Heat Rises: Pappy's Smokehouse elevates humble barbecue to ethereal heights 

Not even a minute after I first walked into Pappy's Smokehouse, the fantastic new midtown barbecue joint, I thought I was busted. I might as well have worn a T-shirt with "Restaurant Critic" in bold, bright type. Owner Mike Emerson strode right over to where I stood at the end of the long line to order, shook my hand and thanked me for visiting. I mumbled something and stared at my shoes. Time to buy a wig.

As usual, paranoia and megalomania had gotten the better of me. Emerson — look for the guy with the long gray goatee — hadn't singled me out. He seemed to know everyone. He said hello or asked how the barbecue was; he explained to a group waiting in line that the T-shirt hanging from the ceiling was from a buddy's barbecue spot in Vegas.

"His walk-in cooler is bigger than this whole place."

Emerson might need a bigger walk-in cooler soon if the crowds that have packed Pappy's since its February opening are any indication. Expect a long (but efficient) line during the lunch rush. Friends have told me tales of the line stretching out the front door.

Pappy's is one of three new restaurants in a nondescript building just east of the Loft Jazz Club. (The other two are Buffalo Brewing Co., a brewpub, and the U, a sandwich joint.) The location isn't scenic, but it's only a brisk walk away from both SLU and A.G. Edwards, a short drive from downtown and the Central West End. It's very close to SLU's new Chaifetz Arena.

"I love St. Louis," Emerson told me on the phone when I asked what led him and partners John Matthews and Brian Scoggins to this location. "Everybody goes out west [to open a restaurant]. I think our time could be right here."

Emerson is a St. Louis native whose involvement in the city's restaurant scene dates to the 1980s, when he waited tables at Del Pietro's. "When it had twelve tables and one floor," he laughs. He's also a veteran of Super Smokers founder Skip Steele's barbecuing team, which can claim numerous top-ten finishes at the annual Memphis in May "World Series of Swine" barbecue contest.

The "Pappy" of Pappy's Smokehouse is Emerson's brother Jim, who passed away six years ago. Pappy is what Jim's grandchildren called him. The eldest of eight brothers, Jim "was always a mentor to me," says Mike. A photograph of his brother has a place of honor to the left of the counter where you order. To the right of this counter, past the soda fountain, are more photos of Emerson and his friends and family hunting, fishing and, of course, barbecuing.

The restaurant is L-shaped. There are a few seats across from the counter, both individual seats along the front window and high tables with stools, but most of this area is occupied by customers waiting to order. The other half of the L has four-tops and picnic tables. An oversize picnic table is labeled "The Big Boy Table." The only diners I saw sitting there were three trim young professional women.

There's also a life-size replica of a pig. I have no idea whether you can sit on this.

The menu is straightforward: pulled pork, pulled chicken, beef brisket, turkey breast, hot links and pork ribs. You choose a meat and then (except for the ribs) either a sandwich or a platter and either regular or large. A regular sandwich brings six ounces of meat, a large eight; a regular platter has ten ounces, a large twelve. Sandwich meat is served on a soft roll, platter meat atop thick white bread. Everything, including the ribs, comes with your choice of two sides.

And now to pick a fight. Emerson does barbecue the proper way: dry. Or, as the takeout menu puts it: "Sauce is on the side 'cause there's nothing to hide." The meats are smoked up to fourteen hours over apple and cherry wood.

The results are, frankly, spectacular.

I'll start with the beef brisket. I never order beef brisket on my own dime. At best I find it just tender enough. Too often it's just plain dry. Pappy's brisket is tender — not merely tender enough, but actually tender. I'd say fork-tender, but at Pappy's you're given a plastic fork. The brisket is delicious, too, the meat's rich savor wonderfully accented by wood-smoke.

Wood-smoke lingered over — but never overwhelmed — each of the meats I tried, and it interacted differently with each. For the plump (and devilishly red) hot link, it offered an initial burst of flavor but was gradually subsumed by the sausage's peppery seasoning. For the pulled chicken, moist but naturally not as full-flavored as beef or pork, it added depth.

Unsure which meat to order? Consider that some Pappy's employees wear T-shirts that have "The Hog Whisperer" written across the back. The pulled pork and the ribs are nothing short of extraordinary. I ordered the pulled pork as a sandwich, and the meat was nearly as soft as the roll on which it was served.

The rib meat doesn't fall off the bone. It almost falls off the bone. This is how I like my ribs. The crisp exterior, with the brown-to-red shading of cooked bacon, yields to tender, smoky meat with that simple porky sweetness that must be one of the top five flavors in the known universe.

On the ribs, especially, you don't need sauce, but I don't mind a dollop of barbecue sauce — or maybe even more, depending on my mood and the quality of the sauce. Again, I should make my biases clear: I prefer tangy or hot to sweet. Pappy's offers all three, and each is quite good. The original has a satisfying tang and a very, very mild sweetness. I preferred the hot sauce, which added just enough heat to round out a similar flavor.

Sides are simple and good. I especially liked the sweet-potato fries, thin, crisp and just sweet enough, and the fried corn on the cob, which has a popcorn-like flavor that I desperately wanted to slather in butter. A minor detail that impressed: The green beans were a verdant green, rather than the military olive of steam-table green beans, and still had some snap to them.

An important note: Emerson doesn't believe in reheating barbecue, so Pappy's makes only what it expects to sell each day. When it's gone, the restaurant closes. A dry-erase board lets you know which meats and sides have sold out, but if you plan to visit later in the day, call ahead.

If you're still reading this review, it may already be too late.

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