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After driving by to check out the extensive renovations being done on the restaurant space on the corner of Fifth and Washington in Hillcrest and then driving by and catching whiffs of smoked meat, I finally got a chance to stop in to Brazen BBQ Smokehouse & Bar for lunch yesterday.

My thoughts during the weeks of waiting for this place to open were along the lines of, "With all the effort they're putting into the design of this place, I hope the food lives up to the look and that they do well." Because from landscaping to signage to interior, a lot of investment was spent here. And I'm happy it was, because the look of the place, the feel of it, is all part of the experience.

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Two chefs and friends for seven years -- John Bracamonte and Brad Thomas -- began competing at cooking events in 2009, taking home award after award (trophies and ribbons are showcased around the restaurant). They decided to open a restaurant in John's hometown (he grew up in Escondido). Some of the meat will smoke for up to 24 hours before it's served. Because it was our first time, David and I opted for a tasting platter -- three meats, three sides. We followed the cashier's recommendation and got the brisket, pulled pork, and ribs.

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BBQ sauce is available on the side, rather than mixed with the meat, and for good reason: the meat itself is so flavorful and well rendered -- crispy on the outside, tender on the inside -- it really doesn't need sauce. But I'm a sauce girl, so though I enjoyed several bites without, I did try out the two BBQ sauce varieties. Both were sweet and tangy and complemented the meat.

I would have liked to have seen a third sauce, one with spice, because there's not any kick to the two. Sure, there's Tabasco, but it's not the same as having the burn incorporated into the sauce.

My favorite of the sides was the "ancho spiced baked beans." They did have a chile kick and that familiar, complex sweetness that goes so well with smoked meat.

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I also liked the "smoked kernel corn medley" -- again, it was sweet and spicy.

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The "crusty macaroni & cheese" was okay, nothing stellar, but it was nice and crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside. With all the other flavors on the table, the mac 'n' cheese was just a bit too bland for me.

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The platter came with cornbread. I loved the spice (I'm guessing jalapeño) in the bread, but overall it was on the dry side. It would be perfect with just an extra hint of moisture.

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Overall, we were stoked on the smoked. There are so many other items on the menu that I look forward to tasting. Everyone around us had sandwiches, which were piled high with toppings such as fried jalapeños and caramelized onions. I'm curious about the BBQ tacos -- having tasted the meat, I'm optimistic.

There's also a burger topped with chili. Now that's just downright decadent. I can't wait to try it.

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