Luckily there are several BBQ joints in town that are happy to assist. And as the owners of these restaurants will attest, if you don’t put in the time, it’s not real “Q” anyway.
It seems you’re not a real Stark County native unless you’ve been to Kennedy’s Bar-b-que (1420 Seventh St. NW, Canton, 330-454-0193). It’s a local favorite, like Baker’s for steaks and Taggarts for Bittners. Speaking of … Kennedy’s was purchased by the owners of Taggarts after Jack Kennedy’s death in 2009, allowing the establishment and its legendary recipes to live on. Kennedy’s is loaded with history, dating to 1922. Pulling into the place, located just down Seventh from Monument Park, immediately elicits a feeling of nostalgia. Inside is a tiny dining room with rigid, ’50s-style wood booths, a few tables and, of course, a counter. And there’s a no-nonsense server, too, busy trying to keep everyone fed at a chaotic Friday lunch. Kennedy’s has limited hours (it closes at 6 p.m.) and an overly simple menu consisting of sandwiches, macaroni salad, bean soup, chili, shakes and pie—all homemade, of course. But that’s the extent of it.
It may come as a surprise that the owners call it a barbecue joint but don’t serve ribs. Instead, they smoke ham, pork, beef and turkey in a mini-smokehouse right out back. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and a cup of bean soup, which comes highly recommended in numerous Yelp reviews. The sandwich arrived heaping with tender, smoky pulled pork on a steamed bun. Nothing fancy about it—the bun is an unpretentious, store-bought white variety. They don’t sauce the pork for you, either—you do it yourself, with a squeeze bottle of barbecue sauce found on each table.
The sauce is delicious, but as it turns out, not a Kennedy’s original (they serve Sweet Baby Ray’s). Its “secret sauce” is instead a legendary homemade relish, which is a unique concoction of finely chopped cabbage, peppers, mustard and other mystery ingredients that form a zesty condiment with considerable bite. Compliant as I am, I spread some on top of my pork, then slathered on the sauce—which made for a great twist on a classic pulled pork sandwich. And the bean soup lives up to its reputation, too; it’s smothered with chunks of Kennedy’s flavorful smoked ham that adds saltiness to the creamy base. Might I recommend a brisk jog up the stairs of the McKinley Monument after tackling this meal—“filling” doesn’t begin to describe it.
OLD CAROLINA BARBECUE
The name that most often comes to mind for great barbecue in Stark County is definitely Old Carolina (three Stark County locations, oldcarolina.com). The first store opened in Massillon in 2006, and the business has been expanding ever since. In fact, the owners opened their ninth restaurant—in Ann Arbor, Mich.—this year. No doubt, Old Carolina has a following. Its Carolina-style barbecue methods involve a low-and-slow smoking process with real hickory wood, a technique inspired by trips to the Carolinas and interviews with pitmasters at roadside stands along the way.
Carolina style is all about the pork, so you’ve got to try the ribs, St. Louis-style cut—they’re meaty and flavorful, and not too fatty. The pulled pork also is consistently fantastic. Old Carolina offers a wide variety of sauces, but my favorite is the Original Classic, a tomato-based sauce with smoky flavors and a touch of honey for sweetness. It has a thinner consistency than some of its competitors, but this is characteristic of sauces prevalent in the Carolinas. Piedmont #5 also is tasty; its tangier quality is achieved with the addition of vinegar to the tomato base.
Old Carolina’s Four Cheese Mac-n-Cheese is a winner. Apart from being appropriately cheesy, it is well-seasoned, and covered in a crunchy breadcrumb topping. I’m a huge fan of OC’s creamy (as opposed to vinegar) coleslaw; it’s actually creamy (translation: never watery), with slightly sweet dressing and crisp cabbage, which works superbly with smoky barbecue flavors.
TWO FAT GUYS BARBECUE
The newest kid in our trio is Two Fat Guys (4887 Tuscarawas St. W, Canton, 330-479-7705, twofatguysbbq.com). They live up to their name with portions that could challenge the biggest, manliest, barbecue fanatic. Channeling my inner man, I went all in with a rack of ribs. OK, it was a half rack. But you must understand, these spare ribs are humongous. They’re tender as can be: As they say, the meat “falls off” the bone. The sides are worth discussion, particularly the corn bread, a slab nearly 2 inches thick, complete with a side of cinnamon butter. These guys’ love of sweets is deliciously obvious—not only are the corn bread and butter eerily reminiscent of eating cake with your dinner, the sweet potato casserole is a dessert in its own right. Much like the beloved Thanksgiving version, soft and loaded with brown sugar and butter, this has a brown-sugary crumble topping that pushes it straight into dessert territory. Somehow I neglected to notice one other special offering: deep-fried sweet corn—I shall return for a sequel.
The sauce at Two Fat Guys has a thick consistency and is offered in three levels of heat, ranging from “Sissy Sweet” to “Firebreather.” Ribs are served with a trace amount of Sissy Sweet, but additional sauce can (and should) be added at the table, resulting in sloppy, saucy, meaty goodness. I opted for extra “Sweet-n-Spicy Medium” sauce, which offered a nice level of heat to the dark, richly colored sauce, likely achieved by adding molasses and brown sugar—ingredients favored in Kansas City barbecue. For me, this sauce hits the right notes of sweet and smoky, and I love the extra-thick consistency.
All of the eatery’s meat is smoked on-site for nearly 14 hours using cherry wood. While I don’t recommend dining in if you’re not a country music fan, there is one sweet surprise inside: a newly opened ice cream joint called Mack’s. On our visit, Mack’s was sampling delicious chocolate peanut butter ice cream. If you’re man enough, they sell deep-fried Oreos, my all-time favorite fried treat, rarely seen anywhere but at an occasional summer festival food cart.
ANGRY BARBEQUE’S “ANGRY” SAUCE
Though not officially reviewed in this installment of Taste Test, Angry Barbeque (4640 Belden Village St. NW, Jackson Twp., 330-493-0388, angrybarbeque.com) merits mention for its “Angry” sauce, the middle child between “Sweet” and “Mad as Hell.” It’s thick, sweet, moderately dark and subtly spicy.