Sunday, December 03, 2006

Smokin' Joe's

It was a bright, if chilly, post-Thanksgiving afternoon when my husband, Dave, and I made our way across the James River Bridge into Smithfield. We came in search of ’que: bar-b-que, that is.
Map in hand, Dave drove right on past the inauspicious little building.

“If I hadn’t known, I would’ve thought it was closed!” he said, quickly pulling a U-turn.

We hovered outside the front door for a moment, checking out the handwritten chalkboard menu. So many choices! We each tried to narrow it down, then went inside.

Once again, handwritten chalkboards surrounded us, with even more choices! Appetizers, sandwiches, salads, it was quite a bit to take in. As we spun about like menu-skimming tops, a young man strode up to the front counter with a welcoming word and broad smile.

We begged off for a few minutes more...“There’s so much to choose from!” He laughed in agreement, and lingered by the front, offering useful advice as Dave and I negotiated our way through the menu.

Finally, we came to a decision, placed our order, and paid up. Josh, as we discovered was his name, quickly got our drinks and told us we could take a seat wherever we liked.

The dining area ambled over to the left, the floor a classic black-and-white checkerboard that led the way to two small rooms. The first was open and flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows, while the second was enclosed, decorated with old-school metal signs. TVs were stationed in the corner of each room, ready to be turned and tuned by staff. We kicked back with some beverages and chatted about the ambiance. It looked like the kind of place people had depended faithfully upon since the ‘60s. Just as I got up to examine a framed article, Josh was out with our orders.

Dave ordered the ribs, wings and rings ($9.29), a large plate heaped high with a plethora of steaming baby back ribs, plump wings and a crisp mound of onion rings. He went to pick up a rib, and the bone slid cleanly out. Always a good sign. Descending upon the first naked riblet still dangling from his fingers, I heard a pleasurable utterance issue forth.

All the meats here come sans sauce so that you can dress the meat as desired. There were at least half a dozen choices, so he began squirting and sampling with abandon. They were all quite good, but he finally settled upon the smokin’ bbq sauce.

As he worried away at the bones, I plucked up a wing, and took a bite. An intense juice exploded in my mouth: a quick dab with my napkin barely preventing the chicken-tinged liquid from escaping. They’d been fried to achieve an ultra-crispy skin, although I didn’t pick up very much smoky flavor. Nonetheless, these were some of the best wings I’ve tasted, even sans smoke and sauce.

I finally drifted back toward my own plate. The Smithfield burger ($6.49) was a thick round topped with sliced ham, sautéed onions, provolone cheese and honey mustard. It was heavy to pick up, difficult to wrap my mouth around, and without a doubt, utterly worth the effort to get it in there. The toppings were the proper mix of sweet, savory and rich. Downside was the patty itself, which was cooked rather well. If I’d requested it cooked medium-rare (they didn’t ask), it would have been comfortably close to burger perfection.

Finally, it was time to check out the sides. Mine was the homemade coleslaw, bursting forth from a small ramekin. It was green, very lightly creamy and fresh tasting. My personal preference for slaw runs to the very light and tart, but I could certainly see why folks would like this. Dave had the collard greens, another of the many homemade items. Judging by the amount of pork dispersed between the leaves, I was pretty sure they’d been cooked down just right, and they were. A little splash of the vinegary Carolina-style sauce was the perfect finishing touch.

Last, but not least, the rings from Dave’s dish were nicely breaded and perfectly crisp, though they suffered from that all too common affliction— one bite completely removing the onion from the shell.

Unable to eat any more, I picked up a pound of the pulled pork barbecue ($8.50) to take home. It reheated very well, still retaining a fair amount of moisture, along with a very clean porcine flavor. The hickory was subtle, but definitely present: a mingling of their hot barbecue sauce and some of our own homemade sauce made for the perfect, quick weeknight meal. It wasn’t long before we succumbed to that sweet, succulent post-que satisfaction.

I’m sure that you’ve come across a Smokin’ Joe’s, be it in York County, Hampton, Toano or the original location in Kilmarnock. This ain’t no national chain, baby, these are local folk who’ve been doing it right since 1998. If the couple that I’ve visited recently are any indication, it would seem that the next generation may be poised to take over. That would be a mighty spot of alright, y’all.

Check out the full-sized images from Smokin' Joe's here

Smokin' Joe's
1400 North Church Street, Smithfield
Phone: 356-1227
Specialties: barbecue, smoked meats
Price range: Appetizers: $2.99-$9.25; Soups & Salads: $2.50-$6.99; Sides: $1.25-$5.50; Sandwiches & Wraps: $5.49-$6.49; Smoked Meats (sandwiches/platters): $3.50-$18.49; a variety of menu items are also available by the pound, ranging from $3.50 to $15.99 per pound
Hours: 11 a.m. –8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sundays
Alcohol: no
Smoking: no
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, major credit cards, checks
Noise level: conversational
Atmosphere: casual
Additional Information: low carb menu, kids’ menu, bottled signature sauces, catering
Star rating: food 4, atmosphere 2 1/2, service 4
(out of five stars)


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