As I opened the door into the quaint dining area I was overcome by a plethora of aromas dominated by a strong smoke. This was going to be amazing. The menu was posted on the classic 90’s display board, little white magnetized letters that latched onto a black backdrop. Four tight columns divided into different categories detailed nearly 10 items each. The kitchen, located right underneath this board, was open and displayed a large flattop, a few fryers, a small range and a massive smoker. The healthy chef was casually completing his orders using nearly all the equipment.
I approached the register and placed my order: Water Street tacos – which I was informed were being sold a la carte in honor of ‘taco Tuesday’ – one chicken, one brisket and one pork, a rib platter, where I doubled down on the meat for only six extra dollars, served with cornbread, and my two sides of mac and cheese and smoked baked beans. I took my seat at the only two seat table I could find and began to peruse their menu further. As I picked up a menu wedged between a napkin holder, I was exposed to FIVE separate bottles of barbeque sauces. I took my time reading their descriptions and before I could finish the cashier brought over my appetizer. Three loaded flour tortillas stuffed with my meats of choice and topped with cole slaw and cilantro and green onion. Okay, probably the most sacrilegious tacos I have ever eaten but easily some of the finest. The chicken was cooked perfectly, effortless tearing with each bite I took. It was spiced with a mix of spices that had a nice kick and resembled a blackening spice. The cole slaw cut the chicken with a nice burst of acid finished with a rich sweet sauce. The brisket and pork offered nearly the same level of enjoyment.
Again, quicker than I was ready for, the cashier brought my rib platter. Piled high a dozen ribs, a massive portion of mac and cheese and healthy cup of baked beans. The smoky aroma of the ribs was enchanting. I wanted to taste the sides first, as I dove into the mac and cheese I noticed it could have been hotter. The macaroni also had lost of some of its texture and I presume both factors were because it was pulled, ready-made, out of a steam table. The flavor did amend these issues though, a rich creamy sauce with a sharp cheesy bite coated each noodle in a velvety layer of mornay. The beans, contrary to the mac, were nearly boiling and I was appreciative. Each bean, also coated liberally in a smoky sweet sauce, was incredibly tender and almost creamy in texture. I took a quick bite out of my cornbread which I only need to describe by detailing what my notes of the meal said: Holy shit, moist. I now turned my attention to the ribs.
I wanted to experience that ethereal rub that was assaulting my nostrils, so I ate one dry. As I took my bite the entirety of its meat fell right of the bone. My palate was blasted with a hard smoke, and a complex mixture of spices I can’t even fathom. As I finished the tasty morsel I was teased by a slight kick of heat, something I came to enjoy each and every bite. The first sauce, Kansas City Barbeque, was subtitled simply as sweet. I caught tones of molasses – which could have been accurate, although I think I was tasting the molasses in brown sugar – a pleasant mixture of onion and garlic, a very slight hint of acid and tomato. (One of my biggest peeves about barbeque sauce is when it is crafted with ketchup – essentially high fructose corn syrup and tomato concentrate – but I asked the chef about this sauce and told it wasn’t I was thrilled.) Next up was a tangy Memphis style sauce. It was, as expected, a vinegar-based sauce. The level of acid was high, but it was appropriately balanced with a sweetener, the lack of that rich molasses taste leads me to believe they used honey, although white sugar is also an option. I followed this with a smattering of Georgia Peach barbeque sauce. This lightly sweetened sauce, exploding with peach flavor paired excellently with complex rub on the ribs and helped mellow out that slight burst of heat at the end. My next sauce I was somewhat apprehensive about. Labeled only as chipotle barbeque I was expecting some bastardization – although the tacos should have given me
some insight – of a chipotle sauce. The heat was gradual, slowly enveloping my palate as I gobbled down my rib. It’s complexity of flavors and sensations left my head spinning as I was greeted with heat and sweet playing off the undertones of the rub. I had just found my favorite sauce. My last was Carolina Mustard sauce which had me intrigued from the start; it was the only bottle on the table that had an intense golden color. At first bite I was greeted with the familiar flavor of mustard, a gentle biting bitterness that slowly developed into a colorful burst of tanginess and sweetness that ended on almost floral notes. This was easily the most complex sauce on the table. My preference though was still towards the Chipolte and so I doused my remaining ribs in a health portion of it with a few drops of Kansas Barbeque in between.
Touted as one of the top 10 barbecue joints in Iowa, the Armory makes good on this promise. The intoxicating aroma as you open the door should be enough, but for those who are still not convinced the diverse menu offers items from brisket to pulled pork and all matters in between. The tables are clean, and the service is quick. Both impressive feats considering I saw over 30 people in the establishment during the hour I enjoyed my meal. Authentic main dishes, innovative appetizers, solid sides and a playful collection of sauces will leave any barbecue fan satisfied and satiated. If you are breezing through the little town of Decorah I highly recommend spending some time in one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in the state: a true taste of mid-western barbeque.
Old Armory BBQ
Address: 421 W Water St,
Atmosphere: A quaint barbecue joint in the heart of Decorah. Service is quick and employees are friendly.
Sound Level: moderately loud
Recommended Choices: Water St tacos are a must and one of the meat platters.
Drink’s, Wine and Cocktails: Only fountain drinks and water.
Price $ (Inexpensive)
Open: Monday to Thursday from 11a-8p; Friday and Saturday 11a-9p; Sunday 11a-3p
What the stars represent: ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary.