When the wind is blowing in the right direction, the air around Love’s Garage on Highway 7 in Minnetrista is perfumed with the sweet smell of burning red oak. The nose-tickling aroma is coming from Love’s next-door neighbor: Buddy Boy Fine Barbeque, which Joe and Jennifer Cox quietly opened in the spring of 2017. Only in hindsight would the arrival of Buddy Boy be recognized for the landmark event it was.
Since then, the Coxes have built a steadily growing fan base partially fueled by word of mouth and social media posts, but mainly driven by the sheer succulence of their precision-smoked beef, pork, chicken, lamb and turkey. The Coxes bring plenty of enthusiasm to their 24/7 commitment to slow-smoked barbeque, but they are by no means food service novices. Buddy Boy is a spin-off of the catering business they’ve had since 2005, Cox Culinary Arts.
Over the years, Joe Cox has traveled thousands of miles in his quest for peak barbeque; he’s watched people cook with wood in his mother’s native Taiwan, and also Spain, Indonesia and Portugal, among other countries. He considers himself blessed to have had the opportunity to travel around the world, first as the son of a career Air Force officer and then as a corporate chef, and “get off the beaten path.” On his first trip to his mother’s homeland, as a child, “we went to a little village with no electricity.” Joe watched his mother cooking over coals and “learned to love that flavor.”
“I’ve always loved the taste and texture of cooking with wood,” says Joe, a culinary school grad. “It’s something you can’t fake or shortcut, and I wanted to learn the right way to use different woods, how to burn it correctly, and always wanted to get better and better at it.” Having everything ready when the door opens at 11 a.m. requires staying up all night to tend the meat as it smokes.
By nature, barbeque is one of the most regionally specific forms of cooking, with different styles, textures and tastes identified with different parts of the country, like the Carolinas, Texas, Kansas City and St. Louis.
To localize their barbeque, the Coxes use one of the types of wood that is plentiful in Minnesota: red and white oak, which they source from about a half-dozen local vendors. The wood is dried from eight months to a year before burning. The meat is also locally sourced and the drink menu features Minnesota craft beers and wine.
The five smokers, each of which can hold 1,000 pounds of meat, are positioned outside, around the newly expanded indoor dining space which accommodates large parties. Every time Cox opens a smoker, it takes a while to regain the lost heat—about 10 minutes in the summer, but an hour when the winter winds are blowing.
Cox says making the best-tasting barbeque requires clean burning, with plenty of air flowing through the wood, to avoid “dirty” smoke filled with tiny particles that mess with the flavor.
He and a friend spent a couple of years experimenting with smokers, getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to light the wood and trying different combinations of wood, fire, air and time to get the right formula. “We burned through a lot of metal and finally got it,” he remembers.
While he’s a stickler for doing it the right way, Cox is no barbeque snob. “Everybody has their own way of doing it. I would never tell anyone he is doing it wrong.”
The Coxes make their own rubs and sauces used for basting and mopping different kinds of meat. They have developed a handful of citrus-based sauces designed to “cut through” the heaviness or richness of smoked meat. Joe Cox has a sous chef and works on training other culinarians who can help in the kitchen, since he is busy with his day job working for a Twin Cities food service company and their catering business. To make four hours’ worth of food (it takes that long for them to sell out) they start the fires 24 hours in advance. Pork ribs and poultry take less time, and beef ribs and brisket take the longest—up to 18 hours.
“We get a lot of former Texans coming here for the brisket, asking, ‘Is this going to be as good as Texas barbeque?’ By the time they leave they are saying ‘This is the best I’ve ever had,’” Joe notes. “It’s really nice to hear that.”
On Saturdays, people start lining up around 9:30, Jen says, with regular customers coming from as far away as Northfield and Anoka; they’ve also had customers from Brazil and Poland. No unsold meat remains at the end of each day, Jen notes. “We always cook fresh for that day.” They smoke whole turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and lamb for Easter.
Two of the Coxes’ five kids work at the restaurant. Everybody pitches in to deal with a number of challenges involved in running a barbeque joint, but the biggest one is the Minnesota weather. “We’ve been out there in snow, and cold, rain and sleet, and very hot weather,” Jennifer explains. “We all have to endure that; the nice thing is that so far everybody on the team has enjoyed the process even though it been difficult at times; they have a fun ‘coming to work experience’ and everybody is ‘all in.’”
Bad weather doesn’t stop the customers from coming, either. When the place first opened, customers ate at outside picnic tables, sometimes wearing jackets and coats, well into October.
The Buddy Boy site has been a restaurant location for many years. It used to be Timothy’s Pizzeria, and for years before that it was the Norseman Cafe, a 24/7 diner Jen Cox remembers going to when she was growing up nearby. The Coxes recently expanded the space and now have an east-facing patio, and total capacity of about 100 sit-down diners. It’s a great location, being near the southwest corner of the lake. During the warm season, the Coxes plan to have special outdoor events and feature live music on their patio, and offer similar entertainment indoors all year round. “We want to make this a great destination spot,” Jen says.
Buddy Boy Fine Barbeque owners Jennifer and Joe Cox are planning a special menu for Easter Sunday that will include barbequed lamb, as if Minnesotans need another reason to look forward to spring. To avoid disappointment, orders for the holiday food should be made in advance. As in previous years, this spring the Coxes plan to erect their 60-by-120-foot tent, to host diners, with live music and other events.
By the pound, customers can order for dine-in, take-out or catering. There’s USDA beef prime brisket, pork (pulled and spareribs), smoked turkey breast, plus two kinds of beef sausage. Also, one of the most ostentatious stars on the menu is the Big Buddy sandwich, with layers of beef brisket, pulled pork and sliced sausage, topped with ginger cabbage slaw.
Buddy Boy sides include ginger cabbage slaw, Buddy’s beans, mac and cheese, potato salad (which can be vegan, or made with burnt ends), kettle chips and green salads. Drinks include Killebrew root beer, grape and orange pop, soft drinks and Minnesota-made craft beers and wine.
Exact hours vary by season; check buddyboybarbeque.com for up to date info.
Buddy Boy Barbeque
8175 Highway 7, Minnetrista