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Smoky Sloppy Joes, A Grilled Tribute To My Dad’s Favorite Bar And Lunch Ladies Everywhere

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sloppy joe's bar in havana cuba

Hitting the grill with the ground beef is the secret to over-the-top sloppy joes.

The best thing the cafeteria ladies ever made were the Sloppy Joes, and don’t tell my Mom, but her version never lived up to the competition. Dad loved them too because he had fond memories of his times in Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana with his B-17 crew on submarine hunts. The Havana landmark is said to have inspired the sandwich we so loved.

Years later, thinking about it, I realized that the lunch ladies’ secret was that they must have laced it with BBQ sauce. So I put on my net cap and took the idea a few steps beyond. I give it the outdoor flavor by smoking the meat on the grill, mixing in bacon, cooking things in bacon fat, giving it a hit of smoky chipotle, and then smoky Kansas City style barbecue sauce, preferably one with a little liquid smoke in it. Try this flavorful homemade sloppy joes recipe and you’ll never go back. Oh, and it ain’t bad on spaghetti.

Where did Sloppy Joes come from? Some slob named Joe? Well minced meat, hash, and chopped meat sandwiches go back centuries, but the ground beef version probably had its roots in the “loose meat sandwich” created by Floyd Angell, the founder of Maid-Rite restaurants, in Muscatine, Iowa in 1926. Click here to see a list of Maid-Rites. Loose meat sandwiches, usually just ground beef and onions browned in a pan, are still popular around Iowa. A 1950 recipe for Sloppy Joes from Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette on the includes celery, mushrooms, MSG, and tapioca for thickening. 

Smoky Homemade Sloppy Joes Recipe

sloppy joe sandwich
Tried this recipe?Tell others what you thought of it and give it a star rating below.
3.71 from 37 votes
Try this flavorful homemade sloppy joe recipe and you'll never go back to store bought sauce.
Serve with: a cola.

Main Course
difficulty scale


Servings: 5 sandwiches


Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours


  • 2 strips bacon
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 sweet red bell pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon ancho powder or American chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder or hot sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon  Morton Coarse Kosher Salt 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup smoky Kansas City style barbecue sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef or ground meat blend
  • 5 rolls
About the salt. Remember, kosher salt is half the concentration of table salt so if you use table salt, use half as much. Click here to read more about salt and how it works.
About the meat. You can use all beef or a blend of beef and other meats or whatever meat you like. Get lean meat because you are not going to get a chance to render the fat in the pan like conventional recipes.
Optional add-ins. A lot of the outcome depends on your choice of barbecue sauce. Want to make it goopier? Add more sauce and cook it down more. Sweeter? A tablespoon of molasses or dark brown sugar or maple syrup. If it needs zing, add a splash of vinegar.
Finishing touches. Want to take this dish to the moon? Toast the buns and then top the meat with caramelized onions, pickle slicespickled onions, or even Cowboy Candy for a real treat.
Metric conversion:

These recipes were created in US Customary measurements and the conversion to metric is being done by calculations. They should be accurate, but it is possible there could be an error. If you find one, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of the page


  • Prep. Peel and chop the onion. Peel and chop the carrot. Remove the stem and seeds from the bell pepper and chop. Peel and mince the garlic.
  • Cook. Make 1/2-inch (1.3 cm) thick hamburger patties from the meat and put them on a grill in indirect heat with lots of smoke or on put them on a smoker. Shoot for about 225°F (107°C) and let them smoke for about 30 minutes. This should give the meat a nice smoky flavor but not cook them all the way through. We don't want to dry out the meat. Remove from the smoke.
  • In a frying pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until it gets to the texture you like. Remove it and drain on paper towels. When it is cool, chop it into bits.
  • Set aside some of the chopped onion to be used as a raw onion topping for the sandwiches. Add the rest to the pan with the carrot and bell pepper. When the onions are translucent add the garlic, ancho powder, chipotle powder, salt and black pepper, stir and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the barbecue sauce and Worcestershire and let it simmer and thicken a bit. Then add the bacon and the smoked meat and simmer about 15 minutes, just enough to cook the meat through and coat it with sauce.
  • Serve. When it is the right thickness, taste, adjust any of the ingredients to your preference, and make your sandwiches. Give them a few minutes to cool. Sloppy Joes are molten hot out of the pan! Wear a bib.

Related articles

Published On: 9/2/2013 Last Modified: 5/4/2024

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  • Meathead, Founder And BBQ Hall of Famer - Founder and publisher of, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", and is a BBQ Hall Of Fame inductee.


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