The distinct smell of alder, spruce and birch smoke drifts from Smokehouse Barbecue and Catering's little red hut. At first I'm suspicious about ordering barbecue from the trailer parked at the Shell gas station on the corner of Northern Lights and Minnesota, but I decide to be open-minded.
Steering my car around the bale of hay peeking out from the freshly fallen snow, narrowly avoiding the growing line of SUVs waiting for a wash, I pull up at the drive-thru window. A no-nonsense blond woman, with just a hint of a Southern accent, tells me the specials for the day. A pulled-pork sandwich is just $5 (normally $7). For a dollar more they'll toss in two sides. Just sampling, I order only the sandwich. It takes about three minutes to finish my order. She tells me to order by phone (250-6884) next time and my food will be ready when I arrive.
As I drive home, the smoky smell overwhelms the car. I can't wait to dig in. Being something of a barbecue junkie, I know if this is the real deal, eating in the car won't work -- it's too messy. Barely out of my Subaru and through the front door, I dig into the white plastic bag and pull out the Styrofoam package.
The pork is overflowing from its standard bun and dark red-purple sauce covers almost everything. The bread is soggy on the sides -- a casualty of sauce and the heaping portion of meat. Luckily Smokehouse tossed in handful of napkins as well as a fork and knife.
These people aren't kidding about barbecue. I awkwardly pick up my sandwich, using two hands to keep it together, and shove it greedily into my mouth.
Heavenly. The meat is tender and still pink in the middle. The sauce is smoky, sweet and rich, even a little spicy.
While the sauce is great, it doesn't overwhelm the smoky flavor of the pork. My treat is gone in less time than it took to put it together.
On a second visit I decide to pick up a variety meal, the Trail Pack ($28). It's a half rack of pork ribs, a choice of either beef brisket, barbecue chicken or barbecue pork, rolls and two 8-ounce sides (potato salad, coleslaw, smoked chili or baked beans).
I strongly suggest trying the pork spare ribs. The meat -- and this was no skinny pig -- practically falls off the bone. It's tender and moist and tastes even better served cold the next day. A heavy layer of sauce evenly coats everything. Ordered on their own, a full rack is $30, half for $15.
I also tried the chicken sandwich. It's good but not as special as the pulled pork version. A mixture of dark and white meat torn into large chunks and smothered in barbecue sauce, it also has a light, smoky flavor but seems timid compared with the pork sandwich.
The sides are pretty standard but good. The potato salad has healthy-sized chunks of celery, and the baked beans are nice and sweet. It's a lot of food, and I ended up with leftovers.
The tiny shack is a rare gem for barbecue heads and Southern transplants. Not to mention a fast lunch option for Midtown and downtown workers.
Owner Hailey Fike opened Smokehouse with her husband in November 2007. She said the meat is smoked with Alaska wood anywhere from four to 12 hours, depending on the cut. It's then coated with a tomato-based barbecue sauce and secret spices. The style, she said, is based on Texas barbecue, although different regions make guest appearances.
Smokehouse cooks up about 500 pounds of meat weekly: three cases of ribs, two cases of pork butt and one case of brisket. During the winter, meals are trucked over to the Northern Lights location, but in the summer expect to see the grill beside the shack fired up.
If you have a whole herd of hungry people you might be tempted by the Big Herd Pack ($68) A whole rack of ribs, a turkey leg, three 8-ounce meat options to chose from (barbecue chicken, beef brisket, or barbecue pork), three 16-ounce sides and rolls.
If it's just you for dinner, barbecue plates might be more your speed.
Among the many options, the two smoked chicken thighs ($8.50) or pork spare ribs ($14.50) both sound tempting. All plates come with two 4-ounce sides and a roll. Ordering meat by itself in either 8-once or 16-ounce containers is also possible. A beef brisket sandwich is $9; the barbecue chicken sandwich is $6.
Just be prepared to lick your fingers constantly once you've run out of napkins -- which you will.
Smokehouse Barbecue Catering
Location: 1501 W. Northern Lights Blvd.
Winter hours: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.- 7 p.m., closed Sunday.
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By Rebecca Palsha
Daily News correspondent