The first thing to know about Bogart's Smokehouse is that it isn't Pappy's Smokehouse, Part 2. Much of the buzz surrounding Bogart's February debut focused on the connections between the two barbecue joints: Pitmaster Skip Steele and general manager Niki Puto are among the Pappy's vets who opened Bogart's in Soulard. This is understandable. Over the past three years, Pappy's has staked its claim not merely to serving the best barbecue in St. Louis, but also to being one of the crown jewels of the area's dining scene, beloved by locals and tourists alike, its lines seemingly longer by the day.
So, yes, the Bogart's pedigree must include Pappy's, but it is by no means limited to it. The Memphis-raised Steele was building barbecue grills as a teenager, and he has participated — and placed — in the Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship (a.k.a. "The Super Bowl of Swine"). He's known to local 'cue hounds as one of the founders of Super Smokers BBQ, and he has worked at such high-profile gigs as the Las Vegas outpost of barbecue master Paul Kirk's RUB BBQ.
The man knows barbecue. What's more, he has the confidence to expand our notion of what barbecue can be. Sure, you can (and should) order ribs and pulled pork here, but you can also have smoked prime rib as tender as a mother's touch and pastrami that will prompt grave — even existential — doubts about your favorite deli.
Bogart's sits at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and South Ninth Street, just west of the Soulard Farmers' Market. It's a homey spot, not very large but airy, with warm yellow and burnt-orange walls, a high ceiling and a classy marble-tiled floor. The décor includes a metal pig-with-wings light fixture that is pretty much the greatest light fixture in human history. There is seating for a few dozen inside the restaurant and picnic tables outside. The smoker, where the meat cooks over apple- and cherrywood, is located in the fenced-in back yard.
The most fitting comparison to Pappy's might be the vibe. The staff at Bogart's is unfailingly friendly, and as you wait in line — which isn't as long as Pappy's (yet) — they might offer you a sample of the ribs or brisket. Once you've placed your order, you have enough time to fill your soft-drink cup and find a seat before your food arrives.
For many of you, I suspect (because I'm like this, too), barbecue and pork are synonymous — or, if not exactly synonymous, then, at the very least, pig is the first thing that comes to mind when your nose gets a whiff of woodsmoke. I implore you, though: Try the prime rib. You can order a plate of this, with two sides, or paired with another meat, also with two sides (as you can with most of the meats on the menu), and enjoy the thinly sliced, impossibly tender, mildly smoky meat soaked in its own rich juices. But for the full effect, get the sandwich, which pairs that meat with strands of smoked onion, which add just the right amount of bite and an extra hint of smoke, on a soft hoagie roll.
The pastrami is also worth venturing outside your barbecue comfort zone. Sliced very thin, the meat has a flavor that's a perfect balance of salt, pepper and, of course, tangy, vinegary brine. Did I polish off a serving of that pastrami daydreaming of an ersatz Reuben sandwich made with the smoked onions that came with the prime rib? I might have.
The "Sausage Fatty" is another deviation from the St. Louis barbecue norm. Imagine a sausage patty shaped like a half-sphere and then cut crosswise into three or four thick slices. The meat has the bright spiciness of good breakfast sausage. Also, Bogart's smoked turkey isn't the Flintstonian leg with which you might be familiar from Busch Stadium and other venues. Instead the meat is thinly sliced, its natural flavor (though it looked like breast meat, it had the richness of a darker cut) rounded out by smoke and a gentle hint of spice.
And then, of course, there are the ribs and the pulled pork. Of the two, the ribs are the better bet. In fact, the pulled pork was the closest Bogart's came to disappointing me. The flavor was properly porcine and smoked-tinged, but the texture was on the dry side, and by the time I added enough sauce to moisten it, the barbecue's own flavor had vanished.
Baby-back ribs, available as a half or full rack, are excellent. Though dry-rubbed Memphis-style rather than basted in sauce, they are finished with an apricot glaze that is then caramelized with a propane torch, just as you would finish a crème brûlée. This gives the exterior crispness, if not crunch, and adds a gentle sweetness to the meat. That meat is perfectly tender, giving way but not falling off the bone, rich with its own delicious fat.
One of the best compliments you can give barbecue is that it needs no sauce whatsoever. But if you do like sauce, Bogart's offers four varieties: a spicy, a sweet, the "Pineapple Express," which does taste of the fruit, and a sharp, hot vinegar-based sauce. Of these I especially liked the spicy and vinegar sauces, though this is as much a matter of personal preference as anything. All four are good.
Without question, the pit-baked beans are the standout side. Hardly the generic, sickly sweet baked beans of barbecue joints innumerable, these are cooked for fourteen hours and laden with drippings from meat being smoked. (They also have chunks of pork mixed in with the beans; in other words, they're the least-vegetarian beans imaginable, unless you're imagining beans that are actually made of meat.) The flavor is smoky, tangy and just a touch sweet. I ordered them on every visit.
Other sides include "deviled egg" potato salad, a lightly spiced twist on the usual eggy blend; applesauce; and nicely crisp coleslaw. The fried pork skins are delicious, though these aren't housemade but Old Vienna brand. Likewise, the potato chips are from the locally based Billy Goat Chip Company.
Fair warning: Bogart's keeps relatively brief hours (10:30 a.m. till 4 p.m.), and when a meat is done for the day, that's it. No leftovers from the previous day. And here, perhaps, is where your Pappy's experience has the most in common with a trip to Bogart's. You will want to get there early, and you will want to get there often.