The only good thing about being from a place without an ironclad barbecue tradition to call its own — two places, in my case: St. Louis is my home now, and I was born and raised in Baltimore, where we're too busy steaming crabs to figure out another way to smoke and sauce a pig — is that you don't have to take a side in the classic 'cue arguments. Wet versus dry? Beef versus pork? Brisket versus ribs?
Who cares? It's all good.
By which I mean, it's all good in theory. Because, Lord knows, I've had some horrific barbecue in my time: Gristly meat that a month in a smoker couldn't soften; sauces so gloppy with corn syrup that you could use them as an industrial-strength epoxy. Don't even get me started on how sweet those corn syrup-laden sauces can be.
But all of the sickly sweet, fat-capped rib tips in the world are worth the trouble for one bite of great barbecue: the tender meat juicy with fat rendered ever-so-slowly, rich with the flavors of smoke and spice.
Of course, truly great barbecue is a rare thing around these parts. That's the absolute worst thing about being from a place without its own barbecue tradition. (And, no, St. Louis-cut ribs do not a tradition make.) Still, barbecue that's merely very good, if not transcendent, is pretty damn fantastic, capable of lifting a humdrum day into something worth savoring.
One afternoon last month — so sweltering that I just wanted to sit in my skivvies in front of an air-conditioning vent and eat shaved ice out of a bowl — I found myself making a final visit to Smoking Joe's Bar-Be-Que, contemplating what has to be the least appetizing meal possible when the heat index reaches 110 degrees: a pile of sliced beef brisket.
I should add that, of the standard barbecue cuts, brisket is my least favorite. That's no small admission. My wife hails from Texas, where the barbecue discussion begins and ends with brisket. Now, if I were a devotee of Memphis dry rub or Carolina's vinegar-spiked sauce, I could turn up my nose at brisket and be done with it. I have no problem with brisket on principle. Too often, though, it's tough or lacking flavor or both. Still, I can't help but think that there must be something about it I'm missing.
Good thing my barbecue religion is ecumenical. Smoking Joe's beef brisket turned my humdrum, heat-exhausted day around.
The meat is exceptionally tender, bursting with the flavor of its own rendered fat. There is a dry rub, peppery with a hint of herbs — oregano, maybe, though the flavors blend so well that teasing out just one is difficult — but it and the smoke from hickory-, cherry- and applewoods accent, rather than overwhelm, the meat. Smoking Joe's offers three sauces, but you don't need them.
I have had good brisket before, even in St. Louis — Pappy's Smokehouse, not far from Smoking Joe's, turns out a tasty version, and the brisket sandwich at Winslow's Home in University City is a knockout — but here was a watershed for me, a barbecue joint I'd seek out for its brisket.
First-time restaurateur Joel Rozelle opened Smoking Joe's earlier this year on Washington Avenue, between North 20th and North 19th streets. For many years this block was desolate (save for the Nepalese-and-Korean restaurant Everest, since relocated to the Grove in Forest Park Southeast), but the Tudor Building on the street's north side is currently being renovated, with Smoking Joe's anchoring the east end. Look for the sign with a cartoon pig wearing a tux and an excited expression.
I call Smoking Joe's a barbecue joint because most barbecue joints are "restaurants" only in the most generic sense. Even when brand-new, they tend to look a little rundown; after a couple of years, they are thick with the aromas of woodsmoke, vinegar, and sweat, sticky with spilled sauce and sweet tea. Smoking Joe's, though, is striving for a (slightly) more upscale look. The large, L-shape dining room includes a lounge area with sofas, a few flat-screen TVs and a long, well-stocked bar. Still, the seating is unpretentious, with sauces in repurposed squeeze bottles, plastic cutlery and paper napkins.
Brisket is the standout among the meats. The pork ribs are baby back — or loin back, as the menu terms them — served in quarter, half and full slabs. The individual ribs arrive separated, a no-no in my book: A test of good ribs is how the meat bends (but doesn't fall off the bone) when you lift the entire slab. At any rate, the meat was tender, as baby-back ribs tend to be, with a nice balance of smoke and pig flavor, but without the full fatty rush of flavor that spare ribs deliver.
(An odd note: A full slab of ribs with two sides costs $18.99. The menu also lists two full slabs of ribs with four sides for $41.99 — $4 more than the cost of ordering two full slabs of ribs separately.)
Smoking Joe's dry rub dominated both the pulled chicken and the pulled pork. This was to the chicken's advantage. The rub added a welcome accent to a meat that, even smoked, has a relatively bland flavor. The pulled pork was a letdown, however. Even with a great dry rub, barbecued pig should taste of pig more than anything else. Here I picked through the pork to find pieces with the least amount of rub.
The three sauces include a mild, a hot, and a "sweet and tangy." All three offer a decent balance of sweet-and-tart flavors, with the hot variety adding just enough pepper to buzz your lips and tongue. Sides are an afterthought. The green beans are overcooked and too salty; the beans came in a sauce that tastes much sweeter than the one provided for the meat; the corn on the cob is tough. Stick with the crisp French fries.
Service is brusque. My meals were delivered quickly, but sometimes I'd have to find my own napkins or silverware or salt. I think I might have received lemon with my iced tea once. Sweet-tea fans will have to make do by adding enough sugar packets to give your dentist screaming nightmares.
You can order barbecue to go by the pound. You can also order an entire beef brisket. I am tempted — though I fear that, by the time I work through it, I'll have become one of those barbecue snobs, blind to everything else.