Smoke't barbecue goes down easy in the Gables
There is barbecue and there is barbecue. The former brings big platters of meats that have been mildly or artificially smoked and slathered in sauces — to be consumed in a fun, informal environment, often accompanied by lots of beer. Barbecue brings big platters of meats that have spent as much time getting smoked as Snoop Dogg's dog, the flavor deriving more from cooking than saucing. It's also to be consumed in a fun, informal environment with beer. There are likewise differences between Southern cooking and Southern cooking; these mostly have to do with loss of translation between home and restaurant. Once you swallow the notion that Smoke't Southern Kitchen & Tap isn't italicized with authenticity, everything else goes down easy.
Smoke't slathers more than just meat, as evidenced by a starter of nacho-style onion rings. The thickly beer-battered and too-greasy rings are topped with pulled pork, a melted mix of cheddar/Monterey jack cheese, and spicy chipotle sour cream dotted with canned jalapeño slices. Had the cheese and pork been less dried out, I might have overlooked the overwrought nature of the beast; then again, my guests, as well as folks at other tables, ate 'em up.
Other appetizer options include fried calamari, a crock of chili, and Red Neck rolls — a shotgun wedding of barbecue and sushi. We tried the catfish version, tidbits of blackened fish rolled in sticky rice with avocado, tomato, and crisped onions. Smoke't "blazin'" barbecue sauce is served on the side, but something about mixing rice, avocado, and barbecue sauce is almost as frightening as mixing things up with a redneck. Sans sauce, however, the catfish roll was very tasty — if incongruent with a Southern/barbecue concept.
I don't claim my views are shared by the dining public. I can't claim it, as Smoke't has clearly caught fire with the public — including students and shoppers from, respectively, the nearby University of Miami campus and The Shops at Sunset mall. The same owners and executive chef (Michael Altman) have already crafted a winner with the nearby Town Kitchen & Bar. Their formula: popular American fare, affordable pricing and — perhaps most importantly — a lively bar scene.
The last is sparked at Smoke't by a wide array of tequilas, kick-ass margaritas, and more than 80 bottled beers from across America and the globe (from New Hampshire's Smuttynose to Belgium's Delirium Nocturnum). A dozen beers are also offered on tap in 12-, 16-, and 64-ounce glasses; most are from boutique breweries, but you can get a pour of Pabst Blue Ribbon too. There are happy hour deals galore — early in the evening and again late at night — as well as live music Thursdays and Saturdays.
Décor and vibe are roadhouse chic. Dark wood tables, chairs, and flooring; wood whiskey barrels placed here and there; and corrugated hurricane siding along some of the walls provides the roadhouse part. A sleekly accordioned ceiling, dark brown leather booths, and high-def television screens all around represent, um, the chic. A wraparound bar, lounge area, and outside patio take up the area toward the front entrance.
While friendly and efficient, our waitress was of the chatty school; every selection was either "fantastic," a "great choice," or "my favorite." I felt like blurting out, "Thanks, but I'll be the critic around here." Besides, the menu contains just about any info you might need. For instance, it informs you hickory wood is used to heat the meats at 250 degrees. Smoking time for each item is also noted: four hours for pork butt, spare ribs, and baby back ribs; ten hours for brisket; and three hours for beef ribs, which are then "held at 160 degrees for 12 hours." There may have been a misprint concerning the last, for the four fat beef ribs we were served looked and tasted as though they had been held in the oven for 120 hours. It's amazing that after so much time these desiccated bones managed to retain all their grease.
At the other end of the scale, a half-rack (plenty!) of St. Louis-style pork spare ribs were meaty and flavorful, the unsliced slab dry-rubbed with more than two dozen spices. We tried these with a tangy Carolina mustard-vinegar sauce, our favorite among the three barbecue options (the others being "original" and "blazin' hot"); our talkative server somehow neglected to mention these options on a first visit (and I, with equal negligence, didn't notice them on the menu). Pork butt is also rubbed with seasonings, then pulled into shreds by hand, and soused with the "original" sauce. Last and best of the sampled barbecue were long, slender slices of tender brisket, the succulent meat smoked and brushed with Coca Cola-based barbecue sauce.
Chicken & waffle seems less like a soul food combo popularized at Roscoe's in Los Angeles than KFC's sequel to the Double Down. The megalithic bundle of breast, thigh, drumstick, and wing were crisp and greaseless on the outside and juicy within, the thick waffle below made for a sturdy base, and maple contributed an appealing sweetness. Nevertheless, next time I'll go with the other fried chicken accompaniment of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Main courses without predesignated sides come with any two of 15 "fixin's," which if ordered á la carte would range in price from $2.95 to $6.25. There are, again, inconsistencies within the category, although plusses outnumbered minuses. Jalapeño mac & cheese hit the spot in a piping hot, cheesy way; cole slaw is homemade, flecked with caraway seeds, and not overly sweet; franks and beans with crisp onions is sweet, but delicious. Jalapeño cornbread — two thin, wide, moist planks dotted with corn kernels and bits of pepper — is simply the finest around. Hush puppies, however, were stiff and lukewarm (these really have to be served straight from the fryer to work). Brussels sprouts with applewood-smoked bacon arrived overcooked and sour; loaded baked potato is gigantic, but sour cream, cheese, and bacon bits are not exactly the mother lode of loaded.
Other entrées include broiled rainbow trout; New Orleans-style seafood pot; grilled skewers of sirloin, swordfish, or herbed chicken; a limited number of salads and barbecue sandwiches; and a half-pound, char-grilled, triple grind hamburger on either Texas toast or Kaiser bun — with or without the works. Everything on the menu except combo platters and full racks of ribs costs less than $20.
The half-dozen dessert selections reflect the frivolous nature of Smoke't: chocolate-covered caramel popcorn on a stick, peanut butter ice cream sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies, s'mores... We enjoyed a more sophisticated blackberry-citrus crumble, the hot, mostly berry cobbler centered by a scoop of mildly cinnamon-flavored ice cream — but we loved a revelatory pair of fresh-from-the-fryer, sugar-crusted donuts. Steamy hot and light as air (with maple frosting on the side), these make Dunkin' and Krispy donuts seem like sugar-laden bagels.
The menu has already been tinkered with since the restaurant opened this past February; some lighter dishes have been added and a few clunkers removed. If management can now tighten quality control, there's no reason the rising Smoke't won't continue to billow for a long time to come.
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