A couple people had contacted me about a place called Cactus Bob's BBQ Corral in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston. It's located just a mile north of Interstate 80 on Merle Hay Road (see map) in a strip mall on the east side of the street. When I was in Des Moines recently, I met one of my dealers for lunch there.
There actually is a "Cactus Bob" - Robert Prince is a former sheet metal worker and a self-trained gourmet cook. Over 15 years ago he became friends with Craig DeDecker, a certified chef with over 20 years of experience in food service. The two had a love for homemade foods and especially barbecue. They began to make their own homemade beef jerky and hot pickles, and for a time they sold them at the Des Moines Farmers Market.
In 2002, Prince and DeDecker entered - and won - their very first barbecue championship. Entering more barbecue contests over the next couple of years, the two worked on different rub concoctions, fine tuned their barbecue sauces and came up with a variety of sides to go along with their meats. After winning first place for smoked pork butt and brisket, and a second place in ribs in a barbecue cook-off in 2004, Prince and DeDecker decided to open their own barbecue place the next year. I had heard about Cactus Bob's, but had never really taken them seriously until I began to look for barbecue places in the very underrated barbecue community in greater Des Moines.
Now, allow me to digress to tell you a story to set up my next story about Cactus Bob's...
Years ago, there used to be a barbecue place in Des Moines called Big Daddy's Barbecue. Located on the east side near East High School, Big Daddy's became notorious for the different levels of hot barbecue sauces they had to offer. When I first had Big Daddy's, they had a mild, a mild/hot and a hot. Then they started to name them. This was back in the late 80's and they named them after movies or movie quotes. They had a sauce called "Make My Day" after the Clint Eastwood "Dirty Harry" movies, they also had "Death Wish I" and "Death Wish II" after the old Charles Bronson movies. The hottest of what I believe were six levels was simply named, "Oh My God!" The names of the sauces changed over the years, but these were the ones I remember as they were named.
Big Daddy's had a challenge where a person had to finish a sandwich of either pulled pork or brisket with the hottest level of sauce on the sandwich in either 10 or 15 minutes, I can't remember. It's not an urban legend to say that more than one person went to the Emergency Room after trying to down one of Big Daddy's hot sandwiches. One guy reportedly threw up in the parking lot after taking - and winning - the challenge. Unfortunately, it was right in front of a lady picking up ribs to go at the drive thru window. She quickly canceled her order.
Big Daddy's went out of business a couple three years ago for good after going through some tough times over the previous few years. I had their mild/hot sauce one time and it was pretty zippy. I had a friend who is a longtime rep in the audio business who had the hot sauce on a sandwich one time and he said he regretted it later that evening as he was sitting on the toilet. He said, "I can handle hot food, but that was almost too much for me. I can't even imagine how hot some of those named sauces could be!"
It turns out that Cactus Bob's has similar levels of hot sauce to choose from, if you want. They feature seven different sauces with the hottest - Black Bart's Desert Death - made from an Asian pepper that is said to be 400 times more hot than a habanero pepper and a 1000 times hotter than a jalapeno. In fact, Cactus Bob's also has a similar challenge to those who think they can handle the hot sauce - the Cactus Bob's Showdown Challenge. For a six dollar entry fee and a signed waiver clearing Cactus Bob's from any legal ramifications or medical bills that may result in the person taking the challenge, a person has 10 minutes to down either a pork or brisket sandwich while not taking a drink of any liquid. I like to eat, but I don't like to hurt myself either during or after I eat, though.
There appears to be many winners of the challenge in the past. The picture above right shows a wall covered with former winners of what was called the "Old Rule" challenge. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing Cactus Bob's "Showdown" sauce is probably hotter than the former sauce they used for the challenge.
It was a hot summer afternoon just after one when I met up with my dealer at Cactus Bob's. I had just driven in from Minneapolis and was hungry and could use a beer. The menu at Cactus Bob's is up on the wall above the counter in the very well lit main dining area. Not knowing what to get on my first visit, I was thinking of getting a sampler platter of brisket and pork. But they don't offer that at Cactus Bob's. The closest thing they have on the menu is a pork rib tips and your choice of smoked pork butt or brisket with two sides.
They feature two different styles of pork ribs at Cactus Bob's - baby backs and St. Louis-style (which, I've been told, are basically baby back ribs with less of the fat cut off the rack). They also have smoked chicken, turkey and link sausage. In fact, Cactus Bob's will smoke whole turkeys, prime ribs and whole bone-in hams for you for a fee. That's done through their Smokehouse menu. Cactus Bob's also features a full catering menu for parties, corporate events and other gatherings.
I finally decided to try one of Cactus Bob's sandwiches - the Chuckwagon - as it had the smoked pork, brisket and turkey on it. It was served on a toasted bun and I had a choice of two sides. I took the baked beans and a small bowl of Cactus Bob's Texas chili, complete with large chunks of beef brisket chunks. My dealer got a sandwich of well, I believe it was the Longhorn, which was the beef brisket sandwich. Cactus Bob's also threw in a couple of their hot "prickly pickle" spears to go along with the meal.
Cactus Bob's dry smokes their meat with their own rub spice recipe. They've adopted the "cook earlier, refrigerate, reheat upon ordering" technique that is becoming the norm for many barbecue places. This is common practice for a number of barbecue joints who can smoke the meat in advance and then reheat it after a few hours in the fridge. A few barbecue snobs think this is cheating (sort of like how I think parboiling ribs to make them "fall off the bone" tender robs the taste of the meat and you have to rely upon the sauce), but I'm of the school of thought that it actually helps enhance the taste of the smoke and rub spices with the meat when they're put in a cold environment for a few hours.
We got our sandwiches and sides and found a place to sit in the long narrow dining area just off the main dining room. Before I bit into the sandwich took little bites of both the brisket and the sliced pork on their own. The brisket was a tad overcooked, but still flavorful. The pork was juicy and flavorful and had a great taste to it. And even though I'm not big on turkey, it tasted very well with the pork and brisket.
In addition to the seven hot barbecue sauces that Cactus Bob's has, they feature three on the table - their original "sweet and spicy" sauce that I have to say is very, very good; the "sweet and smoky" sauce that is similar to the original Cactus Bob's sauce, only with a little more smoke flavoring to it; and their "Revenge" sauce that kicks the original up a bit with some hot peppers added to the mix. I tried the "Revenge" sauce and it was hot, but not anything that I couldn't handle. Actually, I liked to mix a little of the "Revenge" sauce the original Cactus Bob's sauce to give it even more of a zippy taste on the sandwich.
The two sides were just outstanding. The chili was top-notch with a great seasoned blend of spices, beans and large chunks of brisket. And the beans weren't too far behind. I probably didn't have to add any of the Cactus Bob's original and "Revenge" sauce to the beans as they were excellent on their own, but I did anyhow and they were even better.
I was very impressed with the barbecue at Cactus Bob's, so much so that I really need to come back and try a half rack of baby back ribs at some point. The meats were good (although the pork seemed to be better than the brisket), I really liked the table sauces and was too much of a wimp to even try the first level of hot sauce, and the beans and chili were some of the best I've ever had at a barbecue joint. Des Moines has a number of very good barbecue joints and Cactus Bob's has to be near or at the top. I can't wait to get back for some ribs at some point.