Last year, if you had asked Chris Armstrong about his plans for his barbecue concept, he would have looked at you with a questioning look – the whole reason he did the project was that he had no plans. After being fired from his job as sales manager in the Midwest for a Texas-based brewery, Armstrong needed something to do to pass the time and decided to throw himself over his head in his passion for backyard grilling. At the time, it seemed like a nice distraction from the real world.
It did not take long before things got their own lives. Armstrong had the ability to smoke meat to his heart, but he lacked the ability to eat it all. As the amount he produced grew, he enlisted the help of family, friends, and neighbors to make sure the meat did not go to waste. To his delight, they were so in love with his grill that they began submitting special requests, then fulfilling orders, and transformed his ad hoc setup into a more formal event with a weekly menu consisting of a variety of meats and side dishes. When he called his operation Furlough Joe’s at the time, Armstrong began crowdsourcing ideas, adapting recipes, and building regular customers, until one day it dawned on him: He basically ran a run-down restaurant.
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Last June, Armstrong made things official. To avoid the name Furlough Joe’s as a relic of a temporary event, the pit master salesman renamed himself Navin’s BBQ – a nod to one of his favorite movies, Jerken – and set up shop in the former Guerrilla Street Food just off South Grand Boulevard. Without changing the layout or flow of the room, Armstrong redesigned the room in a gray, black and red color scheme, adorned the wall with a mural of a pig with “STL” across his stomach, lit up his smokers and sat down to become a bona fide player in St. The Louis Barbecue Community.
Armstrong admits he was at least initially a little intimidated by the rugged grill scene. When he was the new boy on the block with no professional smoking experience and some time in the industry, he knew it was a bold move to plant his flag in a city flooded with big barbecues. But driven by passion and determination, he shows he is up to the challenge.
Navin’s does not adhere to a particular barbecue style, but rather draws on Armstrong’s experience growing up in both Texas and Kansas City. The result is a restaurant that takes the pieces he likes from different traditions and fuses them together into a typical smoking experience. Brisket, for example, is more subtle than a hardcore Texas style, its bark and smoke milder. Consistent with his Texas side, the meat is tender, moist and imbued with earthy wood smoke, and as a tribute to his KC upbringing, Armstrong serves the dish with a side of sweet and sour sauce that brightens the meat without covering its deep, meaty flavor. .
Pulled pork is the embodiment of the shape, the sweet, smoky flesh spotted with pieces of caramelized outer pieces that give it a nice mix of textures. Pulled chicken is a pleasant surprise where the tender and not at all dried meat is (a common problem I have encountered elsewhere); particularly impressive is the sweet rub that comes into every last bite. But if you only have to try one poultry dish at Navin, get the smoked turkey. Juicy and generously flavored with black pepper, this is the eye-catching dish.
Likewise, Navin’s burnt ends are outrageously good. These amazing little nuggets are equal parts sticky bark, fat and beef that beg to be popped in your mouth like meat candy. Armstrong is doing well in his Kansas City legacy with this knockout offer.
However, some of Navin’s brightest points are the more whimsical sandwich offerings, where you can see Armstrong really having fun by cutting loose from the expected grill playbook. The Jerk is an architectural marvel that features pulled jerk chicken, pepper-jack cheese, slaw and onion strings smothered in sour Alabama white sauce and stacked so high on a soft bun that you wonder how it can stay seated. Also impressive is The Shinola, a vegetarian monstrosity of slaw, collard greens and Swiss cheese dressed in a sweet pepper sauce. It would be a tasty concoction on any bread, but Armstrong’s choice of rye gives it the feel of a vegetarian Reuben – one that made this proud corned beef lover not even miss the meat.
Armstrong is especially proud of The Lou, and for good reason. This nod to his adopted city is just as St. Louis, as it turns out: a sliced pork, choked in Sweet St. Louis. Louis sauce (think good from Maull’s, but a little sweeter), melted Provel and crushed Red Hot Riplets. Even the pork is cooked in Busch beer so you can taste its sweet malt flavor in every bite.
Pages on Navin’s are standard smokehouse deals, but reinforced a bit. Instead of traditional cole slaw, Armstrong spikes his with jalapeños and hot sauce to give it a spicy punch. Potato salad is made with mashed spuds so you get the creamy consistency without a lot of mayonnaise; spotted with peppers, it has a complex taste and mouthfeel that you do not often see in traditional versions of the dish.
Collard greens have a nice balance between bitter and sweet, but what makes them special is the surprising warmth on the back end. Mac and cheese is another unexpected treat. Armstrong uses tubular noodles and then coats them in a thick cheese sauce that almost tastes like classic ballpark nacho cheese, albeit a version with chili spices. Alone, it’s a fine version of a standard, but Armstrong coats its with Red Hot Riplets breadcrumbs, giving it a bit of texture and warmth to cut through the decadence. It’s both a whimsical and thoughtful touch.
You can see in detail like the Riplets breadcrumbs, the proud Busch beer braise on the pork steaks or the Steve Martin-influenced sandwich names that Armstrong, despite the accident that put him on the field, is in his element at Navin’s. It may not have been the path he thought he would take, but he’s having fun with it – and we’ll have a good time with him.
3559 Arsenal Street, 314-449-1185.
Thurs.-Sat. 11.00-19.00 (Closed Sunday-Wednesday.)
Burnt ends dinner $ 16.
A meat dinner $ 12.
Lou $ 11.
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