Let’s do lunch: Papa Bear’s BBQ

29 Sep
Nothing bad ever came out of a white styrofoam container
Nothing bad ever came out of a white styrofoam container

It was somewhat by-accident that I happened to find myself at Papa Bear’s BBQ for lunch yesterday.  I was working on the East Side (well, Monona if you want to be specific) with my new car for the first time, so the possibilities were numerous.  I wanted to try something new, so I turned to my technological  crutch for inspiration.  A quick local search on Yelp! brought up Papa Bear’s, a new-ish BBQ joint in my old stomping grounds (corner of Cottage Grove Rd and Acewood Blvd on Madison’s East Side).  An Isthmus review from 2008 offers a little more information on Papa Bear himself, proprietor Jeff Norwood,

Jeff Norwood (a.k.a. Papa Bear) was a chef at Cherokee Country Club for 11 years, but loved to cook barbecue.

how this spot came to be,

And so, in 2007, when his wife, Ursula, noticed the empty space that Bull’s BBQ had recently vacated, the urge was irresistible. They soon were in business.

and the way he does his Q:

Jeff cooks his ribs in the traditional manner: “low and slow,” as the mantra goes. He uses hickory wood exclusively (experts say that hickory and pecan are the best woods for smoking pork) and cooks the ribs at 225º for hours, until the meat has absorbed that wonderful wood smoke, most of the fat has drained off, and the meat is ready to fairly fall off the bone.  The ribs are slathered in Jeff’s own sauce, which is a fairly standard Kansas City-style sweet-and-tangy tomato mixture, very mild.

Last year I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City for the first time to represent UW-Madison in the USA Racquetball Collegiate Nationals tournament.  While a mysterious and untimely bout of pinkeye largely sullied my on-court performance, the smoky, saucey silver lining on the trip was without a doubt the food.  Our modest contingent made a concerted effort to eat as much BBQ as humanly possible in the 4 or so days we had down there and I must admit that we did pretty well for ourselves. To the best of my recollection, we were able to sample the succulent offerings of Fiorella’s Jack Stack (Q was tasty enough, but definitely had a sterile,” upscale corporate chain” feel to it – replete with oversized plates, silverware and leather-trimmed, laminated menus), two different locations of Gates Bar-B-Q (while a local chain, food and staff had soul to spare), and the venerable Arthur Bryant’s (the kind of place you see highlighted on the Food Network for its charm, tradition, plucky staff, and damn good Q).

The one concession I must make to Jack Stack was introducing me to the concentrated über-meat that is burnt ends. The charred, chewy, smoky, savory bits trimmed from the edges of brisket, burnt ends are a KC delicacy that are absolutely the best bang-for-your-buck option at any BBQ joint in town.  You’ll find them served alone, smothered in sauce, in a bun or between a couple slices of Wonder Bread, or mixed in with the baked beans as the ultimate flavor enhancer.  You can have your $25 rack of ribs – I’ll take an $8 plate of ends every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  OK, that might be too much, but you catch my drift.  The oft-maligned cast-off cuts bring the most flavor and the best value in most cases – if you can settle for a chewier, homelier experience.

This brings us back to my menu selection at Papa Bear’s: rib tips.  Perhaps not shockingly, rib tips are the narrow ends of the rib closest to the sternum that are generally trimmed off to make a more uniform rack.  These cuts are quite tender and meaty, though they often contain smallish bits of cartilage and/or soft bone and a fair amount of fat marbling.  Like burnt ends, this “trimmings” cut is a great value at most BBQ establishments and Papa Bear’s is no exception.  They offer rib tip meals in two sizes ($6.75 for a smaller portion, $8.50 for large) along with a choice of two sides and a biscuit.  Can’t argue with those prices.  You can see about how much food that $8.50 bought me.  A normal person with a healthy, proportional appetite could probably get two meals out of that fairly easily.  Not this guy.  Let’s break down the components of this classic meal and see how they stack up to my experiences from KC.

  • Coleslaw: I’m an unapologetic slaw-fanatic, so this side dish tends to hold a little more water for me regarding the success of a BBQ meal than it may for most.  This was easily among the creamiest slaws I’ve encountered.  The overall impression was ‘sweet’ and the cabbage itself was a little…limp.  I would have preferred a little more zip in the form of vinegar or mustard, but this slaw was pleasant enough.
  • Baked beans: The beans were swimming in a brown sugar-y sauce and included diced green pepper or jalapeño.  I assumed the latter, but if that is the case, they imparted little or no heat to the beans.  I was also somewhat disappointed to see no discernible chunks of meat in the beans.  Whether or not they use meat as a flavor enhancer or I simply was unlucky and didn’t get any in my scoop is unknown, but again, I was unable to detect any meaty richness or smoke in the beans.  Again, the overall impression was ‘pleasantly sweet’.  I began to see a pattern emerging.
  • Biscuit: This was your standard buttermilk-style biscuit.  While the flavor was there, the texture was more crumbly than flaky and along with the dryness, left the impression that it was just a little old or had been sitting out for too long.  ‘Serviceable’ was the word that came to mind.
  • Sauce: Not all BBQ traditions emphasize the sauce, but it has always been an important part of my BBQ experience.  Sauce, in the right hands,  has the ability to highlight the smokiness and savoriness of the meat and add just the right of moisture to the dryer cuts.  In the wrong hands, it can be used as a crutch and a bandaid – drenching overcooked, flavorless meat in a desperate act of one-upmanship.  Papa Bear offers a fairly standard Kansas City-style sauce – a tomato and molasses-base with a decent vinegar zing.  As you might guess, ‘sweet’ steals the show again and I was left wanting a little more depth of spice or perhaps a little heat.  I appreciate when BBQ joints offer multiple sauces to compliment their meats, but can respect a chef who has a vision and wants you to experience it.
  • Rib tips: The meat was fall-off-the-bone-if-there-were-any-bones-to-fall-off-of tender with a healthy (well, actually not healthy at all) marbling of fat.  The exterior of each tip was pleasantly chewy and had a hint of that trademark hickory smoke, but less than I would have liked.  Overall the flavor of the meat was great and the sauce went well with any dry rub that may have been used, but again – it lacked a depth of flavor that I came to expect from the Q I tried in KC.  Nonetheless, the meat was very well-cooked and generously portioned.  I have to think there is as much meat in the large rib tip meal as in an entire rack of spare ribs.  Value, friends.  Get some.

Papa Bear’s has managed to create some very faithful representations of Kansas City-style barbecue that may lack the depth and character of some of the KC stalwarts, but nonetheless shows that a little passion goes along way in the BBQ world.


5 Responses to “Let’s do lunch: Papa Bear’s BBQ”

  1. Kathy September 30, 2009 at 9:52 AM #

    I’ve been craving Smoky Jon’s for two months now — and you do THIS to me?

    Hey, Robin emailed me yesterday. I need to send her the link to your blog; she’d love it.

  2. Kyle October 15, 2009 at 12:04 PM #

    If you’re ever in the area, Appleton (WI) now has a gen-yoo-wine KC barbecue joint called Bates City Bar-B-Cue. It’s on the north side, and it’s fantastic. The burnt ends are worth every penny. And much closer than Kansas City, from where the establishment actually hails.

    • 43north89west October 15, 2009 at 12:10 PM #

      Hmm, Bates sounds like Gates. Sounds promising. Thanks for the heads up.

  3. Kyle April 27, 2010 at 7:24 PM #

    Funny, I didn’t even notice the similarity in names. Bates City is actually a MO business that opened an unlikely third location in WI.

    They’ve since moved to Suamico, outside of Green Bay. I haven’t been there since the move, but they’re on Facebook and apparently still doing well.


  1. The Best Of Madcity » Papa Bear’s BBQ - October 15, 2009

    […] specs: #0470  Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Yelp, Isthmus, 43North89West, Eat Drink Madison listing; official web […]

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