No one asks you at Smoke BBQ whether you want lean or fatty brisket, because there’s no choice. The meat that arrives in your basket, layered like sliced pastrami, is the stuff of sandwiches: cut thin, devoid of fat and firm of texture. That may sound like a slap, but it’s not. This Bethesda smokehouse understands the limited, tight-lipped pleasures of good lean brisket.
Think about it: The fattier side of the brisket, with its rich deposits of animal butter, requires no knowledge or experience to appreciate. We’re hard-wired to savor the caloric joy ride of fatty meat, particularly when that fat has melded with a spice rub to create a dark, crusty bark around the beef. It’s easy to love fatty brisket. It’s the Monet of barbecue. Lean brisket is the Rothko.
The ribbons of brisket at Smoke have an art of their own. Anyone who has smoked this massive hunk of meat understands all too well how the lean side often hardens into a pot-roastlike slab, edible but typically destined to be chopped, slathered with sauce and spread between two slices of bread (preferably white). Sure, Smoke’s lean strips demand more mastication than melt-in-your-mouth fatty brisket, but they’re not chew toys. I’d argue, in fact, that the chew is one of the pleasures of the brisket here, along with its light, smoky fragrance and black pepper kick, both of which can make you feel as if you’re feasting on pastrami.
Smoke has set the bar high for itself. The narrow, shotgun-house operation boasts an eclectic collision of influences — craft beer pub, smokehouse, sports bar, French bistro — while simultaneously hawking a broad spectrum of barbecue styles representing most major regions. I detect hints of Memphis in Smoke’s sticky ribs, a taste of Carolina (arguably western-leaning) in its pulled-pork shoulder, even a salute to Texas in those unsauced brisket slices.
The issue for Smoke — as for every ’cue joint from here to central Texas — concerns its methods for holding meats when the smokers remain idle. As every barbecue enthusiast knows, meats are best when pulled fresh from a smoker, but most places simply can’t afford to keep their machines huffing and puffing all day, waiting for a customer to stroll through the door. So they develop practices for holding and reheating meats. Some are better than others.
I knew from the moment I ripped into my baby back ribs that they were not fresh. The problem wasn’t just the crusty, shell-like exterior — a sign the ribs had been subjected to both time and temperature extremes — it was the smokiness. The blackened bones and meat, glistening with a tangy-sweet sauce, radiated the char-heavy smokiness of the grill, not the delicate wood perfume of the smoker. I later confirmed that Smoke cools its ribs before bringing them up to temperature on the grill, enlivened with a fresh application of sauce.
Now, I’d be lying through my sauce-stained teeth if I claimed that either the hardened surface or the gas-powered-grill char prevented me from enjoying the ribs. It’s a testament to owner Martin Hage’s approach to baby backs (he’s apparently not fond of spare ribs) that they can stand up to those minor insults to fresh-from-the-smoker meats. Hage, a dedicated backyard barbecuer before he opened Smoke in January, has a pitmaster’s understanding of ribs: The pork doesn’t fall from the bones with a mere suggestive whisper; it requires a pleasing tug, allowing both your jaws and your palate to get in on the action. I’d love to bite into these bones right after their smoke bath.
Hage also has ambition. Smoke takes risks, mostly playful ones, but occasionally a serious one. The grilled lamb platter qualifies as the latter. A marinated leg of lamb is smoked with hickory under a higher heat than the other proteins, resulting in meaty, balsamic-flavored slices that don’t particularly strike me as barbecue. I’m more enamored of the smoked chicken wings with their shellacking of hot-and-vinegary Buffalo sauce; the wings combine smoke, char, heat and a crispy coating from a dip in the fryer, essentially rendering the blue cheese sauce a bit player with no significant part in this drama. When pulled into slightly desiccated strings, the smoky chicken begs for one of Smoke’s three house-made sauces; I’d grab the vinegary one.
Compare that to Hage’s pulled pork: Big sweaty pieces of shoulder with the delicate air of hickory smoke about them. There’s enough fat on these morsels to consider them finger foods, but they’re even better with a splash of that same vinegar sauce.
Smoke’s main faults lie away from the smoker. Aside from the porky collard greens (cooked to pleasing toothsomeness), I’d be hard-pressed to find a regular partner for Hage’s meats. On one visit, the mac and cheese proved underseasoned and under-cheesed; another time, it tasted like a less powdery version of the stuff prepared from a Kraft box. The fries are reliably limp, dusted with a seasoning that renders them as much sweet as savory. One side with potential is Smoke’s coleslaw, with its cilantro accent, a flavor combination that could work with minor tweaks.
I’d make the same argument for Smoke itself: With small adjustments (improved sides, a less grill-heavy approach to ribs), the joint could quickly move up the ranks of urban smokehouses. In fact, the general manager says the place is already pondering one change: adding fatty brisket to your meat options.
4858 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-2011. www.smokebbq
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Bethesda, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $6.95-$16.99.