Shawn Smalley is creating barbecue in a way that’s scarce anywhere in the country, let alone the St. Croix Valley. Since opening Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque & Pirate Bar in May 2008, his method and remarkably flavorful food have gained national attention on a variety of Food Network shows. His hook? Smalley is a Jamaica-trained, Caribbean-style barbecue chef who has a lifelong penchant for pirates.
Pirates? “It’s a lifestyle,” the black-bearded and tattooed chef says with a chuckle. “It’s something I’ve always been drawn to, long before I opened the restaurant. I even had a pirate-themed wedding.”
Lifestyle or lucrative marketing ploy, people are taking notice: In January, the restaurant was featured on the national Food Network TV program, Best. Ever, hosted by Ted Allen. The “Best Ever BBQ” accolades came as a complete surprise to Smalley, who found out about the recognition just a week before the crew showed up to film.
The experience was humbling, even after being featured twice before on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Guy Fieri (once as an “unexpected eats spot” in May 2012 and again in a roundup episode focusing on chicken in 2014).
“It’s surprising being named [one of] Food Network’s best barbecues ever, from out of the blue, a kid in a small town,” Smalley says. “I’ve been on TV shows locally, and that’s great, but the Triple D thing was nuts. We’ve had people fly in from New York for the day just to eat here, then fly back.”
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Smalley moved to Stillwater in 1992, where he attended Stillwater Area High School. He started cooking at age 19, working at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis for seven years under Minnesota’s first James Beard Award-winner, chef/owner Tim McKee. “[Barbecue] is pretty much how I’d cook for all my friends on the weekends,” Smalley says. “It was a hobby; my wife and I would cook up a bunch of jerk. Eventually Tim said, ‘Hey, you should start a restaurant,’ so we really began focusing on it.”
Honing the craft meant discovering the secrets to authentic seasonings, which McKee and Smalley set out to do by cooking for three weeks straight in the dingy kitchens of Negril, Jamaica in early 2008. “A big part of it is the ingredients that you use,” Smalley says, noting that even if habaneros and scotch bonnet peppers have similar levels of heat, their flavors are completely different. Smalley incorporates both into various recipes, each combined with other key ingredients like fresh thyme, shallots, white pepper, garlic and Jamaican soy sauce.
“The other secret is pimento wood,” Smalley says. “It’s solely what they cook with in Jamaica; it’s what they call all-spice. There’s an importer who lives right here in Minnetonka. He’s super cool; he hooks me up with all my wood to get more of that authentic flavor.”
Throughout the past seven years, the restaurant has focused on Caribbean jerk cuisine and the ample rum flavors of its pirate bar. “When we opened, we had 70 rums; we have about 200 now,” Smalley says.
Brian and Leslie Axdahl of Stillwater first ate at the restaurant on the second day it was open, sitting out on the deck and served by Smalley’s wife, Tirah. “She told us all about the different kinds of hot sauces and rums, and we’ve been hooked ever since,” Leslie Axdahl says.
Since 2009, the Axdahls have played an integral part in producing the wings they recommend so highly—they grow three varieties of peppers that are used in the spiciest sauces. “I like the bourbon beach or the barbecue, and Brian likes the stupid sauce,” Axdahl says.
Smalley’s favorite menu items change seasonally, but he says you can’t go wrong with the jerk pork tacos. New this summer are the Jamaican patties, a seasoned ground beef baked inside a puff pastry. “It’s classic street and beach fare,” Smalley says. “It’s almost like a spicy sloppy joe inside of a pie shell.”