Several years ago, my former boss was entertaining an out-of-town colleague who had just one request for his time in our fair city. "I have to try that St. Louis barbecue," he insisted. "I've heard you have some of the best."
He was right. St. Louis does indeed have some outstanding barbecue places — so many that it seems like a month seldom goes by without the RFT touting yet another smokehouse. We have the Memphis-style institutions that put us on the map, a top-notch spot for Texas brisket and everything in between. I could take him to any of those places and blow him away.
I don't think that's what he wanted, though, and frankly, that's what perplexed me and my boss. Was he looking for the rectangular-shaped spare ribs that bear our city's name but are relegated to drum-shaped smokers in church parking lots? Would he prefer a Maull's-soaked pork steak cooked in someone's south city backyard? Sure, St. Louis is a barbecue city, but St. Louis-style barbecue — that's surprisingly hard to pin down.
If he came back today, though, I'd know exactly what to do. I'd pick him up from Lambert, head south to the corner of Bates and Leona, and belly up to the bar at Super's Bungalow, the Holly Hills institution that may as well be the template for St. Louis' innumerable old-school dive bars. Under the yellowed light of a smoke-stained Clydesdale Budweiser sign, I'd pass him the small cardstock menu for the under-the-radar, weekends-only barbecue restaurant now embedded inside the bar, the Stellar Hog, and tell him to order one of everything. Then we'd crack open a few Busch heavies, talk politics with the union guys in the corner and play "Panama" on the jukebox. And when that glorious meat extravaganza hit the table, we'd be clear on one thing: This is what we mean by St. Louis-style barbecue.
Super's may be a nearly 90-year-old institution, but the outstanding barbecue coming out of its kitchen, courtesy of the Stellar Hog, is a recent addition. Last March, former Adam's Smokehouse pitmaster Alex Cupp and his father bought the property with a plan to turn it into a bona fide barbecue destination. Cupp's intention was not to close Super's in favor of the Stellar Hog; instead, he sees himself as a steward of the historic bar, albeit one who just upped its culinary profile. He's renovated the bathrooms, given the place a facelift and is in the process of redoing the kitchen, but it's still Super's through and through. "Some nights, we have three generations of regulars in here sitting at the bar," Cupp said when he took over the space. "I'm not going to change that. I'm just going to do my barbecue project out of here."
That "barbecue project" represents a mingling of Cupp's two culinary worlds. The south city native got his start in the kitchen in St. Louis' country club scene, training under acclaimed chef Chris Desens at the Racquet Club Ladue. There, he learned classical techniques to create upscale cuisine for the white tablecloth set. It's also where he worked with my husband — which leads to this disclosure: I've known Cupp for several years now, and he recognized me on my visits, though presumably he didn't know I was there for a review.
Cupp had his eye on becoming a fine-dining chef, but after several years at the club he was hungry for a change. He wasn't sure what form it would take, though, until he saw the sign on Watson for Adam's Smokehouse and went inside to ask for a job. As he learned the tricks of the barbecue trade from the city's best — Mike Emerson and Skip Steele of Pappy's fame — he realized he had both the passion and the knack for the art of smoking meat.
With the Stellar Hog, Cupp finally has his own venue to show off his skills — and man, does he have skills. Pulled pork, infused with fruitwood smoke that underscores its sweetness, is so succulent, its juices are sauce enough. If you're so inclined, however, Cupp's smoky, mustard-forward Carolina-influenced sauce is an ideal accompaniment. The mustard's gentle tang cuts through the rich pork flavor, giving it just a touch of bite.
Cupp's meaty pork ribs are among the best in town, with fork-tender meat that slides off the bone with almost no prodding. The rub is simple and slightly sweet with a touch of warm spice; when it mingles with the rendered fat that slicks the bottom of the plate, it's stupendous.
His brisket, too, is positively sublime. I'm a stickler for this cut, and rarely do I find a place that satisfies my impossibly high standards. Cupp's sends me into an orgiastic stupor. The thick strips of marbled meat are cooked to the point where they get that beautiful, pull-apart crumble that would bring a tear to a Texan's eye. The fatty edge, infused with black pepper and salt, caramelizes and forms a butter-like texture that makes you wonder why in God's name anyone would ever ask for a lean cut. This brisket will put Cupp on the map.
Smoked whole wings have such a delicate sweetness, I'd swear they were dipped in honey. The interior meat is juicy; the outside skin is akin to a crackling or the crisped skin on a really good Peking duck.
The burger is equally worthwhile — a thick, char-kissed patty that evokes the quintessential backyard-grilled burger. Cupp brushes the meat with garlicky butter and dresses it simply with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. It's perfect in its simplicity.
When Cupp first conceptualized the Stellar Hog, he emphasized his commitment to well-executed side dishes — something he feels have often been an afterthought at other smokehouses. His mac and cheese exemplifies this, though calling it by such a casual name seems insulting. Its luxurious texture, like a velvety mornay sauce, harkens back to Cupp's fine dining days. There isn't a creamier version around. He's put just as much thought into his pit beans. Vinegar-forward tomato sauce is enriched with molasses flavor; hunks of brisket and pan drippings fortify the beans, giving them a deep, smoky undertone.
Those same brisket pieces make an appearance in Cupp's chili. The hearty beef and bean concoction is so thick I ate it with a fork — that is, when I wasn't smothering my fries in it. I'd put this up against any chili in town.
I could eat that chili every day of the week and not tire of it. Perhaps it's a good thing, then, that the Stellar Hog is currently open only on the weekends. Cupp has plans to expand the hours, though for now he insists he's not ready: His cooking, he says, is not yet where he wants to be.
If you ask me, that's the only thing he's wrong about when it comes the Stellar Hog. This unassuming St. Louis smokehouse is not just ready for prime time — it's defining St. Louis-style barbecue in a whole new way.Turn the page for more photos of the Stellar Hog.