My parents paid good money for me to eat in my college’s cafeteria, where the steam tables were stocked with nutritionally sound roast turkey slices, baked cod filets and green beans. Actually, I’m guessing here. The only food I really remember from college is greasy tater tots splashed with hot wing sauce, a specialty of an off-campus coffee shop that delivered until 2 a.m. For some students, plastic clamshells containing the dregs of previous orders basically doubled as dorm room decor.
Every school has its saucy tot. It might be an overstuffed burrito or a cream cheese hot dog or fried chicken-on-a-stick, but it’s almost always a slightly raunchy snack that magically pairs perfectly with the middle, end and aftermath of a drinking session. In the absence of letter sweaters and memorized alma maters, college graduates can get misty over those flavors.
If Smoke BBQ can maintain its foothold in an upper King Street address that’s proved unlucky for previous tenants, it stands a fair chance of figuring into the future nostalgic reveries of current Cougars. Chef-owner Roland Feldman has contrived a punchy set of pickles and sauces that have all of the hallmarks of food that retrospectively tastes like fun-filled nights.
That’s not to say the restaurant, which until June existed solely as a food truck, isn’t deserving of a visit right now, even if you’re decades removed from your college days. Smoke serves a suite of excellent sandwiches, ably assisted by estimable Brown’s Court Bakery buns.
Sandwiches are the way to go here, I think. All of the meats are served as and-twos, with sides including green apple coleslaw and broccoli carrot salad, but they don’t offer quite the same thrill as a carefully constructed sandwich, in which every element fulfills a very specific function. Unsurprisingly, brisket, proud holder of the Texas-stoked reputation for taking a lifetime to master, is the least impressive of the bunch. Thickly sliced and chopped into matchbook-sized pieces, the meat was cooked too quickly for its fat to properly render. Making my way through a plate felt like perpetually flipping a coin: Semi-tough beef, you win. Whitish globule, you don’t.
Pork, on the other hand, seemed to have lingered a little too long in the smoker. It’s casually pulled, but even the sizable pieces are limp. The cottony nature of the meat probably leads directly to its “melt in your mouth” quality that some barbecue fans consider a plus. Different strokes. Among the standalone barbecue, I prefer the chicken, which alights on the sweet spot for tenderness.
Chicken’s also served by the wing, which is great: Leathery brown and crisp at the edges, the confit wings teem with smoke. They’re ideal for swiping through vinegary sauces, which is where the action is. There’s a well-executed hot sauce, sweetish tomato-based sauce, mustard sauce and a buttermilk-based blue cheese, which works brilliantly with the chicken.
This is where Smoke finds its stride. The textural issues that are distracting when there’s nothing but meat on the platter vanish when cheeses and condiments get involved. All three of the meats have plenty of flavor, although the brisket has an odd accent that I still can’t place: It tastes as if Feldman was so keen on the concept of a secret ingredient that he rubbed the beef with an esoteric powder he found on the back shelf of an Asian grocery store. Still, that nuance is completely obscured by the beer cheese sauce and pickled jalapenos that complete the brisket sandwich.
“We see this first Smoke BBQ as a lab for the betterment of barbecue,” Feldman told me later. “We will always be evolving and adapting our recipes as intuition strikes.” (which is another way of saying your experience might be very different than mine.)
Sometimes the sandwiches threaten to become too bombastic, but nothing I sampled quite crossed that line. Smoke’s version of a Cuban is a far sloppier, and less mustardy, affair than traditional renditions of the ham-and-cheese stack. Here, pulled pork and patches of hard-cooked bacon are moistened with garlicky mayonnaise and augmented by pickled red onion ribbons and radish half-hearts. The smoke and spice is brought into line by Swiss cheese, and framed by a sturdy bun.
Other standout sandwiches include the Reuben, which is a respectable mess of pastrami, Russian dressing, Swiss and red sauerkraut, bookended by slices of marble rye. The pastrami is thinner, richer and redder than the typical deli variety, and, true to the restaurant’s name, smokier. Chicken, while an adept solo performer, is even better in a chorus of unabashedly pungent blue cheese dressing, onions and pickled jalapenos. The buttery bun has a tendency to turn somewhat soggy, but shards of bacon keep the sandwich from becoming a formless puddle of in-your-face flavors. It’s altogether worth the follow-up breath mint.
Sandwiches come with a choice of side dishes, including a blend of hash and grits that’s acquired an online fan base. It wasn’t available on my three visits (nor was a homemade whoopee pie that’s the totality of the dessert menu), but I more than made do with the baked pinto beans, featuring the same trinity of pork smoke, jalapeno heat and vinegar zip that defines the most successful sandwiches. Potato salad, which is closer to a pile of home fries than what’s served at most picnics, is good too.
Smoke periodically hosts live music, and there’s usually classic rock playing when the music’s piped in. The shotgun space, dominated by the bar, is decorated to match, with dark leather seating and electric guitars affixed to the walls. There’s nothing especially subtle about the room, but it’s the ideal setting for shooting whiskey, eating wings and scheming to get rowdy. What Feldman knows is that long after memories of those escapades have faded, his customers will likely remember those pickled jalapenos that set their mischief in motion.