Sunday, August 14, 2011
It's True: 17th Street's Barbecue = Food + Family + Love
Editor’s note: This column is dedicated to Trent Cannon, our server; and Chris Williams, assistant manager, of 17th Street Bar & Grill in Marion, Ill. Two of the nicest people we’ve met in a while, who I hope won’t been too upset that it took me eight months to write this column.
Back in 2007, I took copious notes while watching a special on the Food Network, “Bon Appétit Picks the Best.” The television program had followed the magazine’s September 2007 issue, which named 17th Street Bar & Grill as having the best ribs in America.
Those notes became the start of a “bucket list” for barbecue for me.
Coming home from a long road trip on a rainy New Year’s Eve in 2010, my wife Donna and I pulled off I-57 in Marion, Ill., to fuel up and find a satisfying meal that didn’t come in a paper bag.
We don’t have a GPS in our car, but often we are navigated to surprisingly good food when we’re traveling. On this stormy night, we stumbled upon 17th Street Bar & Grill.
As owner Mike Mills (pictured here) himself noted in his 2005 book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue: Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies from the Legends of Barbecue, “Most people are a little confused when they learn Southern Illinois is a barbecue mecca.”
In 1985, Mills bought a bar in Murphysboro, Ill., which was locally known for its beverages, burgers and a little barbecue. Three years later, he and his friends formed the Apple City Barbecue Team and began competing in various competitions, both locally and internationally.
They placed third in their very first contest and have gone on to win hundreds of awards, including four times as World Champions and three times as overall Grand World Champions at the Memphis in May international event (Both are records).
Mills also was the 1992 Grand Champion of the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest and he won the Jack Daniel’s Sauce Contest that year as well.
He learned barbecue from his father, who, before grills were invented, would dig a hole in the ground and place a metal grate over it. His grandmother developed the sauce used by his family, which also has won many awards. Mills’ own contribution to the family heritage is his dry rub recipe, a blend of 18 spices that he calls “Magic Dust.”
Today, Mills is world famous. He operates four locations of 17th Street Bar & Grill restaurants – including the one we would visit – as well as three Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas. He also is a partner in Blue Smoke restaurant in New York City.
His book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue, won the 2006 NBBQA Award of Excellence and was nominated for a 2006 James Beard Foundation award. It is a great read.
Jeffrey Steingarten, a leading food writer who many will recognize as a frequent and acerbic judge on “Iron Chef America,” helped to make Mills famous in the pages of Vogue and wrote the book’s introduction.
All of this was much more than we bargained for when we pulled off I-57 at exit 54B, a few miles away from the U.S. Penitentiary that has been home to Pete Rose, John Gotti, Manuel Noriega and many other notable inmates.
Shortly after being seated, my wife and I explained to our server, Trent Cannon, how we were returning from an extended vacation where we had visited many of the places already chronicled in this blog, including those in Lockhart, Texas. We explained how fortuitous it was for us find the place that reportedly served the best ribs in America.
From that point forward – likely out of respect for all of the places we’d been – Trent treated us like famed Road Food writers Jane and Michael Stern.
Donna wasn’t terribly hungry so we decided to share a large pulled pork dinner with extra sides. But could I sample their brisket, I asked. Trent was happy to comply and then waited for my “informed” opinion about it and the pulled pork.
The brisket was on par with what we’d had earlier in the day at Whole Hog Café in Little Rock, Ark. It was succulent and tender. The pulled pork was comparable to the best we’d had in Memphis.
As Mills notes in his book, the Marion version of his restaurant has a relaxed family atmosphere, despite being more upscale than the original bar location. While sometimes it is hard to replicate the quality of an original location, we have no reason to suspect that our meals could have been much better if we’d headed 20 more miles up the road that night to Murphysboro.
This also was obviously a point of great pride for assistant manager Chris Williams. Our server Trent had described us and our culinary quest to him. As we were wrapping up, he stopped by and said we couldn’t leave until we’d tried their pork ribs.
I’m glad that he was so insistent. The meat tenderly came off the bone one bite at a time and was well flavored. No sauce was needed.
Thank you, Trent and Chris, for giving me the confidence and encouragement to write this blog. Our conversation that night about food truly reached a higher level and you helped me to realize that my opinions about barbecue could be meaningful to others.
And thank you, kind reader, for continuing to follow on this journey.
Sadly, we don’t travel often through Southern Illinois, so I’ll ask you readers to give Trent and Chris another pat on the back on your next visit to 17th Street. We hope to see them again soon and perhaps meet “The Legend” when we do.