Since Pappy's Smokehouse opened in 2008, it has climbed to the top of nearly every "Best of" poll for barbecue in the St. Louis area. This Midtown barbecue place - in the shadows of Harris-Stowe State University and a short walk from St. Louis University (see map) - features Memphis-style barbecue cooked in smokers up to 14 hours. And when they run out of food for the day, they shut down. Then they start the whole cycle again for the next day. It's a great concept for barbecue - no reheating of one or two day old barbecue to serve to customers.
The man behind this concept is Mike "Smokey" Emerson, (pictured at right - courtesy Riverfront Times) a restaurant industry veteran who started out busing tables at the age of 13 working his way up the ladder at various restaurants until he helped open the high-end Del Pietro's Italian restaurant in the mid-70's. Emerson then got a commercial sales gig, but got back into the restaurant business when he interviewed to be the General Manager of Super Smokers out in suburban Eureka. (There used to be a Super Smokers right near the office of the old company I used to work at years ago out in St. Peters. It was just fabulous, but that location closed long ago and I haven't been to the original Eureka restaurant.)
It was at Super Smokers that he got hooked up with barbecue expert Skip Steele, the co-owner and pit master at Super Smokers. Steele was a world barbecue champion award winner and he took top spot for whole pig at the Memphis in May barbecue contest in 2000. Emerson and Steele became very close as they shared a love for not only fine barbecue, but for hunting and fishing, as well. Emerson used to barbecue with his older brother, Pappy, in his brother's back yard. Pappy, who died in 2001, and Mike used to make tons of barbecue for whoever showed up. Pappy's Smokehouse is named in honor of Mike Emerson's older brother.
Steele sold his share of Super Smokers in 2007 and moved to Las Vegas to be the head chef/pit master at R.U.B. BBQ at the Rio casino and hotel. But soon after Emerson - along with partners Brian Scoggins and John Matthews, as well as investor Mike Wegmann - opened Pappy's Smokehouse, Skip Steele was lured back to St. Louis to be the chef/pit master of the place. Given how great Super Smokers was under Steele's pit watch, Pappy's has been a hit and has gained national recognition in just over two years in business. (April 2013 Update - Scoggins left Pappy's to become one of the owners of Bogart's Smokehouse along with Skip Steele; and Emerson and Matthews bought out Wegmann's interest in Pappy's after contentuous period with Wegmann suing the two for breach of contract.)
I had tried to get into Pappy's Smokehouse on a couple of previous occasions, once just before noon and another time around 2 p.m. Each time, the parking lot off to the side was full of cars and the line stretched out through the "L"-shaped restaurant toward the back door. I wasn't quite willing to wait that long for barbecue, no matter how good it was. However, on a recent trip to St. Louis, I planned on having a late lunch at Pappy's - after 3 p.m. I figured the crowd at Pappy's wouldn't be as big at that point (it wasn't), but I'd also heard that they would sometimes start to run out of food around 4 p.m. (they hadn't).
Pappy's Smokehouse is on Olive Street located right next to The U restaurant and bar, a favorite hang-out of college kids and sports fans. Both Pappy's and The U share the parking lot, but Pappy's uses the share of spots in the daytime while The U will garner most of the crowd at night after Pappy's has closed.
Out in front of Pappy's are two commercial smokers where the bulk of their barbecuing is done. About the time when they start running out of food in the early evening, the next day's meat is beginning to cook - low and slow - at around 215 degrees. They use both apple and cherry wood for their pork ribs and they're cooked dry with a spice rub. Mike Emerson's motto is "We've got nothing to hide so the sauce is on the side." On a typical day they'll cook up to 750 pounds of pork and 300 pounds of beef brisket.
Pappy's also does a large catering business, as well. Niki Puto, who was the former catering manager at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis, came over to Pappy's to head up their growing full-service, buffet-style catering business. (Update - Puto also followed Brian Scoggins and Skip Steele over to Bogart's Smokehouse in 2011.)
I was able to get right in to Pappy's when I walked in around 3:15. Actually, the place was over half-full with people either having a late lunch like me or an early dinner. Or they had been frustrated trying to get in during lunch in the past or had been in late in the day when they had already run out of barbecue. In any event, there was a good sized crowd in the place in the middle of the afternoon.
Blues music blared out of speakers located around the dining area. The long part of the "L"-shaped building features conventional picnic tables as well as tables and chairs. There is a small dining area up front by the counter with a few tables and chairs, as well as a high window ledge with high chairs to sit on. Because of the popularity at Pappy's, management asks people not to sit first, then go order. Pappy's isn't the kind of place where people will linger for a couple hours as they don't sell beer (What!? Another barbecue place that doesn't sell beer!?), so tables turn over rather quickly.
Pappy's menu - which is located above the counter where you order - consists of a wide-array of barbecued meats and sides. They feature sandwiches such as pulled pork, pulled chicken, sliced brisket and turkey breast. The food platters at Pappy's feature full and half-slabs of their pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, pulled chicken and turkey breast. They have a number of sides including cole slaw, baked beans, fries, green beans, fried corn on the cob and applesauce. But they're well know for their sweet potato fries. Pappy's claims to be the biggest seller of sweet potato fries in the nation.
Next to the menu board on the wall is a dry-erase board where they jot down what they're out of at that point of the day. Thankfully, they weren't out of anything when I walked in. I heard one of the workers in the dining area tell an older man that they usually run out of brisket first.
They also feature a number of combinations, including one called "Heifer and Hog" - a combination of beef brisket slices and pulled pork served with thick white bread and two sides. That's exactly what I wanted.
I stepped up to the counter and a pleasant young lady with a good sense of humor took my order. She asked me what sides I wanted and I decided to try their baked beans, but I was torn between getting their cole slaw or the sweet potato fries. I finally opted for the cole slaw - I thought the sweet potato fries would be too much. She said, "Good choice. I like our cole slaw."
I made the mistake of ordering a beer and she said, "I'm sorry, we don't have a liquor license." I got confused because when I came in through the back door I saw a sign for Boulder Buffalo Gold beer. But then I realized afterward that it was on the back door going into The U and not for Pappy's. I got a water instead.
She asked me for my name as they usually dish it up and bring it out to the table. But since it was slow at that point, they handed my platter over the counter. I got a seat at the window ledge with the high chairs and dug in.
First of all, the brisket was absolutely fabulous. The smoke ring around the meat was perfect. The beef brisket was tender, flavorful and fresh. On its own without any sauce, it was just excellent - some of the best brisket I've ever had.
The pulled pork was almost as good as the brisket. The charred ends were chewy, but the inner pork was moist, tender and full of flavor. They definitely know how to smoke their meat at Pappy's as there was just a hint of smoke taste in every bite, not enough to over power the natural taste of the meat like some barbecue places will do. It was very good.
When I did add sauce to the meat, it only helped enhance the taste. Pappy's features three different types of sauce - their Original sauce that has a little bit of smooth pepper taste; Holly's Hot Sauce that they claim is pretty hot, but I found it to be slightly more spicy than their Original; and Sweet Baby Jane, a thick and rich, sweet/smoky Kansas City-style sauce. I tried each of the sauce on a corner of the thick white bread and then began to experiment. I thought that a mix of the Original and the Holly's Hot Sauce was a great combination.
The baked beans on their own were good, but I really liked them better when I put some of the Sweet Baby Jane and the Holly's Hot sauce in them. And the cole slaw was the sweet and sour kind that I like. They weren't very creamy - also a big plus in my book.
The meat portions were generous, the sides were in 6 oz. cups filled to the brim and the two large slices of white bread was more than enough. I was able to finish the meats, but not the sides. I'm going to have to try the sweet potato fries the next time I'm in. And with a number of trips planned to St. Louis in the coming months, I will be back at Pappy's at some point. From what I remember about Super Smokers when they had their location next to I-70 in St. Peters, that was the finest barbecue I've ever had in St. Louis. But I have to say that Pappy's Smokehouse probably smoked 'em and replaced them as my favorite barbecue place in St. Louis. But, of course, the common denominator here is Skip Steele. Pappy's Smokehouse is, simply, barbecue heaven.