Smoqe BBQ – Aptos, CA
10110 Soquel Dr
Aptos, CA 95003
Sometimes, things are tougher than they seem.
At least, I figure it must be this way, since there are many things that should be pretty easy, and yet, are usually poorly executed. Hamburgers are a perfect example. It doesn’t take much to make a good hamburger. Some nice meat, decent bun, nice fresh condiments and cheese. Yet, so many places fail. It must be more complex than I make it out to be. I feel the same way about BBQ.
In the tiny village of Aptos, just outside Santa Cruz, CA, there already exists a BBQ shop, Aptos BBQ, that serves up good ol fashioned smoked BBQ. Yet, in an embarrassment of riches, on December 9, 2009, a second BBQ shop opened up. Smoqe BBQ.
The Smoqe BBQ philosophy is simple – cooked on 100% wood, dry rubbed and slow smoked for hours. Sounds simply perfect. They pride themselves on their pizza as well – time consuming dough, all organic ingredients, wood fired oven. They’ve taken some very simple dishes, and put in the time and effort to make them as perfect as possible.
When you first walk in, the order counter sits at the front. A fairly simple, yet extensive menu is available. Some fantastic selection of beers on tap, including Leffe, Black Butte Porter, and one of my favorite IPA’s ever, Racer 5 from Bear Republic. You order from the gentleman at the front, who may or may not greet you, grab a number, and take a seat.
In terms of the interior, everything is clean and minimalistic. There is quite a bit of distance between tables – which is usually nice for privacy, but definitely kills a bit of the atmosphere.
One nice touch though is the soda machine has two water taps – one still, one sparkling. Not sure why more places don’t do it, but i think it’s a fantastic touch.
While I often find myself on the road eating alone, I really prefer trying new places in groups. It gives me a much broader exposure to the menu. This time, im with a couple people, but thankfully big eaters.
The first thing that caught my eye was house made bbq chips. As i’ve mentioned in the past, I love chips. While i’ve had some hits and misses, such as the chips at Central BBQ, I’ll never stop ordering them. These are actually quite good. Crisp, nice BBQ flavour without tasting of “chemical burn” that synthetic BBQ flavouring usually causes. Nice potato flavour, but a touch too thick means a few chips are undercooked. Overall though, a good order of fresh chips.
As another appetizer, we try the smoked chicken wings. Frenched drumettes, they are a mix of sweet, tangy, salty and smoky. A touch dry, but they are decent.
One thing I dont typically like is coleslaw, so im a bit disappointed when one of the other tasters wants some “greens” to help cut the meat bias. Most coleslaw’s i’ve seen are typically one of two varieties – either the creamy variety, or the light oil and vinegar dressing type of coleslaw, and i don’t like either of them. The creamy dressings tend to take away from the crisp freshness of the cabbage, and the vinegar/oil combination leaves the salad tasting oily, and unbalanced.
This coleslaw is one of the best slaw’s i’ve ever had – a really nice balance of fresh, with creamy and acidity. This was really good slaw – definitely worth ordering.
Other than BBQ, another thing that Smoqe prides themselves on is their pizza. Cooked in a wood fired oven with their own fermented dough,
There’s a lot of elements that go into cooking a great pizza. While great ingredients are important, technique, and heat control are equally key. Not knowing what they run their oven at, and guessing it’s 600 to 700F, didnt inspire confidence.
The pie that comes out is actually fairly attractive. Heavily topped, a decent looking crust, im excited to dig in.
A closer examination shows that my concerns are valid. Upskirt shows off color, little to no spotting, and if you take a closer look, lumpy dough – pockets of flour that werent properly hydrated.
A look at the crust tells the tale – the crumb is wet, with a glie like consistency. Bad bubbling, and the crust is underdone. Shows that the air temperature above the pizza was probably quite reasonable, but the surface temperature of the oven was way way too low.
The pizza, unsurprisingly, is not good. I find it inedible. My dining companions feel that is overly harsh – and it only falls into the disappointing yet edible category. Needless to say, I would pass on the pizza.
True test of Southern BBQ is the slab or the rack. We order up a full slab of BBQ ribs, slow smoked in their external smokehouse for 14 hours. It comes with a nice rub and loads of char, and your choice of BBQ sauce on the side. The caramelization of the rub shows a bit too much heat – but I still have high hopes.
The ribs at Smoqe result in mixed opinions. This time, my dining companions do not like the ribs – finding them dry, and a bit “mealy” due to over cooking. I actually think the flavour is ok, and that while the meat is a bit dry, overall, it dosnt bother me that much. The rub has a nice flavour – and while a touch dry, still decent. It’s edible for sure.
Next order to test their skills in the pit are with the pulled pork. More often than not, pulled pork suffers from overcooked syndrome – in trying to get great smoke flavour, it inevitably dries out, and is then soaked in sauce to “rehydrate” the meat.
However, the pulled pork at Smoqe is different. Unlike the ribs, this pork is succulent and juicy. There is a mild smoke flavour, but the contrast of sweet, salty, and smoke is wonderful. The sauce adds a second dynamic, making for a fantastic pulled pork. My understanding is they smoke it for 6 hours – which seems like the perfect amount. Saves the moisture, but has the flavour.
Lastly, switching from Southern to Texas BBQ, Smoqe serves up smoked beef brisket. The problem with brisket is inexperienced pit masters invariably overcook it, with too high heat. It ends up dry, and failing to break down the collagen into gelatin, tough. This brisket is bad. We didnt finish it. Enough said.
So looking back, i really liked the pulled pork, the coleslaw, and the chips, the ribs were average, and everything else was pretty poor. The good news is, they have a sandwich special there that pretty much takes care of me – their pulled pork sandwich, which comes with coleslaw, chips, pickle, and bbq sauce. A huge mound of pulled pork on a firm bun, this sandwich is fantastic, Chewy, tender, and flavourful, for $8, this is one of the best values in the entire country.
Looking at Smoqe objectively, i find them a bit inconsistent. They do some things amazingly well, and others amazingly poorly. I dont quite understand how an establishment that has figured out how to make great pulled pork can utterly fail on brisket and ribs. I’ve also had a couple sandwiches (typically later in the evening) that ended up a bit mediocre, but overall, in all the sampling ive tried, this combo is the only thing to order. There’s a lot of potential here – i’ll be interested in seeing what happens to them over the next year or two. I’ll reserve judgement for now, but I would definitely try the pulled pork sandwich if you’re in the area.