Owning one restaurant is exhausting enough. Owning two is downright masochistic. But Pueblo Solis proprietor Al Solis grew up in North St. Louis (and San Antonio, Texas, before that), and he loves barbecue as much as he loves Mexican food. What started out as a hobby has turned into the 40-year-old Solis' second restaurant venture. In January he and partner Michael Del Pietro opened Smokin Al's in a bright-yellow building on Hampton Avenue, not far south of Highway 40.
Smokin Al's is a barbecue joint in the finest St. Louis tradition: counter service, vinyl table coverings and good blues piped through the speakers. But as Solis says: "We have knives, no scissors" -- meaning that everything is freshly prepared, not prepackaged. Solis says he was dissatisfied with a lot of local barbecue spots, noting that many have taken to preparing their meat by grilling it in on an electric grill. "That's not barbecuing," Solis scoffs. "I smoke everything right in front of the restaurant, using cherry wood. I particularly like my brisket."
A couple of visits to Smokin Al's reveal that Solis is justifiably proud. The pork ribs ($8.95 for a half-slab, $16.95 for the whole megillah) are juicy and tender, the cherry adding subtle sweet flavor without overpowering the meat. And Solis' beef brisket is indeed right up there with the best -- lean, smoky and fork-tender. Unlike all too many St. Louis sauces, Solis' "wolf sauce" isn't overly ketchupy; instead, it's based on blackstrap molasses, vinegar and beer, with his signature addition of ancho and pequín peppers. The heat is subtle, the overall flavor sweet and smoky, the consistency just thick enough to, well, stick to your ribs. The menu also includes chicken, fried fish and an array of sandwiches, including pulled pork topped with coleslaw.
Solis says he's got plans to open a drive-up window and stay open till the wee hours. But there's no reason to wait for that. And be sure to ask for the onion strings -- you'll want a double order.