HOLY SMOKE GRILL
3357 Merrick Rd., Wantagh, 516-557-2754
SERVICE: Warm and accomodating
AMBIENCE: Bright, cheerful and family friendly
ESSENTIALS: Open noon to 10 p.m. every day, not wheelchair accessible, street parking can be a challenge. Liquor license is pending; in the meantime you can BYOB.
Sometimes in the quest for the hand-pulled noodle or the heirloom gooseberry or the 120-day dry-aged steak, one (and by “one,” I mean I) can forget the appeal of a friendly, clean restaurant that serves large portions of good food at great prices.
Holy Smoke Grill reminded me. At this super-casual meat-centric new eatery, only one item tops $20 and much of it is under $13.
The kitchen is open so that you can see all the equipment chef Israel Zavala uses to deliver the goods. There's an enormous, three-tiered rotisserie (the half-ton churrasco-style grill was custom made in Brazil) loaded with slowly rotating chickens and coils of pork sausage; a charcoal grill for steaks and burgers, a fryolator for wings and fries, a range for soups and beans.
Zavala is a former chef at Buckram Stables Café in Locust Valley, and he moved to Nassau's opposite shore to partner with Chris Laoudis, whose day job is operations manager at a leading metropolitan area food wholesaler. Laoudis said that the connection ensures that Holy Smoke gets top ingredients at a good price.
Consider, for example, the "combo feast," which serves three. For $27.50, you get an 8-ounce steak, a big, fat grilled Italian sausage, six Buffalo wings and three skewers of grilled pork kebab. The sausage is terrific, the wings are meaty, the pork is phenomenal by any measure and, in the manner of the souvlaki it resembles, is served with a tzatziki dipping sauce.
The steak’s pretty darn good, too, and even better is the steak dinner for $18.95. While the 12-ounce shell is not the tenderest I’ve ever had, it is full of flavor and cooked to a perfect medium-rare. It comes with a heap of homestyle mashed potatoes and another heap of garlicky sauteed vegetables. I’m not usually a fan of the “vegetable medley” but I was won over by these sweet carrots, crisp-tender broccoli florets and zucchini that, magically, had not given up the ghost.
The other world-beating dish at Holy Smoke is the rotisserie chicken, cracklingly crisp of skin and juicy (even the white meat). A whole bird is $17 and comes with rice and fries, but I’d swap out the ho-hum fries for black beans.
You’d expect a great burger at a place like this and the Izzy burger comes close, with its extravagant topping of mushrooms, bacon, mozzarella and Cheddar. But the beef was too lean, its flavor overwhelmed by the taste of char and the toppings it was laboring under.
Despite the name — and despite the fact that it took over the space that used to be Tennessee Jeds barbecue (since relocated to Lindenhurst) — Holy Smoke does not have a smoker. That’s not a problem for the brisket, which is braised to shimmering succulence and can be had as a dinner platter or in a ciabatta roll topped with melted mozzarella. The ribs, however, are overcooked and drenched in sauce.
No meat? No problem. The children’s menu lists “Minnie Mouse macaroni & cheese,” which is highly recommended for all ages. Not that these elbows were covered in Velveeta: Zavala uses a very adult blend of Cheddar and Gruyere and, like the mashed potatoes, tasted like what a great home cook would make for guests he cared about.
If you’re bent on fish, grilled shrimp are big and tasty; fish and chips (the fried fillets are breaded rather than battered) is fine; calamari is a pass; salads, while generous, are joyless.
If you have room for dessert, order the devilishly moist tres leches cake, a hefty slab inundated by three kinds of milk and gilded with florets of whipped cream.
Holy Smoke is decorated in a style I’d call farmhouse cheeky — lots of corrugated metal and livestock imagery — and, on a cold winter night, the lack of a vestibule means there are periodic blasts of cold air coming from the front door. But manager Tanya Lugo not only offers a warm welcome, she brings every customer a free cup of hot soup.