Speed Queen Bar-B-Q
Barbecue can be, quite literally, a sticky subject. Eaters from Memphis barely acknowledge the existence of a two-bit town upriver called St. Louis, and don’t ever get a Texan going on those miscreant meat-smokers from Carolina. And while Milwaukee is mostly removed from such meaty dickheadedness, new sanctuaries of slow-grilled animal protein have begun to thicken the sauce of argument. Since 1956 though, Speed Queen Bar-B-Q has been the place—the one that would surely represent our town in any Olympian-level spectacle for such aforementioned pit-mongers. We recently invested in some wet naps and rolled up our sleeves to see if the old gal’s still got it.
The space: Nearly every other Speed Queen Yelper finds it necessary to include some derivation of the term “’hood” and “sketchy,” or allude to some perceived threat of violence. Pay them no mind. In a nondescript brick building on West Walnut and 12th, in what looks like a one-time bowling alley, a recent after-work trip found orange-shirted employees on break smoking and milling amongst a line of cars snaking toward the drive-thru window. Overall: an exceedingly normal, laid-back Friday afternoon in the universe. Not to say that the Queen’s open-until-2 a.m. weekend policy doesn’t invite some shenanigans and questionable characters—but, last we checked, even Pizza Shuttle can be a bit frightening after midnight.
Inside, with the cheap wood paneling and neon-bright Formica booths, the brown-and-orange motif from the meat and sauce extends into the space itself. Some 20-odd tables yawned vacantly, ignored, while every patron huddled expectantly around the pickup window. This is an eat-in-your-car kind of joint, in the best possible sense.
The service: Bulletproofed. It’s barbecue, not foie gras, so we’ll gladly take the unfriendliness, disinterest, and 2-inch-thick wall of glass between us and the counter servers, if they just get the order right. They did, and they even sung it back into a 2-foot-tentacled microphone, allowing our deepest food desires to loudly bounce around in the unseen annals of the building—backed by the behind-locked-doors fire, smoke, and dry-rubbed meat magic. Plastic-bagged Styrofoam boxes of bovine, swine, and sides were in hand within five minutes.
The A.V. Club’s food: Much could be made of what “brand” of barbecue this is. Founder Betty Gillespie’s first husband and business partner hailed from Memphis; she later married a man from Kansas City, who helped expand and build a new pit, but supposedly didn’t interfere with the original recipe. Some might also swear by the unique addition of sweet apple wood to the inferno. But what really gives the place the extra shine is Gillespie’s welcome supplement of soul food staples to the menu—an inspired homage to her roots in Tupelo, Mississippi.
The Mac & Cheese ($2.81) was mealy, clumpy, but still creamy and potent with cheddar. The Mixed Greens ($2.81) were Cheetos-level salty, but impossible to put down in their sodium-meets-vegetable bliss. The Coleslaw ($2.55 or complimentary with dinners) was euphorically rich with mayo, and the thick-creamed Banana Pudding ($2.81), with just-starting-to-turn fruit, was nostalgically like grandma’s.
The fried chicken was tempting, but in the end, it was the limited-availability “Outside” sandwich ($8.82) and the ribs dinner ($9.82) that won our guts’ bid. The “Outside” refers to blackened bits from the outside of the pork shoulder, which in white-bread-sandwiched form results in brisket-like bites—some tough, some perfect. From all that black, the sauce darkens into smoky, coffee-like consistency, ending on the tongue with a near-perfect charry, vinegar-flavored pop.
The ribs were moist, solid, pulled easily from the bone, and coated with the mild version of the red, translucent gravy that has made Speed Queen a full-time resident at local grocery stores. Even this, the PG version of the sauce, tastes of tomato with a zing; the hot version of the sauce is the same, just gracefully habanero-bludgeoned. Pools of a bit of both, and a couple pieces of reserved Wonder Bread to soak and scrape it all up, made for a tangy dessert.
The verdict: Fingers in need of a good licking and belts in need of an undoing, we finally felt prepared to defiantly shake fists at barbecue neophytes and wannabes. If we must be competitive about our food: The Third Ward can have its repurposed-wood architecture and make-everyone-happy variety of sauces at the Smoke Shack, while Bay View can keep new-kid-on-the-pit Milwaukee Smoked BBQ. Speed Queen remains the king in Milwaukee.