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When we go to Pappy's or Bogart's barbecue palaces, there's a damned line out the damned door. People are practically climbing over each other's bodies to get at the ribs and pulled pork before the respective restaurants run out and the universe involutes into a tiny black ball of meaninglessness, right? That is a fair assessment of the daily frenzy at these über-popular, money-minting smokehouses, is it not?
So where is the line of people at another of this porktown's Grade-A asskickin' barbecue joints, BBQ ASAP in Ballwin?
Answer: a year after BBQ ASAP bought out Mr. Harry's Carnival Foods in Ballwin, it is still something of a well-kept secret, and that is something that any connoisseur of perfectly red-striped ribs and melt-in-your-mouth brisket must not tolerate.
Hey, you! Barbecue boy! Smoker hag! Listen up!
Here's what we inhaled/sampled the other night at BBQ ASAP:
The ribs are lightly sauced during the last 20-minutes of their long journey in the smoker. Tenderly, they fall off the bone, into a far, far better place (your mouth, not this baby's).
The braised burnt ends (above right) we mentioned in our Best BBQ issue this past summer possess an extra-deep smokiness. If barbecue flavors were to metaphorically coalesce in a barrel, the burnt ends would be at the bottom, soaking up the strongest tastes and tannins -- they're potent.
The "ASAP Sandwich" (below) is brisket in spicy barbecue sauce topped with sliced, smoked hot links and cole slaw, on a pretzel bun. It enters your stomach like a SWAT team, but then settles in like an accountant taking his first good nap after tax season finally ends. Ahhh...
The "Triple Dog Dare You" (above) consists of a bun with a Nathan's Hot Dog; locally made Edmond's hot-dog chile; mac 'n cheese made with cheddar, American cheese, heavy cream, a bit of barbecue rub, diced jalapenos; three other kinds of peppers; and crumbled bacon. It is a hangover-slaying caloric bomb that primes the body for its next adventure, a journey to parts unknown.
The hot pastrami Reuben (below) melts in your mouth. It might just be the best Reuben in Christendom. Sweet mother of sauerkraut, it's the shiznit.
The brisket chili (left) is a beanless, Texas-style chili that warms the cockles and could be none more beefy.
Sauces at the table are but two: a very sugary St. Louis sweet, and a spicy one made with the sweet as its base.
The beans come in two varieties: traditional molasses-and-brown sugar with brisket pieces, and the tangier, five-bean with pulled pork, honey, and brown sugar.
The sweet corn pudding is cornbread's big-city cousin, moist, dense, and sweet like dessert.
The potato salad (below), made by colorful character and ASAP retinue member John Beston, is creamy, yolky, and superior.
The house-made applesauce is sweet like the guts of an apple pie (sometimes they top ice cream with it).
We did not feel like boozing, or we might have ordered the smoked lemonade with Jack Daniels, or the Bloody Mary garnished with a still-hot rib, sticking up in the glass right next to the celery stalk.
Featured, house-made desserts might include pies in flavors like apple, cherry, pecan, sweet potato, coconut/raspberry/cream cheese, and a "cocktail-nut" pie made with pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, butterscotch, and honey. Cupcakes have included "Chocolate 4-Ways" and a Suzy-Q knockoff (right).
Everything pops. Everything is the end-result of serious experimentation.
Everything is designed to destroy the competition.
In 2009, Mary and Jim Randall's brisket won first place at Little Rock's Smoke on the Water -- "against people like Myron Mixon, and teams headed by smoker manufacturers," said Jim. That same year, at the Ballwin BBQ Bash, the Randalls won ribbons for "Chef's Choice" (1st), pork steak (2nd), and chili (3rd). In 2010 they took second at the Wildwood BBQ Bash and this year they won that contest--the Grand Champion trophy--averaging winning marks across eight different BBQ categories, besting 110 competitors.
ASAP, as the Randalls are better known, scored its latest triumph at the American Royal Barbecue Contest in Kansas City, "considered the World Series of barbecue," said Jim. It was their first year at the showdown, and they beat out 551 other teams from all over the country to take third in pulled pork.
These prestigious contests are their own subculture, with some pretty bizarre attendant rituals.
"Besides categories like taste," said Mary, "we're judged on the cleanliness of our work environment, the presentation, a story we have to tell -- either fictional or real -- about why our hog is best, and our judging booth. We're known for having a fancy booth--we have a carpeted floor and drapes."
Indeed, the Randall's booth (left), with its burgundy-and-white color scheme, conjures a classy vibe. You practically expect a butler to be standing at attention, napkin draped across his forearm, vigilantly waiting for the chance to advance from the corner and daub at the sauce-speckled lips of diners.
Many contests also have a "mystery meat" that comes out at the end of the contest, Iron Chef-style. Competitors have to work with whatever slab of meat -- pork loin or tri tips, for example -- they're given and turn it into a masterpiece.
Elaborate "barbecued" desserts at competitions, which must be created at least in part on a grill, have included smoked sassafras ice cream on pecan pie, and grilled bread pudding soufflé with Scotch vanilla sauce.
2012 was the first year ASAP dared Memphis in May, perhaps the most prestigious and largest 'cue contest in the 'cue-niverse. They didn't take home any ribbons, said Mary, but "it was an experience."
"It's a huge party," she said, "with some of the competitors' booths rising up three stories (right). Many of the booths have speakers and play their own theme music."
The contests sound cutthroat, but, Mary said, they're plenty fun, too, and great t-shirts are everywhere: ASAP's reads "I Like Pig Butts and I Cannot Lie."
"You have your friends on the barbecue circuit that you only see there, so that's really fun," agreed Elliot Mellow, Mary and Jim's nephew and a member of the ASAP "core team" at competitions. (His mother Joyce Mellow, Mary's sister, is the fourth and final core-team member).
What the Randalls won't come right out and say is that the local contests have begun to recognize that ASAP has the skillz that pay the billz -- and that now it's time to aim even higher, to direct their singular focus at the national competitions, too. ASAP is determined to place near or at the top of the whole kaboodle, and that competitive fire is driving the menu to ever-loftier sensations.
All this started about 10 years ago, said Jim, when "we smoked five whole turkeys for Thanksgiving."
"Soon after that my family and I saw a barbecue competition on TV, and decided to give it a try," he explained. "In '06 we did the St. Louis Home Fires BBQ Bash, having to round up nine Weber kettle grills to compete in all the different categories. The only thing we won was 'Best Booth' for our decorations, but we had a blast. We came back in '07...and won 'Best Booth' again."
"We had actually competed with a dish that was pounded, smoked chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, and basil, then rolled, tied, smoked on a cedar plank, finished with tarragon butter, and sliced into pinwheels for serving. It was delicious, but it was definitely not what the judges were looking for.
"We knew it was time to get serious. Mary and I went to barbecue judges' certification schools in Kansas City, Memphis, and St. Louis to learn what the judges wanted.
"In 2007 we bought the smoker."
"It's a 30-gallon smoker (left) that uses a fire box and a water tank," explained Mary. "The fire, which is made using charcoal and cherry wood, heats the water, which boils, and makes the meat extra-moist. The drippings fallback into the water and continually flavor the steam. I live nearby in Ballwin, and I come in several times a night to tend the fire and check the water level. I'm here at the restaurant at midnight or 1 a.m., and again at 4 a.m. or so."
This woman is forgoing sleep to make superior barbecue, but you can taste how crazy-good the food is.
"We actually can't sell the rub," Jim chimed in, "because it's specially formulated to work only in a wet smoker, and it just wouldn't work for most people."
"We started hosting taste tests with our friends, for each kind of meat," he added. "It lasted more than a year. We would give them a couple of choices, and go with the one the group preferred. Actually, we still do that. There has been so much taste-testing that our kids got sick of barbecue and begged us to just serve them vegetables!"
The drive to win at regional and national competitions finds a daily rhythm at ASAP. Since the Randalls took over the Mr. Harry's Carnival Foods space, they've expanded the savories menu greatly (and got rid of the cotton candy). They've changed up the interior, opening up the space and adding a classy-cool wall of mini-tiles. They kept that distinctive shaved ice from the Southern Snow machine, along with the dozens of games for kids to play. (Connect Four, Sis?)
They've made the restaurant a showcase for what they can do away from the competition and the pressure, at a (somewhat more) relaxed pace. If you live nearby in Ballwin or Ellisville, say, and you're not a vegetarian, you have to get in there and see what happens when a woman gets up several times a night every night to baby her smoker -- it's magic.
ASAP actually stands for "Always Smoked Absolutely Perfect." The irony is that it should read "perfectly." It should be an adverb. The motto is "imperfect," as it were. We value good grammar above peace, love, and understanding, but we'd wrestle a wild hog to the ground and stab it to death with the blunt handle of a toothbrush if ASAP would then smoke it for us. Because they would smoke it "perfect."
Lunch and dinner Tues-Sun
BBQ ASAP is selling smoked hams and turkeys for the holidays, whole or sliced.