All photos by Lucie Monk Carter
Drive down North Collins Boulevard in Covington, Louisiana, an industrial swath of road dotted by car dealerships and repair shops, and there’s something in the air.
That something is Smoke BBQ, wafting the aroma of real deal, slow-cooked-with-love, wood-fired barbecue, a bonanza of smoky goodness that opened on the Northshore in August 2015. The couple responsible for all this carnivorous bliss is chef Jeffrey Hansell and his wife Amy, the team behind swank eatery OxLot 9 in downtown Covington’s Southern Hotel.
It was Amy that first turned her chef husband onto real barbecue in Birmingham, where the couple met. “I really hadn’t grown up eating it,” said the thirty-one-year-old Waveland, Mississippi, native. “But Amy’s from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and takes barbecue very seriously.”
Although he’s worked primarily in fine-dining at places like Veranda on Highland in Birmingham, The Little Nell in Aspen, and Lüke and Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, the notion of owning a casual, family-friendly barbecue joint is not such a stretch. “It takes time and a lot of attention to detail to make good barbecue,” said the chef.
Further proof that New Orleans is of the South without being traditionally Southern, great barbecue hasn’t always been a local mainstay. A handful of places are changing that, including The Joint, McClure’s, and Walker’s Southern Style Barbecue. Now that Smoke is open, the bar is set decidedly high. “We always knew we’d have a barbecue place eventually,” said Amy Hansell. “We just didn’t expect it to be this soon.” Then again, kismet tends to have a mind of its own. When a friend told them back in March that a restaurant tenant of his had failed, they went over to take a look. “We went to see the equipment, but when we saw the place, that was it. This was our barbecue restaurant,” recalled Jeffrey, a nominee for Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2014. “This place kind of found us.”
The drive-thru clinched the deal. “We figured, what a perfect spot for a pick-up window,” said Amy. After a few months of renovations, with the couple doing much of the work themselves, that’s exactly what’s there now, with customers able to call in their orders ahead of time and pick up food on the way home.
Smoke has a welcoming vibe; painted a sunny cornflower blue, the corrugated building is set off with a lit Hollywood-style “BBQ” sign facing the road. There are fifty-five inside seats and two large roll-up doors that open to outside deck seating for about twenty-five. Tables are made from reclaimed Louisiana cypress; whimsical chandeliers are fashioned from plumbing fixtures. The décor is simply comfortable because, after all, as Chef Jeffrey says, “It’s all about the meat.”
The real heart and soul of the restaurant is out back, a section of the former drive-thru fashioned into a screened smoking shed. Inside is home to a serious-looking Southern Pride closed pit smoker, a $30,000 beauty that Hansell bought used for $12,000. “It’s the best you can buy—very efficient.” The beast is fired with local wood, mostly pecan, along with some cherry and hickory.
“All smokers can be temperamental,” according to Smoke’s pitmaster Nate Meharg, who leads the charge in the Smoke kitchen, since Hansell runs OxLot 9. Formerly the sous at OxLot, Meharg previously worked at Criollo, Dick & Jenny’s, and Crescent Pie and Sausage Company across the lake. “This one, if the wood is too far in, it trips a switch and shuts off.” Which he found out the hard way late one night when he passed by to check on the meat. “The fire was out; but I was lucky I caught it in time.”
Meharg, who has family roots in both Texas and Mississippi, grew up making barbecue with his dad and grandfather. “Barbecue is like baking; you need time, and you have to take care to follow the steps perfectly. If you make a mistake with a dish at OxLot, you can almost always fix it or do it over. Here, it’s a twelve-hour process. We don’t take shortcuts.”
The whole briskets, all 1855 Black Angus beef, and the pork shoulders, sourced mostly from Chappapeela Farms in Husser, Louisiana, take the most time, slow cooking overnight in the smoker. The ribs slow smoke for four hours, sausage and chicken for two. It’s still tricky knowing how much meat to cook everyday, but Meharg is getting a handle on it. “We’d rather run out,” agreed Chef Jeffrey. “We don’t reheat the meat the next day, we just can’t do that.”
From the first mouthful, it’s clear that Smoke is not your average barbecue joint. The menu offers Texas-style brisket, gorgeously charred and juicy; house-made hot link and German- and Czech-inspired smoke sausage; smoked chickens; St. Louis-style pork ribs; pulled pork; and occasional specials like rib tips. The restaurant’s concept was to be inclusive of a range of Southern barbecue styles, which accounts for the variety of sauces: a traditional sweet-and-tangy ketchup-based sauce; a Carolina sauce (mustard and vinegar based); a classic white barbecue sauce, à la north Mississippi and Alabama, that tastes like a smoky aioli; and a green sauce made from smoked green tomatoes and tomatillos.
This is belly-busting food for sure, especially if you start with something called Smoke Fries: hand-cut fries topped with caramelized chunks of brisket ends, chewy bites of housemade bacon, smoked cheddar, green onions, and a piquant horseradish ranch sauce. One order easily feeds four—or two, if you’re trying to keep your weight up. Prices are downright reasonable, with sandwiches in the $6.50–$7.50 range; platters, including two sides, $10.50–$18.50; and snacks like the best pork skins you’ll every taste in your life and pimiento cheese with housemade sausage and pickles in the $4–$9.50 range.
On the subject of sides, Smoke’s are positively ethereal. The mac & cheese is uptown, made with shells and a decadent Mornay sauce. The sweet and tangy collard greens spiked with ham scream homemade, as does the hand-grated slaw. This is barbecue the way it was meant to be.
For dessert, Smoke dishes comfort sweets like root beer floats and malted milkshakes along with pies created by OxLot 9 pastry chef Breanne Kostyk (winner of the pastry category in Country Roads’ 2015 Small Town Chefs Awards).
While at first blush OxLot 9 and Smoke seem cut from very different cloths, Chef Jeffrey said there’s not much of a disconnect. “We’re still doing what we do over at OxLot, but with different ingredients,” he said. “We make everything fresh, every day. That’s always our bottom line.”
Details. Details. Details.
Smoke BBQ 1005 North Collins Boulevard Covington, La. (985) 302-5307 • smokebbqcovington.com