On the trail of Zen barbecue.

Barbecue is a concept as diffuse as beauty, with as many ideal expressions as there are palates to appreciate. There seems to be only one true rule of barbecue: that quality tends to vary in inverse proportion to tidiness, convenience, and chic. The soul seems to go out of barbecue as its surroundings drift toward decor, as presentation gets beyond paper plates and plastic forks. Smokin' Pete's BBQ has high ambitions and has achieved a good deal in the month or two it's been open. With backing from Seattle roots-food entrepreneur Peter Glick (owner of the two Roxy's Delis) and chef Eric Reinhardt in charge of the smoker, it's brought a touch of life to a semiblighted corner near Ballard High. Only three things go against it: It's spacious, clean, and friendly; it's laughably easy to park nearby; and its culinary aim is way too high. Reinhardt has cooked at Serafina, Lush Life, and Adriatica, for goodness' sake; he's got haute cuisine at his fingertips, and it shows. He doesn't just make cornbread (overpriced at a dollar per Saran-wrapped hunk); it's got to be sweet-potato cornbread. He can't bear to cook his chicken ($6.50 per half) to the necessary level of almost mushy doneness, and he promises a different marinade every week when all we really want is simple, smooshy, smoky perfection every time. He may cook his brisket ($8.50/$6.50) with tender lovin' care for 14 hours as promised in the menu, but it's still chewy when he's done, and it seems like the sauce and meat have barely been introduced. The pork ribs, too, are just meat (good meat) coated with goo (good goo); they haven't dried and softened so as to melt in the mouth. As for the sausage ($2.50 per link): andouille? Of course. Chicken andouille? Come now. And don't get me started on the very idea of "Rim of Fire Smoked Duck" ($11.95) or Blackened Broccoli on the menu of a place that hasn't yet nailed down the basics. Still, some things at Pete's already kick ass. The Southern greens and dirty rice ($2 à la carte) are a little ordinary on their own but come to life when mixed together. The pulled-pork sandwich ($5.95) is the total mellow real thing, gooey, chewy, and spiced just right. The house-baked pies (we've had the strawberry-rhubarb and the pecan) cost $2.95 for a big slice and are worth a trip. If Reinhardt can just forget all his culinary training and embrace the Zen of sloooow cooking, he may yet overcome the triple handicap of convenient parking, a cheerful wait staff, and Ballard. Walker's Barbeque & Soul Food, about a mile south of Jackson down Martin Luther King Jr. Way, scores well on two out of three criteria; it's in an otherwise residential block on Judkins and has no parking at all. It also sneers at the very idea of decor, leaning toward Formica-topped tables and spartan cafeteria chairs. So it's no surprise to find the ribs ($10.95 for a dinner portion or $9.95 per pound) lusciously chewy; the sauce not too sweet, not too tangy, married to the meat yet good enough to eat with a spoon or sopped up with nuggets of cakey cornbread (big hunks for 75 cents); the slow-smoked sliced beef firm but flavorful; the collard greens ($2.50) succulent and spicy; and the other traditional sides ($2–$2.75) sound if not inspired. Walker's Barbeque also has daily dinner specials (Tuesday oxtails, Thursday smothered chicken, etc.), which we haven't tried, but dollar for dollar you just can't beat their combo meals: Two $12.95 servings will serve four bountifully for lunch (though you could order five sandwiches—beef, pork, or chicken—plus a side each for the same money). Best way to enjoy: Call well ahead, talk your order over, and allow plenty of time. Good things take time. The current record holder in the playing- hard-to-get category is Rhodies Smokin' BBQ, all but camouflaged in a refitted storeroom behind a convenience store behind a gas station on a tiny wedge of land where Denny meets Broad. Park if you dare. Plus, the place is only open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.—weekdays. And there's nowhere to sit down. So naturally the place is packed and the barbecue is the best we've sampled in a long while. The ribs ($6.99 with beans and slaw) are sumptuous, the pulled pork (try the Trailboss sandwich, $5.40) to die for; the hot link hoagie (two spicy sausages from Spokane's Longhorn Barbecue on a big French roll slathered in plain or cinnamony-spicy sauce for $5) a major effort in sandwich-craft. Did I mention that the menu changes between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, so that whenever you come in, you can't get some of the items? But do not let this deter you; Rhodies' only lapse from barbecue decorum is its unfailingly friendly staff. Now, if they could just work up a little bad attitude, the place would be perfect. Smokin' Pete's BBQ, 1918 N.W. 65th St., 206-783-0454, BALLARD $$. 11 a.m.– 8 p.m. Mon.–Wed.; 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Thurs.–Sat.; 11:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Sun. Walker's Barbeque & Soul Food, 2608 South Judkins St., 206-325-7427, SOUTH END $. 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. Tues.–Fri.; noon–9 p.m. Sat.; 2–8 p.m. Sun.; closed Mon. Rhodies Smokin' BBQ, 351 Broad St. N., 206-448-4080, BELLTOWN $. Take-out only; lunch 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner 3–6:30 p.m.

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