SMOKE SHACK BLUES
138 Main St., Port Jefferson
AMBIENCE: Traditional pit-smoked barbecue in a modern, industrial setting.
ESSENTIALS: Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
Here’s a good rule of thumb to find honest barbecue: Your nose should lead to the sweet-smelling smoke long before you ever see the restaurant. That’s how the new Smoke Shack Blues in Port Jefferson coaxes passers-by. The front wall of the long, narrow spot on Main Street has a large accordion-like French window that acts like a chimney, pulling the wood scent from the kitchen out to perfume the street.
I follow the smell inside and walk in on chef-owner Jonathan Levine assembling orders at the counter. Behind him is the beating heart of the kitchen — hearts, actually: two massive, stainless steel wood-burning barbecue pits. Each is the size of a refrigerator and can smoke 32 pork shoulders. Starting at 5 a.m., Levine tends to the cookers, moving finished meat out to rest, reloading with the morning’s freshly rubbed batch and stoking the fires with hardwood logs.
Levine, who has fine-dining roots, returned from a family trip South that included plenty of Carolina and Texas-style barbecue, then left his post as chef at Wave Seafood Kitchen at the Danfords Hotel & Marina in Port Jefferson to work on the Smoke Shack.
The menu is a mix of Carolina pulled pork and ribs with the beef brisket Texas is famous for. Quartered chicken appears too, as it does on the menus of the old-school Southern barbecue shacks that have acquiesced to offering dark meat only, which can be turned into jerky by the low and slow cooking process. Nearly all of the 11 side dishes — including baked beans, coleslaw, and cornbread — are barbecue mainstays, but there are concessions here as well: Tater Tots of the heat-and-eat variety. Listed on one wall is an evolving grid of seasonal craft beers, ranging from light, hoppy IPAs to hearty stouts; many are from nearby Port Jefferson Brewing Co.
I order a three-meat combo with pulled pork, brisket and chicken paired with sides and a couple of nontraditional dishes, then grab my ticket at the register and wait for Levine to fill the order before settling in at one of the tables that lines the long dining room. The chef piles my order onto a half-sized aluminum sheet tray lined with pink butcher paper that’s stamped with the restaurant’s logo. This presentation is part of the urban-industrial barbecue aesthetic, along with the corrugated metal wainscot paneling, chalkboard-painted, smooth concrete walls and exposed ductwork.
The mound of pulled pork nestled on top of a slice of Texas toast was moist, sweet, with the right amount of bark — the crispy coating that forms as the smoke particles fall onto the skin. A squirt of house-made Carolina-style barbecue sauce, a mixture of white and cider vinegar with sugar and red pepper flakes, added acidity to cut the meat’s richness.
Unfortunately, no amount of liquid could revive the stale white bread underneath, where a fluffy pillow of Wonder Bread should have been. The brisket’s mahogany exterior creates a salty and sweet ring around each of the six slices, encompassing the tender meat. Go at it alone, trusting the rub for the flavor, because the Texas-style, tomato-based barbecue sauce is overly sweet.
Not into traditional barbecue? When available, have the thick slabs of smoked pork belly that go into the BLT because it hits all the right notes of salty, warm, sweet, cool and creamy. Skip the quarter chicken, which is treated like fatty meat. It was smoked dry and unsalvageable no matter how much sauce I used.
The sides had high marks: Levine’s collard greens, appropriately tender and dotted with chewy bacon bits, are rich and flavorful. The six greaseless, honey-coated hush puppies were warm and went fast. (Try them dipped in the vinegar sauce.) Coleslaw, often an afterthought similar to what is served at a diner, has the right ratio of creamy, tangy mayo and crispy cabbage but none of the watery puddle left behind. The pickled cucumbers and onions were briny and crunchy, but a separated, grainy béchamel sauce sabotaged the mac and cheese.
While Smoke Shack Blues doesn’t look like a shack, your nose will know the pits inside are legit and the menu mostly holds true to what you’d find in any ’cue-obsessed region of the South.