My first glimpse at HalfSmoke’s grill unlocked childhood memories as sweet as a summer peach. Just the sight of sausages blackening over burning logs brought back images of my father, a white cotton T-shirt clinging to his belly, turning hot dogs on a backyard grill. I can remember standing nearby, practically willing those charred franks to slip into a bun.
The decision to install an Argentine-style grill and make it the focal point at HalfSmoke borders on brilliance. This interaction of fire, smoke, machine and encased forcemeat taps into something deeper than memories of backyard barbecues. It teases some primordial part of our brain that salivates at the sight of food cooking over open flames. No sausage endlessly spinning on a 7-Eleven dog roller can generate a similar reaction.
Credit rookie restaurateur and D.C. native Andre McCain, a former Wall Street analyst, with adding a timeless element to his trend-conscious concept, a fast-casual shop outfitted with local beer, craft cocktails, board games and junk food retrofitted for modern palates. McCain tapped two influential D.C. sources to build out HalfSmoke: Grillworks, which provided the grills, and Bob Kinkead, the James Beard Award-winning chef who consulted on the menu.
Kinkead helped HalfSmoke assemble what has to be the finest selection of gourmet sausages in the city, sourcing them from MeatCrafters in Landover, Md., Logan’s Sausage in Alexandria and Stachowski Brand Charcuterie in Forestville, Md. The standing menu features a beef brat, an Italian pork link, lamb merguez and, of course, the namesake half-smoke, the smoky half-beef, half-pork sausage that’s the closest thing to a signature dish in Washington.
When crisped on the grill, placed into a toasted bun and sprinkled with your choice of toppings, these sausages make for juicy, generally gracious bites, depending on your skill at pairing ingredients since there are no signature combinations. My only real complaint concerns the star of the show, the half-smoke, whose spice has been choked to the point of muteness, even when ladled with chili. A half-smoke without heat is like a liberal without a cause.
Once you wander from the pillowy comforts of the bun, however, HalfSmoke takes a hard left turn onto a dead-end street. Okay, maybe not a dead-end street but a deeply rutted gravel road, where it’s easy to land in the ditch.
Allow me to illustrate: One evening, I stood frozen for minutes, puzzling out how to assemble a wild rice bowl topped with merguez sausage, one of many basic combinations available. The problem was immediately clear: The menu designers had not accounted for the link’s heat and North African aromatics when building out the toppings bar. There was no yogurt, no couscous, no chickpeas, no lentils, no mint. Finally, I asked the cook behind the counter to top the sausage-and-rice combo with both the meat and vegetable chilis, the latter of which included soft, chalky chickpeas. I had created, in effect, a Moroccan lamb gumbo, heavy on the rice since the cook portioned the chili so sparingly.
A few days earlier, a friend assumed the challenge of finding some appropriate toppings for the Thai chicken sausage, which has since disappeared from the menu. The link’s ginger and Sriracha flavors were loud and incompatible with practically everything on the bar. My companion went for the nuclear option, bombing that poor sausage with bacon, melted onions and tarragon mustard. The devastation was compete: The grill team had torched the link into a blackened, juiceless husk, which my friend tried to revive with flavor-heavy shots of adrenaline. The patient was a goner.
Next to a bun, the best base for your sausage is the flatbread baked in a Marra Forni brick oven (which strikes me as equipment overkill for the modest amount of work the unit performs here). My oval-shaped flatbread topped with a sliced beef brat had to be the most mouthwatering dish I composed, largely because all the elements were available to build a pizza (even if the sweet barbecue sauce strong-armed the other ingredients). As for sausages atop mixed greens, I remain unmoved by the possibility of a half-smoke salad — unless someone can invent a chili-cheese dressing with a yellow mustard binder. (Note to commenters ready to troll: The last statement was dripping irony.)
To me, the finest fast-casual shops are intuitive, or at least instructive when intuition fails to grasp the full concept. HalfSmoke doesn’t strike me as intuitive, and it meets you only halfway in providing proper instructions.
During my initial visits, I’d wander to the end of the line, my main dish in hand, and not know exactly what to do next. The sides are tucked away in a corner, virtually out of sight. Unless someone asks if you want a tiny wire basket of tater tots or mac-and-cheese bites (both passable when fresh and hot), you might skip straight to the cashier, where, should you desire a craft beer, you’ll have wander away and review the taps. A beer list near the register would prove helpful. Also: Should your fries need salt — they will — you’ll have to track down an employee for it. There are no shakers on the tables.
HalfSmoke caters to the emerging adulthood crowd, those folks who are no longer teens but still hold fast to their adolescent tastes. A neon sign over a shelf stacked with board games provides the inspiration: “Don’t grow up it’s a trap.” (The neon even signals its millennial sincerity with a lack of punctuation.) This retreat into childhood plays out with the drinks and desserts, too: They’re sweet and without restraint. The thin, colorful milkshakes are more outrageous than Kentucky Derby hats, and the funnel cakes taste like fish-fry batter drizzled with chocolate syrup.
In a sense, those grills at HalfSmoke are symbolic: They remind us that fire helped develop the human brain, which is a good thing. You’re going to need all that brain power to concoct a tasty meal here.
651 Florida Ave. NW. 202-986-2079. halfsmoke.com.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Nearest Metro: Shaw, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Choice of sausage on bun, wild rice, flatbread or salad, $9.50; sides, $4-$6.