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Steerage: Smoke City Market 

New Sherman Oaks barbecue joint gets the important things right, Texas-style

Thursday, Jan 20 2011
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Smoke City Market: Barbeque, Texas-style."

If you have ever had the misfortune of arguing about barbecue with a Texan, you are no doubt familiar with at least the idea of meat cookery in its purest, most atavistic form: slabs of beef flavored with salt, pepper and oak, dripping juice, hacked from a smoking haunch of steer by an elderly counterman who had been hanging out at the pit for so long that he himself appeared to be smoked, saturated with the glowing chiaroscuro that also painted the walls, the ceilings and the federally mandated No Smoking sign. In its classical phase, a Central Texas barbecue pit may have been better defined by what it lacked than what it had, and at the old Kreuz in Lockhart, for example, there were famously no utensils, no potato salad, no bread, no beans, no plates, no ribs and no sauce. Barbecue was to be eaten the way God herself intended: plucked from a smeary sheet of wax paper on a grease-encrusted picnic table, from a bent position that could be confused with prayer, and only with your hands.

My own Texas dreams tend to be of these smoke-darkened chambers, of hoops of coarsely ground sausage, of beef ribs like great, knurled walking sticks ringed with a deep, ruddy stain where the vapors have penetrated deep into muscle.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN

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But if you have done the Central Texas barbecue circuit in the last dozen years, you may have noticed that things have changed. The best barbecue these days is less likely to be found in the dingy pit on downtown Main Street than it is in a drive-through out by the Walmart. Even in the parts of the Barbecue Belt where the taverns are scarce and the churches lie thick on the ground, the pits bristle with Formica and old-timey road signs, and the counter people are prepared to serve you salad and beans.

Texas barbecue was perfected by dour men, emigrant German butchers trying to make sense of their vast, hard new land. Although the quality of the food is pretty much the same, the institution has passed to men and women who without warning may wish you a nice day.

So when I say that Smoke City Market, a streamlined new place up toward Van Nuys, is shiny and spit-polished and ready to multiply, founded by a guy who spent decades running swank bistros for Capo's Bruce Marder, it is not quite the insult it would have been a decade ago. Because when Lourdeses of Texas barbecue like Kreuz, Southside Market and the former Bastrop BBQ now occupy prefabs out by the highway, there is no sense banging on a dining room paneled in splintery planks, furnished with Coca-Cola coolers that are slightly too shiny, and serving things like smoked turkey, mac 'n' cheese and black-eyed peas that belong to a completely different kind of restaurant. If the Texas institution it reminds you of is a South Dallas joint beloved by college students rather than Louie Mueller's, that's OK. Taylor, Texas, is 1,400 miles away.

This isn't to say that Smoke City is overslick; not at all. It lies between a dive noted for its ostrich burgers and a car wash marked by a sign that may be the world's largest example of Comic Sans. The vintage guitar store next door draws Steve Earle look-alikes from all over the country, and many of them end up at the restaurant, gobbling beef and chain-smoking at the tables outside. There may be Hoegaarden on tap, but the coolers are well-stocked with cold Shiner Bock, and the flat screens on the wall are always tuned to the game. Your "plate" is a scrap of butcher paper. There are plastic forks, but one understands that their use is to be reserved for cabbage-apple slaw and pecan pie.

The baby back ribs — the baby back ribs kind of suck, which is probably a sign of authenticity. No Texan has ever gotten pork ribs right. There are a couple of barbecue sauces on the table — one fairly standard; the other thin, vinegary and mean — but you probably won't get around to trying them, unless you order the chicken, which is dry enough to need them. The soupy chili; the bland mac 'n' cheese; the sweet yet compelling German potato salad? Whatever.

But if you hit the place on the right day, you may even find a decent slab of pastrami. I have always said that Langer's pastrami reminded me of something out of a Texas pit; this is the paradigm reversed, Texas barbecue that might as well be from Langer's.

And when you belly up to the counter, and your order is dumped onto a cafeteria tray as a naked mountain of meat, you know Smoke City understands. This is Texas barbecue and nothing but Texas barbecue: thick slices of brisket, salty and fatty, cooked long and slow with the heat from smoldering oak, then sliced and served au naturel. These are crackly, peppery, coarse-ground sausages smoked in hanging loops, hot guts that look like hot guts. These are beef ribs thick as Bibles and black as sin, a solid pound apiece. What Smoke City needs to get right, it does.

SMOKE CITY MARKET: 5242 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 855-1280, smokecitymarket.com. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m., or until the meat runs out. Beer and wine. All major credit cards. Street parking; tiny lot in rear. Takeout. Meat prices vary, but usually about $13.50 per lb. for brisket, $24 for a rack of baby back ribs and $6.25 for a double sausage link. Sandwiches $5.95-$6.50. Sides $2.85-$4.85. Desserts $2.85-$4.35. Recommended dishes: brisket (moist); beef rib; cabbage-apple slaw; sausage Smoke City Market's medley of meats

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