“It’s getting better.”
That’s what the pirate bar in Stillwater symbolizes. As I had my first Killdevil and ate my first mac-n-cheese, I had just moved into a real home for the first time in … gawd, had it really been almost a year? … and I had, at long last, locked up a job in the Twin Cities.
All I had to do now was plan a wedding and avoid pissing my roommates off. The distinctive taste of a Killdevil and the gooey mouthfuls of thickly-cheesed noodles induced a sense of peace, relaxation. I did it.
That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve brought family and friends from afar to Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque. My folks and I stop in before my mother’s antique-shopping binge; my friends have kicked off many a night in the bar; and I’ve had talks, from the dead-serious to the laugh-to-death kind, leaned over a high table and out on the patio.
It’s more than a restaurant now. I’ve passed through probably 100 spots once, I’ve gone back to a few, but only one will ever be Smalley’s.
The Basics: Shawn Smalley is the bearded-est, most pirate-est branch of the legendary Tim McKee tree, having gotten his start at the now passed La Belle Vie. Smalley opened up his own spot in 2008, and has since been featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives, and countless other TV and web shows locally.
How Caribbean is this place? Smalley (whose pirate get-up is impeccable, I should add) offers a book of rum choices, and cooks using pimento wood shipped from Jamaica.
Smalley and crew have taken over about a third of their brick building off Stillwater’s old Main St. There’s a main-floor restaurant, a bar up a short flight of stairs, and top-floor seats up five or six steps up from that. Another bar opens late night next-door. You have a choice of two patios, though the back patio is more of a smoke zone.
The top floor is the place to be. It’s oddly similar to what you might imagine dining in the hull of a pirate ship to be like: dark, dominated by dark red fabrics and wood surfaces, with skeletons stashed away in the corners and ceiling. No, seriously:
A chicken sandwich, two Pirate Burgers, and two barbecue picks threes were ordered. My day with Smalley’s infamous 666 Wings is coming, but I wasn’t confident in my stomach that day.
We began with Killdevils, and they were just as sweet and smooth as I could remember. It was like I was drinking from the same batch my first one ever was poured from. I had two, one neat, one on the rocks. Have it neat. That feeling, it’s still there.
If you have a barbecue pick-three, your plate will look something like this:
For $22, you can have a quarter of a chicken, a good helping of pork shoulder, and a few ribs. It comes with two sides, so you can get your daily vegetables in and still not miss out on the mac. What a time to be alive.
A friend ordered a similar pick-three, and pointed out the pork shoulder as his pet cut — for reasons you’d expect, or not. “The fat tasted excellent,” he said. “People are so afraid of the fat, but if you get a good fatty piece of pork shoulder and the fat soaks up all of the spices … mmm.”
He and I toyed with the sauces, and found that shaking up the Scotchie’s Sauce before use helps it keep its promise of five-flame heat. There’s always hotter out there, but Scotchie’s Sauce is at the high end of hot sauces you can have without signing a waiver.
My mother-in-law gave rave reviews of her burger. “Medium-well,” she said, “unlike the last 25 burgers I’ve had, it was neither pink nor dried out — just the way it was supposed to be.” My wife pointed out a slight dryness in her burger, but said her side of tater tots made that easy to forgive.
My brother-in-law, meanwhile, showed off the branded top bun of his jerk chicken sandwich and said simply, “Really well-done piece of chicken.”
Service and prices met expectations. The barbecue pick-three is still a relative steal. The Killdevil is still absolutely a steal, but I’d pay $20 for one. I might be the wrong one to ask about that.
Hey, I know it’s a bad idea to party like pirates technically; but, if you came out alive after eight brutal hours, or it’s time to take a deep breath, or you’ve got the crew back in town, you know where to drop anchor. Few other places can match the experience, and no other place can mean what it means here. No other place can be Smalley’s.
Editor’s note: A few clean-up edits were made shortly after publications.