For years, St. Louis has been famous for their butcher cut-style of ribs, but there weren't many true barbecue places that actually smoked their meats. Most of the places that served ribs cooked them low and slow in a sauce that didn't allow for the flavor from wood-fired smokers to permeate the meat. That all changed a few years ago when a handful of barbecue smokehouses began to pop up around St. Louis. Over the past couple of years, nearly a dozen barbecue places have opened in St. Louis and a lot of people think the best of the new ones is a place called Sugarfire Smokehouse. I'd learned about Sugarfire earlier this summer on a previous trip to St. Louis and put them on my "restaurants to visit" list. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to give Sugarfire a try.
Unlike most barbecue places that get their start from someone starting out on the barbecue competition circuit, Sugarfire has a more refined background. Chef Mike Johnson started out his career studying at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After graduating from there, he went to Europe to try his hand at cuisines served at restaurants in France, then he moved out to Napa Valley, then down to Los Angeles before settling in at the highly-regarded (and now closed) Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Johnson then went to work for another celebrity chef, Emeril Lagasse at Emeril's in New Orleans.
Johnson settled in St. Louis and worked at a handful of restaurants before he ended up at Boogaloo as chef/owner serving Caribbean and Creole food. Johnson then sold his share in Boogaloo and went on to Cyrano's in Webster Grove working with Charlie and Carolyn Downs. Johnson eventually became a part-owner in Cyrano's, but he had other ideas for another restaurant.
(Pictured right - Mike Johnson and Carolyn Downs. Photo courtesy St. Louis Magazine.)
Johnson decided that he wanted to get into barbecue and he began to travel to New York to learn more about that city's exploding barbecue scene. Eventually, Johnson went down to Georgia to study under legendary pit master Myron Mixon who heads Jack's Old South Barbecue cooking school that takes place once a month over a long weekend at Mixon's home.
With barbecue in his blood, Johnson then found a location in the Olivette area of St. Louis that used to house a former Dickey's Barbecue franchise that had gone out of business. He went out and bought a smoker - the same smoker that Pappy's Smokehouse uses (click here to see my entry on Pappy's). And along with Carolyn Downs who was in charge of making pies, cookies and pastries for the new endeavor, Sugarfire Smokehouse opened in the fall of 2012.
It was just after 6 p.m. when I pulled into the parking lot of the Price Crossing shopping complex, a strip mall on the south side of Olive Blvd. just a half mile west of the I-170 innerbelt freeway. (see map) The parking lot was nearly full as there were some other businesses still open including a pub next door to Sugarfire. I walked past the deserted outdoor seating area (it was a cool evening) and into the front door of Sugarfire. It was there that I encountered a line snaking down the long hallway.
The place was full of diners even at 6 p.m. Many were seated at tables pushed together in the center of the room, sort of communal style-eating. A few four-seater and a couple two-seater tables were available along the walls.
The line curved around in front of a drink dispenser and an iced-tub of beer and bottled soda pop. They had local beers available at Sugarfire from Anheuser-Busch products to Schlafly and other local microbrews.
It took about 15 minutes for me to make it to the front of the line. The menu was on a chalkboard above the front counter. In addition to ribs, Sugarfire features brisket, turkey breast, pulled pork, and smoked sausage. One of the things I immediately liked about Sugarfire is that they had a number of different portion sizes that you can order. You could get just a quarter-pound of pulled pork or brisket, all the way up to a one pound serving. You also had your choice of getting a four-bone rib sampler, a half-rack or a full-rack of baby back ribs.
Sugarfire also touts their grass-fed burgers. They get their beef for their burgers from Rain Cow Ranch just outside of Cape Girardeau, MO and the hand-pattied burgers are a proprietary mix of chuck, brisket, and boneless short rib ground together. The burgers are cooked on a flat-grill using only salt and cracked black pepper for a seasoning and served on a Fazio's Bakery egg bun. Each burger comes with lettuce, tomato, sliced red onions and pickles, and Sugarfire also features homemade ketchup and mustard. Add-ons such as in-house smoked bacon, balsamic-sauteed onions, smoked portobello mushrooms, a farm fresh eggs and three different types of cheese are an extra charge. I saw a couple burgers getting made when I was going through the line. They looked damned good.
When it came time to place my order, I told the guy behind the counter that I wanted to try a little bit of everything. I ordered 4 oz. of pulled pork, 4 oz. of brisket, and 4 bones of the baby back ribs. He said, "We have a special tonight that if you add the smoked sausage, it will be $20 bucks for the whole tray." I thought about it for moment and decided that I didn't want any smoked sausage. This was going to be enough meat for me.
The food is served cafeteria style with the ribs and brisket cut on a board, and the pulled pork fished out of a pan in front of you before it's placed upon a piece of wax paper that's on top of a rectangular tin pan. For my side that I got with my four bone sampler, I got their baked beans. The list of sides at Sugarfire is not extensive - in addition to the baked beans, they have potato salad, fries and cole slaw.
I had my eye on a two-seat table that was open near the second of the two cash registers, but a large crowd had gathered around it who were waiting to pick up to-go orders. I found an open seat at one of the large tables in the center of the room - actually, they're three four-seaters pushed together - with a number of sauce bottles sitting in front of where I was seated. A large roll of paper towels was placed near the sauces.
The brisket was cut thick and I got about four healthy slices. The pulled pork was stringy and the guy had given me a nice amount to try. It was more than 4 ounces, I figured. The ribs were cut into one small slab with a nice bark on the outside and a nice pink ring around the edge of the meat.
One of the problems with the food being served cafeteria style - and with a lot of people standing in line to get food - the ribs and the brisket are sitting out on the cutting board. The ribs were lukewarm - at best. They had a nice seasoning flavor on the outside bark, but I didn't get much of the hickory and cherry smoke that Sugarfire uses in their smoker. The pork pulled away from the bone rather easily and it was very easy to chew.
The brisket was even more cool in temperature than the ribs. They, too, had a nice flavoring on the bark with a nice pink ring toward the outside of the meat. The brisket was tender and had some good flavor, but it was just served too cold for my liking.
The pulled pork was warmer than both the ribs and the brisket, but not by much. The pork was moist and had a nice pork flavor to it. The clumps of pulled pork held together well when I'd pick it up with my fork. While it was good, I couldn't call it outstanding.
I tried some of the different sauces with the meats on my tray. The sweet sauce was similar to a Kansas City-style sweet sauce. The Texas Hot was not all that hot - to me, at least. They had a vinegar-based Carolina sauce that was interesting on the pork, but it wasn't my favorite. There is also a white sauce at Sugarfire that is sort of a horseradish base. I tried some on the brisket, but I found that I liked a mixture of the sweet and the Texas Hot barbecue sauces the best on all the meats. But the most interesting barbecue sauce on the table was the coffee barbecue sauce. You could see small flakes of ground coffee in the sauce. It had sort of a sweet and coffee taste to it. I remember nodding approvingly when I tried it on some of the pulled pork and the ribs.
The baked beans side was all right. There was a mix of black and Navy beans in a somewhat runny sauce. As I'm wont to do, I added a mixture of the sweet and Texas Hot sauces to both thicken the beans and zip up the taste. After I did that, I was much more happy with the beans.
I made it through the four ribs, all the brisket slices and a good portion of the pulled pork. I left about half of the beans. I got two beers with the meal, but found that I probably could have gotten by with only one. I was full and completely satiated.
As I cleaned up my tray and took it over to the trash, I took a quick mental inventory of my experience at Sugarfire Smokehouse. The meat, although flavorful on its own, was not very smoky, nor was it very warm. The sauces were good - the mixture of the sweet and hot were the best - and the coffee barbecue sauce was very interesting. The beans were all right, but better when I added both sweet and hot barbecue sauce.
Compared to other St. Louis-area barbecue places like Pappy's, Bogart's Smokehouse (click here to see my entry on Bogart's), and 17th Street Barbecue in O'Fallon, IL (click here to see my entry on 17th Street BBQ) (Update - 17th Street Barbecue closed their doors in O'Fallon at the end of November, but their two other locations in Murphysboro, IL and Marion, IL are still open), I thought Sugarfire made a gallant effort, but came up short. Another thing - eating dormitory-style in a place like this as a single person made me feel somewhat hurried to finish my meal and get up to allow other parties with more people use my space. I didn't care for that at all. If I get back to Sugarfire - and I'm actually planning on doing so - I'm going to try one of their burgers. But I'll think twice about getting the barbecue during peak times. (Picture courtesy Trip Advisor)