SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS, there's probably a custom-made Traeger with more square footage than the entire interior of Smokehouse 21. But considering some of that state's more notable contributions to the last half century have been George W. Bush, Mark David Chapman, and Enron, why should we trust that their affinity for all things bigger has any bearing on all things better.
Toward the tail end of last year, Chef BJ Smith—formerly of the slightly more hoity and far more toity downtown "dinerant" the Original—converted the old (and ever-so-excellent) Tanuki broom closet on NW 21st into a bona-fide Texas-style barbecue joint. Actually, it feels a little roomier than the old incarnation and seats 22 without feeling cramped (and lest you spend the rest of your day reeking of applewood and hickory, the smoker is chained up outside).
The daily menu features all of the usual BBQ suspects—your brisket, your ribs, your pulled pork, your hot links, your BBQ chicken—but Smith isn't afraid to step outside the confines of a meat and three sides. He does an excellent smoked trout with lemon fennel butter, and has a rotating specials board that might feature anything from lamb ribs to a smoked hog head pâté.
On my first visit I ordered as the waitress advised: the smoked brisket plate ($13). I wasn't disappointed. The brisket had a wonderful texture—tender but not overdone, just the right amount of char. The smoky flavor is definitely apparent, but I wouldn't have minded tasting a little bit more of the rub. I'm all for subtlety, sure, but it could have used a little bit more spice, something a little bolder. That said, Podnah's aside (and, okay, maybe far to the side), good luck finding better brisket in the city. My minor quibbles were easily forgotten once I started in with the house-made sauces—traditional BBQ, spicy, vinegar, and mustard.
I was less impressed with the ribs ($15 for a half rack/$26 for a full). Again, the texture was great—the meat falls right off the bone—but their blandness was more pronounced. They're easily enjoyable drenched in spicy BBQ sauce, but I'm not sure that should be the standard by which we measure these things (as all-too-many BBQ restaurants prove, white bread is pretty tasty when it's doused in a good sauce). I would have liked a more pronounced flavor, something that stood out even when, not having been shrewd enough to take any sauce home with me, I heated up the leftovers the next day (leftovers, at any reputable BBQ joint—for those of us without type-2 diabetes—should be standard).
The brisket, pulled pork, sausage, and trout are available as sandwiches as well ($8-9, including one side), and come served on reliably excellent bread from their neighbors at Ken's Artisan Bakery.
Where Smokehouse 21 does rival the best of Portland BBQ is in its side dishes. Normally I don't order mac 'n' cheese—it feels a little too much like an entrée for me—but on the server's recommendation I tried it. And I'm pleased I did. It comes served in a small baking dish topped with a crisp breadcrumb crust. The inside has a good consistent texture, and just enough bacon to add some flavor without overwhelming it. The BBQ beans came in the same small baking dish, and, similarly, are topped with a cornbread crust. They have a sweet molasses flavor that's offset by, yet again, just enough bacon.
The greens might be a little sharp, a little vinegary, for some, but they were right up my alley. If you're looking for a side that doesn't come with bacon (nerd), you can opt for coleslaw or a pickle plate (changes seasonally, but mine came with cauliflower, carrots, and brussels sprouts). Sides, on their own, go for $3 each.
Beer drinkers can choose from a dozen or so craft and domestic beers, all of which come in a can (which, in turn—and in true Southern fashion—come served in custom Smokehouse 21 beer koozies), and wine drinkers have at least a few palatable options (but, c'mon, you're eating barbecue).
Smokehouse 21 may not be a game changer, may not be hailed as Restaurant of the Year by any local alternative weeklies, but from now on, when some smug Southerner asks, "Is there anywhere in this town that serves decent barbecue?" you'll have a longer list than just Podnah's and Russell Street.