How did grime become barbecue’s barometer?
Black clouds billow over ancient grinning cartoon pig signs. Tables so sticky and fat-smeared that one wonders whether the last health inspector made it out alive. A man who looks like a “Saw” movie villain grimacing out back.
That’s how you know it’s good. Right?
But sample enough barbecue around New England and it quickly becomes clear that while some of the soot-stained style has made the journey north, exporting the food has proven far more difficult.
At Smoke Shop, a new Kendall Square ’cue joint, chef/pitmaster Andy Husbands eschews barbecue’s trademark filth while hanging onto the traditions that really matter. The dining room may be polished to a sparkle inside and out, but the smoker still delivers pile after pile of expertly cooked pork, beef, and sausage.
A long bar sits across from floor-to-ceiling windows and is home to one of the area’s best collections of American whiskeys; back in the windowless dining room, sheets of thick steel from which R. Murphy Knives in Ayer cut out its blades line one wall — the skeletons of chef’s knives at work in distant kitchens. Nearly all the food here is served on rimmed baking sheets lined with logoed paper, a faint nod to the Texas custom of serving smoked meat on sheets of butcher paper.
But it’s the meat, not the metal, that sets Smoke Shop apart from all the questionable Yankee ’cue.
Take the brisket — one of the Texas trinity of barbecue (along with pork spare ribs and sausage) and the hardest of all to pull off. Smoke it too long or too short, too hot or not hot enough, look away for a minute, breathe funny, choose meat from a cow with a personality disorder . . . the whole thing can fall apart. Ordering brisket more than a few dozen miles from San Antonio too often means a dry pile of chewy gray beef — your grandmother’s London broil if she’d hit the sherry extra hard earlier that afternoon.
But Husbands knows all this. He was a part of the decorated IQUE BBQ team, a competitive smoking squad with a major national award on its resume, and it’s clear from the meat his kitchen is piling on paper-lined aluminum trays. Most nights, the brisket is at least as good as you’ll find around here and usually a far bit better — smoky and rich and shrouded in a black salt-and-pepper bark; tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, but not so pliant that it turns into a pile of shredded beef on the plate.
This isn’t always the case. Brisket is notoriously inconsistent, and later in the evening, meat that has spent hours waiting to be served arrives dried out and improperly carved. This is why so many Texas joints serve not until a set closing time but until the meat runs out. Smoke Shop might consider doing the same when it comes to brisket.
Less temperamental meats fare even better. A pile of pulled pork is moist enough to remind you how often the dish seems to be an afterthought. And thick, meaty St. Louis cut spare ribs are consistently toothy, clinging perfectly to the bone before they pull away (if porks ribs really do “fall off the bone,” they are overcooked). They’re lightly brushed with a sweet red sauce that’s little more than a glaze; sweet and spicy sauces are on the table, if you’re into that sort of thing.
In these parts, barbecue restaurants tend to borrow from several styles. Anything slathered in sweet sauce is called “Kansas City” on the menu. “Carolina” pulled pork is just pulled pork, though some hose it down with apple cider vinegar to adhere to some dubious notion of authenticity. And if you find a place serving authentic Kentucky mutton within 150 miles of Boston, light the mountaintop fires and I’ll be there in three sunrises.
Smoke Shop is no different in this regard, mixing styles and experimenting gently while eschewing weird regional barbecue customs — meats ordered by the pound and served without silverware, piles of Wonder bread, a total absence of sauce — that might baffle the uninitiated.
Instead, giant superfluous televisions line the walls. The familiar chalk outline of a cow that identifies various cuts of beef is on prominent display.
Service is friendly but sometimes verges on manic — that happy-at-gunpoint quality so many chain restaurants cultivate. And though it seems almost unfair to dock a place for having professional industrial design, the whole enterprise undeniably has a vaguely chainy vibe.
A little slow-smoked style — something that may come as Smoke Shop settles in on the corner at 1 Kendall Square — would go a long way.
The menu offers familiar combo platters and mostly perfunctory side items (sweet and spicy coleslaw, collards, pimento mac and cheese), sandwiches, and a handful of entrees that seem to exist primarily to placate those avoiding beef and pork. Fried chicken, also available in sandwich form, is a surprise winner — two giant, intensely crunchy deboned slabs. Fish and tofu dishes make an appearance, presumably to placate vegetarians who lost some sort of bet.
Husbands’s attempts to upend barbecue orthodoxy are most evident on the appetizer menu, where a deviled egg of sorts pairs a chilled soft-boiled egg with a thick slab of superb house-cured bacon, then douses the whole business in green goddess dressing and red chile. Getting everything in a single bite means a juggling act, and pulling it off isn’t that rewarding. A “New Style City Q” section of the sandwich menu offers mild twists: A fried chicken sandwich promises Thai flavors and turns out to be something like a giant, crunchy play on a banh mi; the olive tapenade and tasso ham on a pulled pork sandwich barely register.
But belly and skin — a bizarre concoction of whole belly fried clams and crispy pork skin all piled on a plate — turns out to be pretty much perfect bar food that also marries North and South. And “The Best Bar Wings,” smoked for a few hours and then thrown in the fryer, come surprisingly close to delivering on the menu’s promise, though a little more spice to offset their sweet agave sauce would be welcome.
Spartan presentations are especially pronounced during dessert, when small bars and cakes make a lonely journey to the table in the middle of those same, suddenly vast baking sheets. This is, at most, one step up from dropping a brownie directly onto the table. But at $2 apiece, who could say no? Only the sticky edge trimmings from the house butter cake, repurposed as “butter cake crack,” cost more ($5) — and the caramelized sugars that collected along the pan have the added benefit of lodging so deeply in one’s molars that they can be enjoyed for some time.
It will, in any case, tide you over as you survey the whiskey list — an impressive collection of mostly bourbons and ryes. Any real whiskey hounds will naturally gravitate to the small box in the corner, Andy’s Baller List, where the Van Winkles and such are stashed.
The pours are pricey but substantial. And though science has not proven it, few things fight back the meat sweats like a couple of ounces of 120-proof bourbon.
And besides, barbecue has always been more art than science — with or without the grime. What to order Brisket, 1st place ribs, “The Best Bar Wings,” belly & skin, fried chicken, butter cake crack
THE SMOKE SHOP
1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-577-7427, www.thesmokeshopbbq.com
All major credit cards accepted
Prices Starters $3-$9. BBQ plates and entrees $15-$31. Sandwiches $9-$12.50. Desserts $2-$5.
Hours 11-1 a.m. daily
Noise Level Surprisingly reasonable