If you’re cruising down Highway 7 on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, roll your windows down as you drive through Minnetrista to catch a whiff of quintessentially Minnesota barbecue. On a spacious and grassy lot at 8175 Highway 7, Joe and Jen Cox serve up wood-smoked meats at Buddy Boy Fine Barbecue to diners that travel from all over the state and as far as Poland and Brazil for their slow-cooked ribs.
“Honestly, we get people driving four hours,” Jen Cox said.
The two-year-old business is a labor of love for the Coxes, who have worked in catering since 2005. During the week, Joe Cox works for catering company Taher Inc., but since 2017, they’ve opened Buddy Boy for just four hours on Saturdays to give diners a taste of Joe Cox’s meticulously-crafted barbecue. He begins cooking 1,000 pounds of beef, pork and turkey on Friday afternoon in the massive wood stoves that dot Buddy Boy’s property and stays up all night to tend the meat so it’s fresh and ready when the restaurant opens on Saturday morning. It only takes four hours to sell out of everything, he added.
“By 10 o’clock, almost everything is done and I’m wiped out,” he said with a laugh. “We try to keep it real simple, but keeping it simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
On a Saturday in mid-August, people began lining up for barbecue as soon as the restaurant opened. The operation was outdoors and shaded under awnings next to an airy 1960s diner renovated by Jen Cox, where diners sit in winter months. Around a quarter were familiar faces who chatted with the Coxes as they and a staff of around 15 people — sometimes including one of the Cox’s five children — began delivering sandwiches and grilled vegetables straight off the fire into waiting hands.
Eric Wells, of Mound, is at Buddy Boy nearly every Saturday. The sense of community — and the food — is what keeps him coming back, he said.
“It’s Joe, it’s Jen, it’s their daughter,” Wells reflected. “It’s a different vibe.”
Others, like Tony Muchow of Watertown, were tasting the Cox’s creations for the first time. His wife pulled off the highway on a whim after a morning with their family on Lake Minnetonka’s beaches, he said.
“We’ve seen it quite a few times and she finally pumped the brakes,” Muchow said.
After Sept. 4, drivers will have the chance to stop by Buddy Boy more than once a week: The couple is expanding their operation to include evening hours on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 4-8 p.m. Jen Cox anticipates a different crowd for the after-work rush.
“People are probably going to pick up dinner after work, they probably won’t be able to lounge as much as they want to,” she speculated. “Joe and I, we want people to take a break.”
Joe Cox’s global upbringing inspired Buddy Boy’s local taste, he said. His mother was from Taiwan and his father was in the military, which meant they moved frequently, and he quickly became fascinated by the “art and science of working with wood and fire” all over the world. He began experimenting with his own cooking as a child long before he began his first job washing dishes at a Waconia restaurant, and even when he eventually joined the Marines, he ended up in the kitchen, he added. After years of travel and attending culinary school in Minneapolis, something about the North Star state made Joe Cox decide to settle down.
“We want this to be a real taste of Minnesota,” he said. “I want to plant my roots here.”
The Coxes order all their meat from Minnesotan farms and source their vegetables locally whenever possible, said Jen Cox, who runs the restaurant’s operations. It’s that care and focus on quality that makes Buddy Boy stand out in a state that’s more known for its cheese curds than its barbecue, she added.
“People barbecue all around the world,” Jen Cox explained. “The real neat thing is people really connect, this is real barbecue.”
As the line began to grow, Jen Cox caught up with regulars and guided people toward the growing line while Joe Cox continued hauling slabs of glistening meat out of the wood stoves. As he sliced through a side of beef brisket, he pointed out a dark red circle around the meat where the wood smoke had penetrated the brisket, giving it its rich flavor.
“That’s how you know you’re really cooking,” he said.