116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
NORTH LIBERTY — At Mosley’s Barbecue and Provisions, you’ll find plenty of smoke, but no mirrors. In a new Iowa barbecue tradition that owner Sean Keller has perfected over the last 10 years, secrecy isn’t part of the recipe.
“There’s this aura of mystery, this shroud around barbecue, and it’s such crap,” Keller said. “If you want to stand next to a fire for 15 hours, have at it, because I don’t buy into all this secrecy.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, Keller has publicly released his brisket rub recipe for the first time to The Gazette.
1/2 cup of kosher salt
1 cup of black pepper
1/4 cup of garlic powder
1 tbsp. + 1 pinch of smoked bittersweet paprika
The barbecue pit where all the magic happens may not be glamorous. But, perhaps to the dismay of anti-smoking campaigns, it still looks pretty cool.
Sparking the flame
In the pit is the product of an obsession that Keller started dabbling in over 20 years ago and has actively worked to perfect over the last decade — something very simple he said he’s done very well.
But make no mistake: “It’s very simple, but not easy,” he said.
After experiencing an explosion of barbecue flavors for the first time in South Carolina as a teenager, Keller, now 42, has been chasing an art form he has perfected for himself without imitating others.
“Growing up, barbecue was like a drum stick on a Weber propane grill with KC Masterpiece burnt onto it,” he said. “So to have real barbecue with all the contrast of textures and flavors — it blew my mind. It never left me.”
Where: 525 S. Gilbert St. in Iowa City; 125 E. Zeller St. in North Liberty
Hours: 3 to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends in Iowa City; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily in North Liberty
Phone: (319) 338-1419 in Iowa City; (319) 626-4227 in North Liberty
Details: In addition to a variety of traditional barbecue foods, Mosley’s has recently expanded into new, scratch-made Cuban sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, salads and more.
Making it Iowan
As he chased a taste of his own home, Keller wanted to do more than bring the styles of other states to Iowa. He wanted Iowa to establish its own barbecue tradition — something it lacked.
“Barbecue is a product of scarcity. When you have one hog and a lot of people, you cook the entire hog and you pull every single piece of pork off that pig,” he said. “Here in Iowa, we have more pigs than people. So we strip out the tenderloin, we tenderize it, we fry it for a sandwich.”
Barbecue is the history of America in a food, Keller said, with reflections of immigration patterns, economic growth, racial demographics and agricultural trends over centuries. South Carolina’s style is influenced by the mustard and vinegar preferences of German immigrants, for example. Texas’ brisket style was shaped by the cattle brought by Spaniards.
But in a new tradition Keller brings through Mosley’s, what defines Iowa barbecue? Primarily farm-to-table sourcing, the use of less common Duroc pork, and a process that lets the pork’s flavor speak for itself. Though Keller didn’t set out to create an Iowa style, the end result is inherently Iowan.
“It really came from a notion in my mind of what I wanted,” he said. “I was pursuing the barbecue that I wanted to eat. It kind of transcended regions by that point.”
As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one that wanted to eat it. Mosley’s first opened in Iowa City in 2015, followed by a second North Liberty location in 2018.
Bringing all the smoke
Mosley’s smoked meats are the product of 100 percent hickory smoke, made possible by wood delivered from the nearby family farm of Matt Kroul, University of Iowa defensive tackle from 2004 to 2008. The choice of only hickory wood without the use of heat assistance from other sources, which can speed up the process, is a choice unique to Mosley’s.
Though that choice is the result of an intense love for the art form that’s more than a cooking method, the hickory is what makes it taste like home to Keller.
“We’re the only spot in the state of Iowa, that I’m aware of, that does it start to finish over a hickory fire,” Keller said. “We watch it all night long, whatever it takes.”
As Mosley’s started in 2015, Keller slept in a cot inside the restaurant until others were trained to work with the pit. But that’s not the only sign of his dedication.
It took being a youth football coach — which requires a fingerprint background check — for Keller to realize he didn’t really have fingerprints anymore, thanks to the hot stuff he’s been handling for decades.
“They’re basically gone,” he said.
The cooking method isn’t the most practical, but Keller said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If a fire code prevented me from doing it, I wouldn’t have a restaurant,” he said.
Back to the basics
After years of “a lot of bad food” through trial and error, Keller has stripped barbecue down to the basics in a way that doesn’t require overpowering sauces to enjoy.
With only a basic brine on butts, the pork does not rely on injections or excessive seasoning. Keller didn’t want it to be too sweet, either.
Duroc pork, which is much darker and pricier than the standard pork used in many restaurants, offers more fat and marbling for a richer flavor. Ribs are smoked for four hours; butts are smoked for at least 12.
“The protein is the star of the show. I want the pork to shine through,” he said.
But on the table in supporting roles are several bold sauces: hot sauce, Red Rib, Gold Standard and M14. Each offers something for everyone from bright and tangy or saccharine to peppery, mustard-influenced or spicy.
Sides include the iconic mason glass jars of house-smoked bacon and bacon-topped macaroni and cheese. Now, Mosley’s is offering a variety of new options on the scratch-made menu too, including Cuban sandwiches, burgers, salads and pizzas.
A new audience for a new food genre
Most diners new to Mosley’s have no barbecue experience or have preconceived notions of what barbecue should be from the little experience they do have, Keller said. Nonetheless, they’ve proven they’re receptive to new ideas.
“It’s such a great opportunity to bring this new style of food and experience to people who otherwise aren’t going to get it,” he said.
Though he’s been in restaurants most of his life, Mosley’s is the first one he has owned, in partnership with Matt Swift. But more than owning a restaurant, he’s forged a new style.
“If the ingredients and the process are native to the state of Iowa, then it has to be that the barbecue that’s produced is native to Iowa as well,” he said.
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