I am not a scientist, but there must be some kind of inversely proportional law of dining physics positing that the sparser and more barebones the decor of a barbecue joint, the more tender and juicy the meat will be.
While the South is full of top-notch barbecue spots, it's safe to say that the best of the best never consulted an interior decorator. There's no need for starched linens or conceptual art pieces when you're in the business of cooking meat low and slow.
NOLA Smokehouse helps make the case for this pseudoscientific concept, with sterile white walls, fuss-free fold out card tables and barbecue that's smoky enough to linger in your clothes, hair and dreams for days after a meal.
NOLA Smokehouse is located in an easy-to-miss, rust-colored building, and what it lacks in size it makes up for in heart. Chef Rob Bechtold's foray into barbecue began as a pop-up around town and moved into its permanent digs in March — complete with dozens of bonsai trees as a curious decorative touch. It's affectionately disjointed. The kitchen is barely separated from the dining room, and Bechtold can be heard singing along to a country-heavy soundtrack, ranging from "One Piece at a Time" by Johnny Cash to a particularly soulful rendition of Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places."
The focus at NOLA Smokehouse is meat, but the creativity and attention to detail with one-off dishes and side items helps set it apart from other barbecue spots in the city. The spirited incorporation of local ingredients — like adding Steen's cane syrup to a perfectly sweet and crunchy, pepper-flaked coleslaw — is inventive without veering too wildly from the script. The spoonbread — a Yorkshire pudding-meets-corn-souffle hybrid — is a homey and comforting Southern specialty and will be a welcome novelty for many diners who have yet to experience cornbread's softer, creamier cousin. (Full disclosure: I grew up in a town that is home to the annual International Spoonbread Festival.)
The restaurant also is constantly trying new concepts and specials, harking back to its nimble pop-up roots. Smokehouse yaka mein takes the New Orleans classic to new heights with a woodsy, smoky broth and well-crusted brisket that could conquer even the worst hangover. The smoked prime rib was perfectly tender and plump — without being gummy — and worthy of any old-line steakhouse for an affordable $20 price complete with sides.
While I'm averse to any dessert using the gimmicky combination of bacon and chocolate, the restaurant's bacon brownie makes the combination seem fresh, using thinly sliced bacon as a flaky, salty crust instead of overwhelming chunks of pork throughout the dessert.
The sauce options — sweet, spicy and North Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce — leave something to be desired, with the sweet sauce almost the texture and consistency of clover honey. The vinegar sauce pairs best with the pulled pork sandwich, which has enough texture and mass to offset a condiment that can be mouth-puckering.
As for the meat? It's stellar across the board. While the sausage is juicy, it is on par with other offerings from across the city and is the least impressive of the carnivorous entrees. The ribs are deceptively large, with meat that falls off the bone at the slightest touch. If you have to select only one option, the brisket burned ends are expertly prepared and are flavorful enough to be eaten on their own without sauce.
The drink selection is limited (bring your liquor of choice if you're not a fan of water or root beer) but once your toes get tapping to Conway Twitty and you feast your eyes on the heaping helping of meat on your plate, the trip will be entirely worth the effort.