Madison is not barbecue country. Kansas City is barbecue country. With a population only double that of Madison, KC hosts more than 90 barbecue joints. You can count Madison's on the fingers of one hand. And two of them don't serve beer. It's a crying shame.
So we should treasure the barbecue we have. Because when that urge arises inevitably from the belly, calling for a lip-smackin', chin-dribblin', finger-lickin' rack of smoked ribs, slathered in a sweet-tangy and spicy sauce, you want to be able to answer the call.
In Madison, in addition to the chains, there is Smoky Jon's on the north side, Fat Jacks in Monona and Papa Bear's on the east side. Of the three, Papa Bear's is the least well known. And that's a shame, because some mighty fine barbecue rolls out of the unassuming little storefront on the corner of Cottage Grove Road and Acewood Boulevard. And east-siders deserve good barbecue, just like everybody else.
Jeff Norwood (a.k.a. Papa Bear) was a chef at Cherokee Country Club for 11 years, but loved to cook barbecue. And so, in 2007, when his wife, Ursula, noticed the empty space that Bull's BBQ had recently vacated, the urge was irresistible. They soon were in business.
The restaurant has no atmosphere to speak of. There are a few laminated tables, very few decorations of any kind, and you will eat with plastic utensils from polystyrene takeout containers. So you come here for the barbecue. And you won't be disappointed.
Papa Bear's pork spare ribs are cut St. Louis style, i.e., the very end of the rack is trimmed off. The result is a fairly rectangular slab of ribs. And the trimmings? They are turned into rib tips, which are also on the menu.
Jeff cooks his ribs in the traditional manner: "low and slow," as the mantra goes. He uses hickory wood exclusively (experts say that hickory and pecan are the best woods for smoking pork) and cooks the ribs at 225 for hours, until the meat has absorbed that wonderful wood smoke, most of the fat has drained off, and the meat is ready to fairly fall off the bone.
The ribs are slathered in Jeff's own sauce, which is a fairly standard Kansas City-style sweet-and-tangy tomato mixture, very mild. I prefer more spice in a sauce, but this can be added if you ask for a bottle of hot sauce. A full slab of ribs, with a biscuit and two sides, will set you back $18, a half-rack $9.50.
Rib tips are often a forgotten item in barbecue land - in fact, butchers used to throw them away after trimming them from the rack - but in recent years they have begun to command greater respect. These tips are just as tasty as the rest of the rib, and they are always a better buy. At Papa Bear's, a large order is only $8.50.
Pork shoulder is the top portion of the front leg of the hog. This is a well-marbled cut, one of the least expensive. However, when slow roasted over hickory smoke, then pulled and seasoned, a lowly cut becomes a delicacy. The pulled pork shoulder here is tender and smoky, as is the corned beef brisket.
The barbecued chicken is also highly recommended. My favorite is a pulled chicken sandwich, which, unfortunately, is offered only as a Monday special. There are specials every day: pulled pork enchiladas on Tuesday, a corned beef Reuben on Wednesday, pulled chicken tacos on Thursday, a steak and cheese sandwich on Friday, and a chicken, bacon and cheddar ranch melt on Saturday.
All meals are served with a light, fluffy biscuit and two sides. The baked beans are enlivened with the house sauce. The coleslaw is sweet and creamy. The garlic roast potato wedges are terrific, and the corn is - well, we can't all be perfect. Why, in the middle of Wisconsin's sweet corn season, when great corn is available for a song, do restaurants continue to serve frozen corn on the cob? A mystery. But you can ask the same thing about tomatoes.
Other menu items include the Papa Bear Burger, with a special olive sauce; a buffalo chicken breast sandwich; a sliced pork sandwich; a chili dog; and a seasoned portobello sandwich with green peppers, onions, lettuce, tomato, roasted red pepper and red pepper ranch sauce. There are also two salads and at least one dessert daily (Southern-style peach cobbler on a recent visit). Papa Bear's also has carryout specials, including "special specials" for large groups. No beer is served, but many people carry home the barbecue and lift a frosty one there.
Papa Bear's is a welcome addition to Madison's east side, a little bit of Kansas City right here in bratwurst land. It ain't fancy, but the ribs are tender and the fixins are fine. Go for it.