New takes on old BBQ favorites

Barbecue purists of the hardcore sort may sniff at Smoke’s sophisticated setting in the former Auden’s Kitchen — no decades-old calendars, no beer signs, no rolls of butcher paper — and no pretentious piles of Post Oak. And they may find the brisket deficient in the classic telltale, pink smoke ring.

But the rest of us will be more than happy to relax in the air conditioning and to revel in chef Brian West’s personal take on what, to many, is Texas’ primary claim to fame. For as much as we tend to tolerate indifferent pintos, wouldn’t you really rather have a can (OK, it’s cute) of impeccably spiced burnt-end beans? And instead of settling for a feckless canned peach cobbler, why not be surprised and thrilled by whiskey-spiced peaches served in (also cute) a tiny Mason jar? We thought so.

It goes without saying that there would be no guava-glazed crispy pig tails in a down-and-dirty Texas ‘Q joint; we didn’t try them, but we did have the braised pork belly with apple butter. And apart from being surprised that the dish was served cool, we found this “snack” a more than worthy starter—just sweet and fatty enough. Same goes for the moonshine pickled shrimp—Southern with a twist and convincingly enough flavored that the accompanying smear of creamy cocktail sauce wasn’t even necessary. Smoked deviled eggs, sampled on another occasion, were also a pumped-up version of a picnic classic; the shredded brisket topping was so tantalizing that we wished for more of it.

Salads, yup, are also not a staple of BBQ haunts of the converted gas station sort. And while we laud their availability, the Kitchen Salad with crispy pig ear (pig parts, you will find, loom large on Smoke’s menu) was notable largely for the fact that dressing was in perfect balance and the shredded ear was indeed crisp. Yet we’d be inclined to try the chopped salad, enlivened with mint and red onion vinaigrette on a return visit. That and the Sheldon Sands tacos with hog’s head cochinita pibil might make for a revealing combo.

There are many other plates that would be alien to a City Market or Big Bib kinda place—smoked trout and corned beef ox tongue among them. But we’ve gotta believe that the Urban Cowboy BBQ burger wouldn’t be looked at sideways—despite its tony, house-baked Hawaiian bun. The burger’s brisket grind makes for a juicy, lofty patty, the melty cheddar and crispy onion rings add both taste and texture, and the house-cut fries are way too good. You don’t need to eat them all, I kept repeating.

With the category “from the smoker” we finally arrive at the quintessential Texas plate.  Meats by the half pound include brisket (fat and lean), pulled pork and Shiner Bock brined turkey; ribs by the bone are either beef or Dr Pepper pork; and house-made and –cured selections feature maple bacon, beef sausage and bratwurst. We put together a platter comprising brisket, pork ribs and beef sausage. Here’s the result.

Other notable eaters around town have apparently had better luck with their brisket being more than adequately “barky”; ours was tender, moist and nicely smoky but came across more polite than profound. This will not be a problem for many, however, and it does mean that the six-pack of sauces can be employed to its fullest advantage. The squeeze bottles are not uniformly labeled, so here’s what we suggest: Just squirt out dabs of each and play with them. We especially liked the vinegary Hogwash (think pulled pork, of course), the sharply mustardy Colonel Mustard and the dark and sultry Philthy version. The sausage is plenty good on its own but is accommodating enough to take on a sauce or two. The excellent Dr Pepper ribs, with just enough cling to the bone left to render them real, need nothing more.  The more Lucullan “feasts,” said to serve four to six (we’d bet on the upper number), will require that you come with a crowd. Then you can indulge in a hog head feast with additional beef sausage and brats plus bacon. Or perhaps a barnyard feast with brisket, turkey, sausages and bacon—plus sides, pickle jars (those peaches plus sweet and sour carrots and more) and bread. Not of the pasty white sort, rest assured.

Waiters at Smoke take your order on a thoroughly modern tablet, and there’s another tablet for the modest but well-selected and -priced wine list as well; you can navigate this one yourself. Just because it’s tech-y, however, doesn’t mean that it’s actually up to date.  A selected Crus Bourgeois Medoc was both available and very rewarding, but pinning down a second selection involved several hiccups. Persevere; you’ll actually want wine with many of these dishes.

And you may want a dessert that almost sounds traditional but arrives with West’s usual flair. Ours was an order of chile-laced brownie with a side of house-churned vanilla ice cream. The brownie was perfection, its chile heat expertly modulated.  And the ice cream, almost shockingly buttery in color, was the ideal foil. Yes, we’ll still keep going to the smoky joints with grease-stained walls and stand-up counters, but we’re now convinced that true ‘Q knows no pre-conceived bounds. To the in-between world of commissary chains, however, we remain resolutely opposed.

By RON BECHTOL
Photography by JANET ROGERS