I found myself nurturing a fierce craving for barbecue the other day, and a quick trip out to Holy Smokes Bar-B-Que in Okolona set that right. This friendly, neighborhood eatery gets smoked meat right.
I got a chuckle out of Holy Smokes’ logo, too, a hefty, cute cartoon porker with a big smile and a happy wave, wearing a red T-shirt (but no pants) and a baseball cap that bears a pair of angel wings and a golden halo.
The venue is simple and functional, just as you want in a barbecue shop. The building has been through many uses, including a Heitzman Bakery and a branch of Bootleg Bar-B-Q. There may have once been a small church on the property, the woman behind the counter said.
Wooden tables and red-and-black dinette chairs are comfortable, and the bright red and dark blue decor signals the region’s divided collegiate sports rivalries. “A house divided,” declares a large, red-and-blue wall display with a UofL cardinal, UK monogram and exactly equal numbers of posters, pennants and license plates celebrating both teams.
Order at the service window on the left, pick up your tray when your name is called from the window on the right and enjoy a fine and filling barbecue meal. The menu, posted on the wall and available as a handout, is extensive. Just about any kind of meat that can be smoked is available here — pulled pork, pulled chicken, beef brisket, mutton, spare ribs, baby back ribs, chopped rib tips, Virginia ham and turkey breast — although an “Eat more possum” sign behind the counter is a joke: America’s marsupial is not on the menu, I was firmly assured.
The extensive menu has many categories: barbecue in sandwiches; sandwich platters with sides; oversize “barnyard special” sandwiches and platters; full dinner entrées; family meals for sharing; chicken-and-rib combos and pulled meats a la carte by the half pound or full pound. Prices are easy on the wallet, from $5.99 (for a pulled pork or chicken, rib tip, pork chop, brisket or mutton sandwich without sides) to $14.99 (for a three-meat sampler platter). Family meals are $23.99 to $29.99.
You want sides? Holy Smokes has two dozen sides, most priced at $2.99 for an order and $4.99 for a pint.
We reasoned that the best way to check out a bunch of good things would be to share a three-meat sampler platter, which comes with two sides and a dinner roll, plus a few extra sides.
Holy Smokes is old-school in its approach to sauce: It serves just one style, a good, thick, tomato-based sauce that’s dark, savory, sweet-hot and tangy; and it comes in tubs on the side. Show me a barbecue joint that sends out its meat already sopping with sauce, and I’ll show you a barbecue joint that lacks confidence in the quality of its smoked meats. That’s not a problem here, as the meats came out au naturel, and they are good.
The brisket was smoky, tender and flavorful, with a juicy, fatty edge that revealed its source in a whole beef brisket.
It’s always a treat to find mutton in a Louisville barbecue shop. This Western Kentucky specialty remains scarce in the city, as it seems to make urbanites nervous. Our order had been gently pulled and was well prepared, firm but tender, not juicy but offering a good, rich mutton taste. No need for sauce for mutton lovers.
The ribs were best of all. Our order of three hefty spare ribs included one generously-thick end piece. They were charred on the outside and pink within, firm and meaty with just enough fat. Don’t let anyone tell you that ribs should be falling off the bone; that’s a pitmaster fail. These were just right, firm yet tender and yielding to the bite.
All the sides were more plain than fancy, and that’s all right. The collards were long-simmered but not mushy, not sweet, with bits of long-cooked ham to give them flavor. A cabbage casserole was long-cooked, too, country style and baked with mild cheese. The slaw was finely chopped, creamy and sweet, and a hash brown casserole reminded me of you-know-who’s — chopped, covered and smothered — to which I say: Yum. The deep-fried pearl onions were crunchy and addictive; thankfully, there were plenty of them.
The coconut cream pie ($3.79) was dull and forgettable. I wish Holy Smokes’ good cooks had paid as much attention to the pie as they obviously do to their fine barbecue.
With a cola and iced tea, a filling lunch for two — way more than we could eat in a sitting, but yay, leftovers — came to a thrifty $30.27, plus $6 for the tip jar.