I was in St. Louis recently doing some training sessions for dealers in the area. I found myself out in O'Fallon, IL one evening completely wondering where I was going to have dinner that night. I wasn't overly familiar with the area and have only spent a couple nights on the Illinois side of the river when I've come to St. Louis. I've been told by a couple of people that there was a good steak house/supper club in O'Fallon and a place that had pretty good gyros not far from my hotel. I finally a place that I've heard about many times in my travels, but had not been to - the 17th St. Bar and Grill. The original 17th St. Bar and Grill is in Murphysboro in southern Illinois. But I don't have any dealers that far south in Illinois that would allow me to get down there to try the place. I was surprised to find a 17th St. Bar and Grill in O'Fallon not far from my hotel.
The 17th St. Bar and Grill is run by Mike Mills who is rather famous in barbecue circles. Mills is the only three time Grand World Champion of the prestigious Memphis in May contest - the Super Bowl of barbecue. He won his awards in 1990, 1992 and 1994. And he was only .02 points short of winning his fourth championship one year. That alone should cement Mills' place among the the all-time greats of barbecue. But Mills has also won four World Championships in barbecue (Mills' bio doesn't list where these events took place, but I'm guessing it was also at Memphis in May), and has won numerous local, state, regional, national and international contests for both his barbecue and his homemade barbecue sauce.
Mills got his barbecue genes from his father, Leon, who used to host neighborhood cook-outs in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, MO. The elder Mills' would dig a hole in the ground, put fire wood in the hole and placed a metal grate over the hole for a true barbecue pit. This was long before any above ground barbecue cookers were available. Leon Mills gained a reputation for not only his great barbecue, but his great barbecue sauce - a mustard/vinegar based sauce that was tangy and flavorful.
Unfortunately, Leon Mills died at the age of 42 so it was up to his family to carry on his legacy. Mills' wife, Faye, continued to make the homemade barbecue sauce. It got to a point where enough people convinced her to bottle the sauce and sell it. She was making the sauce at home for the original 17th St. Bar and Grill restaurant until it became too much for her to keep up with the demand. I believe I read somewhere that 17th St. Bar and Grill goes through 500 gallons of sauce a week.
The 17th St. Bar and Grill was the culmination of a dream that Mills' father had before he died - he wanted to open his own restaurant to serve his style of barbecue. Mike Mills opened his first barbecue restaurant in Murphysboro in 1985. In 1988, along with some friends, Mills formed the Apple City Barbecue Team, a competitive barbecue team that would enter their first competition that year. Their first effort garnered them 3rd place in the "best ribs" category at a contest in Murphysboro, but they soon found their way and began to win more competitions leading to their first Memphis in May championship in 1990.
Mike Mills has been featured in a number of print article and has appeared on television numerous times. In addition to the four 17th St. Bar and Grill locations, Mills also owns three Las Vegas area barbecue restaurants - Memphis Championship Barbecue - and also has been an adviser to owner of the the award winning Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant in New York City. Mills has also co-authored a book - Peace, Love and Barbecue - that chronicles the passion he and other pitmasters have for their profession. It features a number of recipes from the Mills family and other famous barbecue masters, as well as a number of stories about barbecuing.
With a pedigree like that, you'd almost think that any barbecue aficionado would have to make a pilgrimage to one of Mills' restaurants. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that his O'Fallon location was less than three miles from the hotel I was staying in that evening (see map). I pulled into the place around 7:30 p.m. and was met by a girl at the hostess counter. There was a large dining area, but a pretty large bar area, as well. They had some post-season baseball on the television and I asked if it was OK to sit in the bar. She said, "Sure!" She guided me into the bar area and placed a menu on the bar for me to look through.
The bartender that evening, Cassie, asked me what I wanted and I ordered up a Bud Light. Unfortunately, the draft Bud Light wasn't all that cold. First strike against any barbecue restaurant that serves beer - it has to be cold. This was more like about 50 degrees. Ehhh...
The menu at 17th St. Bar and Grill is wide and diverse with a large selection of appetizers, sandwiches and entrees featuring barbecued chicken, beef and pork. In addition to Mills' award winning barbecued ribs, the 17th St. Bar and Grill also features steaks, pork chops and grilled seafood. But I was there for the barbecue.
After hunting around the rather large menu, I was able to find the combination section of the menu. I always like to try a couple three things at a barbecue joint that is new to me. And 17th St. Bar and Grill had the perfect combination for me - the Blue Ribbon Selection combo meal. I was able to choose three different types of meat along with two of the restaurants numerous sides. I ordered a combo of beef brisket, pulled pork shoulder and baby back ribs. I was torn what to get for my sides as there were just too many to choose from. They had french fries, hush-puppies, collard greens, red beans and rice, sauerkraut, steamed veggies, mac and cheese - the list went on and on. I was completely confused because I really wanted to try about four or five sides. Cassie told me the cole slaw was very good. I took her on her word. I also ordered up some of the 17th St. Bar and Grill baked beans.
Not long after I ordered, my food was brought out by a waitress. The plate was large, but full of generous portions of the meat. The cole slaw and baked beans were in their own serving dishes. To my chagrin, Mills' original barbecue sauce was poured across the top of the meats. I'd rather have my barbecue served dry and allow me to add whatever sauce that I wanted. But I guess the Mills' sauce is their signature and they've been serving it that way for years. (Mike Mills says the sauce is made from a recipe that's over 100 years old.)
I tried the ribs first. 17th St. Bar and Grill also features a homemade rub called "Mike's Magic Dust" made from 18 different spices and herbs that Mills conjured up years ago. They sprinkle the "magic dust" on the ribs before they cook them and the first thing I noticed is there's a lot of salt in it, because that's exactly how they tasted to me - too salty.
The original Mills family sauce was good, but I'm not big on mustard/vinegar sauces. (Mills uses white rice vinegar in his sauce - it doesn't have the acidic taste other vinegars have.) Fortunately, they also had some of their "spicy" sauce that was sweeter, but it wasn't all that spicy. You got a little kick in the taste buds, but not enough that it was overpowering.
The ribs were very good - the meat was flavorful and tender. But the saltiness of the "magic dust" was almost a little too much for me. I'm a guy that hardly puts salt on anything and the salt flavor on the ribs was tremendously heightened on my taste buds. Any meat rub concoction with a medium amount of salt tastes too salty to me.
The pulled pork was also a little bit salty to my taste, but it was still very good. The sweet and spicy sauce helped cover the taste of the salt and was a good complement to the pulled pork.
The brisket, however, was outstanding. The thin cuts of beef had a nice little smoke ring at the top and the "magic dust" taste was minimal. Coupled with the spicy sweet sauce, the taste sensation was the best of the three meats.
The baked beans were good, especially when I added some of the sweet and spicy sauce to them. But I was not impressed with the cole slaw. It was rather bland and, well... I just didn't care for it. I'm sure some people - like Cassie - like it, but I wish I would have gotten something else.
As I finished up my meal, it turned out that one of the managers of the 17th St. Bar and Grill was seated at the end of the bar talking to employees before she went home for the evening. We struck up a conversation about this particular location and she told me that the building originally housed one of the Super Smokers barbecue restaurants - one of my all-time favorite barbecue joints in the St. Louis area that went out of business a few years back. (Super Smokers has since re-opened out in St. Peters, MO not far from the old company that I used to work for years ago.)
She told me that a couple of the former owners of Super Smokers helped Mike Mills procure the place and they opened the 17th St. Bar and Grill in O'Fallon in February of 2007. She said that she used to work at the old Super Smokers location and that the pit master, Cassie the bartender, and one other person are still left from the old days.
The Food Network's Food Feuds program pitted (sorry for the pun) 17th St. Bar and Grill up against Pappy's Smokehouse earlier this fall. (See my entry on Pappy's here.) The episode just aired this past week and five judges from the St. Louis Barbecue Society along with host Michael Symon (a former Iron Chef America winner in 2007) named 17th St. Bar and Grill as having the best baby back ribs in St. Louis. Symon thought that smoking method Mike Mills uses (about 210 degrees for six hours over fruit wood) made the meat on 17th Street's ribs more tender and flavorful. He also liked the Magic Dust rub over Pappy's herb-based rub.
I have mixed feelings about the 17th St. Bar and Grill. I thought the baby back ribs were a bit too salty and I didn't care much for the Mills' family sauce - which is probably akin to saying their child is ugly. But the pulled pork was very good and the brisket was just excellent. And I did like the sweet and spicy sauce, as well. I tried to buy some at the little shop they had in the lobby, but for some reason they were out of it.
I would have to say that while I prefer Pappy's over 17th St. Bar and Grill, I can see why some people would say the opposite - they're both very good at what they do. And that's not to say that I'll not go back to 17th St. Bar and Grill at some point - I definitely will. But I'll probably stick with the brisket and not get the cole slaw on my next visit.
(November 2013 Update - Citing that the restaurant was "not doing what it needed to do", Mike Mills announced that he would be closing his O'Fallon location at the end of November. Mills also cited the Affordable Care Act as a reason he would be closing the restaurant. The original Murphysboro location and the Marion, IL location will stay open.)