Review Date: 08/30/17
Visit Dates: (09/03/16) (08/26/17)
Located on busy Main Street just a stone's throw away from the harbor, Smoke Shack Blues is a relatively new joint (2015 vintage) that takes the counter service approach. There's seating both in front of the cafeteria line and in the more kid-friendly area around the back. Mailbox-shaped Ole Hickory smokers are visible in the kitchen. Smoke Shack Blues has no bar, but a nice selection of beers is available. They host musical entertainment on weekends.
The Smoke Shack Blues menu is a nice compromise between compactness and flexibility. Core meats include ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked chicken, hot links, pastrami and smoked wings. Sandwiches include the basics from above (alone and in combinations), a brisket Reuben, a Cuban, chicken salad and a smoked burger. Six different salads, a few varieties of fries, chicken fingers and a soup of the day round things out for the non-barbecue eaters. There's a 2-meat combo and a larger 2-meat combo for two.
I visited Smoke Shack Blues for weekend dinners once each in back-to-back summers, both times with Young Bride and a cousin or two.
Wings: I can't recall whether Smoke Shack Blues offered multiple wings flavors in its earliest days, but I remember trying them as they came and that the sauce was deferential to the wings themselves, letting the natural chicken flavor shine along with a simple rub. Sometimes simplicity works, and this was a good example.
On the 2017 visit, we tried both the Glazed Sweet and Habanero varieties ($9). On the menu they're listed as whole wings, but they came in individual pieces (which I prefer) that were very large. The Sweet had a lot of coating; the Habanero just a little. Neither sauce jumped out as special and the Habanero wasn't particularly hot, but as a whole both styles were still very impressive. Crisp outside, fully moist inside, very meaty, very chickeny and noticeably smoky, these wings were a success.
Ribs: On the 2016 visit a third rack of short but very meaty babybacks arrived on butcher paper along with the rest of the order on a single tray, separated into individual bones and served unsauced. The end of the rack yielded a good two and a half inches of pork meat beyond that last bone. All of the ribs had a light crust and a fair amount of flavorful rub with salt singing the loudest. Overall flavor was very strong, bringing nice porkiness and recognizable smoke. The downside was the texture: as hinted by the cross sections, the ribs were pretty dry. A full rack on another table had a similar look. Despite this major shortcoming, there were enough positives to still want to give these ribs another try on another day. But the positives with the meats that followed provided additional reasons.
That "another day" came a week shy of one year later. This time the ribs were St Louis cut spares, tried on a 2-meat combo ($20 with two sides) that allotted three of them. The crisp and lightly rubbed crust shielded more delicate meat beneath that slipped off very easily without falling off. Smoke content was fairly high, as was moistness that more than flirted with juicy. A notch below elite, but very solid.
Pulled Pork: Speaking of similar looks, on the first visit I checked out a few of the trays that emerged while we were waiting for our ribs and brisket, and as soon as I saw a magnificent mini mountain of pulled pork (still one of the most appealing pork visuals I've ever witnessed), I knew we weren't leaving the place until we had one of our own. The half pound platter ($14 with two sides) we received wasn't as pink looking or as juicy as that one I saw earlier, but it was still pretty close. Bark was very densely mixed in and the meat had plenty of moisture with juices trickling easily. The bite felt as good as it looked, bringing a faint crunch from the bark and a luscious, yielding interior that was perfectly cooked to avoid both stiffness and mushiness; I'd wager that this pork was very recently pulled from the smoker with no refrigeration after smoking. Flavor was pleasant without being especially noteworthy. I wouldn't call this pork bland by any means, but it wasn't as porky or as strong of rub as the ribs. In somewhat of a flip-flop from the ribs, flavor let the fabulous texture do the heavy lifting. Adding a little vinegar sauce from the squeeze bottle on the table took care of this in a jiffy, making this pork one of the better examples I've had in the past couple of years.
The 2017 visit's pulled pork was equally impressive visually, though there was another flip-flop: with the flavor and texture. This time the rub, smoke and porkiness were all ramped up to mid-level or better in all three. Texture took a bit of a hit, with some flakiness and some areas less moist than others, but all of it was properly tender. A hit of vinegar sauce again did the trick.
Brisket: Tried on round 1 of the 2016 visit, the brisket ($17 for a half pound with two sides) outshined the ribs and pork by combining a flavor-packed punch like the former and a perfect texture like the latter. This brisket had everything you could ask for. Lengthy slices with plenty of wobble but maintaining their integrity. Dark, crisp bark with plenty of rub to be felt and tasted. An attractive pink tint. Strong beefy flavor. Strong smoky flavor. Perfect tenderness with a near melt-in-mouth quality. Plenty of juices that remained in play for the entirety of the bite. This was easily one of the ten best servings of brisket I've ever tasted and I left itching to come back for more.
The 2017 visit scratched that itch by again including brisket on the first round. This time the pink color and smoke ring were virtually absent, so the assumption around the table was that it wouldn't live up to expectation. Sometimes looks can be deceptive: this brisket delivered good crunch in the crust, nice saltiness in the rub, good tenderness further in, and sufficient moistness. While it was a step down from that first offering, this brisket was still impressive (easily upper third). Plates I saw being prepared after our order looked more like the 2016 batch,
Taking both servings into account, I'd rank Smoke Shack Blues brisket as the best on Long Island and one of the top dozen or so among all the joints in the PigTrip directory.
Pastrami: Tried on the second visit as a sandwich ($13), the bright red pastrami with dark bark filled a soft bun with three layers of meat. There wasn't any of the dreaded roast beefy texture here; this was fresh, succulent product that leaked juices and supplied cure flavor every bit as bold as the visual. Whole grain deli style mustard completed the package.
Smoke Shack Blues keeps things simple with two plastic squeeze bottles at every table. The choices are Sweet Red (literally red, tomatoey, ketchupy with a little more sweetness) and Carolina Red (vinegar sauce with lots of "pucker" and plenty of pepper flakes and other spices).
Cole Slaw: A crunchy but fairly generic mayo-based version.
Baked Beans: A few different varieties of bean in a strictly savory sauce. Texturewise they struck a midpoint between firm and soft.
Collard Greens: Served in an ice cream style paper cup on the first visit and a boat the second, the collard greens brought large green wilting leaves with a fairly natural vegetable flavor. A brothy liquid kept them moist, and butter and salt kicked in on the second try, but the natural vegetable essence was the predominant component. Little bits of meat helped out too—shreds the first time, chunks of bacon and quarter slices of sausage the second. Hearty and good, though enemies of sodium might disagree.
Mac and cheese: A bowl of thick ziti had a thickish cheese sauce the first time and a thinner one the second time, but both times they clung well. There was no mistaking the heavy use of butter in the sauce, which could make the dish or make it worth skipping, depending on your preference (if anyone's asking, I'd get it again in a heartbeat). Either way, it's one of the most memorable mac and cheeses out there.
Cornbread: A mini loaf brings a slightly crunchy crown, a mildly sweet cakey taste with lemony notes, and a coarse texture and much lighter density than you'd expect.
Parking can be a challenge, especially in the summer. But in addition to street parking, there's a fairly large lot about a block down and across the street.
The Bottom Line
Everything I tried over the course of two visits was either excellent or a near-miss with high potential. Pricing might be a little high for what you get, but not by much, and the tariff for me is justified by the high-quality.
From the Smoke Shack Blues website:
According to chef/owner Jonathan Levine, barbecue food is all about "Standards." He goes on to say, "We're supplying a product that's usually not out here on the island. You either have to drive into Brooklyn or Manhattan to get this type of food." Smoke Shack Blues is officially closing that gap.
That first sentence is music to my ears and I agree wholeheartedly. It's easy to talk the talk (many barbecue joints do), but Smoke Shack Blues has more than kept its promise (most barbecue joints don't), so I wholeheartedly agree with that last sentence as well.
Smoke Shack Blues is not only one of the two best barbecue joints on Long Island, but would even hold its own against most barbecue joints in Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you're on Long island and looking for fresh, flavorful 'cue—along with a fun day out at a scenic location—Smoke Shack Blues gets a thumbs-up from me.
Yelp reviews of Smokeshack Blues
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