To love southern food in Madison is to mourn
Reflections on the loss of That BBQ Joint.
The impending closure of Willy Street's That BBQ Joint adds another chapter to the long, grim march of southern food in Madison. Granted, there are a lot of things one could consider Southern food and a host of regional variations within that, but whatever it is, our restaurant scene has a pretty tepid relationship with it. It could be that most of us just shorthand southern food as comfort food and figure that Wisconsin already has comfort food covered. Several (if not all) of the southern/barbecue/whatever you want to call them restaurants we've lost are businesses owned by black Madisonians, which should worry us as well. Perhaps the best we can hope is for a southern influence to keep showing up in the hearty experiments of Madison's celebrated fine-dining scene. Oh well. Those biscuits at Mint Mark are pretty solid.
Yes, we do have restaurants that do proud by southern cuisines and overtly focus on that, from McGee’s Chicken on Park Street (which Michael Penn II, writing for Tone Madison in 2016, called "optimal soul food: low-budget, high-quality, with love") to New Orleans Take-Out to Kingdom Restaurant, whose menu spans from gyros to fufu but includes massive side orders of fried okra. Anointed One is making a stand for soul food in a strip mall on Junction Road, Beef Butter BBQ is off to a great start on North Sherman Avenue, and Smoky Jon's continues its decades-long reign.
Still, people with way more authority to comment on Madison food have noticed over the years that there's a relative lack of such places in town, even as the city’s food scene as a whole has grown more diverse, bigger, more prestigious. Southern food's place in the Madison food landscape feels like an open question in the way that our ability to spawn poke places and meh bars with somewhat-nice bar food does not. Imagine doubting the outlook for having a bunch of really solid taquerias in Madison (thankfully there's Guadalajara and El Poblano and La Rosita and Mercado Marimar and El Pastor and El Panzon and...). The restaurant business is a precarious one, and it does seem especially hard on this subset of Madison dining. Places like Sweet Tea and Melly Mell's attained something like a cult status before scaling back to catering operations. Julep, which took a slightly more high-end and fashionable approach, closed in 2016 after a run at the first iteration of Robinia Courtyard. I'm not even as familiar with southern food as I would like to be—I guess I’ve had just enough proximity to it to love it and want to explore it more deeply—but I've missed being able to stop in at Sweet Tea's short-lived State Street storefront for catfish and mac and cheese.
And that's what should matter here—the fact that southern food adds variety and surprise to our options in Madison, when we support it. Inevitably, people are going to remember That BBQ Joint for running a meat smoker that irritated the neighbors and mounting a valiant campaign to #LegalizeBrisket. Chef Clement Henriques and his staff and partners deserve better than that. The brisket and ribs were worth pissing off people who get to own homes in one of the most desirable spots in the city. Henriques would often send out generous free samples of prospective new menu items (or just extra rib tips) to dine-in customers. Isthmus' Kyle Nabilcy noted this in an early review, and the practice seems to have continued right up until today. The jalapeño hush puppies made me excited about a food item I'd previously never really seen the point of. The occasional Cuban sandwich special brought a little extra smoke to a straightforward pork-pork-cheese-pickle configuration. (Speaking of underdog restaurants in town: Go get a Cubano at La Taguara.) In any case, it's no small feat that a barbecue place made it five years and change on the rapidly gentrifying near-east side, and there's nothing else on the Isthmus that can quite fill the void. This just bolsters my growing suspicion that it's way more fun these days to look for food outside central Madison.
The cycle of loss in the restaurant world also brings with it the chance for local chefs and business owners to try new approaches, and a reminder that there's still plenty out there for Madisonians to support. Melly Mell's will apparently have a spot at the in-the-works Madison Public Market. Events like the annual Black Restaurant Week in August shine a light on a variety of black-owned restaurants and food carts, including one that serve various styles of southern food and barbecue. Let's try to hold on to more of these places in the long run. We’ll be a richer community for it.