In life and peanut butter, consistency matters. Especially when it comes to restaurants. Your favorite place to eat is your favorite because it’s great every time, not because it’s great every other time, like open mic night, or family reunions.
The food at Central Smoke, an Asian-influenced barbecue restaurant in the Central District, is as unpredictable as slam poetry or two nights at a campground with 40 members of your extended family. It’s usually great, but every now and then something goes wrong.
When Central Smoke hits all the right notes, it’s one of our favorite restaurants in the CD. Here you’ll find big Southern barbecue dishes side-by-side with fried rice and papaya salad. Your smoked brisket will be served on fine china. And the drinks are so good that if the restaurant scrapped the smoker and used their urban-garage-wedding-venue aesthetic as a cocktail bar instead, the house would be packed. In fact, this place is probably best used for big groups who value 11-ingredient tiki concoctions with snacks to graze on along the way. But you could have a lowkey date powered by pork ribs here too. When this place is good, you’ll ask yourself why you’re not a regular.
The bad news is that the food is hit or miss. On a good day, everything that’s supposed to be tender (like the brisket) is, and what we’ve been promised as crispy (like the rockfish-stuffed pepper) comes out crispy. But on more than one occasion, the usually-buttery brisket has come out tough and flavorless. The cornbread (that’s sometimes perfectly moist) has, on other occasions, been so dry that each bite requires a swig of water. And the ribs, which are fall-off-the-bone decadent when they’re on top of their game, are often chewy, forgettable, and not worth the steep price tag of $24 for a half-rack. When you’re at Central Smoke on an off-night, you’re probably going to wish you had gone somewhere else.
As long as you know Central Smoke might not deliver from start to finish, it’s a fun place to hang out and have some mackerel and bourbon lemonade underneath string lights. We don’t advise traveling across town just for a plate of barbecue here, but if you’re in the area and wanting barbecue, try your luck. It can really go either way - kind of like when you give Uncle Stu a magic brownie at the campfire. Depending on his mood, he either takes out his checkbook or tells your mom.
If you’re looking for something light, sour, and crunchy, this pile of shredded papaya with fried shallots, peanuts, and tea-smoked chicken will satisfy you, especially if you’re trying to be healthy and your friends tricked you into going to a BBQ place.
This is what a jalapeño popper becomes after experiencing a quarter-life crisis and coming to the conclusion that life isn’t all cream cheese and beer batter. The pepper is stuffed with a smoked rockfish and potato mixture and it’s usually great. Sometimes the breadcrumbs could have used some more time in the fryer, but we always like getting one of these as a starter.
Proof that it’s hard to screw up elbow noodles with smoked gouda and crispy breadcrumbs.
There shouldn’t be anything to dislike about thick hunks of bacon covered in caramelized fish sauce. Unless they’re rubbery like it is here. You’ll want to pass on this.
On a good day, the moist cornbread skillet topped with salty creme fraiche and honey is worthy of being your first choice when someone asks what kind of birthday cake you want this year. Unfortunately, it’s been dry on several occasions.
Yes, it’s hard to overlook the times we’ve left disappointed by bland, chewy ribs. But Usually, the pork is tender, seasoned well, and is even better doused in coffee-infused barbecue sauce.
The brisket is the most inconsistent dish here, but when Central Smoke is on top of their game, it has perfect, flavorful smoke rings and the meat melts like coconut oil. You might end up with a portion that looks comically small, or a tough puck of beef that resembles a continent, so roll the dice at your own discretion.
This is a really nice piece of smoky fish to eat if you’re not into beef or pork. Order with confidence, but just beware that it’s served whole, so it has more bones than an episode of Bones.