Huh. A smoker. And smoking away right now. Not some guy — a wood-burning meat smoker. I’m loping up Indiana Street. Where it forks into Park and Robinson, and right beside a li’l ol’ bungalow, this black smoker puffs away like a steam engine.
3749 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
“Yes, it’s our smoker,” says the gal tending it, Lauren. “We have it going pretty much all the time. It’s like the heart of our tiny kitchen.”
I see this is The Smok’d Hog. Ooh. Tempting. As much as the promise of sinful BBQ, it’s the little ol’ red-ochre clapboard cottage itself fighting for space among brand-new high-rise condos that draws me. Guy at the liquor store next door says it’s been up since the 1920s.
The inside’s all modern, though. Cream walls, light pine tables, copper highlights. A bookshelf offers titles such as “Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey,” “Charcuterie,” “Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Cookbook.”
Pigs smile at you from walls. One’s a hanging sign.
“Hog Specials: Fried chicken Friday!! Seasonal farmhouse chili all day!! Ribs — Sat and Sun Only!!”
“That’s because we don’t have room to cook ribs and everything else,” says Lauren.
So now I’m looking up at a big chalkboard menu.
“These are what most people start off with,” says Lauren. She points to the top item. “KC Pulled Pork, with pickles and Kansas City Sauce, $9.50.” Or pulled pork with Carolina sauce and slaw ($9.50). But they have plenty of choices, like the Cubano: roasted pork shoulder with ham, swiss cheese, pickles, garlic aioli, and Dijon mustard ($10.50). Or a braised pork belly Reuben with swiss, sauerkraut, house sauce on marble rye for $11. Even a Philly cheesesteak for $12.50. Or meatloaf with onions for $11.
There’s a ton of others, but what actually gets my attention is something Lauren calls her “Maniac Mac Bowl.”
It’s a telera bun hollowed out and filled with pulled pork, says Lauren, and then a pile of mac and cheese on top with some sweet-heat sauce.
“But it will take 15 minutes. We make our own mac ’n’ cheese each time.”
Mmm. Costs $9. I order that and an iced tea, too ($2.50 with free refills).
So, 15 minutes...but the Maniac Mac Bowl finally comes, looking like a greedy grouper, its mouth overflowing with minnows — the macaroni. And behind them, a lush, semi-burnt mess of pork. The meat’s sweet, garlicky, and you can put more sweetness on, with their two of their three house-made BBQ sauces. The KC’s all molasses and brown sugar added to the ketchup they also make right here. The “sweet heat” bottle’s even sweeter. “We put apples and raspberries and sometimes blackberries into that mix,” says Lauren.
The third sauce is the Carolina. I’ve heard Carolina’s BBQ sauces are always vinegary. But this one’s mostly mustard. I go for the KC sauce. Sweet.
It’s only when three ladies come and sit down at the next table that I come up for air. Joyce, Marlyn, and Tasha. All friends from the Church of Christ in Chula Vista.
Marlyn chooses the meatloaf with some cornbread. Tasha gets collard greens with pulled pork, and Joyce has the one really healthy item up there, a watermelon salad (mixed greens, feta cheese, watermelon, $7.50). That does look luscious.
Conversation’s good. Often happens when you’re eating comfort food together. Plus, in this li’l old cottage you feel like long-lost friends. Tall guy with a little dog comes in. Bill, a retired Air Force colonel. Just comes by to chat.
The dish I wish I’d had: a bowl of sweet potatoes ($4) like the one the ladies ordered. Lauren brings them three little cups to add to it, crumbled blue cheese, maple, and chopped almonds.
The ladies’ verdict? Marlyn liked her meatloaf but coulda done with more sauce. Tasha liked her pulled pork but could have done with a bit more of the smoke flavor. Joyce loved her watermelon salad, period.
And, actually, my best moment comes afterward. I call Carla. Ask if she wants me to bring something back. “Ooh, yes,” she says. “BBQ chicken every time.”
So I order one of the three “plates” they have going. BBQ chicken. The other two are pulled pork and meatloaf. Chicken and pork cost $14, and the meatloaf $16. But you get a side and cornbread with that. I almost ask for black-eyed peas (usually $4) as the side. Except, no, the coleslaw ($3, house-made), because Carla loves interesting coleslaws. That’s when Tyler the chef says the better choice is their Slaw Royale, $5.
“It’s got blue cheese and bacon bits on top,” he says.
When I open up the three boxes back at the ranch and upend them onto a plate, I see just how much we’ve got. It’s huge. And first off, that coleslaw is delish. Savory, but also refreshing, in a vinegary way.
But the stars are the strips of chicken that have been sitting in the smoker for who knows how long. And here’s the thing: They don’t taste of BBQ. They taste of smoke. I’d never separated the two ideas. But smoked chicken, after you get used to it, is downright addictive. Especially with the garlic taste in there, too. Carla agrees. “This taste somehow reminds me of all that campfire eating when Pop and I spent weeks hunting in the Sierras,” she says.
Cornbread’s fall-apart beautiful, too. And the thing is, yeah, food’s not totally cheap, but it’s gonna last through two meals, and it’s full of protein.
A good night’s hunting, I’d say.
3749 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m.–7:30 p.m., Sunday; closed Tuesday
Prices: KC Pulled Pork, $9.50; Carolina pulled pork, slaw, $9.50; Cubano (roasted pork shoulder, ham, swiss), $10.50; braised pork belly Reuben with swiss, sauerkraut, $11; Philly cheesesteak, $12.50; meatloaf, onions, $11; Maniac Mac Bowl (pulled pork, mac ’n’ cheese in bread bowl), $9; rib-tip sandwich, $9; veggie philly, $8.50; southwest BBQ chicken, $9.50; mac ’n’ cheese, $4; collard greens, $3.50; cornbread, $3; Slaw Royale, $5; buffalo chicken bowl, $9.50; lunch special (Monday–Thursday), entrée, side, drink, $14
Buses: 1, 7, 10, 11, 215
Nearest Bus Stop: Park and University