Searching For America Deep In The Heart Of Southern Sweden
HÖGANÄS, SKÅNE, SWEDEN
WORDS BY EREK BELL, PHOTOS BY JONAS LARSSON
Knee high by the 4th of July it’s a saying one hears during this time of year back home in the heartlands. It’s a measure of yield, an indication for calculating a farmer’s successfully growing corn crops which are anchoring their deep roots into the loess soils of the former prairie. By this time of year, the sun beats down unrelentingly, baking the Midwest, and causing the most unpleasant humidity which can only be vanquished with an ice cold, watered down beer. These are certainly the ramblings of a Midwestern expatriate for sure. I have been missing that god-awful humidity, that heat, and of course the sweetest of corn there is this time of year. It’s the 4th of July weekend here in Skåne, the southern-most state in my ancestral homeland, Sweden and I am searching for a piece of Americana that can help me escape, experience, and feel Independence. Luckily enough, I have had the fortune of befriending the guys Rob and Dan from HepCat Store, a lifestyle boutique in Lund, Sweden that specializes in quality denim, footwear, work and street wear, headwear, music, books, magazines, and accessories (Dedicated readers might recognize this store from some ad space in the magazine). This weekend they are heading up north in Skåne to run a pop-up store. The destination? Höganäs, a town that seems to defy Swedishness with its bold sense of entrepreneurship and its population of passionate and creative people. We have been invited to tag along and see the sights, but for me personally, I am searching for America.
Garage Bar, Good Stuff For Good People
After an hours ride on a train and bus, I arrive in the early evening at Garage Bar in Höganäs, this will be our basecamp for the weekend and the location of the HepCat pop-up store. As I stroll up, I get feelings of a block party vibe. There’s a strip of asphalt running between two warehouse style buildings, there’s a vibrant energy here as music and the smell of a grill working hard pours out onto the cement. People are all over, enjoying themselves under string lights as dusk approaches, taking in the pleasures of locally made beers and burgers being served out of an airstream style trailer food truck, Garage Bar’s take on street food. On one side of the blacktop you have Höganäs brewery, a small brewery tucked into a loading door with a cozy DIY aesthetic outdoor seating, and tonight it is a sort of spin your own vinyl DJ night. In the same building is Högnäs Saluhallen (A Saluhall is a sort of indoor market place, picture charcuterie, cheese, vegetables, craft and handmade products) and a pottery barn called Höganäs Glaseringsugnar. On the other side is a low brick building with a sheet metal roof, there’s bamboo and palm umbrellas, a chain link fence, old gas pumps, and bicycles and motorcycles parked out front—welcome to Garage Bar, a joint that serves up, “Good Stuff For Good People”.
There’s a bustling atmosphere as I head on in to rendezvous with Dan and Rob from HepCat, and Jonas from American Trails. We catch up in the corner of the pop-up store, where HepCat have brought and hung up some of their brands for sale: Pendleton blankets, Filson bags, Eat Dust jeans, all sorts of cool clothes to complete your look, the epitome of style. We have some cans of Garage’s GSGP beer, and discuss the plans for the weekend. Jonas and I will be shown around to some of the hotspots up here, we are promised classic cars, BBQ, craft beer, and live music. Turns out this 4th of July weekend won’t be too far off from the real deal, this place has it all—minus the fireworks.
Jonas and I set out through the restaurant section to head to the side yard where Garage has just opened up its outdoor wine bar and garden serving. We saunter up to a small shack of reclaimed wood and sheet metal, Garage’s Winebar, and are treated to a glass of Italian Red Barbera. Our bartender swirls his wine in a deep cupped glass, taking long thoughtful whiffs in between conversation. I am no wine guy, I will leave that to Jonas, but this was some really tasty stuff. We hang around and learn a bit about wine importation, when behind us, a familiar voice begins to warm the outdoor bar space. Jens, or J.Tex as he is known, is a local legend in these parts, a singer songwriter who harkens us back to the early days of country and Americana. His guitar playing is soft and calculated as his sharp eyes scan the diverse crowd of families, biker guys, hipsters, someone’s grandparents, and really just about any kind of person there is. “Home on the hill… you used to call your home…” J.Tex is hitting me in the feels with these lyrics and his raspy campfire-side voice. Here I am surrounded by familiar sights, fashions, an atmosphere, the smells—heck there is a 67’ Chevy Impala with side pipes and a sea green GMC Sierra Grande just at my back—all the things that remind of me the place I used to call home.
We float around in-between the outside wine bar and the inside restaurant. The place is packed, it’s a busy night here, and surely busy most nights. Families and groups of friends sit in booths, sinking their teeth into some big burgers, their conversations meld together and hang in the air to create a harmonic buzz of bass, treble added as dishes clattering in the kitchen signal that more and more burgers are being sent out into the dining room. The commotion of it all and the music makes you know that you are in a popular place. Above the bar hangs a skull of a Texas longhorn, framed by fine whiskeys, gins, and all the delights of strong spirits. I waltz up and order myself another GSGP, and just take it all in, I swear my barstool started growing roots into the cement floor, I didn’t move an inch, just content with life and all this goodness around me. Another burger walks past, and I realize that it is my time to eat.
Garage Bar’s menu is a composed of great bar and gastropub classics with an influence of Mexican and American flavors. You got tacos, chili, hot wings, ribs, the works, the stuff that gets me excited—these are the tastes of home. But the burgers, my god. The burgers. This is probably the star here, framed right-smack-dab in the middle of the menu. I go for the “G-Burger”, a big patty with cheddar, the house dressing, pickles, onion, and bacon. There is something so tasty and mouth-watering about a good burger done right, and Garage delivers exactly that. To the point where you almost become angry because it tastes so good, grease dripping down your chin, you become oblivious to everything around you, and death itself seems so far away. This is heavenly.
the man bEhind it all
Mats Hernström, the man and myth behind all of this at Garage, catches Jonas and I as we sink into a corner, bellies full of burgers and beers, and a bit exhausted. “Looks like you boys need a pick me up” he declares, signaling to the bar with his rough and torn farmer’s hands, for three shots of bourbon and pickle backs. Mats pulls up a stool with us, sets out the shots of bourbon, and pours three more shot glasses up full of pickle juice. “Pickle juice, pickle back?” For Jonas, this is a first. See a pickle back is a pickle juice chaser, and it pairs most excellently with bourbon, and more so, has a magical property which restores the health and constitution of the drinker, returning them to a state of normality. The pickle back move worked. I eye off just above the bar, a black and white picture of a -barrel-chested man riding a chopper in nothing but a leopard skin speedo. “Mats, is that you?” I ask, and he laughs with affirmation. “Yea man, that’s a ride we do every year called the Bombin Run, I always finish it off riding in that way”. This guy is a character, he is like one of those dudes who has seemingly done it all. Rides choppers, has a massive tomato and cucumber farm, and runs Garage Bar. He is a legend with a peace sign necklace around his neck.
We cap off the night at our accommodation just outside of Höganäs, an old farm with period windmill, by having some whiskey and solid conversations with Rob, Dan, and J.Tex. Time for bed, we got an early start and a big day ahead of us.
Around 10:00 we are shuttled by our steadfast friend and driver, Dan, in his retro GMC van—a mustard gold machine with thick, white shag carpet upholstered from the walls to the ceiling. Our first stop of the day is Mike’s Garage, a classic American Car dealer, workshop, and overall nostalgia trip nestled in a stone-barn on an old countryside gentleman farm estate. We rock up to the smells of a weber grill firing up and are met with warm smiles from Mats of Garage Bar, Johan Åkerberg of Holy Smoke, and the guy behind the name of the garage, Michael “Mike” Hunefalk. First thing’s first, it’s breakfast and I am starving. Johan and Mats plate us up a hero’s breakfast, pulling off slabs of pork belly and brisket pastrami from the grill, serving it up on bread with pickles and a Dijon sauce. Then there’s beef jerky and beer handed to me as I stumble into the loading doors of Mike’s Garage, completely out of it, a sensory overload of good food in my mouth, and an overwhelming sense of Americana as I find myself completely surrounded by old classic cars and memorabilia.
Wandering through to the back of the garage where the cars are stored, a small Taco Bell Chihuahua bobble head dog catches my eye, as do the distinctive yellow “Land of Lincoln” license plates hanging from the walls. With -Lincoln on my mind, I eye off a probably 70’s made Lincoln Continental, and run my fingertips along her waxed hood.
“You know that car cost $10,000 back in those days, so of course not just anyone could have had the opportunity to buy a car like this”, says Mike. Simply put, this man has a real passion for American cars, or as he puts it, “what’s not to love about these cars. They are beautiful inside and out, their look, their feel. No other country can compare or put out something as iconic as this”. Mike and his friends import some of these cars directly from the US, three to four cars at a time, in a mission to restore the cars’ former glory, and in turn fill the roads of Sweden with these blasts from the past. “I used to travel a lot through the States, so my love for the country and people runs deep; it’s the food, the whole setting, it’s a lot more than just the cars. I would try to make six trips a year if I could swing it, but now it’s been getting harder.” Despite this, Mike seems to being okay in carving out his own little piece of the States right here, “I have often wondered what happened to the America that I knew when I was travelling. But this, all of this right here, well now, this is my America”. I am starting to feel the same way, I totally get those last four words, there is bountiful amounts of America right here at my fingertips, and we haven’t even had lunch yet.
Holy Smoke BBQ, No Smoke without Meat
There’s no gimmicks here folks, no smoke and mirror deception. Well, actually there’s a lot of smoke, and that is one of the reasons behind this sublime BBQ, this is the real deal. Combined with the passion and total dedication of Johan Fritzell and Johan Åkerberg, Holy Smoke delivers. I am a convert. Take me to church, take me to Holy Smoke.
As you walk up to Holy Smoke you are met with smoke bellowing from a Texas made Mill Scale smoker, families and friends gnawing at bones under a sail, yucca palms, and today there’s Johnny Cash playing on the stereo. A top the black painted container that sits outside the entrance, there’s state flags from Texas, the Carolinas, and the other homes that pride themselves on being the birthplace, the regional hearth of American BBQ, blowing in the wind. A large fire pit sits in the middle of the horseshoe shaped outdoor restaurant area were kids are grilling marshmallows, and a long line of people snakes its way out towards the street, pilgrims who have travelled from far and wide, waiting for their chance to taste this now legendary meat smoked up here in Bräcke.
Johan Åkerberg grabs me by the arm and takes me on a tour of all the smokers and into the depths of the restaurant. It becomes clear within moments of meeting this guy that he has a passion for food. As a restaurant consultant up in Stockholm, Johan knows this business in and out. There are few things greater than seeing someone in their element, totally in love with what they are doing, and I am getting those vibes as Johan opens up a long metal smoker, one that they acquired from the mythical Aaron Franklin, and shows me the briskets. We talk shop, discussing how hard it is to get the right butcher paper in Sweden, how that Swedish butchers really do not have the education or know-how on how to get a proper brisket cut from a cow, and ultimately conclude that BBQ, everything around this food of humble origins, is about sharing, love, and openness.
Around us the restaurant is buzzing, and a bartender brings me a cocktail he has just created using a simple syrup of delicious unknown origins. A chef stands by the flames of a large Santa Maria grill, roasting up corn for Elote Loco. Johan lets me know that his guy is opening up his own BBQ restaurant in a few weeks and has come to Holy Smoke to learn the ropes. That’s the thing with these guys, even as restaurateurs, they are open and willing to share all of their knowledge with everyone, as Johan says, “Better BBQ might be the way to world peace, or at least it makes the world a better place, we gotta help out everyone in doing this right”. Amen!
I catch up with Jonas who is chatting with the entrepreneur and creator behind Holy Smoke, Johan Fritzell. Our bellies still a bit full from our pastrami breakfast, we are invited into the pit to sit at the chef’s table for a spread of Holy Smoke’s best BBQ samplings. Johan is a lumberjack of a man, tall and with a beard and hair like the infamous Blackbeard the Pirate, yet the man is as gentle as they come, he has the kind eyes.
He slides in front of us a Korean style pork belly that’s been deep fried, covered in cracklings, with sauce and a complimenting coleslaw. Johan takes us through the dish, which has become one of the most popular items on the menu, although that was entirely an accident. Originally, it was a way to use up pork belly bits that were left over, saving them, and giving them a new life. But come one, deep fried pork belly covered in a Korean sauce, you are bound for a smashing menu item with that flavor profile. I twist open a Lonestar and take a deep breath as I see the platter of meats and sides walking in. We are treated to brisket, beef rib, spare rib, chicken, sausage, cream corn, pit beans, pickles, and BBQ sauce. I don’t know what to tell you about this, I am no food writer, people have put this into better words and you can go read their accounts, cause for me I was totally out of it. Like Elvis in Vegas. Drunk off of all this food, the tastes spot on, perfect American BBQ, smoke on point, I hadn’t tasted home in such a well-executed and distinct way for the five years I have been living in Sweden. For the first time, food had really and truly reminded me in such a vivid way of my previous life back in the US. That’s a complex emotion, but I can tell you, it is something everyone needs to experience, it makes one question moving away from home in the first place. Luckily we got Holy Smoke here in my backyard and I can come satisfy my home sickness anytime I need.
Not only is the BBQ perfect at Holy Smoke, but there is something so much greater going on here. This place is answering the calls of a higher power, it has become a destination that is one of a kind here in Sweden. Johan is a dreamer, you can see it in his eyes, he wants so much to deliver a genuine experience, something memorable, tangible, and real—he does exactly that. Take his latest enterprise, The Black Barn. Just a short stroll up the road from Holy Smoke is a 19th century barn and refurbished care facility turned hotel. The barn on the outside is painted black, an homage to the tobacco barns of Kentucky. On the inside it is a lodge with period charm and character. Did I mention there’s a disco ball that’s actually a pig, a freakin’ disco pig! Out back the doors open up to the beautiful countryside and wheat fields, cows strolling past, grazing, wondering what the smell of that smoke up the road is. This whole property has become a dream destination for weddings, parties, and any sort of gathering imaginable. A party barn which provides a service that is niche, but definitely something that is lacking around here. The care center is being renovated to a hotel, with some 80 rooms available for guests to crash in once they have had their fil. Food and drink catered by Holy Smoke, charm and mystique courtesy of the cows and countryside.
A Land of Contrasts
Destination. Passion. These are the big takeaways here for me. You’ve got team Johan and the wonderful staff behind the scenes of Holy Smoke creating something truly magical out here in Bräcke. There is a deep commitment to making this a place that is special, unique, and unlike anything else in Sweden. And it is needed! There is a lot of generic ‘experiences’ to be had here when it comes to food and dining. A lot of the casual dining and bars seem to be carbon copies of each other, or worse, remnants of a time and place that hasn’t kept pace with the changes in consumer patterns and desires, holdovers from days long past. As a guy coming from the US, I have longed for an experience like this, a place like this, it’s something that has been seriously lacking for one reason or another. Maybe it is the strict laws and regulations when it comes to food and alcohol, or the relatively small population in Sweden, but whatever the reasons or causes, it seems at times to stifle creativity. It leaves those hungry for something more, a bit disappointed with their order, we are still hungry, and I am starving. It has produced and created a food landscape that is oftentimes devoid of authenticity and originality, leaving us only with blandness, mediocrity, and IKEA.
Yet, there is hope. Holy Smoke is Hope. HepCat is Hope. Mike’s Garage is Hope. Garage Bar is Hope. The people up here are doing things that go against the grain of conventional methods by challenging the norms, they are giving people an honest-to-goodness sense of what great service, food, and dining can be. For me, this is something I can for once be proud of, one of the American exports that I can stand behind. The American ingenuity, creativity, and service in this sense, can produce a sensation we call genuine. These creators, innovators, and pioneers up here in Höganäs have restored my faith in the land of Bergman and ABBA. I have found an aspect of my own culture that, as an expatriate I can be proud of and not have to defend. I started off by saying that I was going to be searching for America on this trip. In a lot of ways, in a lot of great and good ways, I have found it. Maybe after five years away, these small details hanging in a garage, or the way BBQ melts in my mouth, maybe these are the things that I can raise my flag over, waving, and declare that this is my America.