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 yet 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, from a Heitzman’s bakery to a branch of Bootleg Barbecue. 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 U of L 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, turkey breast – although an “Eat more possum” sign behind the counter is a joke: American’s marsupial is not on the menu, I was firmly assured.
Barbecue is available in sandwiches or sandwich platters with sides, oversize “barnyard special” sandwiches or platters; full dinner entrees, 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, ranging 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? They’ve got two dozen sides, most priced at $2.99 for an order, $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 ($14.99), 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 they serve it 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 no problem here, where the meats came out au naturel, and they are good.
Brisket was good and smoky, tender and flavorful, with a juicy fatty edge that reveals its source in a whole beef brisket.
It’s always a treat to find mutton in a Louisville barbecue shop. This western Kentucky speciality remains scarce in the city, where it seems to make a lot of 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.
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 al right. 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. Slaw was fine-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. Deep-fried pearl onions were crunchy and addictive; thankfully there were plenty of them.
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.
Holy Smokes Bar-B-Que & Catering
7508 Preston Highway
Robin Garr’s rating: 88 points
Noise level: Even with the room about half full and Journey’s Wheel in the Sky on the sound system, conversation was easy. (Average sound was 67dB, the level of normal conversation.)
Accessibility: The entrance and restrooms are accessible to unassisted wheelchair users, but be aware that the parking slots in front are on a fairly steep grade that may take some effort to push up in a wheelchair.