Porktropolis brings a little pop of attention to the north end of Sun Prairie, where previously the only pop might have come from the Ammo Box gun shop next door. The interchange of Highway 151 and Bristol Street feels far-flung and quaint. Chef Todd Dukes of Exceptional Catering runs his mostly-takeout shop with confidence. Grilling paraphernalia and Porktropolis-branded accessories line the shelves, but the barbecue is the main event.
The menu offers primarily sandwiches, many named with a grim - or Grimm, perhaps - sense of humor. "The Wolf's Revenge" is what other barbecuists call pulled pork. "The Exploding Pig" puts pork, ham and bacon together again, under cheddar and between dark rye. (This recalls Lisa Simpson explaining to Homer that all these meats come from the same animal - to his disbelief.) And a slow-cooked beef shoulder, appearing as an occasional daily special, is bluntly named "The Knuckle Sandwich."
Something beyond lip service is paid to nontraditional barbecue meats: There's a pleasant shrimp BLT, a grilled portabella sandwich and even marinated salmon. The excellent Knuckle Sandwich with chipotle horseradish and a side of creamy smoked tomato soup (another frequent daily special that deserves to be a menu regular) make a fantastic meal for around $10.
And yes, there are ribs, available in quarter-, half- and whole racks. Dry-rubbed, they invite saucing. It's here that Porktropolis separates itself from the pack. The sauce menu reflects national, and even global, barbecue traditions. The NOLA is thin and all heat. Sweet Memphis Blues provides mostly thick sweetness, but with a little kick. The Carolina's vinegar base is tempered only slightly with a sweet note. The BFF sauce is a brute force amalgam of black licorice, Southeast Asian spices and jerk seasoning. All are made in-house and appear to be available every day.
The sauces are a definitive strong point for Porktropolis. A Door County cherry sauce is the right kind of sweet, and the NOLA recalls great soul-food meals accompanied by little tubs of blazing red sauce. Even the BFF, with its boombox lack of subtlety, would make a terrific marinade for venison or pork tenderloin. If Porktropolis comes through with sauces bottled for sale, as Dukes intends, buy some.
However, I've found that quality at Porktropolis suffers as the day wears on. Visits earlier in the day are more likely to include the brash charm of Dukes from behind the counter, anyway. Find the time to make a lunch or early dinner trip, because when Porktropolis is on, boy, is it on. But at other times, it doesn't succeed like barbecue should.
The pulled pork sandwich was full of tender, smoky meat on one visit, but so laden with fat on another that grease pooled at the bottom of the takeout box. The smoked chicken melt, a combination of a pretty terrific chopped chicken, cheddar and bacon on dark rye, had been buttered too liberally on the grill and bore no crispy edges. Even the bacon was limp. Ribs, on the other hand, were dry at lunchtime and almost crunchy when ordered again for dinner. Sides - coleslaw, beans, potato salad - are traditional and unremarkable.
The house-made pies (pecan, sweet potato) are fine, but avoid the chocolate-covered bacon unless it looks well cooked. Mine had the consistency of bubblegum.
Prepping food for a two-hour meal window, as with catering, is a different game from a nine-hour day of restaurant service. Even if one doesn't expect "à la minute" polish at a 'cue joint, ordering ribs and beans at 7 p.m. shouldn't be a dodgy proposition. If Todd Dukes the caterer can more fully transition to Todd Dukes the pit-master, we'll all be in for treat.