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November 27, 2012

Hunger Strike: Barbe-Q.E.D.

Bulletproof glass should not be a prerequisite for good barbecue. Wonder Bread and soggy fries are no substitute for the low-and-slow method of cooking. Chairs and tables are always a welcome addition—you know, for sitting and eating. No, the interior of a car doesn’t count. While the presence (or absence) of these things may be associated with mighty fine barbecued meats, it doesn’t take the statistical witchery of Nate Silver to remind you that correlation does not imply causation. Free-spirited BBQ cookery and structured restaurant competence can peacefully co-exist, and even prosper.

Confirming this hypothesis, though, proved to be a challenge. My previous attempts at testing it were met with disappointment at Lillie’s Q and Chicago Q (these attempts were also a heavy encumbrance for my limited research budget). But I knew it was necessary to expand my sample size, to take my analysis to the next level. And the gamble paid off. After my first experiment with Smoque BBQ, off I-90 up in Irvington, I felt confident upgrading the successful barbecue-restaurant-hybrid hypothesis to a theory. After repeated meat-coma-inducing trials—I mean, empirically rigorous fieldwork—my theory had become barbecue law.

If you find your way over to Smoque and see a long line snaking its way out the door, curb your exasperated sighs, which will soon become exaltations of pleasure. The ’cue queue moves fast, expedited by one of the more efficient ordering and seating systems I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. The open, cafeteria-style communal dining experience is perfect for setting your elbows on the table and getting to work on some barbecue. It’s not too chic, and it’s not too shabby. It’s just right.

So there you are, all seated and patiently awaiting the sweet sound of your order number—blissfully unaware of the meat hurricane hurdling your way. Ribs, chicken, pork, brisket, and sausage all sit ready to lay their vengeance upon thee—and what a sweet vengeance it is.

God may have taken a rib away from Adam, but there was no chance anyone was taking one of Smoque’s incredible ribs away from me. The restaurant serves both baby backs and St. Louis–style ribs, but I won’t pretend I could discern the difference between the two—mainly because both are amazing. They’re so goddamn meaty, too; they erase all those dark memories of ordering ribs and getting skeletal remains of livestock. The sauce that comes on the side is part genius, part revelation. Smoque knows its ribs are good, and no sauce can or should cover that up. To sauce or not to sauce is a decision only you can make.

Barbecued chicken trades in a traditional rotisserie-style exterior for a luxuriant, smoky bathrobe. Cast it aside like some late night Cinemax skin flick to reveal pink, tender meat; you just cannot achieve the likes of this with any other cooking style. It’s not raw, but it is awe-inspiring. And as long as we’re on the subject of pretty colors giving way to pretty amazing flavors, the sliced brisket covers a spectrum from gray to pink and charred black. It’s probably the best brisket I have ever had; it melts away into nothingness, rendering you capable of infinite consumption. My mind still cannot fathom the chemistry behind meat this tender.

Hopefully you’ll make the wise decision of leaving some space on your tray for a mound of pulled pork, retaining the shape of the scooper it pops out of. And finally, there’s the Texas sausage. I’ll own up to my oversight, and admit that I have yet to sample this fantastic forcemeat, but I hear only good things. I like to think of it as justification for future data-gathering expeditions.

Even the side dishes know their place, occupying the perfect niche in this meat ensemble. They are just good enough to be pleasant, but never dare to undermine the barbecue’s smoky solo performance. (The bass player should be good, but he never gets the groupies.) The coleslaw is the great, light vinegary counterpoint it’s designed to be, and the brisket chili is surprisingly full of heat (though brisket, not so much). The mac ’n’ cheese is as mac ’n’ cheese does; no complaints here. Or maybe you just want some fries for sauce-sponging, or something to soothe your aching sweet tooth, like peach cobbler served in a cup. Like I said, nothing spectacular, but nothing offensive. No distractions from the true object of desire.

Who do I have to thank for letting me in on the secret of Smoque? Good ol’ Guy Fieri, and my favorite Food Network time-killing device: a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives marathon. Despite the seemingly limitless pleasure derived from shitting all over Guy Fieri, both man and franchise (*cough* New York Times *cough*), I refuse to deny the allure of his show and the fact that it champions good, unexpected restaurants. The emphasis is on food for eating and enjoying, not food for thought. Restaurants that are shrines to the lost art of being a regular. The success of Smoque, and the popularity of Guy’s surfer-bro laxitude, lies in the ability to harmonize comfort and cooking. No matter how good a dish may taste, something crucial is lost when you can’t feel good while eating it—or, in Guy’s case, preparing it. Master these basic principles, and you will prosper. Smoque certainly has, since it shows that you only need two things in a proper barbecue restaurant: good meat and a good seat.

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