Scott Ja-Mama’s packs big barbecue into a tiny package

We discovered Scott Ja-Mama’s by complete chance. Driving down the road, as we are wont to do, we simply came to the intersection of Diamond Lake and Nicollet and were forced to stop at its red light. While waiting, Paula turned their head and said, “Now that looks like a hole in the wall!” There was the neon sign of Scott Ja-Mama’s, promising hot barbecue with a one-of-a-kind name. We had never before gotten so immediately excited over a restaurant we had seen on the street. It is our fervent belief that the smaller a restaurant is, the better its food is. And we’re talking about floor space, not just the amount of business it does. Scott Ja-Mama’s looked like it could hold barely five people, maybe seven if they were slim.

So, of course, we were instantly enamored and had to order from there soon. And two days later, we had put the order in. We were going to find out what Scott Ja-Mama’s was all about.

But what is Scott Ja-Mama’s all about? What even is it? Hit the jump to find out.

Scott Ja-Mama’s was founded by Scott Woolsey in 1991, in response to the folks he played softball with haranguing him for some more of his “mama”’s very good barbecue sauce. It’s since become one of the premier spots for barbecue in Minneapolis, being frequently listed as one of the best small restaurants in the city. The ownership of Scott Ja-Mama’s has since passed onto Scott’s nephew Frank, who is keeping the barbecue sauce flowing.

And what kind of barbecue does Scott Ja-Mama’s serve? Well, here’s the menu: ribs, chicken, pulled pork, and steak sandwiches. For sides you get baked potatoes, potato chips, and coleslaw. If you’re lucky, there will be baked beans. That’s it. That’s the whole menu. That’s a focused menu, right there. The restaurant is so small they don’t even have a deep fryer, and have to serve baked potatoes instead. Can you imagine any other place getting away with a menu this tiny? 

Honestly, we really like that this place’s menu is so small. An unfocused menu can be the death knell for an otherwise good restaurant. Sometimes there’s just too many things! A menu this tiny shows an extreme amount of confidence in their food. They know what they’re good at, and they know you’ll like it. 

We ordered the combo plate ($16.50) from Scott’s, which had both a half-rack of ribs and a quarter chicken, along with a baked potato, slaw, and a roll. All this for less than seventeen dollars! That’s a price as good as Famous Dave’s (our local chain barbecue restaurant), and for real home-cooked food too. The inside of Scott Ja-Mama’s was packed wall-to-wall with trinkets, with almost every available space having a little tchotchke placed upon it. Our favorite was this sign:

This was our first day of the stay-at-home order being lifted, so we took the food to nearby Pearl Park for an unprecedented picnic. It was a nice, cool, overcast day – our favorite kind of weather. A daily sight in south Minneapolis are overhead airplanes from the nearby MSP airport, and though the noise is certainly a nuisance to the inhabitants, we like seeing the planes so up-close and personal. We love watching those planes. If you’re in the area and looking for a nice place to eat your lunch, we couldn’t recommend the MSP airport viewing area more.

Anyway, it’s high time we dug in. The first thing we notice is that the quarter-chicken is a breast and wing – that surprised us. When we hear quarter-chicken, we normally assume it’s going to be drumstick and thigh! Of course, we didn’t mind, it’s the same amount of chicken either way… but breast meat can be a little difficult to cook correctly. Perhaps a delicate taste of the sauce would guide the way…

Wow. Wow. We touched our fingertip to the sauce and licked it, and oh man, that sauce is definitely the boss. The sauce comes in three heat levels, and we naturally got the hottest. It’s got a definite tomato paste, kind of ketchupy, but with a rich and powerful tang that could only be from fresh made. Oh, yeah, this is some real-deal stuff. We dig right in and discover, to our delight, that the chicken is absolutely perfect. It’s juicy, it’s tender, the skin is a deliciously crispy brown. It’s the perfect vehicle for sucking down as much of that divine sauce as possible. There was enough chicken here to split between two people, and that was before we got into the ribs.

The ribs were every bit as perfect. A good barbecue rib can be a tricky thing in execution. It’s a simple idea, but the rib is such a delicate cut with so little meat, a badly-made rib can feel like sucking on a sauce-covered bone. There was no problem with this at Scott Ja-Mama’s. Their pork ribs were meaty and succulent with plenty of sauce to spare. We’ve had beef ribs that felt less meaty than this! Perhaps eating this meal in public was a mistake, as like any good barbecue, the ribs left our faces and hands soaked with sauce. Anything in the name of good food…

By the way, the included baked potato was one of the best potatoes we’ve ever eaten. It’s twice baked, which is one of the highest ranking ways to prepare a potato. This potato was the softest, creamiest, most tender potato we have ever eaten. No sour cream or butter required – just a sprinkling of shredded cheese, cheese that was so surprisingly cheddary that it must’ve either been fresh-grated or from a seriously good grated cheese supplier. The skin wasn’t as amazing, but who cares?

The roll was a roll. The coleslaw was from a bag. The vinaigrette was pretty good, though. If you pot that vinaigrette on some pasta salad, we’d eat that right up. But you’re not here for coleslaw and bread rolls.

To top off the meal, we got a side of baked beans ($1.50), something that Scott’s only serves whenever they feel like making it. The beans were beyond compare. It was to our immense surprise and delight to learn that this was not simple baked beans – this was pork and beans! Soft strings of shredded pork intermingle with the beans, cooked so tender that they melt into something that’s more sauce than beans. You could spoon this over a slice of bread and eat it like buttered toast. The beans were smoky in the extreme, something that might turn some people off if they don’t appreciate the darker side of flavors, but we loved it. If you’re tired of sugary sweet beans from a can and want something with a touch of bitterness, these beans are for you.

Scott Ja-Mama’s has recently changed their hours in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. They’re now open six days a week, instead of the normal Wednesday to Saturday; we were spectacularly lucky, as we didn’t think too hard about schedules and went on a Monday. This decision is, according to them, to support the local community. Frankly, we could all use a little more barbecue in these trying times. We’re keeping the outside-exploring to a minimum (this expedition happened before our trip to Burger King), but we can’t wait until we can go again. Everything about Scott Ja-Mama’s is wonderful, from the food, to the tiny restaurant crammed wall to wall with knick-knacks, to even the owner, who is supposedly a fantastic and friendly person. This is what a small restaurant like this is all about: community.

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