Smoke BBQ, the former food truck turned chic brick-and-mortar shop, occupies a lofty and modern space on Upper King Street. The former home of the short-lived L.I.F.E. Bar and equally short-lived vegan motorcycle restaurant, Motobar, has come a long way. From industrial tables to exposed beams, everything about it is hip and bold, a sentiment that continues throughout the menu. Simply printed on a single page, there are a handful of sandwiches, some wings, meat platters, and a salad.
We started with the pastrami reuben sandwich ($10.50). Served with toasted pumpernickel rye and homemade red cabbage sauerkraut, the house-smoked pastrami is decadently, dangerously, dribble-down-your-chin greasy. With Swiss cheese and Russian dressing rounding out the rich flavors, this classic works for me.
I don't know about you, but the words Cuban sandwich ($9) — basically "dry pork on bread" — rarely elicit moans of culinary anticipation. Until now. On a buttered and grilled brioche bun, the home-style ham, vinegary pulled pork, house-made sweet pickles, and cheddar cheese collaborate in a mighty (and bib-worthy) symphony. Miami meets Memphis in this sandwich, and I think Elvis would approve.
The smoky turkey sandwich ($8.50) is not for the faint of heart. In addition to the notable smoke on the meat, there's homemade bacon, blue cheese, and pickled jalapeño slices. The thick cut of turkey was a little dry, but the cheese provided some welcome moisture. Also on a buttered and grilled brioche bun, the smoky turkey's resulting flavor is a match-up between the pungent blue cheese and notable heat of the spicy peppers. And pull the house-made bacon slices out and give them the attention they deserve — they're almost too much of a good thing,
Sides are a la carte. The slaw — more of a salad than slaw — comes lightly dressed and made with shredded carrots, apples, and pickled red cabbage. Finished with candied walnuts, the balance between acid and sugar was on point. Fresh and crunchy, sour yet sweet, it's a welcome break from mayonnaise-based offerings.
The baked beans ($4) are described as being made with pintos, homemade bacon, and jalapeño peppers, but what the menu neglects to mention is the amount of sugar involved. Holy toothache. We realize baked beans are often made with molasses, but this version jumped the sugar bowl. Alas, there may have been spice, heat, or even bacon in there, but the violent sweetness was all my nervous system could register.
On the other hand the staff's attentive is just the right amount at Smoke BBQ. Food is served on small metal trays and service is fast and responsive, yet somehow still cool and casual. Every employee passing by nodded a greeting or stopped to see if everything was to our liking. And for the most part, it was.
Curious about the one salad option, I ordered it ($7). (If you're really digging the meat, you can add a side of "tender smoked turkey" for $6.) Small and disappointing, the salad features wildly peppery arugula and golden raisins mixed with what looked and tasted exactly like the slaw, down to the candied walnuts on top. But, as I was munching through the bitter greens, something on the horizon caught my eye — turkey that tasted like a saltlick. Smoke, please dial back the brine or horses need only apply.
In contrast, I'm just a girl, standing in front of some of Smoke wings ($8), asking them to love her. More barbecue than bar food, the wings have strong smoky notes, but are still impossibly succulent, tender, and juicy. Worthy of a fan club, everything that went wrong with the turkey went right here. The wings are rendered even more delicious when topped with a little of the restaurant's homemade mustard barbecue sauce. Any chicken would be honored to meet its end as a Smoke wing. No doubt the turkeys are harboring some intense jealousy.
For the last hurrah, I ordered the Meat + Two with Brisket ($21.50). The "True Texas" cut is a notoriously tough and connective tissue-laden hunk of beef, and always something of a gamble. Smoke's effort is solid, featuring thick chunks and a well-seasoned crust. A generous portion, the meat itself was supple and tender, with notable smoke flavor in each bite. For my "plus two", I chose slaw and the hash and grits ($4 a la carte), which should become your new foul weather comfort food bestie. Rich, cheesy grits are covered with a layer of barbecue pork hash and "chedda ale." It's savory, meaty, and slightly junk food-ish. In short, this is the business. In fact, it's so irresistible you might devour the entire portion with nary a glance at your dining companions. Pro tip: pair the hash and grits with the wings or the Reuben, Cuban, or all three. Is that a good idea? While your mouth will wholeheartedly agree, your ticker may have other ideas. We'll leave it to you to sort that out.
The transition from food truck to lunch, dinner, and late-night service seven days a week has got to be challenging, but Smoke BBQ appears to be more than sufficiently prepared to answer the call. With the ironing out of a few little kinks, Smoke BBQ is well positioned to lift the curse on 487 King St.