Pit Boss: A Review of The North End Barbecue & Moonshine

Sharing his love of smoked and sauced meats, chef Ryan Nelson takes his ’cue.

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The quality of food at a barbecue joint is usually inversely proportional to the fussiness of the decor. Stained menus and pockmarked tables are the harbingers of smoky magic and well-marbled tenderness, and, generally speaking, the tinier the pickup window, the tastier the pulled-pork sandwiches that pass through it.

Ryan Nelson’s glossy Nora rib house, The North End, has its own brand of studied grittiness. The food arrives on heavy metal trays lined with brown paper. Plunky blues music wails from the speakers. And the servers dress like preppy hillbillies with crisp plaid shirts tucked inside their black bistro aprons. It would be easy to dismiss a place that serves a smoked portobello sandwich alongside its Texas brisket (in a dining room lit by large hanging fixtures that look like stylized wagon wheels, no less) as the restaurant version of a Taylor Swift country song: all style without substance.

Dry-rubbed ribs—of both the St. Louis spare and Memphis baby-back varieties—glide off the bone in big, porky mouthfuls.

But Nelson, whose meaty spreads at Late Harvest Kitchen, which he opened in late 2011, look like Dutch paintings (whole roasted fish, red-centered hangar steak under a sunny-yolked egg), has a deep-rooted respect for barbecue. Nelson grew up on ribs from his favorite go-to in Minneapolis, Market Bar-B-Que. And prior to The North End’s summer opening, he and his father went on a tasting tour of barbecue spots around Central Texas, ending up at the famous Austin smoke shack Franklin’s around 9:30 one morning. “We walked up, and there were maybe 15 people there,” Nelson recalls. “I thought, perfect—we’ll wait an hour until it opens and get right in. Then we turned the corner, and there were probably 300 people in a line and a guy renting folding chairs.” Fortunately—after three hours and a six-pack of beer—they enjoyed the best barbecue of their trip.

Nelson set the bar just as high for his own place. He installed two smokers, which he runs in 12- to 14-hour rotations, cranking out up to 20 briskets a day. Former Late Harvest sous chef Mitch McDaniel came onboard as executive chef and pit master, applying a slow-and-low cooking method to those locally sourced, hormone-free cuts of beef. Sliced into meaty ribbons and fat-glistened chunks, this defining smokehouse staple is supple enough to cut with the edge of a fork and so full of robust beefy flavor that you can ignore the tabletop caddy of housemade sauces.

Dry-rubbed ribs—of both the St. Louis spare and Memphis baby-back varieties—glide off the bone in big, porky mouthfuls, their richly burnished exteriors a testament to proper barbecue method and a deep understanding of meat. It’s good stuff, believe me. But it’s nothing transcendent—nothing you’d wait in line for three hours to get.

The North End Barbecue and Moonshine, September 2014
The North End’s meaty mains include sliced brisket with fries tossed in bone-marrow butter.

Photo by Tony Valainis

Barbecue snobs might also bristle at the lack of certain hallmarks like burnt ends and wood smoke–scented air, but Nelson knows how to play to his strengths, which explains why he lets his menu wander into familiar territory in spots. Under starters, decadent charbroiled oysters bubble hot with garlic butter and Parmesan, and bite-size johnnycakes hold dollops of pimento cheese (caviar of the South) paired with green-tomato chow chow. Sides include mac ’n’ cheese garnished with a salty-sweet umami bomb called rib jam. And even the fries have aspirations, thick-cut spuds tossed in smoked bone-marrow butter and scattered with slivers of jalapeño. “The heat of the peppers cuts through the fattiness of the butter,” Nelson explains—and a squirt of molasses-y house-made Kansas City sauce in lieu of ketchup adds another dimension to the flavor profile.

You won’t find anything this evolved at a restaurant with peanut shells on the floor. Nor will you find The North End’s sticky, dense sugar-cream pie that sits up in a crust made of crushed Zwieback baby cookies (as per an old L.S. Ayres Tearoom recipe) or a clever list of rednexploitation cocktails like a rhubarb-spiked Moonshine Punch served in a glass jar.

Nelson simply knows what his customers want, particularly his northside clientele—and maybe rolling up their sleeves, eating some ribs and skillet cornbread slathered in maple-bourbon butter, and then washing it all down with a $79 bottle of Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon is enough.

The North End Barbecue & Moonshine
1250 E. 86th St., 317-614-7427, thenorthendbbq.com
Hours Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 4–9 p.m.

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