Years ago, Kendall Square was a tech magnet and a restaurant desert. In 2016, tech’s still here, along with pharma and biotech, but the dining scene has improved mightily. In the One Kendall complex alone, there’s veteran indie the Blue Room, sweet little wine bar Belly, Jewish deli deluxe Mamaleh’s and fine bar/restaurant/game room State Park. Now comes the Smoke Shop BBQ, a barbecue joint from Andy Husbands (Tremont 647), building on his years of success with competition barbecue team IQUE. His skills here with slow-smoke cookery often shine brilliantly, especially by the wan standards of Yankee barbecue.
Bread-and-butter pickles ($3) set the right opening note: pretty, crisp, not too sweet. There’s a bit of strange North/South confluence in belly and skin ($14), crunchy fried pork rinds topping a mess of fried whole-belly clams with good creamed corn underneath: a Mason/Dixon-spanning surf ’n’ turf. New-style deviled egg BLT ($9), which offers great house-smoked bacon, slices of lettuce and tomato and Green Goddess dressing, is neither deviled egg nor BLT, and with a stone-cold soft-poached egg bizarrely coated in hot sauce, a weird dud. With luck, you’ve opted instead for the Best Bar Wings ($9 for six), which violates a rule of expectation-setting in dish naming, but in fact is terrific: long-smoked and then crisp-fried wings with a sticky sweet/hot glaze of agave syrup.
Of course, the ’Q is the thing here, and it’s mostly exceptional, starting with the again self-puffingly named 1st Place Ribs ($22 for half-slab, $31 full). I guess it’s not bragging if you won the award, and these ribs are indeed spectacular: oversized, meaty, juicy pork ribs cut in the St. Louis style (ends trimmed off) with an evident smoke ring indicating deep penetration of smoke and accompanying profoundly smoky flavor. With their vivid sprinkling of hot spices, no sauce is needed. I will tell everyone I know to order these.
IQUE won another prestigious prize for its brisket, but here it’s just called brisket ($19.50); it’s also exemplary, with a nicely defined, flavorful bark (the rindy outer coating composed of dry spices, fat, smoke, the Maillard reaction and dark magic) and just enough residual fat to leave the meat delectably moist but not greasy. Pulled pork ($17) and burnt ends of brisket ($17.50) also boast deep smoke flavor and the hoped-for mix of tender and chewy textures, though both run a little lean and dry, easily corrected with either of two excellent tomato-based house sauces, the “hot” imparting a modest capsicum tingle. Fiercer heat is found in the fine Texas-style hot links ($16), a smooth-textured natural-casing pork sausage. Glazed BBQ chicken thigh ($15) is a straight-up smoked treatment, the use of thighs yielding a lovely richness and firm texture complemented by a sweet, mahogany-tinged glaze. With two sides, plus a mound of vivid pickles and a slice of watermelon, these are substantial plates, but trenchermen can combine most options into two-meat ($24, with two sides) and three-meat ($26, with three sides) platters.
Speaking of sides, most of the Smoke Shop’s are superb (and available à la carte for $3-$6). Standouts include bacon-laden collards that find the perfect midpoint between mushy and chewy, fabulously smoky, brisket-flecked pit beans, farro beautifully dotted with corn, cherry tomatoes and candied walnuts, Texas toast (thick slices of white bread smeared with hot sauce and parsley-enhanced garlic butter) and pimiento mac & cheese with the creaminess of Cheez Whiz (not a bad thing). But my hopes for a more traditional, crunchy, savory Southern cornbread were dashed by the typical New England style offered here: sweet and moist as cake, sweeter still with honey/sea-salt butter.
A couple of non-barbecue entrees should not be overlooked. One is shrimp and grits ($22), big pan-seared shrimp in a richly aromatic Creole sauce, served alongside grits fries, a nifty treatment that turns soft grits into pan-crisped Lincoln logs for stacking around dill-flecked cucumber salad. The other is a fine plate of fried chicken ($22 with two sides), juicy from buttermilk brine, with a medium-thick batter coating ably fried to a non-oily crunch.
Desserts ($2, $5.50 for three) are small and modest, the butter cake and vanilla-brownie-like S’more stuffed with Taza chocolate chunks and Fluff the most inner-child-pleasing. The roomy bar features one of the city’s better whiskey lists (with 100-plus options, mostly American), a rather good beer selection, a short and forgettable wine list and cocktails that are serviceable but a little pricey, e.g., a Mezcal Paloma that featured an anemic spirit pour for a $12 highball. The sparely decorated bar and dining rooms, notably the larger room surmounted by the open kitchen, can make quiet conversation challenging, especially as they feature nine big TVs tuned to sports. These lend the joint a sports-bar vibe that clearly is a hit with the early tech-bro-heavy crowds, but other patrons may find a trifle distracting. Service finds a fitting note of casual familiarity and hits its marks nicely, even on booming weekend nights. Overall, the Smoke Shop delivers the real slow-smoke BBQ goods at a level that New England rarely sees, and on a few scores—namely the ribs, brisket and sides—might even stand up further south and west.
-Skin & belly
-Best Bar Wings
-1st Place Ribs
-Shrimp and grits
The Smoke Shop 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge (617-577-7427) thesmokeshopbbq.com
Hours: 11 am-1 am, daily
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby public garage (free with validation nights and weekends)
Liquor: Full bar