Rob and I have pondered over the years what kind of restaurant WE would open. We identified real BBQ as the one thing Ottawa was much in need of. Our joint would feature real competition-style smoked ribs from a variety of styles, pulled pork, authentic BBQ sides, checkered oil cloth covered tables, cold beer out of an ice chest, and a large stage for bands. Of course it was all a pipe dream. Opening a restaurant is a labour of love and passion that requires a dedication of time and energy that would leave no time for weekend warriors bashing pucks or entertaining crowds in a band.
Authentic BBQ is here and residing in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown core, nestled in the Byward Market on York Street. The SmoQue Shack is open for business. Rob and I ventured over this past rainy Friday, early, just before 6 pm, as it is hard to get a seat without a reservation and you can only get one for a party of 5 or more. We were seated and as expected there was a line up at the door when we left a little over an hour later. The Shack is warmly lit with wooden tables, comfy armless chairs and an attractive distressed concrete floor. Flatties on the wall feature football and sports wrap up shows.
Our friendly server brings us Beau’s and a Waupoos while we check out the menu. Rob and I have traveled extensively throughout BBQ country and are quite familiar with the different styles and what constitutes good BBQ. If you think the ribs at Baton Rouge are AWESOME, stop reading now or get yourself to the SmoQue Shack and get schooled.
That said, we ordered some bench mark items to truly understand if the Shack was up to our standards, as set by our travels: Memphis-style St. Louis style pork ribs, corn bread, beans, potato salad and cole slaw. We ordered a half rack each, 2 corn bread, and the individual portions of the other sides, not the sharing size. The sizes are quite generous and more than enough for two. We had leftovers packed up.
The ribs are smoked over Quebec maple charcoal and Ontario applewood then lightly glazed with a chipotle-honey sauce. They are mildly zingy and nicely sweet. The meat pulls away from the bone with a light tug. Tender. Perfect. For the unschooled, fall off the bone ribs (as I call them “Baton Rouge ribs”) have usually been boiled, dropped in a bucket of sauce and then slapped on a grill for grill marks upon your order. Real southern BBQ ribs are smoked long and slow, should leave a bite mark in the meat, display a rosy smoke ring, and are a true tribute to the animal and the chef.
Our next benchmark for true BBQ is the sides. Sides should not be an afterthought. They are not extras or freebies. They are as important as the meat. Cornbread is a real tell. The Shack’s corn bread is fresh, moist but not oily or crumbly, with a hint of sweet. It needs no butter to revive it. Very traditional. Definitely earns an A. I generally eat a spoonful of any particular joint’s beans and then leave them unless they are exceptional. There are many styles of BBQ beans and personal taste does come into play. If the beans are just spicy with no sweet or just beans and tomato sauce, I won’t waste valuable calories on them. I prefer sweet, smoky beans. The beans at the Shack rank up there with our BEST EVER found at Famous Dave’s in Tucson, Arizona. Since these are just down the street I am gonna have to give that honour over to the Shack, where the beans are sweet and made smoky with chunks of bacon and brisket. I ate every bean.
As with the other sides, the potato salad and slaw were obviously carefully considered additions to the menu at the Smoque Shack. The potato salad has big chunks, a nice zing from the mustard-vinegar based dressing, fresh peas and is not overdressed. The slaw (tangy not creamy, the Shack offers both), dressed with a cider vinaigrette, unusual and quite nice, is a fresh, crunchy addition to our meal. The one “freebie”, a white roll which comes with the meat is also well considered. Art-Is-In provides the yeasty, airy rolls which reminded us a bit of the ones we had at Marlowe’s in Memphis, Tennessee, before they were deep fried and reached a whole other level of deliciousness.
Dessert was Pascale’s chocolate chili bacon ice cream. How can you pass that up? Pascale’s chocolate is creamy and excellent in chocolate flavour. The chili heat is just barely there and the bacon adds a nice porky salt. My only comment would be that the bacon is hard to chew completely and you are left with it in your mouth for a bit. Crisping it up more or even candying it would make it even better, but yes I would definitely eat this ice cream again. The generous portion comes with an excellent chocolate cookie.
We entered the SmoQue Shack with high expectations and left with happy mouth. The Shack is serving great, authentic BBQ, practically in our own backyard. Our only observations regarding authenticity were twofold: Tofu on the menu? Really? I asked a vegetarian friend about this and she said “Seriously, why?” You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t try. Tofu does not not belong in a BBQ joint, just as pork ribs don’t belong at a PETA rally. The second thing: the Shack has a nice, clean, casual vibe with no flies, flypaper or sketchy corners visible. Okay, maybe that’s not authentic but it’s not a bad thing either.
Addendum from Rob: I’ve just returned from dinner with a friend at the SmoQue Shack. I was determined to try some different menu items this time, so I selected the beef ribs and the red beans and rice. The beef ribs are among the best I’ve ever had, including even those big meaty Texas beef ribs straight from cattle country. Slow smoked and presented with a perfect sauce that compliments the rich and flavourful beef, these ribs were seriously substantial. I had the 1/4 rack which was the perfect size – two oversize ribs with ample meat clinging to the large bones. The red beans and rice were of the drier, Caribbean variety (as opposed to the saucy version you’d get in Louisiana or Mississippi) and were very tasty.
The SmoQue Shack has preserved its first impression as the real deal through my second visit, rounding out more of the terrific menu offerings. Looking forward to going back. It’s going to be a mission to complete the menu at some point.