November 19, 2020

Jed Portman

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Editor’s Letter: A Midwestern Barbecue Landmark

And how to make pork steaks

Have you ever tried a Horseshoe? I haven’t been to Springfield, Illinois, yet, so I can only say so much about the sandwich that Peter Glatz described for us on Monday. Reading his article, though, my mouth watered as I thought about the version served at a favorite barbecue joint in southern Illinois. I’m not usually into over-the-top plates, but I can never pass on 17th Street Barbecue’s Pig Shoe.

Maybe you’ve come across 17th Street at a food festival, like the late, great Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York. They get around. Founder Mike Mills is a three-time Memphis in May Grand World Champion and helped open New York’s Blue Smoke. He and his daughter, business guru Amy, have written two books, “Peace, Love, and Barbecue” and “Praise the Lard.” Amy has helped pitmasters in forty-five states and sixteen countries through her OnCue Consulting. Name a famous barbecuer, and chances are he or she has spent time with Mike and Amy.

17th Street’s food has made best-of lists in national magazines, from Bon Appetit to Playboy. They ship ribs to customers all over the country. Amy says they’ve sent out more than 700 pounds of their “Magic Dust” barbecue rub since March.

Beneath the buzz, branding, and big-city acclaim, though, is a one-of-a-kind Midwestern barbecue joint, serving St. Louis-style pork steaks and Springfield-inspired Pig Shoes in Murphysboro, population 7,500. (17th Street has a satellite location in Marion, Illinois.) Based in a hundred-year-old tavern, 17th Street is one of the few national businesses representing the cuisine of a region where the South meets the Midwest, cooking in a kitchen closer to Memphis than Chicago.

Editor’s Letter: A Midwestern Barbecue Landmark - Quote

Beneath the buzz, branding, and big-city acclaim, though, is a one-of-a-kind Midwestern barbecue joint, serving St. Louis-style pork steaks and Springfield-inspired Pig Shoes in Murphysboro

So, what is the Pig Shoe? It’s just a Horseshoe gone 17th Street. The toast foundation is grilled, garlic-buttered sourdough, and the slab of meat a third-pound smoked pork patty. The cheese sauce smothering the mandatory mountain of fries is beery and well-seasoned, topped with a pinch of barbecue rub and a smattering of chives. It seems like too much, but it disappears before you realize you’ve had enough. I wanted to share the recipe with you this week, but after reflecting on it, I realized that this is it. They’re not sharing the beer cheese recipe, and you can figure the rest out yourself. Better yet, when you’re free to road trip again, go get the real deal in southern Illinois.

While we’re here, though, I thought I’d pass along an at-home recipe for another 17th Street special, the pork steak, which is equally Midwestern.

You can find different kinds of pork steaks in butcher shops around the country, but pork steak is a religion around St. Louis. There, it’s a grilled or smoked slice of pork butt, a.k.a. shoulder, which is the cut that makes most pulled pork. Barbecue writer Robert Moss connects the local passion for pork steaks to a taste for ribs, quoting a butcher who said that midcentury packers would cut butts into steaks—which “taste like ribs but are neater to eat”—when they ran out of racks around the Fourth of July.

Those packers were on to something. When we bought half a pig last year, we asked the processor to cut the shoulder into steaks, and I have yet to meet the meat-eater who objects to a slab of pork that eats like ribs. And let me tell you, because I’m skeptical of restaurant cookbooks, that this recipe works. There are different ways to prepare a pork steak, from searing it like sirloin to dousing it in sticky-sweet barbecue sauce and slow-cooking it in tinfoil. This method strikes a balance between those two, and I followed it to the letter, being from outside the pork steak tradition. I stumbled blindly into a platter of steaks that tasted like I knew what I was doing.

If you like this recipe, don’t hesitate to order a copy of “Praise the Lard.” It’s one of my go-to barbecue and entertaining cookbooks. The secret-ingredient pimento cheese, the tangy “chow” relish, and the famous ribs and baked beans all come out just the way they do at the restaurant. You can also find recipes for the sauces and rubs mentioned below. And if you want to try before you buy, you can mail-order the restaurant’s ribs, pulled pork, beans, sauces, and rubs. Now is the time to support your favorite restaurants, and I’ll admit that I feel protective of one of my favorite barbecue joints, which has a national fan base, but only so many customers picking up takeout in Murphysboro.

When I reached out to Amy to ask for permission to run this recipe, she offered a perk for Midwesterner readers—one more reason to do some of this year’s holiday shopping in southern Illinois. Use the code MIDWESTERNER at checkout to get a free 5.5-oz. bottle of Magic Dust barbecue rub with any purchase until December 31.

17th Street Barbecue’s Caramelized Midwest Pork Steaks

Serves 4-6

Pork steak is a Midwest classic that most home cooks just grill, which is a fine way to get good outdoor flavor from an inexpensive cut of meat. We give ours a special reverse-sear treatment: first, dusting the steaks lightly with dry rub, then infusing with the gentle smoke of applewood, next grilling, and finally mopping with sauce and caramelizing them over direct fire.

As commonplace as they are in the Midwest, pork steaks are not usually found in grocery meat cases elsewhere, but obtaining them is as easy as asking your butcher to cut them from the butt end of a pork shoulder—specify 1-inch-thick steaks that weigh about a pound apiece, since this is the optimal size for taking on smoke. The steaks can be smoked a day or two in advance and finished on the grill just prior to serving. You can even freeze a pile of smoked steaks for up to 1 month, then pull them out, thaw, and grill as needed.


  • 4-6 bone-in pork steaks (about 1 pound each)
  • Homemade or store-bought dry rub, such as Magic Dust
  • Sweet, thick barbecue sauce, such as Apple City Red
  • 1-3 lb. high-quality lump charcoal
  • 1 small (8-inch) piece of applewood, or 2 store-bought chunks


Lightly sprinkle the pork steaks with dry rub on both sides. Set the steaks on a baking sheet, cover them with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until you’re ready to put them on the cooker, at least 1 hour and up to 4.

Set up the cooker for indirect-heat smoking: Open the top and bottom vents. Load a charcoal chimney one-quarter full of charcoal and light it. When the coals in the chimney are glowing, replace the grate and put the steaks over the side with no coals (the indirect cooking area). Close the lid.

Don’t open the cooker for 15 minutes, but keep a close eye on the temperature. When it reaches 200°F, which might happen very quickly, close the vents about halfway so that less air comes in to feed the fire and the heat in the cooker rises slowly. Let the temperature climb to between 225° and 250°. Maintain your target temperature: If at any point it climbs above your target, close the top and bottom vents further so that even less air comes in to feed the fire.

After 15 minutes, use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat: Insert the probe into the center of one of the steaks, not near the bone. You are looking for a slow and steady climb to between 160° and 165°. Do not flip the steaks over at all during the smoking stage.

After you check the meat temperature, reload the chimney halfway with charcoal and light it. You’ll soon need those additional hot coals to sear the steaks at the finishing stage, after they’re done smoking.

Check the internal temperature of the meat every 10 minutes or so. When the steaks are between 160° and 165°, pull them off the cooker and set them aside on a baking sheet. Working quickly, add the hot coals, spreading them out across the bottom of the cooker. Lightly mop the tops of the steaks with the barbecue sauce, sprinkle on a light layer of dry rub, and put the steaks back on the cooker, sauce side down, directly over the hot coals. Cook the steaks for 5-8 minutes, mopping with the sauce and flipping them several times to caramelize them all over. If you see spots of fat that are dark and blackened, sauce them and caramelize them again. When the steaks are sizzling around the bone and beautifully glazed on both sides and around the edges, they’re done. The internal temperature should be between 170° and 175°.

Recipe excerpted from PRAISE THE LARD: Recipes and Revelations from a Legendary Life in Barbecue ©2017 by Mike Mills and Amy Mills. Photography © Ken Goodman. Reproduced by permission of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.


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