What’s On My Plate: Smokin’ Betty’s

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Like the Delaware, there is a tidal element to Philadelphia barbecue. As this city has no native barbecue tradition, what barbecue we do have here either comes to us from outsiders who bring their own traditions with them or enterprising locals who decide they’ll try their hand at making the stuff. And every so often, we get waves of both flooding the city. Usually, these waves recede as mediocre ‘cue joints close, leaving behind one or two places that do it right. Tommy Gunn’s in Manayunk and Sweet Lucy’s in the Northeast are the survivors of earlier such waves.

Unfortunately, neither of these can be found in or close to the Gayborhood. Center City ‘cue aficionados have generally had to venture beyond the confines of their world to find anything worth eating. Now another tide has rolled in, bringing with it a slew of new barbecue places in Center City itself: Q Tequila and BBQ in the former Philadelphia Fish & Co. space in Old City, Devil’s Alley on Chestnut near Rittenhouse Square, and now Smokin’ Betty’s, the stylish new restaurant right in the Gayborhood itself.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Smokin’ Betty’s, for all the signs pointed in the wrong direction. First, it was owned by the people behind Devil’s Alley, whose barbecued ribs weren’t really worthy of the term “barbecue” when I had them — if they were truly barbecued, I couldn’t detect any evidence of it, what with the charred crust and chewy meat. Second, the owners had clearly went to a fair bit of expense converting what was formerly two nondescript small buildings at 11th and Sansom into a modernist composition that on the inside combines architectural elements of a roadhouse, a Soho loft, and a Rittenhouse Square watering hole. The overall effect was very impressive — and generally speaking, places that serve really good barbecue don’t have impressive architecture, because they prefer to plow their money into the meat.

Then there was the menu, which, although it had all the barbecue basics, went far afield from barbecue into the standard American casual restaurant repertoire. Again, places that do barbecue well tend to focus on it to the near total exclusion of everything else.

And finally, there was no barbecue smell. Barbecue joints usually announce their presence with the distinct aroma of wood smoke well before you step in the door. Here I was greeted only by courteous staff and that new-building smell.

So imagine my surprise when I ordered a little of everything — the trio of BBQ sliders (pulled pork, chicken, and brisket) and the barbecue sampler platter (a quarter chicken and a quarter-slab of St. Louis-style ribs) — and discovered that this place does barbecue well, or at least well enough.

The ribs — available with either dry (with a dry rub) or wet (coated in sauce before serving) — had a nice pink color on the inside, which real barbecued ribs should have, and were tender with a decent smoky flavor. The chicken was a bigger surprise: it too tasted as though it had been slow-smoked, in contrast to most of the barbecued chicken I’ve eaten; slow-smoking is not a prerequisite for serving barbecued chicken and in fact is not the way barbecued chicken is usually prepared. The brisket slider almost melted in my mouth, and the pulled pork was acceptable, though it could have benefitted from a little Carolina-style sauce, which Smokin’ Betty’s does not offer In contrast to the chicken on the sampler platter, the chicken slider left a little to be desired, as it was somewhat bland.

The macaroni and cheese was an unusually creamy variation on the traditional side; it seemed to me that the cheese sauce had a hint of sour cream in it. The best variation on a traditional side dish, however, had to be the Carolina cole slaw. If you are the sort of person who shuns coleslaw because of the richness of the mayonnaise-y dressing, you must, repeat must, hie yourself to Smokin’ Betty’s and have some of this. Its lightness, crispness and tanginess all stem from the use of a vinegar-based dressing, just like Carolina barbecue sauce, and that makes it like no coleslaw I’ve had around here.

The waitstaff were all friendly and efficient to boot.

There are still some finishing touches left to do on the building, most on the outisde, but also in the downstairs tap room, which will have somewhere in the neighborhood of two dozen beers on tap when it opens; for now, there’s a decent selection at the upstairs bar.

I’ve heard comments from some others who weren’t as impressed with Smokin’ Betty’s, and to be fair, you will still get better ‘cue at Sweet Lucy’s in the Northeast or Dwight’s in West Philly. But if you’re not looking to venture beyond Center City, or if you have a hankering for ribs or pulled pork but your dining companions don’t, the folks here at least have the fundamentals down. This is a good option that should please everyone.

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