When it comes to the truly hidden gems of the Napa Valley, there are several wineries and maybe just a handful of eateries (some brick-and-mortar, some on wheels). Among the latter category, my recent favorite has been Smoakville, a tucked-away barbecue joint that you would probably never discover by accident, unless you took a wrong turn into a hidden cul-de-sac. The fact that Smoakville is geared mostly for take-out makes it all the more elusive – it’s a tiny storefront, with just one table inside and one single picnic table out by the curb.
Like any decent barbecue purveyor, Smoakville offers a small-yet-carnivorous menu, but one that also remains fool-proof, as every item is well-executed, right down to the side dishes, right down to the house-made pickles. I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the Smoakville menu the over last several weeks, and I’ve become sold on the place. Smoakville has quickly become one of my Napa Valley favorites, and quite frankly, it fills a gaping void here in wine country.
But before I delve into the specifics of Smoakville, let’s just take a step back and talk about barbecue in general.
The biggest cliché in barbecue criticism (if we can focus upon this singular niche of food writing for a moment) is the review that begins with “I’m from (insert Southern state here), so I know barbecue.” This assumed expertise is absolutely absurd, and I hate it. For one thing, there are at least three different schools of American barbecue, each thriving in its own region, and each claiming superiority over the rest. There’s already a strong built-in bias towards other perfectly good versions of barbecue.
Even when you set these biases aside, another issue remains: Consider the notion that there’s good barbecue and bad barbecue in the world, and that some of the bad barbecue actually exists in the South. By the same token, I can find bad pizza in New York City, and I know for a fact that there are examples of lousy Mexican food here in California. Mediocre restaurants can get by on location, low prices, convenience, or any combination of the above.
Whatever the case may be, to assume that every person in California is an expert on Mexican food is ridiculous. If this idea was true, then Californians wouldn’t dine at the mediocre places. But they do. And if you’re still reading this rant, then you can probably see the conclusion that I’m about to draw: Just because you hail from a certain culinary region, doesn’t mean that you’ve ever developed discerning taste. Maybe you have. But maybe you haven’t. Just being from somewhere isn’t enough to be an authority on the cuisine.
I’m a native Californian, and personally, my favorite version of barbecue is Carolina barbecue, mainly because I like vinegar in my sauce and I like pork on my plate. But you can bet I wouldn’t turn down any Texas barbecue if it was good. And what makes it good? Seasoning, succulence. After that, secret sauces and secret spice rubs are great, but these elements cater to personal taste more than anything.
And so that brings me to Smoakville, where everything I’ve had thus far has been very well-prepared and delicious. It’s good, old-fashioned, from-scratch cookery, and the quality and know-how is evident. The local hook is that Smoakville uses old wine barrels (and thus, oak, and this its moniker) to smoke its meats. True-school Southerners, at least the ones who actually know barbecue, may not accept French oak staves in place of pecan, but I say leave your prejudices back in the Bible Belt. You’re in Napa now.