Last year, if you would've asked Chris Armstrong his plans for his barbecue concept, he would've looked at you with a quizzical stare — the whole reason he was doing the project was that he had no plans. Having just gotten furloughed from his job as the Midwest sales manager for a Texas-based brewery, Armstrong was in need of something to do to pass the time and decided to throw himself headfirst into his passion for backyard barbecue. At the time, it seemed like a nice distraction from the real world.
It didn't take long for things to take on a life of their own. Armstrong had the ability to smoke meats to his heart's content, but he lacked the capacity to eat it all. As the amount he produced grew, he enlisted the help of family, friends and neighbors to make sure the meat didn't go to waste. To his delight, they were so enamored with his barbecue that they began putting in special requests, then full-fledged orders, morphing his ad hoc setup into a more formal arrangement with a weekly menu that consisted of a variety of meats and sides. Calling his operation Furlough Joe's back then, Armstrong began crowdsourcing ideas, tweaking recipes and building regular customers until one day it dawned on him: He was basically operating a carry-out restaurant.
See all of RFT food critic Cheryl Baehr's restaurant reviews
This past June, Armstrong made things official. Eschewing the name Furlough Joe's as a relic of a temporary arrangement, the salesman-turned-pitmaster rebranded himself as Navin's BBQ — a nod to one of his favorite movies, The Jerk — and set up shop in the former Guerrilla Street Food just off South Grand Boulevard. Without changing the setup or flow of the space, Armstrong redecorated the room in a gray, black and red color scheme, emblazoned the wall with a mural of a pig with "STL" across its belly, fired up his smokers and set out to become a bona fide player in the St. Louis barbecue community.
Armstrong admits that, at least at first, he was a bit intimidated by that robust barbecue scene. Being the new kid on the block with no professional smokehouse experience and little time in the business, he knew it was a bold move to plant his flag in a city awash in great barbecue. However, fueled by passion and determination, he is showing that he is up to the challenge.
Navin's does not adhere to one particular style of barbecue, but rather draws from Armstrong's experiences growing up in both Texas and Kansas City. The result is a restaurant that takes the pieces he likes from various traditions and melds them into a quintessential smokehouse experience. Brisket, for instance, is subtler than a hardcore Texas style, its bark and smoke gentler. In accordance with his Texas side, the meat is tender, moist and infused with earthy woodsmoke and, as an homage to his KC upbringing, Armstrong serves the dish with a side of sweet and tangy sauce that brightens the meat without covering its deep, beefy flavor.
Pulled pork is the embodiment of the form, the sweet, smoke-infused meat flecked with bits of caramelized exterior pieces that give it a nice mix of textures. Pulled chicken is a pleasant surprise in how tender and not at all dried out the meat is (a common problem I've encountered elsewhere); particularly impressive is the sweet rub that gets into every last morsel. However, if you must try only one poultry dish at Navin's, get the smoked turkey. Juicy and generously flavored with black pepper, this is the standout dish.
Likewise, Navin's burnt ends are outrageously good. These stunning little nuggets are equal parts sticky bark, fat and beef that beg to be popped in the mouth like meat candy. Armstrong does well by his Kansas City heritage with this knockout offering.
However, some of Navin's brightest spots are the more whimsical sandwich offerings, where you can see Armstrong really have fun by cutting loose from the expected barbecue playbook. The Jerk is an architectural marvel, featuring pulled jerk chicken, pepper-jack cheese, slaw and onion strings smothered in tangy Alabama white sauce and piled so high onto a soft bun you wonder how it can stay put. Also impressive is The Shinola, a vegetarian monstrosity of slaw, collard greens and Swiss cheese dressed in a sweet pepper sauce. It would be a tasty concoction on any bread, but Armstrong's choice of rye gives it the feel of a vegetarian Reuben — one that made this proud corned-beef lover not even miss the meat.
Armstrong is especially proud of The Lou, and for good reason. This nod to his adopted city is as St. Louis as it gets: a sliced pork steak, smothered in Sweet St. Louis sauce (think good ol' Maull's but a little sweeter), molten Provel and crushed-up Red Hot Riplets. Even the pork itself is cooked in Busch beer, to the point you can taste its sweet malty flavor in every bite.
Sides at Navin's are the standard smokehouse offerings, but amped up a bit. Instead of traditional cole slaw, Armstrong spikes his with jalapeños and hot sauce to give it a spicy punch. Potato salad is made with mashed spuds so that you get the creamy texture without a lot of mayonnaise; flecked with bell peppers, it has a complex flavor and mouthfeel you don't often see in traditional versions of the dish.
Collard greens have a nice balance of bitter and sweet, but what makes them special is the surprising heat on the back end. Mac and cheese is another unexpected treat. Armstrong uses tubular-shaped noodles, then coats them in a thick cheese sauce that almost tastes akin to classic ballpark nacho cheese, albeit a version infused with chili spices. Alone, it's a nice version of a standard, but Armstrong coats his in Red Hot Riplets breadcrumbs, giving it a bit of texture and heat to cut through the decadence. It's both a whimsical and thoughtful touch.
You can see in details like the Riplets breadcrumbs, the proud Busch beer braise on the pork steaks or the Steve Martin-influenced sandwich names that, despite the misfortune that set him on this course, Armstrong is in his element at Navin's. It may not have been the path he thought he would take, but he's having fun on it — and we get to have a good time right along with him.
3559 Arsenal Street, 314-449-1185.
Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Closed Sunday-Wednesday.)
Burnt ends dinner $16.
One meat dinner $12.
The Lou $11.
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