(07/11/07) (07/26/07) (03/27/08)
Smoken' Joe's BBQ is located on a busy stretch of Washington Street around the corner from Market Street, in the shadows of St Elizabeth's Hospital. The small room is painted in bright red and purple, with framed art on the walls, tables packed closely and a small bar near the window. Finding on-street parking can be difficult, but there's a free lot behind the building, accessible via a narrow road to the east.
Smoken' Joe's features the usual BBQ staples (Memphis pork ribs, pulled pork, sliced brisket, barbecued chicken) as well as smoked roast beef, burnt ends, fried chicken, wings, burgers and some Southern touches (fried catfish, crab cakes, Cajun grilled shrimp, Andouille sausage bites). All of the boneless barbecue items are available on sandwiches.
My wife and I managed to hit Smoken' Joe's on its opening night; two weeks later I returned with a friend for another weeknight visit. I waited several months before my final visit for a weekday lunch.
On my first visit I tried the jalapeño poppers. Other than being ice cold (and I don't mean cold, I mean ice cold) inside, they weren't bad for a frozen (in more ways than one) product. I would have liked some kind of dipping sauce.
On two separate visits I chose as my appetizer a burnt ends sandwich ($8.99 with cole slaw), filled with cubes of brisket that were sauced and re-smoked. The first rendition was sauced, crispy, dry, tough and cold (though not ice cold like the poppers). The second rendition, ordered with Kansas City sauce but served unsauced with a cup of it on the side, wasn't crispy at all but much more tender and steamy, like pot roast. The flavor was pleasant enough.
On the first visit, I ordered the Smoken' Joe's sampler ($19.99 with two sides) that includes ribs, chicken and pulled pork. The ribs were rather small and thin, with a barky exterior lightly coated with sauce, a noticeable smoky flavor and a soggy, steamy consistency. The chicken, with a golden brown exterior and some spice in the crispy crust, was probably the best item on the plate, but it was dry. Not on the plate, at least at first, was the pulled pork, which arrived later only after I reminded our server that it was missing. The dry, flavorless meat wasn't worth the the wait. My wife ordered the smoked chicken dinner ($13.99 with two sides) and it was also dry.
A second visit yielded two sandwiches for takeout: one pulled pork and one sliced brisket. The pulled pork was a more-than-generous serving, but was just as dry as on the first attempt, with the cup of sauce not much help. The brisket was a little more moist but very bland.
On a second takeout visit, I ordered the ribs with Memphis hot barbecue sauce and they were served dry inside a foil-lined bag, with the (cold) sauce in a plastic cup. Although the meat was warm, it seemed like the reheating process should have been extended a few more minutes to bring some life back into the dry, stiff meat. There was no smoke ring and not a lot of flavor, smoky or otherwise. The sauce helped, but the meat reminded me more of an overcooked pork chop than juicy barbecued ribs.
There's a good assortment of sauces to choose from, with representation from most of the nation's barbecue hotbeds, including an Alabama White sauce (ideal on chicken), Memphis, Memphis hot, honey BBQ, South Carolina mustard and Kansas City sticky. I found the Memphis hot a little too ketchupy. The sweet Kansas City sauce was also a mostly-one-note affair, with a strong, sweet molasses kick. They need a North Carolina vinegar sauce to add some moisture to that pulled pork. I think I'd like the sauces better if they weren't served cold.
I enjoyed the soupy collard greens, whose strong tartness was a nice foil for the sweet meat, but if you're not a vinegar fan, you may disagree. I wasn't impressed by the baked beans, which seemed to have a generous dose of barbecue sauce as a main ingredient. The cole slaw pendulum swung from much too creamy on the first visit to much too dry and bland on the last visit. Crumbly cornbread wasn't fresh but had an interesting savory taste that I liked.
The bottom line: It's possible that all three of my well-spaced visits to Smoken Joe's coincidentally fell on days when they happened to be uncharacteristically off their game, but there simply wasn't enough game to inspire another outing to find out.
Boston Phoenix review of Smoken Joe's
Urban Spoon reviews of Smoken Joe's