An Englishman Reviews the BBQ of Smoke

I feel like I'm not the novice I used to be with these reviews. When I started out I didn't know what brisket was, what heavenly planet barbecue sauce had descended from, why I could just suddenly order meat by the pound now (and why I'd never been able to do this before) and basically where on earth I was, 5,000 miles from home in what appears to be some sort of tropical concrete structure full of people who drive huge cars and live only to kill me.

The latter part of that still confuses me, as I have never seen so little consideration for one's fellow man as my morning commute down Interstate 35. It may as well be Mario Kart's Rainbow Road for all the car safety others are practicing, although this time there will be no little creature on a cloud to pick the mangled remains of my vehicle up and replace them on the freeway. The former part, though, I'm getting there, and that worries me a little in reference to this blog.

Obviously I am no Daniel Vaughn, and I'm not ready to start handing out ratings yet, but after the considerable peaks of Lockhart's and Pecan Lodge, I definitely know what good brisket is. Pecan Lodge's, compared with Soulman's, doesn't even taste like the same food. I think the key for me not getting dishonorably fired from this job, then, is that I will just point-blank refuse to develop any technical descriptive vocabulary whatsoever, and in that way I will remain charmingly naive. I might start stammering like Hugh Grant. Meat is delicious. End of story.

Along those lines (and yes, that was leading somewhere), it's nice to see a barbecue place throw me a sort of curve ball and make me feel like a stranger adrift in some meat-filled wilderness, replicating the confusion and wonder I felt when I thought pulled pork was what you got at a Texan barbecue, and when my stepson thought ketchup was a legitimate condiment.

I knew something was up when there was a valet. I was absolutely not dressed for any sort of restaurant encounter (seriously, I haven't worn actual shoes since about April and it's impossible to go anywhere in my car without stepping out smelling like a farm animal), and alarm bells immediately started ringing. Given that the valet wasn't at his desk, I made the brave, some might say rude, decision, to just park myself. Unfortunately, by the time we got out and walked to the restaurant the valet had returned, and his look was one of disdain and confusion. Disliking confrontation, as an Englishman, I just slipped quietly past him, pretending to be enthralled by Family Dollar over the road. We got in and there were menus, waiters and an attractive restaurant set-up with tablecloths and neatly folded cutlery holders. The alarm bells had fallen off the wall at this point. Where was I? Was this Texas barbecue? Was I even in Texas any more?

I sat down and the waiter at great length explained to me all the options and how to combine things. I was longing for a meat counter and a man with a knife and weighing scales. I decided, because fuck it, to order some sort of bloody mary/Lone Star beer/barbecue sauce mash-up drink, which was an odd choice, but I wanted to see if barbecue sauce could be involved in any sort of passable drink. Answer: No, no it cannot. We ordered pork cracklin' with dips ($5) which was delicious, but did not sate my intense meat craving.

Did I mention the whole restaurant smells delicious? Apparently they smoke all their meat for between eight hours and two days, and that comes at the "cost" of making everything in a mile radius smell of lovely smoke. Anyway, we got the Big Rib ($25), mainly because web editor Nick seems completely entranced by a rib of such size and "big rib" constitutes at least half the emails he sends me, and the brisket ($18), because obviously heavily smoked brisket is going to be good. When the Big Rib came out, it was abundantly clear I was still in Texas. It was the size of a very small house (I'm no good at comparisons). Richard described it as "a shoehorn for a giant." Nick described it best, as resembling the rib that gets put on the Flintstones' car in the title sequence, which makes it topple over. I was very pleased. The meat came well presented, with specially selected sides AS PART OF THE OVERALL DISH, which again is confusing and scary to me.

It was delicious, and extremely smoky. The rib, especially, is like eating some kind of liquidy smoke sauce. There is no point at which the smoky flavor stops and the meat untouched by smoking begins. It's smoke all the way down, and it is all the better for it. The brisket, also, has a delicious taste all the way through it. You can really taste the barbecuing -- so much time and care goes into these meats, and it pays off. Even the sides were really well done and a worthy distraction from the beefy tusk that dominated my plate. It was all so delicious, and went together so well, that there were several moments when I had to lean back from the plate and ponder at the glory of smoked meat. The rib was so huge that eventually it turns into a slog, something I had rarely experienced, and I'm not proud to say it but the rib eventually defeated me.

Smoke is very much the restaurant experience, not the meat counter and brisket-by-the-pound sort of joint I have come to associate with Texas barbecue. The price reflects that, but the quality is so good that it deserves to go down as another great Texas barbecue adventure in a city that is crammed with them.

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Gavin Cleaver
Contact: Gavin Cleaver