Smokehouse Café in downtown Newport is a seasonal open-air restaurant on one of its busiest streets, right near the harbor and not too far from the beach. There’s a full bar, usually busy, at the front of the joint. Further back, the tables at the restaurant’s periphery offer great opportunities for tanning and people watching. At the very rear, there’s a quieter indoor area.
Barbecue options include beef ribs, two kinds of pork ribs (St Louis and babybacks), pulled pork, sliced brisket (sandwich only) and barbecued chicken. Beyond these usual suspects, Smokehouse Café has one of the more interesting menus I've come across, with unique items that appeal to barbecue lovers, seafood fans and vegetarians. Appetizers include two chowders, chili, chicken wings, “hog wings” (smoked pork chops on the bone), fried calamari, popcorn shrimp, crab and baby shrimp donuts, and a raw bar. Sandwiches include Southern and barbecue fare as well as burgers, tuna salad, a shrimp and guacamole wrap, smoked catfish and a vegetarian wrap with grilled eggplant and zucchini. There's also smoked meatloaf, smoked Long Island duck and four salads—sadly, the salad with the smoked tofu is no longer on the menu.
Ribs can be ordered by the rack or half rack, or on a few different named combo platters. The barbecue plates come with fixed sides (beans, cole slaw and cornbread) and you can only order the few pre-configured combinations of meat. Substitutions are a hassle here.
Post-beach visits hit Smokehouse Café on weekend afternoons in July, spaced two years apart.
On the first visit we started with the hog wings, Buffalo style ($5.95 for 2, $9.95 for 4). These pork chops were as tender as you can get without falling off the bone and fairly juicy, with a mild smoky backdrop. I liked the flavor and—believe it or not—they’re much healthier than real Buffalo wings. On our return visit these were included in the Oink Oink appetizer platter ($28.95) and were just as good.
With the no-substitution policy in mind, I ordered the Smokehouse BBQ Combo (half rack of St Louis ribs, half rack of babybacks and pulled pork, $24.95) and traded the half rack of babybacks for a fellow diner’s brisket sandwich ($9.75 with fries). I quickly regretted this as I bit into the thin, leathery meat. I liked the flavor, but the brisket was overcooked (the menu claims the brisket is smoked for 30 hours). The pulled pork was as wet as the brisket was dry. If you think of it as a pork chili, it’s not so bad, but I got no flavor from the meat under all that sauce. The ribs saved the meal. Sauced more sparingly, they packed a punch from the spices on the crust and the boldly flavored meat. They reminded me of a poor man’s version of the ribs at The Cookhouse (now closed), 100 miles down the Atlantic coast in Branford CT. Overall, I'd say the meats had more potential than my 1-for-3 outing implies. The catfish taco ($12.95) was very good, with a generous portion that was cooked perfectly.
The Oink Oink appetizer platter wound up serving as the whole meal on the second visit, with mixed results. Two skewers of grilled shrimp were overcooked and dry. A handful of intact smoked wings were heavily charred outside, allowing said char to dominate, but the inner meat was tender and moist with a more pleasing flavor. A third rack each of St Louis cut and babyback ribs were both full flavored with a nice crust and pink meat, with the St Louis rack more potent of rub but slightly underdone. A huge beef shortrib looked promising on the platter and offered good texture on the lightly sauced crust, but was more than slightly underdone by a good hour, leaving the meat tough and failing to render the fat throughout the cut. Brisket was again sliced thin, this time charred like the wings and too heavily sauced like the pork. Hog wings were porky, tender and succulent, easily qualifying as the standout among the vast array of meats. Maybe that 1-for-3 outing on the first visit was indicative after all.
There ae no sauces at the table or any sauce choices. In fact, if you try to order something without sauce, it's discouraged. The sauce they apply to all the meats is a tomato-based, slightly sweet number that seems to work okay without really distinguishing itself.
Sides have been average, with the cole slaw heavy on mayo and the beans light on flavor on the first visit, and the cole slaw lighter on the mayo but much, much lighter on the flavor on the second visit. I didn’t try the fries, but they looked pretty good.
The Bottom Line
I wouldn't call it destination barbecue by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not a bad way to end a beach day.
Yelp reviews of Smokehouse Café
Urban Spoon reviews of Smokehouse Cafe