After my wonderful breakfast at the Oak Level Cafe, I had a longish drive down to Garland for lunch at Matt Register’s Southern Smoke. Given the size of the biscuits, the long drive was just as well. As I mentioned in that post, I had a lunch date, and it was with my good friend, Dan Kenney. of Lumberton, North Carolina.
Dan is a Renaissance Man: a founder of the Annual Beer Snob Pig Picking, the chief local deep fryer of turkeys, a daily (!) blogger at Coach4aday, and, incidentally, a much-honored coach and university executive — among other wonders. When I decided to try Southern Smoke, I called Dan and he agreed to meet me in Garland.
There’s not a whole lot in Garland these days. The 2010 census found only 625 residents, and just this month Brooks Brothers closed the factory there. The Garland 150 workers made all of the Brooks Brothers button down collar shirts, the shirts worn by US Presidents and captains of industry. The outlet store there closed a couple of years ago, and that was a blow. But Garland can boast Southern Smoke, and that is a boast indeed.
The first sign of greatness is shade: you can park your car under Southern Smoke’s signature huge magnolia tree — a pearl of great price, that, on a blazing hot summer day.
Then you stroll across to the tiny counter where you order your food.
The food comes out quickly, and you can take it home or head back to a large shady yard featuring the second sign of greatness:
Best seating ever. Note the Ball jar chandelier. And then you get to eat, and that’s the third sign of greatness. I got the diet meal, a pork and slaw tray and the smallest possible portion of ribs.
Southern Smoke’s produces very good pork. Very good. It arrives from its cooker, Jezebel, moist and tender, and with a good smoke flavor. It arrives lightly sauced. Southern Smoke cooks pork butts (as do I) rather than whole hog or shoulders for flavor and economy: all of the meat is good and flavorful. There’s no waste, no leaner areas that really aren’t quite as good for barbecue purposes.
The ribs, which are an occasional menu item, also are quite good. They arrive, as ribs should, al dente, and with the same great smoke flavor as the pork with a brush of a sweetish Grace Sauce, named after Matt’s daughter Taylor Grace. If they’re available, get at least a small order. The slaw is very good. It’s crisp and not over-sauced, a nice counterpoint to the meat. The meat comes with a sweet cornbread which I, a
Life Member of the No Sugar in Cornbread or Collards League, grudgingly admit tasted very good.
Actually, I should have given the sides more thought. Barbecue is really just a starting point for Matt Register, who is a Renaissance Man himself. Indeed, barbecue is the only constant on the menu. He offers seasonal sides like creamed corn. Catfish or fried chicken may make a menu appearance — maybe even collard chowder or hot tamales. Here in July, he’s doing amazing things with sweet corn.
Register grew up around barbecue and Southern food, but diverted to a varied and successful “normal” career. Then he read John Shelton Reed’s book, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue. I’m not saying Road to Damascus, but the result was Southern Smoke and then a book of his own, Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today, and lots of food-world celebrity which has gone everywhere but to his head. Register is highly regarded as a chef, self-taught though he is. He’s an interesting man, a voracious reader, and a lover of foods of all types. He devours recipes, including long lost traditional Southern recipes that he revives and reimagines.
Register’s food interests are catholic. He talked excitedly about restaurants he’d tried on a trip to Washington, none of which had the least bit to do with barbecue. He started a semi-annual supper club there in the back yard of Southern Smoke, with localized food, music, and atmosphere themes. A Juke Joint Saturday Night evening featured blues, catfish, Delta hot tamales, Kool-Aid dill pickles, and the like (ribs and fried dill pickles, in my own experience.)
One very important thing about Matt Register. Southern Smoke is normally a family affair, with his wife Jessica and his three children helping out around the place. Because of the coronavirus issue, his family stays elsewhere, safely separated from the flow of customers, while Matt stays alone in Garland and runs the place. He is determined not to bring infection to his family, especially not his asthmatic son. Matt Register talks a lot about his children and his wife, and the pain of separation is clear. This is a good man, a good father, and a good husband. He’s the good looking guy below.
What a pleasure it was to meet Matt Register! What a treat to chat with him and to listen to Matt and Dan Kenney, two fascinating people. And what a pleasure to eat his barbecue. Garland is a bit off my beaten path, but I’ll be back the Thursday or Friday — or maybe both days — before the next Beer Snob Pig Picking, if not sooner. And I’ll explore the sides and specials.
Southern Smoke is only open Thursday and Friday, and only for lunch. They also have a food truck and a catering business with offerings that range far beyond barbecue. Believe me: you should plan a trip that takes you somewhere near Garland on a Thursday or Friday. You need to get out and see a small town and the good people in it and the great food they make. You really should. If you do, you’ll thank me.
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