Smokey Joe's BarBQue serves up delicious dishesLongtime readers of this page will know by now that I'm a huge (in more ways than one) fan of slow-cooked, country cuisine from all parts of the world. There's just something about the intensity of flavor that develops when you take an otherwise worthless cut of meat and give it the long, low heat treatment that brings a grin to my face.
It may not be for everyone, but long, slow-cooked food at its best is as subtle and complex as any nouvelle or post nouvelle creation; it's just different in that it requires a separate set of culinary skills and an ability to plan ahead a few days. Certainly, this kind of cooking is a far cry from flash-seared medallions of exotic animal du jour, or barely warmed baby root vegetables or frothy emulsions, but it's honest, cheap and endlessly satisfying nourishment for those who are prepared to leave their preconceptions of haute-cuisine at the door and get their hands dirty.
The French have their pot au feu, the Mexicans their carnitas and here in the States we have our barbecue. They're basically all variations on a common theme: How to make the most out of not much at all. As this is more corn country than cow, Indianapolis doesn't have much of a tradition of barbecue. For certain, there are a couple of decent hole in the wall joints dotted about, but, until recently, no real destination sit-down establishments, unless, that is, Alexander's in Franklin is on your radar screen. Unlike, say, Kansas City, where ribs are pretty much a way of life, we have been largely deprived here of the great pleasures that expertly-prepared barbecue can provide.
Well, I'm delighted to be able to say that, as of November last year, that has all changed. Smokey Joe"s, the new restaurant from the talented Joseph Heidenreich (California Cafe, Agio), has finally put Greenwood squarely on the culinary map.
Not only is this restaurant truly excellent in many ways, it's also independent. Should you happen to be of the opinion that Indy's fine dining scene stops at the south side of 86th Street, then I advise you to step into your long johns, hitch the Maltese to the sled and take a long trip into the great unknown.
There may be a bit of a wait at weekends, but you'll find it's absolutely worthwhile. So, just how good can barbecue be, you might ask, and how can it possibly be worth such a trek? The answers: outstanding and easily.
Located in a rather plain strip center north of Smith Valley Road, Smokey Joe's may appear rather bland, but don't be fooled by the exterior. Inside, no expense of ingenuity has been spared. There's lots of slate, salvaged from a department store that never quite made it to opening day, and solid wooden furniture from a similar source. Paraphernalia from the '50s and '60s adorns the slate gray walls, and there's a comfortable space between tables. It's inviting and conducive to the consumption of large quantities of smoked foodstuffs.
The kitchen, partly open to view, houses the two secrets to the restaurant's outstanding barbecue: a state-of-the-art hot smoker and a flash chilling device that maintains cooked food at just above freezing until it is ready to be heated and served. This process not only ensures that meats do not continue to cook (and thereby dry out) after they are removed from the heat, but it also ensures safe, bacteria-free food. In addition, the chilling process seals in moisture, making for some of the most tender, melting barbecue I've ever consumed. The concept and execution is brilliant, and, to judge from the smiles on customers' faces, worth every penny of the expense involved.
So what of the food? On a recent visit, my friend A-L and I decided to skip the appetizers and launch straight into a number of entrees. Main courses here are served with a garlic cheddar biscuit, buttery corn on the cob and a choice of two sides. All dishes are served dry - that is, without sauce - and are prepared with a simple rub. Starting with the smoked combo platter ($14.95 for three items), we were singularly impressed by the texture, gentle smoking and deep flavor of the beef brisket, the exquisitely moist turkey breast and the juiciest pulled pork.
With six house-made sauces to choose from, including the slightly sweet house preparation (destined to become a classic), the possibilities for experimentation are virtually endless. A six bone half slab of baby back ribs was faultless, and nicely priced at $11.95. Deep pink all the way through from the long smoking process, the meat all but fell off the bone. To further reinforce my impression of the quality of these ribs, a similar offering consumed last week at K-C Masterpiece in Kansas City came in a close but not-too-close second place.
With barely any room left after these dishes, my friend and I decided to brave the prime rib that is served as a weekly special. Cooked to an immaculate medium-rare throughout, this was one of the juiciest, yet firmest prime ribs I've had in a while.
A fillet of salmon, hot smoked and served with Joe's potato casserole, was a revelation. I used to be a bit of a snob about where my salmon came from, preferring wild-run over farm-raised. Well, who wouldn't? Except that, when subjected to the smoking-chilling process, farm-raised salmon retains both its moisture content and a lot of its fat, giving it almost a belly-fat sushi quality. The texture and flavor of this dish left me almost, but not quite, at a loss for words.
And so to the side dishes. Joe's offers wonderful baked beans, cooked with pulled pork and a deep, caramelly ochre color. There are also sweet and cinnamony baked apples, long twisty tubes of macaroni in a light cheese sauce, a good but not sensational coleslaw and, with some dishes, the aforementioned potato casserole. This consists of layers of hash browns, jalapeno peppers and cheese, topped with sour cream.
A little excessive after all of the above? Possibly, but you don't come to Joe's to count calories. On the other hand, perhaps you do, because the restaurant also offers an $8.95 Atkins diet special, which consists of various meats and a small salad. Nice touch.
Smokey Joe's has an interesting and well-considered wine list, and an excellent selection of beers. The bar area is spacious and lively, and should become quite the gathering place for the after-work crowd. Until Smokey Joe"s opens a location somewhere farther north, Indy's gastronauts will just have to make the trek, or else miss out on some of the highest quality, most lovingly prepared barbecue this side of the Missouri. And that's saying something.
Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.
Smokey Joe's BarBQue1259 N. State Road 135 #A Greenwood 884-4870 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday Food : 5 stars
Atmosphere : 3 1/2 stars
Service : 3 1/2 stars