Charleston is a truly lovely city. The historic district may be the prettiest urban place in the United States. These days that means lots of money is coming into Charleston, and the gentrified areas are is expanding. That’s wonderful for the city’s tax base, but it’s not really my favorite environment for barbecue.
But stylishly-named Smoke gets a lot of love for its barbecue, and Nancy and I made a point of going there as we wended our way north from Florida.
Smoke occupies a long narrow space that unmistakably says Hipster. They have a very wide selection of whiskeys, which is nice, I suppose, although you don’t drink whiskey with barbecue, and having a large assortment of whiskeys suggests to me a lack of focus. And I see no reason for a large varieties of whiskeys that don’t come in a bottle whose neck has been dipped in red wax. But they have a long bar and there’s a time and a place for everything, including bourbon.
The prices befit a well-heeled clientele: $18 for a pork platter. We’d had a big breakfast, so we decided to save some money and split the $25 Tommy B. Monster Meat Sampler, a combination of pork, brisket, pastrami and smoked confit chicken. I was on my good behavior so I didn’t add a rib (only $3 extra) or three chicken wings (also $3 extra).
The highlight was the smoked confit chicken. It was very tender and juicy, and had a good smokey flavor. Best of all, Nancy didn’t want any. She has an odd idea that anything “confit” has a lot of fat. To me, a lot of fat is not a bug, it’s a feature, and this chicken didn’t have a fatty taste. If you go to Smoke, get the smoked confit chicken.
Pastrami, of course, is not on most barbecue menus, but by now it’s clear that Smoke is not a typical barbecue place. To underline that point, while we were eating a guy walked in wearing a yarmulke. Usually people remove their yarmulkes before entering a barbecue place. The pastrami was salty, with some smoke flavor. It was served very thinly sliced — shaved, really. I’m used to a somewhat thicker slice of pastrami, and I really think the ultra-thin slice at Smoke really doesn’t work: the texture is off. It’s almost crisp rather than meaty.
The brisket was dry. The flavor was ok, but most of the flavor was in the spices in the bark. Smoke’s red sauce helped. And the pork was just okay, far from what pork should be. Smoke has a variety of sauces (again, a sign of lack of focus), and the mustard sauce is flavorful. Their North Carolina sauce is actually more like a Memphis red sauce. I believe they have a sweet sauce, but I seem to have supressed that memory.
Smoke cooks the meat in an Old Hickory smoker, rather than over a pit — no surprise there. I hope they put the pastrami on top, rather than under the pork. The staff said that the wood they use is all hickory. If that’s true, and I assume it is, they sure don’t use much — not nearly enough to give a real hickory flavor. And the Old Hickory bark is usually sub-par, as here.
The Monster Plate came with two sides, and we chose slaw and potato salad. The portions were generous, and Nancy pronounced them “Better than average” — which means good.
The cole slaw was quite good, with carrots and red cabbage, and a light vinegar sauce. All in all, quite pleasing. The potato salad was pretty good, but had far too much mayonnaise.
If you’re in Charleston and in the mood for barbecue, go to Home Team out in West Ashley. If you’re on King Street, however, you might stop in Smoke for some chicken.
And while you’re at it, click “follow” on our front page to receive blog posts in your email box. Or bookmark us and check in from time to time. If you’re planning a trip, you can “Search” the name of the city, state, or country for good restaurants (in Europe, usually close to sites, like the Louvre or the Van Gogh Museum, that you’ll want to visit in any event). Comments, questions, and suggestions of places to eat or stories to cover are very welcome. And check out our Instagram page, johntannerbbq.