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Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin holds a slice of Beef Butter BBQ’s chocolate-dipped key lime pie in the foreground of a meat feast he recently picked up at the east-side Madison restaurant.

MADISON

There are plenty of restaurant meals where you find yourself fighting the urge to skip immediately to dessert.

I didn’t expect one of them to be at Beef Butter BBQ, Patrick Riha’s ever-burgeoning east-side Madison barbecue empire. After all, this is a place that (deservedly) rides high on its delicious and popular smoked meats.

Then again, I also didn’t expect to encounter the chocolate-dipped key lime pie.

We’ll get to the delights of Riha’s smoked meats in a minute, but we have to start with this unusual and memorable treat.

Basically, it’s like a pie Popsicle coated with a hard shell of dark chocolate encasing everything including the crust. You wouldn’t expect it to be easy to eat, but it is. You also wouldn’t expect the chocolate to complement the smooth tang of the key lime, but it does. As slices of pie go, it’s on the pricey side ($7), but it’s very much worth it.

Now that we’ve gotten that delicious aside out of the way, we return to our regularly scheduled review programming.

From the outside, Riha’s barbecue empire has taken on an almost carnival midway-esque vibe, and it’s a big indication of how popular his food has become. The fleet of branded trucks, mobile restaurants and trailer-smokers he uses to transport his meats to catering events circles the main building like troops circling the Alamo.

During the pandemic, Riha rigged up a makeshift curbside delivery system that features a super-extended, covered conveyor belt framed with LED chaser lights. It’s not the world’s most efficient operation (you might find yourself camped in line in your car for 10 or more minutes if things are busy), but at least you’ll be visually entertained while you wait.

Stepping inside the building on a recent Friday night, it wasn’t surprising to find the social-distancing line snaking through the restaurant.

Riha makes the wait appetizing and tantalizing with a pair of massive big-screen TVs that double as “smoker cams,” showing the racks of ribs, beef brisket and pans of baked beans rotating through the smoker.

You might have to fight the urge to reach out and try to grab them, and if nothing else, they’re sure to leave you hypnotized.

The best of Beef Butter BBQ’s selection is right there in the restaurant’s name. The beef butter brisket—“beef butter” referring to the juices that come from cooking the brisket’s fatty edges—can be ordered lean, fatty or a mix of both, and it comes with two sides ($14.95) served on a bun to satisfy any instant sandwich options.

The smoked baby back ribs (14.95, also with two sides) arrive gently spiced, crispy and firm, and they pair well with Riha’s sweet barbecue sauce.

In addition to those front-runners, you can also opt for everything from pulled pork ($11.95) to chicken breast ($13.95) and smoked sausages (jalapeno cheddar or regular, both $10.50 with two sides) either as the mainstay of your meal or as part of a two- or three-meat sampler platter.

Takeout is served in a four-compartment container that keeps everything separated and neat, but it also limits the amount of the two sides you select. Fortunately, for an additional $6.50, you can add a 1-pound serving to make sure nobody misses out.

And you’re going to want to do that with the apple-pie baked beans, which are among the absolute best barbecue sides Madison has to offer. The sweet taste of the apples and filling dovetails brilliantly with the brown sugar and spice, providing both a flavor and consistency that rivals the meats and key lime pie for top billing.

Some of the other sides are a little more meh. The mashed potatoes were clumpy and flavorless, even with gravy added. The sweet corn bread was satisfactory but not stellar, although there’s a jalapeno-punched version that adds some kick to the equation. Kettle chips and french fries are more reliable side-dish options.

Last month, Riha floated plans for something he’s calling Camp Beef Butter BBQ. This summer, he’s hoping to convert an area overlooking wetlands in nearby Westport into a Thursday-through-Sunday evening barbecue picnic spot, with on-site fire pits and live entertainment for alfresco and nature-loving diners.

Hey, as long as the warmer outdoor temps don’t melt the coating on that chocolate-dipped key lime pie, we’re down with that.

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.

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