Stepping into Smoke (574 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville,  891-8515, facebook.com/hickorysmokedgoodness) for the first time is to experience a moment of cognitive dissonance: The sleek industrial-chic interior is what you see, but the down-home, full-fat fragrance of slow-smoked meat is what you smell. Maybe it's just me, but the scent of righteously made barbecue evokes expectations of a very different—let's just say more rustic—ambience. Smoke's galvanized-tin-paneled dining room looks like it could be in New York or Los Angeles or any urban setting in between, but it sure smells like a backwoods barbecue stand up in there.
Baltimore County north of Towson has been desperate for just this kind of smart new restaurant; there are far too many corporate chains and bland American bistros, and far too little funk. (Note: Smoke is not quite a full-service restaurant. Customers place orders at the counter, but after that everything is served to table. BYOB is enthusiastically welcomed.) It would seem a bold maneuver to open a barbecue joint in a suburban backwater strip mall located perilously close to the excellent, and locally revered, Andy Nelson's BBQ. However, Andy Nelson's rolls very old-school, authentic 'cue, and Smoke's New American approach works a very different part of the spectrum. Both offer meat slow-smoked over hickory wood, but Andy does the traditional barbecue thing with singular pronounced flavors—vinegar, molasses, you get the idea—while Smoke's new-school 'cue takes a much more nuanced and layered approach, the food intelligently envisioned and handcrafted by people who are clearly in love with the comestibles they're crafting.
And Smoke is all about the handcrafting. "Scratch-made" applies to nearly everything, from the arsenals of barbecue sauce bottles on every table to the house-made potato chips and "kitchen" pickle that accompany every sandwich. Couple that earnest attention to culinary detail with a dash of playfulness, then mix in a whole lot of willingness to upend every classic barbecue convention, and you are in for some very interesting eats.
The "snack" menu of small plates and appetizers seems to be the playground for Smoke's more entertaining experiments. Chef/owner Josh White throws down with pork belly ($7), for example, that is like a shotgun wedding between traditional pork barbecue and Korean samgyeopsal. The pork belly chunks are crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth luscious on the inside, bathed in a take-no-prisoners chili-powered barbecue sauce. The tangy-sweet heat of the sauce couples with the acerbic bite of the accompanying pickled vegetables (carrot, radish, cauliflower) to balance all that unctuous pork—it's a deceptively simple but extremely dexterous dish.
The starter menu also features Smoke's "Righteous Mac and Cheese." The noodles stand up nobly under smoked Gouda and two kinds of cheddar for a flavorful take on classic mac. This dish truly levels up, however, once a scattering of the (house-made) barbecue-flavored potato chips gets crumbled on top. Seriously, try this. It is precisely this kind of loopy but inspired twist that makes eating at Smoke so unexpected, and so much fun. You read this on the menu and think, "Barbecue chips on mac and cheese whuuuuut?"—and then venture to try some anyway, and it's exactly right.
Not every dish needs a twist, however. The crispy chickpeas appetizer ($4), flash-fried garbanzos tossed with the house barbecue spice mix and spritzed with lime juice, is simple but fantastic. While on the subject of things vegans can eat in a barbecue joint, let's talk tofu: The smoked tofu sandwich ($7) took a minute to grow on me. The hefty slices of super-firm tofu had been smoked until what at first seemed a tad past too dry—but what is ultimately, one quickly realizes, the perfect state for soaking up the magnificent (house-made, of course) jalepeño-pineapple barbecue sauce on the side. The result is a gloriously gloppy yet substantial sandwich (the brioche-style roll is a nice choice) that even non-vegans will find reason to love.
The grilled romaine "salad" ($8) is more than large enough for two, and it's vegetarian if ordered without the bits of house-smoked bacon, though that smoky richness complements well the creamy, thyme-infused blue cheese dressing on top of an entire flash-seared head of lettuce. There is one other veg-friendly offering, but it's the sole item I tried at Smoke that just really did not work out. The salad days ($9) features romaine lettuce topped with chicharrón "croutons," fried green tomatoes, marinated red peppers, and togarashi (Japanese chile-based spice mix)-tossed pepitas. The dressing, a smoked tomato vinaigrette, struggles to unite this veritable United Nations of ingredients into one harmonious whole, but ultimately does not succeed.
The heart of the menu is, of course, Smoke's smoked offerings. Chef White is simply some kind of smoked-meat savant—everything we tried was in a class by itself. Barbecue traditionalists used to gloriously greasy meat swimming in sauce (not that there's anything wrong with that) may be at first taken aback by White's unadorned presentation. A barbecue platter, Smoke style, is a simple arrangement of fragrant hunks of meat on a sheet of white paper laid over an aluminum plate. All else is satellite: the sauce, the sides. It's a presentation that says, please take a moment to experience this smoked offering in its naked perfection before piling on, and deluging your taste buds with, all the other accoutrements.
Many of the meat selections are available either as a sandwich, with house-made potato chips, or as a platter, with coleslaw and either mac and cheese or smoked beans. The sweet-tea brined smoked chicken is not to be missed (platter $14 half/$7 quarter chicken, sandwich $10). The crisp skin, dry-rubbed with Smoke's proprietary barbecue spice mix, holds together the fall-off-the-bone tender meat inside, which has a depth of smoky-sweet flavor that is just insanely delicious. You will be licking your fingers. The pulled pork, too, is rich and smoky, and makes a fantastic sandwich, "The Notorious P.I.G." ($9). The best way to go, at least for a first visit, may be with one of the combo/sampler plates. The Triple Dawg Dare ($22) is a mountain of meat—the smoked beef, pulled pork, and chicken—while the Phat Bastard ($27) offers smoked chicken wings, fried house-made smoked bologna and bratwurst, fried green tomatoes, and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese.
Be warned that the pit sandwich ($11) is nothing at all like our beloved local specialty, pit beef. It is, however, so good that only the most die-hard Baltimoreans will pause their devouring long enough to gripe about this fact. The smoked beef is pulled into hunks instead of sliced, and is flavorful, moist, and tender beyond belief. The beef itself has so much going on that it's almost a shame to add the crispy onions, pickled horseradish (Smoke's deliciously skewed take on traditional pit beef toppings), and house barbecue sauce, but. Do it anyway. This sandwich is so good that it caused the person who ordered it to whisper "Day-yum . . ." after the first bite and then attempt to use his entire body to shield the rest of it from our eager attempts to share it.
Smoke has all kinds of treats as yet untried—the house-made bologna, the smoked meatloaf—that leave me hankering for a return visit. And, starting after the new year, Smoke will be unleashing even more barbecue in the form of "Sunday Brunchy Sunday." From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Sunday, the staff will be rolling out dishes such as buttermilk fried chicken on a grilled black-pepper waffle with jalepeño honey ($11) and a "BYOV" (bring your own vodka) bloody mary bar with house-made mix.
Smoke's intelligent and eclectic take on New American barbecue makes it well worth the trek out of the city—nothing beats back the winter blues like a belly full of hickory-smoked goodness and a beatific, barbecue-sauce-smeared smile.
Smoke is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-8 p.m. and Sunday noon-3 p.m.