TOWER- If you haven’t yet dined at Neighbor’s BBQ, the new restaurant that took over the former haunts of the Black Bear Café along Hwy. 169, south of Tower, a word of …
TOWER- If you haven’t yet dined at Neighbor’s BBQ, the new restaurant that took over the former haunts of the Black Bear Café along Hwy. 169, south of Tower, a word of advice.
Suspend any thoughts or cravings you may have for one of the storied varieties of smoked meats lore – Kansas City, Memphis, and Carolina styles to name a few. You won’t find them here.
Instead, you’ll be served Minnesota-style barbecue, and it deserves to be sampled and devoured on its own merits.
And what exactly is Minnesota-style barbecue?
“The blend that we’re using, it’s a unique smoke profile,” said Eric Drake, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Angie. “No other region is known for using sugar maple for smoke. We had already decided we’re going to bring in traditional hickory wood, and then we grabbed some Minnesota-grown oak and sugar maple and just started messing with it until we got the blend that we wanted. That first bite, you can taste just a little bit of sweetness, but it’s not overly sweet. And then as you eat it you get just a little bit of tingle on your lips and tongue from the peppers that are in our rub, but it’s not overwhelming.”
The Blakes both have small business experience but have never run a restaurant. However, they have at least two things working in their favor for this venture.
The first is Eric’s 15-plus years of smoking meats, and while he’s not entered any barbecue cook-offs, his reputation is renowned in his Virginia neighborhood.
“Every time we fire up that smoker in our yard it looks like a little suburb of the Twin Cities,” he laughed. “Everybody’s there – ‘The Drakes are barbecuing!’”
The second is their primary chef and manager, Jacob Dibble, who brings culinary expertise and a creative flair to the restaurant’s menu.
“He’s brought in some of the recipes, and when he comes into a place he likes to just be around the owners and the people involved and listen,” Eric said. “And then he just takes a day when he’s putting the menu together and comes up with little things that he catches from listening.”
That’s why there are items on the menu like Ryno’s Trapper ‘Stravaganza, a rib meat/brisket combo sandwich named after Eric and Angie’s son Ryan, who just happens to love trapping.
Ribs appear to be the star of the show so far, as Neighbor’s has sold out or come close to doing so nearly every night. If you like sauce, there’s a tangy house version, and for something out of the ordinary, try the espresso barbecue sauce.
“I never envisioned it being like this,” Eric said. “We’re blessed that we’re supported like this. The word’s out on the ribs. We had to do a second batch yesterday because we ran out of the first. If you come in at 7:30 or 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, odds are we’re not going to have a whole lot left.”
The menu has the variety of meats people expect when they come to a barbecue place, and smoking it all keeps the 500-lb-capacity commercial smoker going about 15 hours a day.
“We throw our pork butts and briskets in at night when they close the kitchen. When the morning crew gets here they pull that out and put the ribs in, and as soon as the ribs are done then we pull them and get the chicken in there,” Eric said. “Then we use the smoker as a big holding oven.”
Working out the kinks
Like any new business, the Drakes have been making changes as they go along, looking at what does and doesn’t work to satisfy the demand for their food.
When they opened, a full breakfast menu was offered, but that’s been discontinued. Eric said it took too much time and effort away from the challenge of prepping for lunch and dinner.
Instead of breakfast, early risers can now stop in for specialty coffee concoctions and whatever homemade pastry or baked goods Angie has whipped up for the day.
Grandma Beethe’s Potato Salad, a treasured old family recipe, has also gone by the wayside as too time-consuming to prepare in the mass quantity the restaurant needs.
The competing demands of restaurant diners and take-out orders were creating challenges for timely service and product availability, so the Drakes made the choice to try to prioritize in-house diners during their busiest times. If a call-in order fits in, they’ll take it, but a caller during the busiest times may well be asked to call back a half-hour later to see where things stand, Eric said.
Filling out the staff with experienced workers has also been tough, Eric said.
“Some of the people we have waiting tables, it’s the first time they’ve ever waited a table in their life, and they never got the chance to ease into it,” he said. “This is our first time doing a restaurant and we’re all new together. We try our hardest, but I know we’re not going to please everybody. Just this past week we’re finally getting people with experience applying and we’ve got a couple of those hired, so hopefully that will help get everything smoothed out.”
What’s in a name?
Neighbor’s is, well, a right neighborly name for a barbecue place, but like many of the menu items, there’s a personal connection that adds special meaning to the name for Eric.
“This old boy from LA, as he called it, Lower Alabama, used to come up every year bird hunting with my uncle,” Eric said. “He couldn’t remember everybody’s name that he met, so he just called everybody neighbor.”
Eric tried for years to get him to reveal his secret barbecue sauce recipe without success, until one morning he told Eric they had to run to town.
“He said, ‘Neighbor, I’m going to get the ingredients for that barbecue sauce and show you how to make it today,’” Eric said. “I wrote it all down and I’ve had it ever since. And I’ve never shared it with anyone. I thought I’d give him a little recognition by calling this Neighbor’s.”
And if you’re serving Minnesota-style barbecue, it’s only right to try to purchase other items that come from Minnesota, Eric said, like many of the spirits and beers on tap at the bar. The restaurant’s extensive wine list reaches far beyond the state’s borders, however, with most available by the glass or bottle.
Neighbor’s BBQ opens at 6 a.m. on Tuesdays and closes after lunch at 1 p.m. Wednesday through Friday they’re open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but the kitchen closes at 9 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. The kitchen closes at 9 p.m. on Saturday and 8 p.m. on Sunday.
More information about Neighbor’s BBQ can be found on their Facebook page, or by calling 218-749-2271.