St. Louis BBQ – Pappy’s vs. Bogarts

While on vacation I think it’s important to try and get a taste of the local flavor of the region you are in.  If you have the opportunity to stay with locals and experience how they live their day to day lives, by all means I say take that opportunity.  But that opportunity doesn’t always arise, so the next best thing is to experience their food.  After-all, a meal is the cornerstone of most social gatherings, and being a tourist is nothing more than a social gathering with a community you are not familiar with.

So on a recent vacation to St. Louis Missouri, we felt it only necessary to sample the local cuisine.  Before we went there we did our homework and quickly learned that St. Louis has several foods that they claim as their own.  There is the St. Louis style pizza with Provel cheese (a cheese sauce, or “highly processed cheese” as they call it), there are toasted ravioli (breaded and deep fried), gooey butter cake (didn’t get a chance to try sadly), Fitz’s root beer (amazing!) and then of course there is St. Louis style BBQ.  And what better way to get familiar with the locale and their cuisine than good ‘ole comfort food!

Now I should say that I have a bit of a soft spot for BBQ…  I enjoy cooking it my self, trying different recipes and cooking methods.  I enjoy the typical BBQ joint where you are encouraged to get messy and use the roll of paper towels on your table as napkins, I love the smell of the smoke, and I just love the comfort feeling that some good BBQ gives you inside.  All that said, I feel I’ve become a bit of a food snob when it comes to my BBQ joints.  So many people say that they do BBQ, but when you sit down and eat, not all of them really do BBQ – not right at least.  Now I’ve had BBQ across the country – Texas, South Carolina, Kansas City, St. Louis… you know, most of the mecca’s of BBQ, that’s all.  Even after all of that traveling and tasting BBQ from the countries best regions, to this day I still have to say the best BBQ I’ve ever had came from a little ‘ole joint in Mapleton, Minnesota called Token BBQ.  Some of the best BBQ, a great family owned joint, amazing portions and price, and I never went there without the best of company.  All those accolades said, sadly Token BBQ is no longer serving…  That happened a while after I moved out of the area.  Not sure if there is a coincidence there or not… ha!

Ok, sorry I think I got off on a bit of a tangent there.  So lets get to the point.  We did our homework before going to St. Louis and all signs pointed to about 3 or 4 places that were battling for the top spot in St. Louis BBQ.  But it seemed like most anywhere you look, Pappy’s was touted as the #1 joint and essentially the founder of St. Louis style BBQ.  So that seemed like a no-brainer to try.  Then from what I came up with, Bogarts was the #2 joint in town.  And if I understand my history lesson correctly, the founder of Bogarts is a former employee of Pappy’s.  Very interesting…  Though I believe there are a few other BBQ shacks in St. Louis that were started by other former Pappy’s employees as well…

Bogarts Smokehouse -St. Louis, MO

The Atmosphere

Bogarts is located in what is called Soulard – a neighborhood a bit off of downtown that seemed quiet and well kept.  There were a few other small shops near it from what I recall.  It was a nice corner restaurant – not very big, but big enough to move a lot of people through.

As with any St. Louis BBQ joint, they do their smoking overnight and they have a set amount to offer through out the day.  When they sell through that amount, they are out.  So you want to ensure you get there early enough to get what you want.

The Wait

I think we got to Bogarts around 11 am and were greeted at the front door by what I call the “bouncer”.  His job was to monitor the number of people eating in the restaurant, the number of people in line, and only let the right number of customers into the line restaurant at a time so everyone has a table and a good experience.  This seemed kinda silly at first, but after eating here this is a crucial part of their business.  They want everyone to have a table and a good time, and this “bouncer” did a great job at maintaining just that.  It’s their way to ensuring good hospitality in their house – those that have a table can enjoy it for as long as they want, and those that need a table will be able to find one.

A line of patrons wait to enter at Bogarts Smokehouse
The front entry door at Bogarts Smokehouse. As I’m sitting at the table waiting for my food, I notice the line that is starting to form out front. We got here at a good time!  The bouncer is the guy on the right with the black shirt handing out menus.
The line to order at Bogarts Smokehouse
Once you get in the door, there is a short line to place your order. If you know what you want to order already, the decorations and atmosphere are enough to keep you entertained.

We got past the bouncer right away, and waited in line in the restaurant for maybe 10 minutes to order.  I was excited to try the burnt ends – they offer it as a sandwich which was a new concept to me but I was open to see what it was all about.  My wife got the pulled pork sandwich – a classic that seems like it can never be a bad choice.  Some baked beans and potato salad and we are all set for what sounds like a great lunch.

Placing an order at Bogarts Smokehouse
Personally, the hand written chalk menu is something that tells me what type of restaurant I’m at – it adds a personal touch that tells you you’re in a good place. Below that is the counter where you place your order.

We found an open table rather quickly – again the bouncer ensured this would happen.  We were seated about 2 minutes and we hear the kitchen staff yell “86 burnt ends”.  If you don’t know, 86 is kitchen lingo for “no more”, “we are all out”, or “don’t sell them anymore”.  In other words, I got there just in time to get some burnt ends!

The Food

Our food was brought out to us – only a few minutes after ordering.  I’ve come to love some good BBQ baked beans, so despite being excited to try the burnt ends I started with the beans.  You could see chunks of pork in them, they were steamy hot, and OMG probably the best baked beans I’ve had!  They were sweet, spicy, smokey, and perfectly done.  So good.  They won my heart over with the beans alone!  The burnt end sandwich was up next of course – and that was good.  I’ll admit, it wasn’t as amazing as I had hoped or expected, but it was good.  Bogarts mixes chunks of burnt ends with BBQ sauce on a bun.  The flavor just wasn’t as strong as I had heard others say burnt ends should be, but it was good.  However, I took a bite of my wife’s pulled pork sandwich, and let me tell you, that put the burnt end sandwich to shame!  Wow – juicy and smokey, but not so smokey that the natural flavors of the pork still stood out.  This sandwich was what made pulled pork famous!  Spot on baby!  It made me jealous that my wife ordered the pulled pork and I didn’t!  ha!

Me with a burnt end sandwich
Like a kid in a candy store! ha! Seriously, how can you not be happy to have a plate of BBQ at one of the best rated smokehouses in a city known for their BBQ? Yumm!!

There was a selection of house made BBQ sauces as well.  Now I should say that I typically prefer my BBQ more towards the naked side (sauceless), but I still have a big respect for a good BBQ sauce, so I do like to sample them.  I typically start by tasting just a dab of it by it self, and then if it passes the tastebud test it can be allowed to touch my BBQ.  That’s the real test though – does the sauce interact with the meat and it’s fats just right.  All in all, I recall the sauces being good across the board.  But again, I don’t like to use them too much so I can’t say much about them other than they were good.

The Verdict

Bottom line, we left Bogarts with bellies full, huge smiles on our faces, and possibly a new bar set for what good BBQ is.  Bogarts certainly gives Token BBQ strong competition!

Pappy’s Smokehouse -St. Louis, MO

The Atmosphere

We pulled up to Pappy’s around 1pm I believe.  Pappy’s is a much larger restaurant that Bogarts – it takes up a sizable portion of the city block it’s sitting on.  There are signs directing you to enter from the back side of the restaurant, so we follow the signs.  As we do, we pass by two of their smokers working away – one was parked on a concrete apron out of the restaurant, the other was parked on the city street as if it was a car that parallel parked there.  We get to the back side of the restaurant and there we saw the line already formed outside.  It didn’t look too terribly long, so that was promising.

Pappy's Smokehouse
The front sign of Pappy’s Smokehouse – the BBQ shack that started it all for St. Louis
Exit at Pappy's Smokehouse
While this door looks like it’d be an entrance to Pappy’s, it’s actually one of the exits. So sadly the lack of a line here was not an indication of how quickly we’d get in…
A smoker at Pappy's Smokehouse
As you walk around the building to the line you wander past two of their smokers – this is one of them. One of their pit bosses was out checking the meat later on.

We were quickly greeted in line by fellow patrons – a couple that are locals as well as their friends who are from California (and ironically just flew to St. Louis from where we live).  They were good company while waiting in line, and couldn’t stop raving about how great Pappy’s is and that we made the right choice to eat here.

Decor at Pappy's Smokehouse
The walls are FULL of decorations and such at Pappy’s. The atmosphere here is very neat. Many of the tables were wooden picnic tables, and yes, there is a roll of paper towels on the tables for napkins.
Famous signatures at Pappy's Smokehouse
There are countless menus with famous signatures on them posted on the walls at Pappy’s. It’s pretty neat to see that these big names have done this mecca as well.
Trophies at Pappy's Smokehouse
Wow, the size of those trophies is crazy! I guess though, if the competition requires smoking a whole pig, why not give a big award for the size of the effort? ha!


The Wait

The line moved rather slowly. Once the line progressed as far as up the three steps to the door there was a water jug there.  That seemed nice of them to offer us water while we wait in the heat…  Then we got through the door into the restaurant.  Well, sort of.  The door led to the hallway.  The hallway that went down, turned, and then once you get to the end of that hallway you do a u-turn and go back the way you came, then another turn and then to the door into the restaurant.  But once you got through that door you still had to wait in the slow moving line that eventually snaked through the wooden picnic tables (yes indoors) and finally up to a small seemingly hidden counter that you order at.  Just one counter/cashier.  All in all, it took us 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to this counter.  It took so long that once I had placed my order I had to run out to the car to feed the meter because we only had 5 minutes left on it.

The line inside at Pappy's Smokehouse
The line to get into Pappy’s snakes through a hallway. At this point we were at the beginning of it…
Entrance to Pappy's Smokehouse
Through that doorway is the restaurant! And another long line… We are through the bulk of the wait, but still not there sadly…
The line inside of Pappy's Smokehouse
We have made it to the final portion of the line – the line in the restaurant it self. Soon enough we’ll have the opportunity to order!

When we were getting close to the front of the line we say various employees running about doing their business.  One of those workers was Pappy himself!  He looked like a rather modest man going about his business, thanked a few customers for stopping out, and actually seemed rather humbled by the crowd that turned out to eat what he had to offer.  I really thought it was a nice touch and neat to see him there.

Pappy working and greeting customers
Pardon the blurryness of this photo, but the man in the black shirt and black/white hat is Pappy himself – the owner of Pappy’s Smokehouse. He was out clearing trash bins, restocking BBQ sauces, and stopped to say hi to some people in line. Pretty neat to see the owner being so personable.


The Food

Since my wife was smarter than me at Bogarts by ordering the pulled pork, I figured I had no option but to get the pulled pork as well.  We also both ordered the baked beans here as well, and then a side that seems to be unique to Pappy’s – deep fried corn on the cob.  Now that sounds interesting and possibly a bit sinfully heavinly?!?!

Pappys BBQ for lunch
Pulled pork sandwich, BBQ baked beans, deep fried corn on the cob, and a Fitz’s root beer for lunch. I wish I had that on the menu every day…
Lunch with a view - of a smoker!
We found a countertop to sit at, and it had quite the view. One of the smokers was right outside the window. ha!

We found a seat after ordering, and in less than 10 minutes our meals were brought to us.  This is the moment we had been waiting for – not only for months while researching the best BBQ in St. Louis but also for well over an hour in line with hundreds of others craving the best BBQ in town.  And to be a spoiler, I’ll give you the verdict right away – it was mediocre at best.  I mean it wasn’t bad… well the corn was… but it really wasn’t good either…

So the pulled pork was rather dry.  It had flavor… it wasn’t a smoke flavor though, just pork.  I don’t know if it was even seasoned with a rub or anything to be honest.  It was so bland and dry that I resorted to using sauce to eat it.  A fair bit of sauce really.  Which luckily the sauce was good.  You know, good like that bottle you grabbed at the grocery store because it was on sale – the bottle you didn’t even read the label to see if it was good or not.

The beans were fine.  They didn’t taste much different than Bushes baked beans, but that’s good because I like Bushes beans.

The deep fried corn on the cob – this is one of those cases where we are reminded why not everything should be deep fried.  The kernels just stuck to our teeth – not in between your teeth like most sweet corn, but right to the surface of your teeth.  It was chewy, sticky, not juicy, and the deep frying took all of the flavor out of the corn.  It was like flavorless gum on a cob.

I will say that a nice finish to this meal was the Fitz’s root beer that I washed it down with – that Fitz’s root beer really hits the spot!

The Verdict

Now to be honest as I write this I do feel bad – I don’t like bashing businesses and I don’t like being negative.  It’s not to say that I had a bad meal or that I wouldn’t recommend Pappy’s – I think they do have a great establishment here.  (well I’m not trying to defend the corn…)  But to be touted as the number one BBQ restaurant, to stand in line for over an hour with hundreds of others that apparently think this is a top-notch joint and for the food to come out tasting like it did – I’m just royally lost to be honest!  Something was missing there…

Wait, No Ribs?

I know, I know… how do you get BBQ and not try the ribs?  First off, I am a big fan of ribs.  And I’m a bigger fan of a BBQ joint that does ribs right, because as many of us know they can quickly be overcooked, tough, over-sauced, or just not done right.

So why not eat something you love from the best restaurants in the country?  Well first and foremost, money does come into play.  We were trying to be a bit budget minded on this trip and lets be honest – the price they charge for ribs is a little bit crazy.  It’s significantly more than the cost of pulled pork or even the burnt end sandwich I had.  Another big reason is that I like to eat – a lot!  And in order to fill me up I need a full rack of ribs because as we all know, the bulk of what you get is just bone.  So you’re paying more for less edible product.

Bottom Line

When the smoke clears, my wife and I have to say with clear certainty that we would HIGHLY recommend Bogarts any time on many rating levels and scales. However, for us Pappy’s just did not cut it and sadly does not make our list of recommendations.

Pappy’s does however hold a special spot in our heart as one of “those memories” from our 2015 summer vacation to St. Louis.  It’s become one of our inside jokes – “Hey honey, do you remember that time we stood in line for over an hour to eat mediocre BBQ”?