SmoQ is the latest in a growing list of Cincinnati-area barbecue restaurants. It's located in Springdale, abutting the Route 4/Fairfield exit off I-275.
We met a group of friends there for lunch one weekend afternoon for a birthday celebration. Interestingly, it's the same group we'd accompanied for our Walt's Barbecue review. What can we say: we like smoked meat.
The interior still looks a lot like the old tenant, Karlo's Bistro Italia, but Smoq has added quite a bit of Southern-inspired photography; a large, New Orleans-style mural; and plenty of jazz music piped through the speakers to help set the ambiance.
Most of the menu items are familiar to any barbecue enthusiast, but there are some notable exceptions, like Cajun Corn Dogs filled with andouille sausage; and the Buffaloaf, made from ground bison and coated in a BBQ glaze. Prices are somewhat steeper than what we've come to expect from a typical BBQ menu. Unless you stick with sandwiches, a dinner for two will set you back at least $30.
Our group started off with a couple complimentary baskets of cornbread. Burbank's was one of my first BBQ experiences in Cincinnati, and I really enjoyed it, particularly their selection of barbecue sauces and their sweet cornbread. SmoQ's cornbread muffins are very similar. That's probably not a coincidence, since SmoQ's owner is the same guy who managed Burbank's. I know, dear Southern purists, that sweet cornbread is an abomination and General Robert E. Lee is rolling in his grave, but I can't help myself. I'll take the moist, sweet, cakey version over your dry, tasteless brick any day.
I was happy when the waiter brought out a caraffe of sweet tea; a couple of us at the table were going through the stuff like water. The group decided on two appetizers: the Cajun Corn Dogs and the potato skins.
The Cajun Corn Dogs, presented on wooden skewers, weren't the overwhelmingly amazing hit I thought they'd would be; they were more mildly spiced than I'd anticipated. Still, the accompanying "spicy ketchup" dipping sauce had a nice heat and smokiness that drew out the flavor of the andouille sausage.
We weren't expecting much from the potato skins appetizer, a seemingly obligatory item you see on almost any American menu these days, but SmoQ managed to elevate it with the addition of their tender, smoky pulled pork topping.
The group's selection of entrees were fortunately varied, giving us an opportunity to sample many items SmoQ had to offer. We ordered the "P-U-L-L-E-D" Pork Plate; the Brisket Plate; SmoQ'd Chicken and Waffle; St. Louis Dry Rub Ribs; and "Uncle Jerry's Shrimp and Grits." Entrees come with two sides and we collectively chose seven out of the 12 possible options.
I ordered "Uncle Jerry's Shrimp and Grits" with a side of mac & cheese and a side of mustard slaw. The colorful plate came artfully arranged: criss-crossed slices of andouille sausage and peppers lay atop a mound of plump, perfectly-cooked shrimp, supported by a molten foundation of cheesy grits. They were pretty amazing, easily the best thing we'd tried from the menu. The grits, coupled with a jalapeno cream sauce, enjoyed a complex, cheesy flavor infused with wispy hints of smokiness from the sausage.
My girlfriend had chosen the Brisket Plate with a side of collard greens and a side of red beans & rice. Brisket is often hit or miss, and unfortunately, smoQ's missed the mark. Her meat was leathery and tough to chew, with the hint of smokiness being its only redeeming quality.
The beans in the side of red beans and rice were a bit hard and undercooked. It also wasn't saucy like I'd hoped it'd be, considering the New Orleans motif SmoQ seems to be shooting for. I really liked the flavor and texture of the mustard slaw, its mustard-vinegar bite managed to still taste light and refreshing. SmoQ's mac & cheese was served to us haphazardly in either shallow dishes or deeper-dish ramikens. Those who got the shallow dishes complained that their mac was too dry; mine fared better, with good cheesy flavor, though I prefer a creamier preparation.
One person in our group had never ordered chicken and waffles and enjoyed her entree overall. But I think some of the chicken and waffle veterans were surprised when the chicken arrived in the form of fried tenders instead of an actual chicken breast or thigh. Originally, SmoQ had experimented with a "smoke, then fried" technique for preparing their chicken, but due to customer complaints that it'd made the chicken too dry, they've since stuck solely with frying.
Three people in our group raved about the pulled pork, which was moist and packed with smoky flavor. Those who chose the St Louis style, dry-rub ribs thought the meat should have been more fall-off-the-bone tender --they felt Walt's Barbecue served better ribs.
SmoQ offers three types of barbecue sauce: spicy, mild and a mustardy, Carolina-style. The three sauces were all too one-note for my tastes, my favorite being the mild sauce. The spiciest sauce had a muted peppery kick that was just too mild to be called "spicy." I missed the wider array of sauce options you'd find at the defunct Burbank's or at places like City BBQ and Pit to Plate BBQ.
For dessert, the group tried SmoQ's Sour Cream and Smoq'd Apple Pie. The generous slice looked impressive, but their attempt to infuse smoke into the dessert was as off-putting as it was overpowering. The flavor reminded me of childhood summer camps past, in which the counselor would try to make breakfast over the campfire, but everything tasted of ash and smoke.
For our group, SmoQ was hit or miss. But their shrimp and grits entree alone is worth giving them a three-star rating. Their pulled pork is also among our favorites. It's clear the restaurant is trying hard to please, and perhaps over time, they'll continue to improve. With the ghost of Burbank's guiding the way, they have true potential.