkey were excellent, especially with the mustard-based barbecue sauce.
Hickory wood is used for both the meats smoked over indirect heat and the coals for the direct-heat cooker reserved for whole hog and pork steaks. I loved the slices of pork steak, with their unmistakable flavor from fat dripping onto wood coals and a wisp of the vinegar pepper sauce the meat is mopped with.
Some customers have been confused about the whole hog on the menu, thinking it requires purchasing an entire animal. Scotty serves it by the pound or on a bun baked locally by Martha’s Eats & Treats. The simple mayo slaw on the sandwich is reminiscent of Skylight Inn’s in Ayden, North Carolina, but is less sweet. It works great on the sandwich, but Scotty insisted that I try the whole hog, with the crispy skin chopped in, on its own. It transported me to a North Carolina barbecue road trip, with a splash of South Carolina flavor thanks to the vinegar pepper sauce served on the side. When I asked Scotty who his whole hog mentors were, I was surprised to hear they weren’t in the Carolinas. Leonard Botello IV at Truth BBQ in Houston and Austin’s Evan LeRoy (there he is again), who both cook whole hog at their barbecue joints, have helped him the most with tips and tricks.
Dora can be thanked for the rich and fluffy banana pudding at Scotty’s. She uses her sister’s recipe, which she hasn’t yet shared with her son. She also makes the heavenly honey butter that’s served alongside the perfectly crisp hush puppies. If you need more veg, you’ll do well with the cooked greens that have plenty of pork flavor and a bit of a kick.
Back in Minneapolis, Animales Barbeque Co. has some of the most exciting smoked meats and creative sides in town. This past week I stopped in at Bauhaus Brew Labs, where the Animales food truck is parked. It was “Brisket Week,” their homage to Texas, in which owner Jon Wipfli let pitmaster and Texas native Jake Johnson serve classic Texas barbecue. Hot guts, sliced brisket, and salt-and-pepper pork ribs were on the menu alongside slaw, beans, and a perfect cup of banana pudding made by pastry chef Amber Wedell.
The brisket was juicy and tender. I alternated bites of burnt ends with pickled cauliflower, and both are addictive. The pork ribs, with a glossy bark, were also a highlight. I was pleased to see brisket tacos and smoked beef cheeks—also on the menu—considered classic Texas barbecue. Chopped brisket, pico de gallo, and cotija cheese were nestled in blue corn tortillas made locally by Nixta tortilleria. Slices of smoked beef cheek were silky soft and topped with a chimichurri that helped balance the richness.
Wipfli has come a long way from the Lang smoker he learned to barbecue on while running the catering company he had before Animales. Last year, he brought in a pair of thousand-gallon Camelback offset smokers, which are fueled with red oak. He’s also added a second food truck that concentrates on burgers and is parked just down the street at Able Brewing.
In addition to serving impressive smoked meats, Animales excels at pairing them with house-made sauces, salsas, and garnishes. Much like the previously mentioned cauliflower or the sweet hot jalapeños, the pickles aren’t to be ignored. Last year, I ate far too many pork belly burnt ends covered in those jalapeños. In fact, I’ve been to Animales several times, dating back to 2019.
Wipfli, a classically trained chef who worked as a corporate chef for the Famous Dave’s chain, said he got his barbecue inspiration during his research trips while working for the chain. The ones to Texas were particularly memorable. La Barbecue and Micklethwait stood out as great experiences, but his favorite was Valentina’s. “I still dream about that place,” Wipfli said. Animales opened in 2018, and it was the only place in town pushing the envelope on barbecue at the time. I asked him what it’s been like to see the barbecue culture in Minnesota blossom around him since Animales opened four years ago. “There are a bunch of spots to eat good barbecue now, and it’s fun to be a part of that and to watch it grow,” he said. But given all the variety on his weekly menu, does he consider it Texas-style barbecue? “Yes,” he told me, adding, “If it wasn’t for Texas, we’d still be stuck in the past.”