Really good barbecue always has struck me as something worthy of a road trip. The sun-kissed glow and margarita daze left behind from trips to the Gulf Coast are great, but it's the ride home dotted by roadside shacks in Alabama and Mississippi, and the promise of fatty, smoked meat that's the real driving force for me.
People may not proselytize about barbecue in New Orleans the way they do in Texas or the Carolinas, but nevertheless it's a constant, and recent years have seen a growing number of pit masters open up shop here. With the opening of Smoke BBQ, there's a serious new contender in the smoked meats game, and it's well worth the trip to Covington.
The team behind Oxlot 9, the fine-dining restaurant inside Covington's Southern Hotel, opened the restaurant in August. Smoke boasts a more convivial family atmosphere, where garage doors open onto a bright patio and service is swift and friendly.
The house barbecue elixir is a vinegar-forward mix that packs more sweetness than heat and there's a fiery chili-packed version with bigger body and bold, scorching flavor. A ranchlike white sauce isn't as mild as the Alabama staple because it is packed with pepper and horseradish.
A pile of smoked chicken wings gets delivered on a tray decorated with smoked peanuts and slivers of pickled celery. The fat wings carry some weight to them and their crispy skin — a deep caramel tone — gives way to soft and juicy white meat. An accompanying duo of creamy buttermilk dressing and a bright coral hot sauce were like the yin and yang of condiments — and I couldn't resist a dunk in both.
I would travel to the Eastern seaboard and back for the eatery's smoked St. Louis-style ribs. Encased in a deep chocolate-colored char, the tender, dark meat slips effortlessly from the bones and fatty bits imbue a world of smoky flavor.
Brisket, the barbecue darling that's difficult for many to master, gets plenty of love and affection from the chefs here. The soft, dusty rose slices are capped with thin ribbons of fat and dark char that melt in your mouth.
Starters are hit or miss. A towering pile of fried, puffy pork skins dusted with a crimson smoke rub tasted crispy and carried just a whisper of heat. The dish seemed fine for a game day snack, but the portion was so over the top it felt excessive.
I was disappointed by smoke fries topped with smoked cheddar cheese and burnt ends. On paper, it seems like prime stoner cuisine, but in reality, it was a soggy heap topped with a mountain of globby cheese and there were too few of the deliciously fatty burnt ends.
Sides do their part to round out the table but don't distract from the main attraction.
White cheese dresses pasta shells in the macaroni and cheese, and the potato salad — a creamy Easter egg-yellow mix — had an all-American feel to it. Simmered collard greens had clean, sweet flavor, a refreshing take on a dish that often is heavy, overloaded with ham hock or turkey. I liked the coleslaw, which was of the lighter variety. Mayonnaise is added with a judicious hand and the shredded cabbage is are interspersed with crispy carrot strips and a sprinkling of green onions added another dimension.
There's a small selection of ice cream shakes and floats but appetizer and entree portions are so generous you'd be hard-pressed to find room for much else after a meal.
Though still new, Smoke BBQ is poised to be a mainstay on the Southern barbecue circuit — and it's definitely worth the trek from near or far.