In a city once notorious for its smoke, it is perhaps a touch ironic that our barbecue culture lacks precisely that. Barbecue isn’t really indigenous to Pittsburgh, so maybe that’s why many supposed barbecue joints around here merely slow-cook their meat and then slather it with sweet sauce. Recent developments have tended toward sauce improvements, especially reflecting the diversity of regional styles out there — sweet Kansas City, tangy North Carolina, mustardy South Carolina, vinegary Texas — but the meat beneath still tends to lack any strong character.
Of course, there are exceptions, and we’re pleased to say that Smoq Pitt is one of them. As soon as you walk in to this new restaurant on beautifully rebuilt Brookline Boulevard, its name comes to life. While there’s no room for big, barrel smokers, let alone a traditional pit, Smoq Pitt boasts of at least four different woods used to smoke its locally raised, high-quality meats. And the meat is rubbed, smoked and served with sauce alongside. This is ideal because it allows each diner to customize the fare and, most importantly, to sample the meat without any sauce at all.
One reason we guess most barbecue places sauce their meat prior to serving is that this hides any imperfections. And, alas, imperfection must be acknowledged at Smoq Pitt, too. We sampled nearly every meat on the menu: pulled pork, chopped chicken, sliced brisket and St. Louis ribs (baby backs and beef ribs are also available). The good news was that everything had the right amount of smoke — sufficient to flavor the flesh, not so much as to overwhelm the meat or deaden the palate — and the meats weren’t dried out. But there was a certain lack of succulence.
Actually, the chicken was pretty good, despite being white meat. But both the pork and beef were simply too lean. Juiciness wasn’t the problem; both meats were plenty moist. What was missing, despite a pleasing fat cap visible on the brisket, was the rich, supple mouthfeel that only fat and broken-down collagen can provide.
What brought this into high relief were the incredible, wonderful, perfect ribs. Ribs are usually good: If cooked competently, they have enough fat and connective tissue to break down and enrich the lean muscle, while the bones flavor the meat and the large surface area lets the smoke soak in. But "competent" is a low bar, and most restaurants only just clear it, relying on sauce to carry them home.
Not Smoq Pitt. Its ribs are far too good to obscure with sauce. The meat is pink and tender while retaining some character and chew. The rub, heavily applied but elemental enough that it didn’t impose on the meat, pushed the flavor into familiar barbecue territory without fighting the smoke or the pork’s native taste. The overall experience was barbecue heaven.
When you do choose to sauce your meat, Smoq Pitt offers three options: sweet, spicy and tangy. Perhaps because so much of the restaurant’s focus is on proper smoking, the sauces all seemed pretty similar, as if a single master recipe had been modified three times, rather than three unique ones created. The master recipe was a good one, though; while it can’t be said that any of the three sauces rose to the heights of the genre, they got the job done. We especially appreciated a sweet sauce that didn’t try for the thick, cloying KC style, but just offered the clean, classic flavor that most Americans associate with "barbecue."
Where sides were concerned, we thought Smoq Pitt acquitted itself reasonably well. One standout was the mac-and-cheese, made with real cheese. The cheddar flavor was true, making for a dish much better than the creamy macaroni-salad stuff most BBQ joints offer.
Fries had not a hint of grease. Their pale gold exterior was colored with ruddy spice, and the potato within was light and fluffy. Baked beans were soupy, but their flavor was extraordinarily complex, with smoke, tang, pepper, vegetal notes and a hint of spice to balance any sweetness.
Yams, with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar, tasted good, but were so sweet they cried out for a crust and whipped cream; we couldn’t imagine eating them as the vegetable component of dinner. Cornbread was coarse in the Southern style, but sweet in the Northern, a combination we didn’t find especially satisfying.
Pittsburgh’s tired old "smoky city" moniker may be sorely outdated, but when it comes to barbecue, smoke never goes out of style. Smoq Pitt gets this right, and despite room for improvement in other areas, is likely to satisfy true barbecue-lovers better than most other places in town.