Where there's Smoke, there's tasty barbecue

Gordon Davis combines flesh and fire in South Tampa.

click to enlarge YOUR 'CUE TO DIG IN: A specialty kebab towers over a plate of Smoke's ribs, chicken and other tasty sides. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
YOUR 'CUE TO DIG IN: A specialty kebab towers over a plate of Smoke's ribs, chicken and other tasty sides.

I wasn't sure that Smoke, the new barbecue joint established by legendary South Tampa restaurateur Gordon Davis, would ever manage to open its doors. When I interviewed Davis last year, the normally reserved and positive businessman busted out plenty of criticism for Tampa's government, thanks largely to almost 12 months of obstructions the city placed in Smoke's path.

"I'd rather build a new business in any community other than Tampa," Davis said. "I've seen other administrations here that are more cooperative and helpful, but it doesn't exist right now. It needs to change."

Now, almost two years since Davis started working on the project and six months since he sold his hit restaurant mini-chain Ceviche, Smoke has finally opened its doors between South Tampa and downtown. As far as I'm concerned, it was worth the effort.

Smoke somehow manages to combine the aura of a makeshift barbecue honky-tonk with the kind of slick eateries that populate South Tampa. Push open an aged wooden screen door and enter a steamy bar area that faces Smoke's open kitchen, where sweaty 'cue cooks work in tight confines to push out more than a dozen different kinds of meat and fish. When busy, this bar is loud, congenial and homey.

Or you can step out onto the tony covered patio and eat al fresco on wrought iron tables, or duck into the tiny dining room for plush booths and air-conditioned comfort. These seating options suit the clientele, which seems mostly formed of gangs of white-collar office types, beautiful South Tampa denizens and 'cue fanatics. Smoke has room, and a room, for all of the groups.

Barbecue fans will find a few things to light their fire, although consistency is still an issue at the six-week-old restaurant. On one visit, pork ribs ($12 for a half rack) easily rivaled the best in the area, subtly seasoned, permeated with hardwood smoke and gripping the bone just enough to give your teeth something to do before the chewing begins in earnest. On another visit, dry was the defining characteristic, as if they'd been smoked and sat the day before and were then warmed up for the first few lunch customers.

Texas brisket ($18) ranges from fatty and undercooked to tender slices of delicate smoked meat that fall apart at the touch of a fork. Pork shoulder ($15) is more consistent, doused in a surprisingly subtle mustard sauce that helps to cover up a meager amount of smoke and unassertive seasonings.

Those examples of classic 'cue easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with most Bay area joints, but Smoke's real selling point is the sheer variety of styles and meats it offers. There's also Montreal-style brisket, beef ribs, Hawaiian chicken, house-cured sausage, lamb chops, duck, fried catfish, grilled salmon, shrimp and scallops. It feels like the entire animal kingdom is arrayed before you, killed, cleaned and ready for your plate. Glorious.

Smoke's roasted duck ($17) is a treat, the meat luscious with rendered fat, the skin painted with a caramelized bourbon-and-orange glaze that mutes a blast of peppery heat. Hulli Hulli Hawaiian chicken ($9) is largely innocuous, the rotisseried birds seasoned with sugar, soy and a touch of ginger. It really shines when stacked on a sandwich ($6) with a slab of grilled pineapple, crunchy slaw and sweet hoisin barbecue sauce.

Across the board, sandwiches are your best bet at Smoke, thanks largely to the creative application of extra fixin's. The pulled pork sandwich ($7) is piled with crisp onion strings; the pulled pork sliders ($6) are topped by a giant onion ring labeled "black and tan" thanks to a short stint on the grill after frying to lend it some blackened stripes. Sausages are mingled with sweet roasted peppers and gooey tobacco onions ($7).

Smoke makes the sausages in-house, which results in a little more connective tissue and a lot more fat than you might want, but the blast of smoke and herb infused into each is almost enough to make you forget the big chunks of chewy white mystery parts.

Smoke's Montreal brisket ($20) is a revelation. It's essentially salty corned beef that then spends 14 hours wreathed in smoke, easily giving it the most hardwood flavor I've had at any 'cue joint in the Bay area. Pile it on a doughy bun with a schmear of mustard ($9), and it will instantly convert most Texas brisket and New York deli aficionados.

Side dishes are largely competent: marshmallow-topped sweet potato, noodle kugel scented with lemon, sweet braised red cabbage, crisp mac 'n' cheese, baked beans loaded with more meat than bean, cheesy polenta cakes and peppery cole slaw. There are also smoked chicken wings, barbecued shrimp starters and addictive yucca rolls stuffed with cheese.

Smoke largely sticks with classic barbecue presentation, everything piled on a plate so the flavors mix freely, except when it comes to the kebabs. Those are speared on long metal rods that hang from a wooden contraption, allowing you to slide the goodies off the skewer directly onto your plate. Scallops ($8) done this way are as fine as those at any fancy restaurant, with veggies that are precooked enough to hit the perfect consistency.

For anyone who sticks solely to classic 'cue standards, Smoke likely won't be a revelation, with ribs, brisket and pulled pork that are usually tasty but can't top the area's best smokin' specialists.

Add in all the extras, though, and Smoke is easily a one-stop shop for anyone interested in the myriad options that can be accomplished with fire and flesh.

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