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Beaver's Night Out: The Pit

BY BEN VERHILLE | APRIL 11, 2013 5:00 AM

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Warm weather means Iowa cookouts, and no Iowa event is complete without pulled pork and barbecue.

After my visit this week, I’ve found there is no place better to satisfy your cookout cravings than the Pit Smokehouse & BBQ, 130 N. Dubuque St.

What started out as smoking ribs in a backyard has turned into a local staple, calling Iowa City home for years. Owner Duncan Prophet was doing just that when he was told by a close friend of his, after tasting the meat, “You could make a million dollars on this.”

So began Prophet’s barbecue adventures. The business’s official start in August 2001 was exclusively as a catering company working from an industrial kitchen. Its recipe served 100 people with just beef, pork, coleslaw, and beans. Prophet’s cofounder, Tim Fischer, helped him get started as a student at Tippie. The two prepared a business plan and won a portion of a grant from the entrepreneurship program at Iowa.

Prophet was seeing a woman in Kansas City at time, and he would visit her, touring the barbecue capital of the United States.

The barbecue scene in Iowa City was dismal, and virtually nonexistent outside of his start-up catering company. Prophet brought his extensive knowledge back to Iowa City residents, the barbecue virgins.

A new opportunity arose when the Yacht Club opened around the same time City Council requirements forced the music venue to also serve food. Prophet had a kitchen and tables for the first time, allowing him to focus on making recipes for single plates.

This luck didn’t last forever, but the business persevered by selling from a counter in Coralville’s Deli-Mart.

The business was stable but not in its element. Searching for a location, one finally revealed itself.
Right at the intersection of Market and Dubuque Streets sat a vacant building. Zoning laws forced the location’s previous occupant, an auto-body shop, to close. Duncan and Fischer jumped on this opportunity — even though it came with the daunting task of a complete renovation.

During this process of tearing down walls, they exposed the original brick of the structure. The red brick gave the Pit the raw feel of a Kansas City barbecue restaurant, and they paired it with wood interior to complete the scene.

All that was left was to establish a menu and a reputation by creating tastes that satisfy the needs of veterans and virgins of barbecue, which the business has certainly accomplished.

To complete the reputation, the Pit created a food challenge called the Quadruple Bypass. Five pounds of seasoned potato rounds, pulled pork, bacon, house BBQ sauce, and melted cheddar create a challenge worthy of only true food champions. The reward? If you finish within 30 minutes, you get it for free. For those of us with smaller stomachs, the Coronary is a single serving size of the same ingredients. I fought temptation and chose the smaller of the two.

The heaping serving of this dish was presented with a fork sticking out, leaving me with little option other than to just dig in. The first bite offered a crunch from the rounds, followed by the warm and sweet flavor of the house BBQ, pulled pork, melted cheddar, and bacon pieces.

Oh, this was my first time with the Coronary, but I think I’m in love.

After I fell head over heels, I thought I would add some of the other homemade flavors of BBQ sauce available. The Tangy sauce is a Southern-style, vinegar-based sauce, making it thinner and “zippier,” according to Prophet. This addition made for an interesting taste, but the Spicy sauce was my favorite — the burn sneaks up on you without being overly aggressive.

I would love to try the Quadruple Bypass Challenge, but there is no way I could do it without training.

A video of this monster of a dish being taken down can be found here.


The Pit Smokehouse, 130 N. Dubuque

What to try: the Coronary (seasoned potato rounds, pulled pork, bacon, house BBQ sauce, and melted cheddar)


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