Even before Kevin Richert and his brother J.J. opened Torches, their accessible fine dining place in Kenmore, barbecue was in their blood. The brothers are competitive barbecue cooks in their "spare" time, so to speak.
So when the Richert brothers, with third brother Mark, opened a barbecue joint in the City of Tonawanda this summer, people were waiting to see what they could do. The first thing they did was make the place theirs, renovating a small corner lot alongside Ellicott Creek. They built a box smoker, and gave the former sandwich shop a barbecue joint makeover, complete with a custom bar top branded with the Smoke on the Water logo.
When we visited last month, the place was mostly full, with servers bustling through the small dining room and huge deck with drinks and trays of barbecue. We ordered a family-sized barbecue platter dubbed the "American Dream" ($75), and then filled in around the edges.
The platter includes baby back ribs, smoked pulled pork, chicken and turkey, plus four salads and three sharing-sized side dishes. The salad choices were Smoked Caprese, a sliced tomato salad with smoked mozzarella, and the Smokehouse Salad, an iceberg wedge with barbecue blue cheese dressing and bacon.
For side dishes, we asked for sweet potato waffle fries, mac and cheese, and ta-tas (tater tots with Frank's Red Hot and nacho cheese sauce).
We added a Hand Grenade ($7), a baked potato with smoked pork, cheddar cheese, sour cream as well as Sweet Chili Hog Wings ($8). The appetizer menu included sloppy Joe sliders ($8) and waffles with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup ($5).
A guest who wanted lighter fare opted for Shrimp K-Bobs ($14), "whiskey smoked" with spicy aioli. Her side was collard greens with baked beans and mandarin oranges, another creative dish on a menu full of character.
The stuffed potato arrived first, a mound the size of a small cantaloupe, with pulled pork piled into a baked potato and covered with cheese, sour cream, barbecue sauce and scallions. Its excess was its virtue, as we hurried to help ourselves to our ration of its gloppy glory. But for all its dairy delights, the shredded pork piled on to the potato foundation was only faintly smoky.
The "hog wings" were tender pieces of pork with a bone handle, and a fetching hoisin barbecue sauce. They were joined by two crunchy fried spring rolls, for an Asian barbecue hybrid.
The salads were much admired, with fresh tomato slices, basil and balsamic drizzle hooking up with smoky cheese in the caprese, and crispy bacon and crumbled potato chips adding texture to the wedge salad.
But the barbecue platter was a mixed party. The turkey breast, slices marked up on the grill, had soaked up some smoke. It was the first to disappear. The chicken was flavorful and moist, even in the white meat chunks in our serving.
The pork was a letdown. Baby back ribs were admirably meaty but pork chop texture, not leaving clean bones behind. I wished they were as tender as the hog wings. The pulled pork was shredded strings of meek and mild meat, and would have benefited from more smoke. Pass the sauce.
The side dishes were universally enjoyed. Tater tots with nacho cheese and hot sauce is an instant trash food classic. The sweet potato waffle fries were dunked in honey butter, the remainders squirreled away for leftovers. The creamy mac and cheese, its casserole-soft pasta topped with crunchy goldfish crackers, was Cat's favorite.
The grilled shrimp skewers were cooked well, charred at the tips, plump and moist. But the spicy mayonnaise, layered on top of barbecue sauce, flirted with overkill.
The pork didn't thrill me, but I can be hard to please in that department. There's still plenty of good food to eat at Smoke on the Water, because it's a place where character runs deeper than the decor.
SMOKE ON THE WATER
7 plates (Out of 10)?
Often quirky menu helps new place feel like old-time barbecue joint
WHERE: 77 Young St., Tonawanda, 692-4227
HOURS: Noon to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters and salads, $5-$9; sandwiches, $7-$12; barbecue platters, $12-$75.
PARKING: Mostly across street in municipal lot; handicapped spaces and a few others beside restaurant.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.