2017 will be remembered for a lot of uncomfortable societal change, such as the fact that Dallas barbecue is fancy now. Craft cocktails, mandatory valet, $28 chicken breasts, Ferris wheels: For some restaurateurs, a pile of meat on butcher paper isn’t enough anymore.
Smoky Rose opened across from the Dallas Arboretum on Dec. 22, 2016, with an elegant black-and-white dining room, stylishly plated daily specials that don’t contain smoked meats and a patio that looks like it came from a wedding planning inspiration board on Pinterest.
This fall, Ferris Wheelers Backyard & BBQ opened in the Design District, promising a more down-to-earth barbecue experience and diversions like an actual working Ferris wheel. But — perhaps feeling pressure from the competition — Ferris Wheelers sports a few highfalutin traits, including valet parking and a long list of eccentric craft cocktails.
What happened to meat and beans with no fancy trimmings? We’re not sure, but these two restaurants seem like responses to today’s need for high-profile new openings to have a "concept" beyond just serving good food. Smoky Rose reacts to that trend by going proudly chef-driven, with barbecue as just the beginning. At Ferris Wheelers, by contrast, the philosophy is old-school, and only the periphery is fancied up.
Smoky Rose: Upscale and proud of it
Smoky Rose has a legitimate traditional barbecue game, but it clearly aspires to be a higher-brow experience. When I first walked in wearing a logo T-shirt and shorts, I felt underdressed. The other men at the bar preferred business-casual button-downs.
The beer list is creditable and focused on offerings from East Dallas; the cocktails are not as inspiring, most of them revolving around fruitiness and a serious sweet tooth.
Every night, Smoky Rose prepares a selection of specials with titles — The Pork Dish, The Fish Dish, The Chicken Dish — which signal both simplicity and pretension. (The daily specials were the same each time I visited.) The Fish Dish is a simply seasoned, pan-seared rainbow trout fillet with deliciously crispy skin, set atop an almost too generous heaping of veggie sides. Among the veggies are roasted celery root and sunchokes, a scattering of charred sweet corn and, stealing the show, outrageously good collard greens served with the pot liquor. The price — $28 — is hefty by barbecue-joint standards, but the portion was humongous and those collards are perfect.
The Chicken Dish is also $28, and it’s got some issues. An enormous chicken breast is cooked sous vide to assure even doneness, but it’s still overcooked — perhaps they set the water bath to well-done — with a rather dry and chalky result. Weirder, the skin slides off at a touch, leaving a bare white fist of meat.
The chicken’s scrumptious sides are a different story, including an al dente risotto with pancetta, mushrooms and whole carrots turned sweet from roasting. And, as long as the seasonal vegetable side ($5) is crisp green beans sautéed with shallots and an unreasonable amount of garlic, it’s a must-order.
What about the barbecue basics? They’re pretty solid. The house style places full-on smoke flavors in the backseat behind the rub and inherent flavor of the meat. The sausage links are petite and arrive in a pair on the two-meat plate ($19) with good firmness and, in the jalapeño cheddar link, a satisfying amount of spice. I prefer the lean brisket here to the fatty variety, but both have a rub that adds the perfect sweet note to the smoke.
The restaurant’s carrot cake ($7) is something out of the ordinary. It’s not a traditional slice but rather a round, ultramoist cake served hot and garnished with caramel rather than frosting. With the cake, as with the fish, Smoky Rose’s cheffy twists pay off big time.
Ferris Wheelers: Old-school smokehouse with pizzazz and valet
Ferris Wheelers is a more conventional barbecue restaurant in some ways. Customers order meat by the pound or get a $15 two-meat plate, then grab a beer and enjoy the dulcet twangs of country music. But getting there entails the irritation of mandatory valet parking (on busy nights — you can self-park during lunch) or, if you’re like me, illegally parking at a hotel down the street.
The restaurant’s indoor section is a conventional setup, with an ordering counter, while the much-talked-about backyard has waiters conducting table service. Ferris Wheelers slices meat to order, but it does so in the kitchen rather than at the counters or bars.
There are ample beers on tap, along with a list of craft cocktails that contains more than a few eyebrow-raising experiments. Tequila, fernet and Champagne in one drink? And how many mixtures of fruit and flavored vodka can a barbecue joint offer?
Pitmaster Doug Pickering’s fatty brisket is soft and tender and melts in the mouth like meat candy; the bark, at times crispy, retains only a subtle whiff of smoke. The pulled pork, slathered in a sweet-spicy sauce, is fine. The ribs have a sweet brown sugar glaze that will win them many fans, but I was not enthused and dumped a load of the restaurant’s not-that-hot spicy sauce on them. I wasn’t sure what to make of the jalapeño cheddar sausage link, which has so much cheese inside that a long pocket of it squirted out onto my tray, where it looked like yellow mustard.
Among the sides, the fried okra is fantastic, battered like good old-style onion rings, the okra tender and salty. Things only turn south at the bottom of the basket, where the last few bites sit in a pool of oil. There’s a spicy cup of baked beans and good potato salad loaded with corn, scallions and poblano peppers, but — like Smoky Rose, oddly enough — the best thing here is the green beans, which are smoked like the meats. The beans pack a huge punch of smoke flavor in addition to bacon crumbles and onions.
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Is fancy barbecue a good thing?
Smoky Rose is upscale and proud of it, with a selling-point patio perfect for arboretum crowds. The food ranges from delicious to merely OK, but it’s strange that there’s a barbecue place in Dallas where the most memorable bite on the menu is a side of green beans.
Even stranger is that there are two such places. But Ferris Wheelers is different, deep down. It’s not so earnest about having things both ways. Only a curmudgeonly barbecue purist could be upset at table service, but some of this spot’s other bells and whistles mask its loyalty to tradition. Behind those fruity cocktails, the pit does its job well. I’ll be back for those green beans — not during weekends, when the Ferris wheel operates, but on Mondays, when the valet company takes a night off.
Smoky Rose, 8602 Garland Road, 469-776-5655, smokyrose.com; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Ferris Wheelers Backyard & Barbecue, 1950 Market Center Blvd., 214-741-4141, ferriswheelers.com; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.