Smalls' Barbecue Ambition is Anything But
Let's get straight down to brass tacks. Now that the first and maybe second round of intel on Smalls Smoke Shack & More has come out, there's no reason for me to spend time on its famed Brown Bag Lunch Truck origins. Nor is it necessary for me to comment on the eponymously diminutive seating space enclosed in the restaurant's blue blocked walls. All you really need to know about Smalls is that any time spent reading this post is time away from one of the best new concepts to open up in a while. So bus, bike, drive, or walk your way up California Avenue, because if the lines haven't started forming yet, it's only a matter of time.
See how the meat on the Cherry Wood Pulled Pork Sandwich ($8.50) looks suspiciously like a handful of pink-hued mulch plopped between two buns? That's a good thing, and as clear an indication as any of Smalls' smoker prowess. The crunchy, fatty, rough-textured hunks of smoky pork shoulder are more tender than you think, and if we ever find a need to update our pulled pork sandwich roundup, I have no doubts Smalls' take will rank near the top.
I have a confession to make: I've always found the much-lauded brisket at Smoque to be a little ehhh. Maybe I always get a bad plate that's been held behind the counter too long (I have the same luck over at Honey 1), but I've never understood the beefy brisket appeal. Until my first bite of the Hickory Smoked Brisket Sandwich (9.00), that is. The crunchy, woody bark gives way to meat so unctuous you'd swear it was pork. Though moist on its own, the side of Tiger Cry Sauce adds spice and funk to one of the best sandwiches I've had in a while.
"Filipino" Street BBQ Style Glazed St. Louis Ribs ($14.00 for a half slab) is a mouthful of a name to get through, but if you persevere, you'll be rewarded with some of the best spare ribs around. Big and meaty, salty and sweet, these require a knife to separate the individual ribs, but damn is it worth it. Giving upstaging the main the old college try, the Garlic Rice is sticky, with a strong toasted garlic flavor and plenty of spice from a healthy smattering of crushed red chilies. Dig under the ribs for the sauce soaked best parts.
The Buttermilk Brined Fried Chicken ($7.00 for a quarter dark) is the best fried chicken I've had... this year? Ever? Maybe I'm just swooning over a shack concept that actually gets its fried chicken right, but I'll be sneaking back up for this juicy, crispy bird while everyone else is busy at the ping pong table.
The House Cut Fries ($3.25 as a side, included with most entrées) are skin on, twice fried, well salted AND peppered. Not a single complaint here.
I had a particularly bad experience once with squeeze-bottle margarine, Miracle Whip, and green-can Parmesan street cart elotes, so I've stayed away from the increasingly trendy cobbed corn preparation. I'll make up for lost time with the Charred Elote ($3.00) here, where they know that letting the corn itself remain front and center is key.
Smalls features a Market Vegetable of the Day (M.P.), today's being Blistered Shishito Peppers. Bitter and intermittently spicy by nature, the dark char on the skin and the rich mayo sauce worked well to smooth their naturally rough edges.
So many accolades without any sort of critical balance could come across as bluster, and I'll be the first to acknowledge that. Truth is, though, as I sat eating my way through Smalls' dishes, I couldn't think of anything constructive to add. Being at a loss for words is a new experience for me, but so too is finding a place that is consistently firing on all cylinders. Here's to more places that compel me to keep my mouth shut—except when I'm taking my next bite, that is.