I've been driving past Alaskan Smokehouse BBQ & Catering on Spenard Road since it opened in April. But the location, previously a quick burger joint, put me off. A defunct eatery formerly associated with that site advertised pit barbecue though there was no smokehouse in the vicinity and the fare was slabs of roast meat with some store-bought tomato sauce tossed on top.
That ain't barbecue.
The first clue that things have changed came during the latest run of warm weather when I drove down the road with my window open and caught a whiff of a smell that all born Texans recognize and dream about: either a house was burning down or someone was running a big wood-cooking smoker. Glancing around to check for fire trucks, I spotted the Smokehouse's tiny parking lot full. Clue two.
Clue three that this might be the real deal came with the signs that revealed a slathering of BBQ-tude: "Rib stickin' cowboy cookin'" read one. "Slow pig funeral ahead" read another. And, next to the cash register, "Be nice or leave."
The Smokehouse has a few indoor tables for those eating there and some stools at the order counter for sitting while you wait for takeout. There's also a drive-up window, but I'm not sure it's open and, if it is, recommend it only for patrons who have already phoned in their order. The wait wasn't long for me or the guys ahead of me, but there were a couple of minutes of heel-cooling to endure while I stood there salivating like Pribilof's dog.
I ordered the pulled pork with mild sauce and chopped brisket with spicy. The beef came in inch-thick chunks. Both it and the pork were good cuts, tender, not stringy, with the smoke soaked through.
The mild sauce is slightly sweet; the spicy has a kick but isn't particularly fiery. Hot pots of each simmer to one side of the counter. They're not thick like ketchup, but more liquid, like gravy, the better to soak into the meat but a hazard if you don't watch where you put the bag when you're driving home.
The magic is done in a big smoker out the back door that uses local birch and alder rather than imported hickory, apple or mesquite. Temperatures stay low and the process is slow and the results are certifiably Lone Star quality. The owners also run the mobile barbecue shack located at Boniface and DeBarr, which has garnered a number of fans over the years. The bigger, permanent smoker only improves what was already a good recipe.
For many of us, the litmus test for any barbecue emporium is what they do with baby back ribs, which seem to be the highest purpose for pigs. I picked up a rack from the Smokehouse and another from the Dimond Bar-B-Q Pit (1160 W. Dimond). The Pit is a shrine for local 'que lovers, with roots in Anchorage going back to the 1960s. Over the years it has often been the ONLY place in town smoking its meat with real wood in a heavy-duty smokehouse. We're in something of a renaissance now, with several roadside stands selling smoked ribs, brisket and sandwiches and there's word that the excellent Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ in Indian will soon open a store in Midtown. But the good old Pit still sets the bar-b-q for me.
Two hungry friends came over and blind taste-tested the ribs side by side. They liked both, having praise for the Smokehouse's tender meat that fell off a rib when you picked it up. The Dimond ribs, with a little more char on the tips, clung to the bone but came off cleanly at a nibble.
The difference may be one of style. The Smokehouse had removed the membrane on the back side of the ribs where the Bar-B-Q Pit retained it. Many pit masters take it off to facilitate the flow of smoke from both sides of the meat; others keep it on to help hold the meat in place and seal in moisture. (It's perfectly edible.) The Pit's thick sauce has a marvelous unmistakable smoke taste missing in the Spenard store's recipe, but my guests liked the liveliness of the latter's spicy sauce.
The core Smokehouse customer will be a meat-lover. Aside from three essential food groups -- barbecue pork, barbecue beef and barbecue chicken -- the Smokehouse offers a whole page of hot dogs: all beef, reindeer, Chicago, bacon chili cheese, the South of the Border Dog, Western Dog, Cowboy Dog and Spenard Dog (with neon relish, onions, sauerkraut, bacon, tomatoes and spicy sauce).
There's a handful of vegetables on the menu, like fried okra, deep fried pickles and jalapeno corn bread. But even those aren't always meatless. Cowboy fries are covered in pork, cheese and barbecue sauce. The Cowboy baked potato gets similar treatment. You can add extra bacon and brisket if you like.
For the non-carnivore, there are beans without the meat and, included on the children's menu, mac 'n' cheese. (I'd rather be bit by a snake than have to eat macaroni while smelling barbecue, but that's me.)
Sweets are mainly an assortment of sundaes, floats, brownies and a mud pie offering. Sodas or tea are $2.
The fancy hotdogs start at $6.50. Sides are extra. A pulled pork sandwich is $8.50 and you can also get just the meat. If so, think big. Eight ounces of chopped brisket is $10.50, but twice as much is $16.50, a serious savings. A whole chicken is $12.50 and a full rack of baby backs is $33. Those cowboy spuds are $7.50.
If you have a posse to feed, check their combination Trailside Packs consisting of several meats and sides.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM