[Note: A fire burned down the restaurant in the summer of 2007. The owners have decided not to re-open, instead pursuing a catering operation effective February 2008. The website is still active.]
(07/22/05) (08/31/05) (09/24/05) (09/03/06) (06/02/07)
Holy Smokes BBQ is located less than a mile from I-91's exit 21, about a fifteen minute ride from Springfield. Even with the stained glass windows and booths made from church pews (it's a converted Lutheran church), a giant flying pig suspended from the high ceiling and cloth napkins, you can tell by the smell of burning oak that this place is serious about barbecue. Holy Smokes has a very inviting feel to it. They have no bar but serve beer, wine and specialty drinks. Outdoor picnic tables are available in the summer months.
In the rib department, Holy Smokes offers pork ribs (St Louis cut) and beef ribs. You can get these naked or finished in a wood oven with one of their sauces (four core sauces with seasonal specials). They also have chopped beef and pork, and smoked chicken. Holy Smokes runs regular nightly specials (smoked prime rib on Friday, smoked pork loin on Saturday, babybacks on Sunday) and smokes whole hogs one Wednesday every month.
On a Friday lunch visit, I ordered a combo plate with pork ribs and chopped beef, with cole slaw and grilled organic vegetables as sides, and three different sauces. The ribs were big, meaty, juicy, crusty and faintly smoky, with a pink smoke ring. They had a perfect texture (tender, but with a little “snap” to them) and a very good flavor. The beef was decent but not really noteworthy.
Sauces were excellent, among the better arrays I've had: there's a sweet and tangy original sauce, a chipotle sauce, a maple bourbon sauce (where you can really taste the bourbon), and the very spicy "666" sauce made with Thai bird chile peppers. All have very complex, balanced flavors.
Lou Ekus, the very friendly owner/pitmaster (known to his regular customers as “PapaLu”), stopped by the table a few times on my first visit, impressed that I was trying all the sauces. He recommended the beef ribs for next time. One of the chefs is classically trained, and worked previously at the highly-regarded Fore Street in Portland, ME.
Follow up: I made three more visits, one for a weekday lunch with a friend, and two for weekend dinners with my wife. Pork ribs were as good as the first time on two visits and a little dry on another visit. Humongous beef ribs twice had a crisp, tasty bark on the outside and a texture like pink velvet on the inside, with the well marbled meat falling apart at the touch of the fork. Its flavor was the perfect blend of natural beef taste and smoke. Pulled meats (beef, pork) were both decent, with the sauce rescuing the slightly dry pork. The chicken wings were smoky, tender and very flavorful both times I tried them. The vegetarian platter is a voluminous cornucopia of locally grown items that’s almost good enough to convert the most devout carnivore.
Sides are excellent. The crisp, tangy slaw was good and the seasonal vegetables were great. Note that the vegetables vary with the season. The two times I had them, they were zucchini, which I love. Had I ordered it the time it was beets, I wouldn’t have been so happy, but the beets my wife once had looked better than any beets I’d seen before. Baked beans are a little pale, subtle in flavor, but pretty good. “Double cooked” French fries are hand cut, with the skins on, and very good.
Holy Smokes is dedicated to supporting local farmers and serving only organically-produced products. The nice thing about that is that it clearly shows in the quality of the food. The thing that’s a little annoying is that you can’t get diet soda or light beer. A quirk that some may find annoying but which I heartily applaud is that Holy Smokes may sometimes run out of items or not have them ready at all times. To me, this means that they’re producing high-quality “artisan” barbecue in small batches, with the intent to only serve the freshest possible product.
The bottom line: This is very good barbecue, though I’d definitely recommend the meats with bones over those without. The gourmet influences succeed across the board. Sides are outstanding, particularly the vegetables. Holy Smokes is a solid place to which I would eagerly make the 80 minute drive. It's comfortably casual, classy enough to take your wife or a date to, and the beef ribs are fantastic.