For a while now, I've said that Des Moines has a number of very good barbecue places and one that has been on my radar for quite some time is a small restaurant near Drake University called Woody's Smoke Shack. I was in Des Moines recently one evening and sought out the little barbecue joint on Cottage Grove. (see map)
Woody's Smoke Shack opened in the latter part of 2008 in what was the former location of Sammie Jack's Barbecue which had gone out of business. However, I remember the building from back in the 70's when it was the locally famous Blind Munchies, a funky little sandwich shop run by an old hippie. There was a weekly underground newspaper around Des Moines in which the Blind Munchies used to advertise. Their 4" by 4" ad simply said, "2511 Cottage Cheese" - a take off on their address which was 2511 Cottage Grove. An in-lay that says "2511 Cottage Cheese" is still on the floor of Woody's Smoke Shack.
In 1981, the owner of the Blind Munchies suffered a stroke and became incapacitated. His house, directly across the street from the small restaurant, had a big picture window up front. He had his bed next to the window so he could look across the street to make sure the business was still going. Unfortunately, he died in 1982 and the building stood vacant for about 15 years.
That's when Sammie Jack's Barbecue came in to take over the location. A former competitor on the barbecue contest circuit, the owner of the place had another job that didn't allow him to work the barbecue place full time. Most of the time he was open only from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. and slightly longer hours on the weekend. Some days, if he didn't have the help or didn't have the time, he just wouldn't open. As time went on and people grew tired of the sporadic hours, he ended up closing the business around 2005.
Steve "Woody" Wasson had gotten his start in the barbecue business on the barbecue competition circuit, much like the former owner of Sammie Jack's and many others who have opened barbecue joints. He was in the building trade as his day job, but loved to barbecue in his back yard over the weekend. After getting into barbecue competitions - and winning many awards - he and his wife, Cheryl, began a catering business in 2002, Woody's BBQ.
When the construction business went to hell with the recession in late 2008, the Wasson's decided to open their own barbecue place - Woody's Smoke Shack - in the old Sammie Jack's location. They spruced up the small building and put in a couple smokers out back. It was an immediate hit with barbecue aficionados in the area. I understand the lines at lunch can stretch out the door in the warmer months.
Woody's is only open until 8 p.m. on the weekdays and it was around 7:30 when I pulled up in front of the place. A few people were inside the small dining area, a couple waiting on to-go orders and a couple more finishing up dinners. The interior of the place is sort of cozy with busy walls featuring a number a number of signs and knick-knacks. The tables and chairs are high, but not very big. You *may* be able to fit 30 people in the place. In the summertime, Woody's features outdoor dining on a patio. In the wintertime, they close it up, heat it and use it for overflow seating.
The menu is on a chalk board on the wall behind the front counter. Like most barbecue places that I'm trying for the first time, I wanted to get a little bit of everything. Woody's Special allows you to pick three different types of meat from ribs, chicken, brisket, pulled pork or ham and get a couple sides to go along with it. I ended up ordering a Woody's Special with ribs, brisket and pulled pork. For my sides I ordered baked beans, but I was sort of lost as to what to order for the second side. I asked the young guy who was taking my order what other side I should get and he immediately said, "Oh, get the cheesy potatoes. They're awesome."
Woody's is also a "B.Y.O.B" place. I was sort of disheartened that I couldn't get a beer with my barbecue, but that was fine for that first trip. So, if you want a couple frosty beers with your barbecue at Woody's, they encourage you to bring in your own. I ended up just getting some water with my meal that evening.
The meal came out to me in less than 10 minutes. Interestingly, the meats were all served on aluminum foil on a platter. The sides were in small styrofoam cups. From the temperature of the meats - which was lukewarm, at best - I'm guessing that they just heat up the meat in a microwave when ordered. It was a little disappointing to have it be not all that warm, but it wasn't a deal breaker.
The ribs were the first thing I tried. They had a nice light sauce glaze over the top of the meat on the bones and the pork meat easily pulled apart when I took a couple ribs apart. The rub/glaze has a nice flavor and there was a good smoky flavor with the meat. The ribs were the highlight of the meal.
I got into the pulled pork next. It was moist and tender and also had a nice smoky taste. I added some of Woody's sweet and tangy barbecue sauce and it was a very good combination. I made short work of the pulled pork. It was almost as good as the ribs, but I liked the taste of the ribs better.
The brisket, unfortunately, was the weak link that evening. It was dried out and tepid in temperature. It still had a nice beef taste to it, but it was far from the best brisket I'd had. Still, I was able to eat it all, even though I was getting full from the generous portions Woody's provided.
The baked beans, on their own, were good. With some barbecue sauce added, they were even better. And the cheesy potatoes were as good as advertised. I couldn't finish either the beans or the potatoes as I was getting stuffed.
All the while I was eating, I got to talking to Woody Wasson who was seated at a table near me, taking a load off his feet as he was finishing up another day. He told me that in the summertime he usually has both smokers going out back. "When the weather cools down, so does business. So I just run one smoker during the winter months. Sometimes we run out of some meat, but it beats having a bunch leftover."
I asked Woody how he got started in the business and he said that he used to smoke ribs and pork butt in his backyard for fun over 15 years ago. He said he always made too much food and would give some away to friends and neighbors. Someone told him that he ought to get into a barbecue contest somewhere. "I found one coming up in Waterloo, IA," he told me. "So, my son and I went up there for our first contest."
Woody related to me that the contest was for ribs only. They had 12 rib racks that they had to cook in six hours and the Brinkmann smoker they brought along could only hold 4 racks of ribs at a time. "It normally takes me six hours to cook my ribs," Woody told me. "We were able to pull it off, but we realized, 'Hey! We need a bigger smoker!' "
He told me he found one for sale up in Perry, IA. But when he went to see it, it turned out to be too small. Woody said the guy told him, "Heck, I can build you one. Any size you want."
Woody said it took the guy two weeks to build his first big smoker. "We took possession of it and took it home to burn off all the oil inside the smoker", he told me. "Then we took it to Kansas City for a contest. Our first big contest."
That contest didn't turn out well for the Wasson's. "We overcooked everything," Woody said as he shook his head. "We didn't know how to regulate the heat or keep it at a constant temperature. We were in a little over our heads."
He said that he had to bring the smoker back home and learn how to smoke on it. After getting used to the smoker, Woody entered other competitions, but still wasn't doing well. He was wondering what he was doing wrong and wondered if he really was biting off more than he could chew.
That was until a fellow competitor came to Woody one time after that at another competition and said, "Hey, if you watch my fire overnight, I'll show you the tricks of the trade." So, while the guy "drank and drank and drank some more" with other people at the competition ("Boy, that guy could drink," Woody told me with a laugh), Woody watched his fire on his smoker. The guy went back to the hotel, telling Woody he'd be back at 5 a.m. 5 a.m. came and went, and the guy was nowhere in sight. 6 a.m. came and Woody got to be concerned. He told me, "I called my wife and I said, 'I don't know where he is. He could still be dead drunk somewhere.' "
Woody said that he finally called the guy at the hotel sometime before 7 a.m. and asked him if he remembered he had a competition that day. "He told me, 'Yeah, yeah! I'm on my way," Woody related. True to his word, the guy showed Woody some of the ins and outs of competitive barbecue and that got him going. Woody said, "And today, that guy is my best friend in the business."
Woody said he doesn't do much competing any longer. "We do a lot of catering, especially in the summer months when a lot of those competitions are going on," Woody said. "Besides, there's a lot of other good barbecue places in Des Moines, so I'm competing every day."
Before I left, I had to use the restroom and I have to say that Woody's restroom is one of the nicest and cleanest I've ever been in at a restaurant. It looked like it was a half-bath in someones country home.
With all that said, I found Woody's Barbecue to be good, but not great. I loved the ribs and the pulled pork - even though they were served somewhat lukewarm - and was disappointed in the brisket. I like good brisket and I'm guessing the combination of a cool temperature and possibly sitting in the fridge for more than a couple days may have had something to do with that. I enjoyed talking with Woody and learning about his business. He was a personable and likable kind of guy. I'm going to give Woody's another try at some point and hopefully I'll get meat that is a little more warm the next time. If not, I'm sure that I can ask them to nuke it a little longer to make it better.