It announces its vibe the same way the enormous statues of the cowlicked Bob used to announce the presence of Big Boy Burger joints back in the 1960s and ‘70s. And you would basically have to be blind to miss it: an enormous military-style Humvee parked prominently outside the new Mission BBQ restaurant off East Washington Avenue.
While the Humvee is nowhere near as tall as a Big Boy statue, it definitely dwarfs every other vehicle in the lot. It’s big and it’s bold—kind of like the food that is offered inside.
Mission BBQ, the brainchild of former Under Armour exec Bill Kraus and former Outback Steakhouse exec “Newt” Newton, has been around since the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. The two men have slowly been spreading the Mission vibe across the upper Midwest.
The East Wash location, which has been open since August, is Madison’s first. It probably won’t be the city’s last.
The military vibe is front and center. A large “Soldier’s Creed” placard hovers above the dispensers for lemonade and iced tea. Perhaps not ironically, a key part of the creed is “the mission always comes first.” Different locations have been offering military appreciation nights giving vets the chance to win a free year of barbecue.
There are also plenty of splashes of Americana. Inside, a long rectangular wooden cooler parked next to the order line gives you the opportunity to snare a glass bottle of an obscure retro soda (think Nehi and Frostie) instead of going for a modern fountain drink. Of course, if you’d prefer that, you can order your Pepsi product in an enormous black American Heroes Cup ($3.99, with $2 donated to local nonprofits).
Mission features all the barbecue standards, and they’re all surprisingly solid.
The beef brisket ($10.49) can be ordered “moist” or “lean.” Figuring moist was code for “fattier,” I opted for that, but I was surprised to receive a pile of largely fat-free meat that was, in fact, moist and delicious.
Also offered are pulled pork ($7.69), chicken ($7.49), smoked turkey ($7.89), sausage (47.29) and two types of ribs. You order ribs by the bone here, so it’s possible to just get a snack-sized, single rib bone ($2.59/$2.39 depending on type) or upgrade to a five-bone/half-rack order or 10-bone/full rack order. The St. Louis-style spareribs—with a delicious, smoky-sweet dry rub—best the Bay-b-Que ribs by a wide margin. The latter really need one of Mission’s barbecue sauces to bring them to life.
Like a military warehouse overstuffed with ammunition, there are plenty of sauces from which to choose. Most barbecue joints have maybe three or four sauces to tempt you. Madison’s Mission BBQ offers a whopping eight—six bedrock sauces and two offerings from their state/regional-focused “Craftsman” series. Each one packs its own distinct taste.
The standouts here are the Tupelo Honey Heat, a thin, sweet and searing sauce that tastes like the Szechuan sauce often served with chicken-finger apps at a brewpub, and the Smoky Mountain, which packs undertones that pair gracefully with the oak-smoked meats.
Unless you’re ordering your barbecue meat off Mission’s sandwich menu or are a deep devotee of regional flavors, skip the Craftsman options: The horseradish-based Alabama White would work better as a dip for fried shrimp or as a spread on a roast beef sandwich. The Georgiaah! Mustard, meanwhile, looks and tastes like a traditional yellow mustard punched up with some pepper. Whatever sauce ends up being your jam, you can buy a bottle of it to take home.
Mission’s menu is also hiding some serious secret weapons. The smoked salmon ($10.49) damn near unseats the brisket and rib offerings as Mission’s best bet. The filet is sizable, tender and, best of all, suffused to the gills with oaky, smoky flavor. It’s so flavorful it doesn’t even need sauce.
Mission also features Black Plate specials that rotate each month. A smoked meatloaf with chipotle ketchup was on offer when I swung by, and I found myself regretting that I hadn’t known about it when I called in my order.
Entrees overshadow the side dishes here by a wide margin, but there are still several worth considering.
The current seasonal offering, baked cheesy potatoes ($7.49 for a pint serving), are an au gratin adventure that make any thought of fries basically superfluous. They share too many traits with the otherwise delicious Maggie’s Mac-N-Cheese ($7.14) to make ordering both a worthwhile gambit, so opt for the sweet and smoke-a-riffic baked beans with brisket ($6.99) instead.
Mission’s website doesn’t offer the option to order food online (several of the standard delivery services do, however), but calling your order in is easy and efficient.
For a national chain, Mission does a surprisingly strong job of rockin’ a memorable ’cue, and knowing your purchase is supporting vets and community organizations is a nice plus.
To rip off a line from the cheesy 1970s TV variety show “Hee Haw” that also manages to tie back to the restaurant’s deep-seated military vibe, we offer Mission a full-throated “Sa-lute.”
Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.