The Grater Good: Iron Grate BBQ

Cohabiting businesses Iron Grate BBQ and Hawthorne Coffee Roasters draw from each other’s strengths.

The aroma emitted by Edna cannot be denied. “She” perfumes Iron Grate BBQ Co., overriding the smell of roasted coffee beans. Edna’s 10-foot-long, 500-gallon, mostly recycled self is the force behind half of this unusual business model. Iron Grate shares 8,000 square feet of real estate with roaster-café Hawthorne Coffee.

It’s a warm, inviting alloy of crusty meats piled on plastic trays, wet naps at the ready, and mugs of Colombian espresso at the U-shaped counter. Or BBQ at the counter and a latte while reading at a communal table. Iron Gate, open since January 2016, and Hawthorne seem to have an almost natural synergy.

The smoker Edna, chilling in “her” digs. Photo by Chris Kessler.
The smoker Edna, chilling in “her” digs. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Edna – stationed on the outdoor patio – is essentially the main kitchen. It wood-smokes and cooks the menu’s four meats (including the “Milwaukee rib,” a pork rib with the belly meat attached) and adds flavor to the sides that come with them. The roasting equipment for Hawthorne Coffee is also on-site so that this space – outfitted with DIY ingenuity, thrift store found objects and wooden and upholstered furniture – is far from under-utilized.

Iron Grate owner-chef Aaron Patin embraces the test of a menu where “everything is impacted by the smoker.” His cooking days start at an ungodly 2 a.m. That’s when Edna gets her first tending to of the day. Patin builds a “huge” fire, using local oak and cherry wood as the fuel source. It’s an exhilaratingly different process from the hats he wore at, most recently, East Side’s Ardent, whose sous vide-style of cooking produced breathtaking elegance. Patin’s focused menu at Iron Grate is a microcosm of BBQ, not the exhaustive, every-region exploration. 

And the all-important pick-up area at the restaurant-cafe. Photo by Chris Kessler.
And the all-important pick-up area at the restaurant-cafe. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Patin’s menu is not an all-around hit parade, but he has hit on something with the Milwaukee rib, a thick, meaty creation that lends the eater lusciously crusty nubs and end bites. It has held its own on each of several meals there. (It’s available in “Meat & 3” meals, $15-$30, and by the pound.) The brisket varied in the ratio of meat-to-fat and tenderness, but the smoke ring and bark are selling points, while the pulled pork isn’t succulent but rather crusty, with an appreciated fatty essence. The pork hot links lead with their snap, leaving an aftermath of heat.

The smoke factor, considerable in the meats, carries over to the sides. Patin and his crew add the smoked meat drippings to the creamy stone-ground grits. It’s a bold flavor, far less to my liking than the mac and cheese with (timid) smoked Roma tomatoes and a crusty lid of melted cheese. Rounding out the sides: a mayo-dressed coleslaw that’s crunchy, the bits of cabbage and carrots not saturated in liquid; smothered greens, dotted with bits of pork; and baked beans, thick, smoky and tangy-sweet (the best of the bunch). Patin enhances his BBQ sauce with a liquid smoked vinegar, whose thin consistency lends moisture to the meat but doesn’t compete with the smokiness. The cider vinegar goes almost everywhere – into the beans, the slaw, the collards. Iron Grate’s terrific sweet-savory dill pickles are tucked into the Meat & 3s.

Periodically Patin and coffee man Steve Hawthorne pause from the task at hand to watch the traffic flow in the cafe-restaurant during the hours both spots are open. The business model has many irons in the fire. This “wonderful challenge,” as Patin puts it, has intriguing possibilities. ◆

Iron Grate BBQ Co.
4177 S. Howell Ave., 414-455-1776.
Lunch and dinner Fri-Sun.
1, 2 or 3 Meats & 3 Sides, $15-$30; smoked meats $11-$16 per pound.

This dining review appears in the Dine Out Pocket Guide in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the April issue on newsstands beginning April 3.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.