Consider the best dish your mama used to make. Now imagine it prepared by a talented chef — familiar tastes elevated by honed technique. If upscale comfort food hasn't inspired its own grassroots movement yet, the new Poogan's Smokehouse on East Bay Street should give that initiative a push.
Formerly Social Wine Bar, Poogan's Smokehouse falls somewhere between converted warehouse and sports bar, but the ambiance is laid-back, the bluegrass music just loud enough, and the service attentive without being smothering. With weathered brick and clapboard walls and bright Edison bulbs strung overhead, the airy interior almost starts to feel like an outdoor cafe.
Borrowing here and there from the more popular items on the menu at siser restaurant Poogan's Porch — like shrimp and grits and Spring Mountain Farms fried chicken— Smokehouse's foodstuffs fall into five categories: snacks, appetizers, salads, mains, and barbecue.
Never one to back down from a triple-dog dare, my circulatory system insisted I try the Buffalo Pork Rinds ($7). Drizzled with creamy Buffalo sauce and then topped with liberal portions of blue cheese crumbles, the pork rinds are so wrong, they're right. The flavors are at once crispy, crunchy, rich, creamy, piquant, and hot with bits of spicy pickled celery helping break up the decadence.
In contrast, the pimiento cheese fritters ($6) weren't my favorite due to texture issues. Like a jalapeño popper without the pepper, the gooey cheese is encased inside a deep-fried panko shell. Have I mentioned it's really gooey? The three, golf ball-sized fritters are accompanied by a powerfully smoky bacon tomato jam.
That said, the pork 'n beans ($7) are what the upscale comfort food movement I'm founding is based on. Subtle and sublime, this mix of butter beans and black-eyed peas would turn you vegetarian if they weren't the farthest thing from vegetarian. Just shy of a confit, these rich, unctuous, slightly hot/slightly sweet legumes are topped with bits of charred pork belly, and the dish is every bit as decadent as it sounds.
By now, it's probably time to point out that this restaurant has been misnamed. Yes, Poogan's Smokehouse takes its name from it's sister spot Poogan's Porch. Which means that by proxy Smokehouse got its name from a beloved, deceased dog. But with all due respect, may I suggest something more descriptively accurate or evocative of the menu, like — just workshopping here — Bacon! (exclamation point optional). Yes, it's not always bacon so much as ham, pork belly, or pork rinds, but let's get real, currently there are 24 items on the menu, and roughly 17 of them contain swine.
Forgetting about the pig for a spell, the cornmeal-fried pickled okra ($7) comprises one of three fully vegetarian offerings. Burly and brawny, this is the schoolyard bully of fried pickle products. The cornmeal layer is thick and firm, holding up nicely to the strongly pickled whole okra pods and their spicy after-burn. Against the pungent okra, the accompanying remoulade registers more as a texture (smooth, satiny) than anything you can actually taste.
Meanwhile, the Springer Mountain Farms fried chicken ($18) is exactly like your grandma used to make: tender chicken breast meat with batter a half-inch thick, it's crisp yet moist and utterly nostalgic. There's also an itty-bitty, teensy-weensy deep-fried wing that borders on decorative.
The accompanying mac and cheese ($8) is likeable. Made with cavatappi corkscrew pasta and a rich, sharp cheese, the dish is thoughtful, with pasta that retains its toothiness and the cheese it's bite.
As for the collards, the earthy greens possess just a hint of sweet and heat. They're pretty much clouds-part, angels-sing-perfect.
But the hallelujah chorus slowly petered out over the first bites of the shrimp and grits ($23). Rather salty and not what I was expecting, the red-eye gravy is rich with red and green bell peppers. Coupled with the ham and shrimp, that particular trinity (pork, shrimp, bell peppers) is somehow reminiscent of Chinese takeout. Odds are there's a Hunan Dragon somewhere with a similar recipe. The creamy Adluh white cheddar grits, however, are masterful. In fact, they're so incredibly cheesy, you may be inclined to inquire after the whereabouts of the grits. Yes, the cheese steals the stage, but it does it so well.
As for the barbecue, Poogan's Smokehouse offers pig, more pig, and a spot of cow: Pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, pork belly, smoked sausage, and short ribs. The latter arrives in thin, boneless slices. Imbued with a subtle smoke flavor, it's topped with a slightly sweet mushroom, onion, and bacon gravy. The short ribs need it. A bit dry, the flavor is good, but the St. Louis ribs are better. Fatty, smoky, and altogether lush, these ribs have been generously coated with a rub before hitting the grill. They're accompanied by a number of house-made barbecue sauces, ranging from a sweet, hot red to Carolina gold.
The side of Lexington red slaw is a revelation. Paired with the ribs, it's the perfect balance of heat and sweet.
Pork belly probably shouldn't be a main dish, but don't let me tell you what to do. The thick cut of fat has done hard time on a grill. It's buttery, charred goodness at its porky best.
In contrast, the charred broccoli ($4) wasn't so much charred as lounging in butter, but that will please some people. You know who you are.
Meanwhile, the bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts ($4) broke my heart. Although the concept alone sounds like a slam dunk, it turns out they're everything you forgot you hated about Brussels sprouts. The pungent, barely roasted little balls of acerbity were deeply imbued with the flavor of horseradish and the single chunk of bacon sat on top like a veritable maraschino cherry. The bacon was insufficient to balance it all out. We left most of them behind.
Brussels sprouts aside, with Buffalo pork rinds, barbecued pork belly, and spice-rubbed St. Louis ribs, Poogan's Smokehouse is upscale comfort food at its finest.