- By Elizabeth Lenhard For the AJC
The name of this chic new Asian-inflected barbecue joint makes a particular promise. You’re going to get smoke — in the form of barbecued pork, brisket and chicken — and you’ll get duck sauce, the fruity glaze that can turn Chinese takeout into dessert-as-dinner.
Does the promise deliver? Copiously — at least when it comes to the sweet stuff. Sides such as pickled carrots and radish and sesame-scented Asian slaw are sweet first, tangy second. And sauces like teriyaki barbecue, maple mustard and, of course, the house duck sauce are zingy but also sweet to a cloying fault.
And what of that smoke, whose pungency could have so deftly deflected all that sugar?
Well, that was curiously absent on a recent Sunday afternoon. Curiously because this ’cue looks beautifully burnished. The char on our slabs of brisket and pulled pork was crackly, crisp and a little bit chewy — the perfect texture. Underneath that sublime crust, the meat was tender, if a little dry, and tasty in its fatty mildness.
It’s just that there was a barely a whiff of smoke about it.
At a barbecue place, you’d think such a flaw would be fatal, but I actually don’t think it is.
That’s because Smoke and Duck Sauce uses super-fresh, high-quality ingredients and prepares them with cheerful skill. The menu is as minimalist and classy as the joint’s decor, which is industri-dorable — all mottled concrete floors and warm wood-plank walls, dangling, mismatched Edison bulbs and glossy, cherry-red bar stools. Even the restrooms are strikingly stylish, with herringboned glass tile and a sleek countertop sink — details you rarely find in fast-casual shopping center storefronts like this one.
Most of all, Smoke and Duck Sauce’s Southern plus Asian shtick is charming, from the chopsticks and soy sauce packets stacked by the napkin dispenser to the classic Chinese takeout cartons to the fried rice, spring rolls and sweet and sour sauces on the menu.
The best way to have fun with this food is in its platters, which are compiled in four steps:
1) Meat that includes smoked brisket, grilled chicken, pulled pork and ribs.
2) A nest of white or fried rice or perky, fresh salad greens.
3) Two sides, ranging from a buttery charred half-ear of corn to perfectly al dente broccoli dotted with minced garlic to a fresh but bland stew of lima beans and brisket bits in a tomatoey broth.
4) Those acid/sweet sauces, the best of which is the least sweet — a spicy hot pepper sauce.
If you have the patience, try to assemble each bite from three or more of these components. Try, for instance, a dollop of sticky fried rice with some crusty brisket, a shallow dip in teriyaki barbecue sauce and some pickled cucumbers. All those textures and flavors dance beautifully together, and the acid from the pickle slices through the sugar in the sauce. A pinch of crisp greens, pork and pickled carrots in your chopsticks is another winner.
Or you could go the lazier route of ordering a sandwich. The Country Market sandwich is perhaps the only item on the menu that doesn’t have either a heap or hint of Asian flavor, and yet it’s still fun — a smash of meat (we went for a fine, moist chicken breast), pepper jack cheese and red onion between toasty slices of egg bread. It’s tasty and comforting even if it doesn’t feel like a fit for the restaurant’s vibe.
The same could be said for the one dessert (aside from a freezer full of King of Pops). “HK French Toast” is three slim sandwiches of warm, eggy bread, molten bananas and a thin smear of almond butter, all perched on a drizzle of caramelized condensed milk. Even if it’s incongruous — but for that golden milky syrup which reminds me of Vietnamese or Thai coffee — it’s well executed and, ironically, not oversweet.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this imperfect but appealing cafe is its location, less than a mile from Heirloom Market BBQ, the well-established, smoke-a-licious, always-a-line-out-the-door Korean-Southern meat fest.
I’m in no way saying there’s not a market for two Asian/Southern BBQ joints so close to each other. Believe me, an abundance of this cuisine would be as welcome to me as a taco truck on every corner.
And of course, there are countless ways that these places differ. Most notably, Smoke and Duck Sauce is a quick but comfortable sit-down spot, while Heirloom puts its dine-in crowd at stand-up tables on the patio.
But when it comes to the food, to smoke-infused meat and sultry sauces and irresistible sides, Smoke and Duck Sauce is no competition for its very close neighbor.
Even so, I hope this clever, plucky place survives — especially if it can manage to bring on a little more smoke and a little less duck sauce.
Smoke and Duck Sauce
2014 Powers Ferry Road, Atlanta. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-9 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. 678-888-2070, smokeandducksauce.com.