No Jacket Required / Smoke on the Water
Pork belly tacos feature smoky charred meat and fresh Southeast Asian flavors.
Photos by kc kratt
Smoke on the Water
77 Young St., Tonawanda, 692-4227 or sotw77.com
Open 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday.
When I tell people that I’ve recently been to Smoke on the Water, I’ll sometimes get the response, “Oh, yeah! I’ve heard about that place. I’ve been meaning to try it.” To paraphrase Yoda, with barbecue this good, “Do. There is no try.” The sooner you get there, the sooner you can make it a regular stop.
You are probably familiar with the owners. The Richert brothers, Mark, James (JJ), who studied at The Culinary Institute of America and is a Nickel City Chef, and Kevin were the talent behind the (now closed) beloved Torches of Kenmore. While their chef chops are undisputed in these parts, this endeavor was born of a brotherly, if slightly competitive, love of barbecuing.
The Richerts bought the building in Tonawanda in 2011 and completely renovated it, finishing the work the day they opened, July fourth 2012. It’s not palatial, but it is charming, lively, and thoughtfully designed. The fifteen-seat bar is backed by knowledgeable and friendly keeps who know their way around a seasonal craft cocktail list and can sling an interesting array of beer that includes, in addition to the usual domestics like Bud (excuse me, “America”) and Labatt, many local brews like Hamburg Irish Red, Woodcock Brothers Amber Ale, 4-Mile Mango Wheat, Southern Tier IA, and Big Ditch Hayburner. Add to this the worth-the-wait nitro drafts of Empire Cream Ale, Sierra Nevada Knightro, and Sam Adams White Ale, a unique whiskey selection, and a four-tap frozen drink dispenser for fast and easy boozy slushies, and you’ve got yourself one sweet saloon.
Proximal to the bar is inside seating for around twenty-five diners and, in fair weather, outside the upper deck seats twice that number with the lower deck overlooking Ellicott Creek providing another small eating area and dockage space for five boats. If you don’t arrive via waterway, there are parking spaces out front and more than 100 public parking spaces behind Walgreens, solving any lingering parking concerns for this busy corner establishment. It should be mentioned how incredibly gorgeous the view is from the decks with the creek edged by lush greenery and dotted with lazily motoring watercraft and dock lights festively illuminating the dusk.
As for the smoking process, the method has a touch of madness. Signature smoked meats (pork, ribs, chicken, turkey, fish) are created in several unique, hand-built smokers. The custom water wheel smoker is hydro powered, with a Ferris wheel-esque rotisserie inside. Also note the tricked out 1966 Corvair, under the hood of which is another smoker, not to mention the wood-fired pizza oven.
Blackened grouper dinner
As human beings, we love smoked meat, and it should be noted that Smoke on the Water won Spree’s 2016 Best Of Western New York for best barbecue sides, so we were eager to tuck in. So, without further ado, here’s the skinny on the meal.
We started with a dainty little amuse bouche of pork belly tacos ($10). Just kidding. This appetizer is a meal in itself and there are two per order! The ratio of tender smoky meat, unctuous fat, crunchy cucumber radish slaw, tart and spicy thin slices of pickled ginger, briny homemade pickles, sweet chili sauce, creamy sour cream, and doughy grilled tortilla creat a great mix of flavors, colors, and textures, as well as a lovely presentation.
Another enormous thing we ordered is the “Hand Grenade” ($8): a baked potato piled with smoked pork, gobs of melted cheddar, sweetish barbecue sauce, sour cream, and a sprinkling of scallions. Again, not a light snack, but eagerly quartered and devoured.
SOTW’s take on beans and greens is a bowl of soupy sweet baked beans mixed with mandarin orange segments, collard greens, and apple wood smoked bacon. The thinking behind this dish may be that it usually ends up all mixed together on the plate, anyway, but blended in a bowl it’s a little…much. Lost in the mix is the stand-alone salty, smoky astringency of the greens.
Ta-Tas: These tater tots, smothered in nacho cheese sauce with a dash of what tasted like Frank’s, were an instant favorite at the table, crispy and salty with the cheese sauce congealing (in a good way) on the tots in a creamy protective layer. I almost wished I had a hangover so I could enjoy them even more. Another spud-inspired side, the roasted potatoes, are not as successful.
The brisket in the brisket dinner ($17) is meltingly tender with an assertive smokiness. The meat is surprisingly lean. It’s practically begging to be picked up on the way home from work and made into po’boys for an easy dinner. We had to get ribs, and the half rack dinner ($16) hits the spot.
Comforting in any season, the Nickel City Mac & Cheese is a concoction of very tender pasta tossed in a garlic-tinged blue cheesy béchamel, topped with a squirt of barbecue sauce, scallions, and a friendly smattering of goldfish crackers.
If you order the Cubano ($12), don't expect a tidy compressed Cuban sandwich. The Cubano cannot be tamed and is a gloriously loose construction of pulled pork, Virginia ham, house made pickles, cilantro, and lime topped with a Cajun-inspired herby mayonnaise and mustard on a big Kaiser roll. Don’t even try to cut it in half. Just brace your elbows on either side of your plate and dig in.
The blackened grouper dinner ($16) was an unexpected favorite. Your barbecued protein doesn’t have to have fur or feathers, it turns out. This smoky salty fish is exceedingly tender and flavorful, seasoned with SOTW’s peppery blend of spices and topped with a slaw of thinly sliced crunchy cucumber, radish, and carrot in a cilantro salad, and Sriracha tartar sauce, served on a bed of romaine. A side of crisp sweet potato fries complements the soft and savory fish.
Specials on the board that night sounded intriguing—tuna poke tacos, soft shell crab sandwich, smoked prime rib, and Tommy Bahama Steampot, but we stuck to the menu. Desserts, made in house, include pecan pie, root beer float, and chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, which, of course, none of us could manage to stuff down our already overburdened craws. Next time!
Wendy Guild Swearingen is senior editor of Spree.