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- The Draw:
- Several styles of American barbecue.
- The Drawback:
- A lot attempted, not enough perfected.
- Noise Level:
- Don’t Miss:
- Cocktails, jalapeño-cheddar sausage, burnt ends, pork belly, hushpuppies, baked beans.
The little line over the “o” in Smōk is a diacritical mark called a “macron,” indicating a long-vowel sound. I didn’t know it was called a macron until Google explained it to me, but its deployment is an affectation that led this dia-critic to expect clever, modern culinary twists from Smōk’s barbecue. After all, the year-old restaurant is located in the post-industrial Source Hotel & Market Hall in RiNo and run by chef William Espiricueta, a former cook at Acorn, which has been a beacon of cross-cultural experimentation in Denver.
A few contemporary touches can be found in Smōk’s food: ginger haunts the coleslaw; hot-smoked fish is on the menu for the pescatarians; and for those who have moved beyond meat altogether, there’s a smoked portabella sandwich. But these tweaks are not really the point, because Espiricueta’s menu is a greatest-hits playbook of American regional favorites. The smoke of red and white oak permeates pork belly and ribs and brisket burnt ends and turkey flavored by a Texas-style dry rub. There’s vinegary Carolina-style pulled pork and Alabama-style smoked chicken with white sauce. It’s straightforward stuff, except for the drinks list, which includes a cocktail made of tequila, chartreuse, and arugula to go with Smōk’s excellent fat, snappy, cheese-stuffed pork sausages.
The Smōk space, being at one with the hotel aesthetic, has high ceilings, polished concrete, ductwork, vent work, stainless steel, and those slats of raw-looking framing wood that accent the hotel’s lobby and retail space; they give the impression that an angry carpenter was given the last word. But Smōk benefits from high windows that bless it with abundant golden light before sunset, and the vibe is less wearily post-industrial than lively cafe. Seating is mostly communal, and there’s a cheery bar where you can dine and be soothed by the motion of machines that make brightly hued boozy slushies.
Few foods produce as much regional chauvinism and passion as barbecue and its fixin’s. The throngs who line up outside smokehouses from the Carolinas to Kansas City to the Texas barbecue trail are, from my observation, communing as well as dining, savoring something local and almost sacred that was nearly lost to them: In the 1960s and ’70s, many low-and-slow-style barbecue joints were forced out of business with the rise of fast food. Postwar enthusiasm for factory-processed products did not favor anything that was a sweaty pain in the neck to cook, requiring deep knowledge of time and temperature, wood fire and meat.
But then, a renaissance: Prolific food writer Calvin Trillin alerted incredulous Manhattan provincials that they might be missing something profound outside their borders. Organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance formed and gave much love to old-timey cooks and their fare. Meanwhile, the caravan sideshows that are big barbecue competitions educated followers on the fine points of bark and smoke ring, with plenty of blarney rubbed in for good measure. In 2018, African American pitmaster Rodney Scott won Best Chef: Southeast at the James Beard Foundation Awards, sanctifying the culinary tradition alongside the trendiest tasting menus; I ate some of Scott’s smoked whole pig with crackling this past spring, and it was stupendous.
Espiricueta’s roots are in Kansas City and Austin, Texas, and his menu at Smōk is listed on a board in the open kitchen and on sheets at the till; you order and pay at the counter, in smokehouse tradition, and the food is soon brought to your table. Most meats are sold by the pound, but a few are served as sandwiches with slaw and pickles. Beyond the brisket and ribs, there are glistening wings to share and—not barbecue, but trendy—a Nashville hot chicken sandwich. You can add all manner of sides and shared plates to your tray: creamed corn, baked beans, mac and cheese, hushpuppies, deviled eggs, and even jalapeño poppers. Meaty salads and tacos round things out, and for dessert, options include banana pudding and rotating fruity hand pies.
The menu doesn’t seem long, but in fact, Espiricueta is tackling a lot of different foods that are close to a lot of peoples’ hearts. And since Denver has no dog in the fight over regional barbecue traditions, delivering as many styles in one menu as Smōk does seems ambitious, if not risky. Barbecue, all mystique aside, is about the simple effects of smoke and low heat on muscle, fat, and collagen. It is naked food which, done exactly right, hits certain pleasure-memory receptors in the caveman brain. Failing that, it can be ordinary.
To his credit, Espiricueta favors sauce on the side so you can taste the animal you’re eating. (The sauce, if you do want it, is bright, quite fiery, and not sickly sweet.) I found most of his meats persistently, though not aggressively, smoky. The brisket and chicken were impressively succulent, and although the pork ribs were a bit dry, they afforded a good gnaw. The pork belly was so rich that one or two delicious bites sufficed. As to the sides and shared plates, the brisket-rich pit beans had proper chew. The hushpuppies were not oily and had a good crust and fine cornmeal flavor, even if they were a little too firm for my taste. I am not partial to sweet cornbread, but it’s a legitimate style, and Smōk’s version was pleasantly spiked with Hatch chiles.
I kept waiting for those ancient receptors in my brain to fire, but they mostly didn’t. There were too many small flaws that, with such simple food, become flies in the ointment. One example: Alabama’s main claim to barbecue fame is smoked chicken with white sauce, and the mayo-based condiment, often copious, needs a good vinegar kick. Smōk’s iteration, in a sandwich, didn’t deliver—the mixture was too thin, too weak. Pulled pork pushed past tender into mushy. Creamed corn lacked the pop of fresh corn (even though it was corn season). The ginger in the coleslaw lent a musty note in a smoked salmon sandwich; the fish itself was moist, but not especially smoky. (New Zealanders are my reference point here, brilliant as they are at hot-smoking salmon.) Smoked wings existed in some neverland between Buffalo and Nashville, and the hot chicken sandwich, while on an excellent, almost briochelike bun, had a carapace of batter that was far too crunchy. (Here, Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville is my benchmark.) Fries came dusted in a seasoning that tasted like a Lawry’s truck had crashed into a sugar mill. And the banana pudding, which can be a sublime Southern riff on English trifle if the custard isn’t too cloying, was too cloying, and its wafers were too dry.
Ironically, Smōk’s modern cocktails, by head bartender Alexis Osborne, were the happy standouts, nicely balancing sweet, tart, mezcal smoke, and amari depth. The Campari-flavored slushie was a bitter pleasure I would drink a quart of if I had a room in the hotel. Which leaves me wishing that some of that mixology innovation was evident in the food. I’ve eaten in cinder-block barbecue roadhouses from Kentucky to Texas, and as much as I love their local flavor, I’m not opposed to the city vibe of Smōk, nor to its Pan-American approach. Espiricueta needs to dial things in more, or jazz them up, because every little detail counts when you’re playing with, well, smoke.
The Source Hotel & Market Hall, 3330 Brighton Blvd. 720-409-1200