(12/24/05) (12/24/07) (09/06/09) (01/26/11) (05/29/14)
Smokin' Al's is a Long Island barbecue institution that started in Bay Shore, expanded to Massapequa Park, then consolidated to just the newer branch. Both locations hugged main drags in black-awninged brick buildings with high ceilings and brick walls inside. The Massapequa space is vast, yet tightly packed with tables in three sections, including a bar area. Waits for a table on weekend nights can be over an hour. The cartoon pigs theme is handled with a surprising balance of humor and understatement.
Appetizers include the smoked (brisket burnt ends, pork belly burnt ends, wings), the fried (haystack onions, hush puppies, fried pickles), the green (three different salads) and the spoonable (chili, Brunswick stew, onion soup), plus nachos and BBQ shrimp. But the main attraction is the ribs, available as pork babybacks, pork "grand backs" and beef ribs, with or without sauce, in varying quantities (rack or half rack), permutations (all three, split pork rack) and combos (ribs with any other meat). Other smoked meats include pulled pork, sliced and chopped brisket, sausage, pulled chicken, half chicken, chicken thighs and (grilled) chicken breasts. These can be grouped with each other and with ribs at varying price points. Extra meats can be added to any combo for a ten-spot. The boneless meats can also be had as a sandwich, a po boy, a tortilla or on a baked potato or salad. There's a hotdog and a few different hamburger options.
Smokin' Al's was one of the first Long Island barbecue joints I ever visited, hitting the now-closed Bay Shore location solo in 2005 while in the area for Christmas. It's actually the first barbecue joint I documented for this site, although that early visit was before I started taking photos. At the time I ranked the ribs among the best I'd tried. How do they fare now? Keep reading.
Since then, I've returned to the Bay Shore and Massapequa Park restaurants a handful of times, always joined by friends and family. Included in the mix were weekday and weekend lunches as well as an evening visit.
Burnt Endz: Tried most recently in 2014 but also on an earlier visit, the burnt ends ($13.99) are a sneaky way to also try the onion strings that fetch an eye popping $14.99 as an appetizer without meat. These are large, thick cubes of brisket deckle with crusts forged by lengthy sessions in the smoker followed by a briefer stint on the grill with sauce. The ends' end result is a reasonably tender bite that exudes deep beef flavor. Both times, though, that end result also felt like a reheat, with some stiffness thrown into the equation. Flavor was undeniable, with beefiness leading the way, sweet sauce the secondary force, and smoke and rub bringing up the rear. I've had superior examples (more wilting, crispier, juicier, smokier, rubbier) elsewhere, but it's still an item worth ordering, especially if you can split it among a small group. If debating between sliced brisket and burnt ends, it's a close call, but I'd go with the burnt ends.
Pork Belly Burnt Ends: We tried this recently introduced porcine version of the burnt ends immediately after the standard ones, hoping to capture more of the droop factor that make burnt ends a favorite. Though clearly pork and not beef, there wasn't much difference in the presentation (over onion strings), size (large chunks), technique (smoked then grilled), crusting (thick), saucing (light but thorough coating), flavor (light char over lighter smoke and rub) and freshness (not). They did have more tenderness than the beef, and the fat did add some moisture to each bite, but the hoped-for juiciness and wobble were a twin no-show. To me, the meat felt and tasted more like a "country style" rib than pork belly.
Wings: I only tried these ($13.99) once, on the second visit many years ago, and I remember them as being light on flavor. But that was without sauce by request, so it might not have showcased the wings—which I prefer with sauce—in their optimal presentation.
Pork Spare Ribs: "St Louie Grand Backs" is the name Smokin' Al uses for his alternative to babybacks. These ribs, trimmed lengthwise but as thick as you'll find in a St Louis cut, are cut from the spares closer to the belly than the back. Ordered unsauced on a 2011 visit, the ribs arrived with a well developed and well charred crust. That crust didn't show much rub, and the cross sections didn't show any pink, but visible moistness and good fat content (neither too much nor too little) made them appetizing. Flavor was equal parts char and pork fat, with as-expected low levels of rub and smoke flavor. Meatiness and moistness carried the day here. Table sauce was hardly necessary for moisture but went a long way toward adding some much needed flavor and counteracting the bitterness of the char. With sauce added, these ribs were solid and clearly above average for the area.
On the most recent (2014) visit, I made no special request to hold the sauce, allowing the ribs to come out as the kitchen normally prepares them. The saucing was thorough but not overdone, and in no way quelled my enthusiasm when the "Ribs, Ribs and More Ribs" combo (half a rack of babybacks, half a rack of grand backs, four beef ribs, two sides, $38.99) hit the table. The crust still made itself known through the sauce and each meaty rib had an attractive color and visible moisture beyond the sauce. The bite was impressive, blending the crackle of the crust with the rich sweetness of the sauce and finishing up with a tender, juicy interior with just the right amount of marbling and just the right amount of give. Old school ribs? Sure. But aside from being just a little on the light side with the rub and smoke, they delightfully got the job done more effectively than many of their more ambitious competitors. The char factor was removed from the equation, letting the mellow porkiness sing lead. I attribute much of the satisfaction to the cut itself: beautifully bodacious and fatty enough to be very forgiving, even at lunchtime. These tasted and felt like the freshest items of the day. They were clearly the best.
Babyback Pork Ribs: The babybacks on the same platter in 2014 were just as bodacious (possibly more so), just as moist, nearly as tender and nearly as flavorful (less porky, same smoke/rub lightness), so there's not much to say to distinguish them from their piggy plate partners. I appreciated not receiving the overcooked mush on diminutive bones that has sadly become the norm for babybacks. Overall, solid execution.
Beef Ribs: These are the back ribs that you can pick up and eat right off the bone a few in one sitting, not the increasingly popular short ribs typically shared by the table. I twice tried a single beef rib from the "Ribs, Ribs and More Ribs" combo and found it crispy both times, with underlying meat that was hardly tough but which required a little effort to remove from the bone. The reward was a more concentrated beef flavor, though moistness was in short supply and fully reliant on the sauce. Smoke and rub were both consistent with the pork ribs. If you like your beef ribs sweet, these should fit the bill. If you like them without sauce, think pork instead.
Sliced Brisket: In 2011, the Ribs-and-Meat combo ($20.99 with two sides) packed about a dozen slices of brisket on the plate. Color was monotone, with only the faintest of outer crusting, no smoke ring and little to no visible moisture. Tenderness was adequate without being noteworthy. Flavor was pleasant enough, with a slight sweetness to the beef profile, but nothing really compelling. Smoke here was noticeable, but as with the ribs, it took a back seat to the char grilled flavor that added some bitterness to the equation. The meat was painfully dry. This brisket might have worked a little better in a sandwich, where sauce could remedy the dryness and a thick bun could provide a good vessel for the tender, charry meat. But on its own, this brisket was barely average overall.
Sliced brisket sandwich: Tried again as a sandwich ($12.99) in 2014 and requested unsauced, the brisket came out a little less dry, but not anything I'd call moist. Flavor was again a little on the charry side, with visible grill marks indicating the reheating method. Though overall flavor still had some pleasantness and diversity, and tenderness was still very much a plus, the combination of emphasized grilliness and de-emphasized moisture hardly made this a winner—as ordered. But for someone who prefers it with the sauce, the combination of good meat quantity, tenderness, compelling sauce flavor and pillowy brioche bun, it could prove very satisfying.
Pulled pork: Tried in 2011, the "Carolina" pulled pork sandwich ($10.99 then, now $12.99 with fries and slaw) supplied a super generous portion of pork and a nearly as generous amount of thick, sweet sauce, pushing the already tender meat toward liquid territory. If there was any smokiness in the meat, I failed to detect it. Again, this comes down to personal preference: it was a soggier style (from both the oversaucing and overcooking) than I prefer, but if you like a soft and sloppy sandwich that's as much about the sauce—if not more—as about the meat, this one is a good example.
There are three sauces on the tables: Original (sweet and tangy), Sweet Talkin' (a sweeter, less tangy version of the sweet and tangy) and Rattlesnake (fairly sweet and fairly hot instead of tangy). I didn't try any of them on my most recent visit, but most of the meats were sauced enough not to need them (and I never put sweet sauce on brisket).
Even if you have quibbles with the smoked fare, the sides should be beyond reproach. All are served in large portions with the combo plates and all appear to be homemade.
Cole slaw: Somewhat crisp and extremely creamy without going over the line, this mound had enough to share among four people fairly easily.
Sweet potato fries: Even more so than seeing an even more gargantuan mound than the cole slaw was not seeing that artificial orange color that's the sure sign of a frozen product. These fries were more like wedges, some with skins, all long and all very natural tasting with the understated addition of brown sugar and autumnal spices.
Fries: The standard fries were anything but standard. Served with a sandwich that was the final item to hit the table—when all of us were full or beyond—they all got consumed, quickly andwith gusto. This is a hearty cut with skins on, a very potatoey taste and just enough salt to get the job done. Better than most fries I've had with burgers.
Cornbread: Twinkielike and far more ordinary than the other sides.
The prices are high, even by New York standards. Smokin' Al's is best visited with large groups (four or more) when you can split items and get a good sampling for under $30 per person.
Back in 2005, Smokin' Al's was the first barbecue joint I ever visted that had the warm, clothlike wet napkins in high grade foil packaging. I still have an unopened pack in my collection. Here's the current one:
Note that there's a sharing charge of $5 per person, so order accordingly to avoid the fee. They said they'll waive it if you split the "Ribs, Ribs and More Ribs" combo, but be sure to double-check first.
The Bottom Line
Smokin' Al's is old school barbecue—"the way barbecue ought to be," according to their motto—with less emphasis on rub and smoke in the profiles and more in the sauce. It's a style that most of the public at large still embrace and that most of the serious barbecue aficionados (myself included) have outgrown, but for much of what they're trying to do, they do very well. The chopped, pulled and other boneless items might not be the way to go (very reliant on the sauce, with flavors and textures underneath not faring so well), but the ribs have for the most part withstood the test of time and many of the sides are very good.
I like to think of Smokin' Al's as the barbecue equivalent of the Polynesian Tiki Lounge genre of "Chinese" restaurant: it might not be the most authentic or the most hardcore, but every now and then it can be a worthy guilty pleasure—as long as you don't stray too far from the ribs.
Yelp reviews of Smokin' Al's
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