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Smokehouse: Harajuku lures foodies to the smoked BBQ pit

by Robbie Swinnerton

Low and slow: The much-loved mantra of American barbecue culture is more than just a slogan. It’s an attitude, a badge of pride in a way of cooking and eating that’s still little known to people here in Japan. If Smokehouse has anything to do with it, that situation looks set to change in a big way.

Newly arrived in backstreet Harajuku, Smokehouse preaches the gospel of pit barbecue. Forget the kind of amateur open-air grilling done at weekends on decks and countless campsites. The specialty here is the real-deal style of meat cooking, hot-cured in smoke-filled ovens for hours on end, that is traditional to the U.S. South and Midwest.

“This is genuine American regional cuisine,” announces David Chiddo as he places a massive serving of beef and pork cuts in front of me. Ribs, brisket, substantial chunks of chicken, a mound of chopped pork, half a smoked sausage: The portion sizes here are as authentic as the flavors.

Which is just as you’d expect with Chiddo in charge. As executive chef of the T.Y. Harbor Brewing group of restaurants — including Ivy Place, Beacon, Cicada and the original T.Y. microbrew-pub on Tennozu Isle — he needs little introduction. Now, with the opening of Smokehouse last month, he can give himself a new title: pit boss.

“I’m from New York, not the Deep South,” he’s happy to admit, “but I used to live in New Orleans and I’ve been studying barbecue for years now.” This is why instead of focusing on just one region, such as Kansas City or Kentucky, he has picked a range of different styles.

His brisket is based on the classic Texas recipe, although he’s given it a contemporary twist by putting espresso coffee in the aromatic rub applied to the beef. Then it goes into the smoker and cooks (yes, low and slow) for over 12 hours.

The meat is wrapped for part of that process so it does not develop a thick, dark crust — it’s called “the bark” in the parlance of the pitmasters, Chiddo tells me. Combined with the hickory smoke, the resulting flavor is deep and aromatic.

Because it’s prepared each day and takes so long to cook, the brisket is not offered at lunchtime. But with the chicken, the meaty back ribs or the chopped pork (“It’s given a vinegar rinse, in the South Carolina style”), there’s still enough choice.

Chiddo has also developed four nifty BBQ sauces. The basic House Pit is the lightest. Carolina Vinegar, as the name suggests, has a tart profile that complements the chopped pork. The dark, thick Porter Pepper, made with molasses and black beer, is so umami-rich it’s hard to stop pouring. And the Voodoo Hot sauce is the one if you’re craving extra capsaicin heat.

All the BBQ dishes come with a saucer of coleslaw and a sweet cornbread. There are also plenty of “sides ‘n’ fixings,” including okra and tomato, creamed spinach, potato salad and a creamy mac ‘n’ cheese, which are also available in kid-sized servings.

Then there are the burgers. Chiddo has reformulated his Beacon recipe into a classic 1950s-style cheeseburger made with 100-percent U.S. beef. And the pick of the sandwiches is the BLT, which is made with crisp, double-smoked bacon that could only be described as Kick Ass, if the spicy black-bean chili wasn’t actually called that already.

It’s quite a menu. But the food is only half of the story — just as the compact dining room with its low ceiling, Americana décor and direct view into the open kitchen is only part of the premises.

Smokehouse is also a bar, and there are several good reasons for dropping in even if you’re not hungry. First is the range of craft beers on tap — six come from T.Y.’s own brewery; another six are guest brews.

Reason number two is the even more extensive selection of spirits. Smokehouse is the first place in the city specializing in craft spirits — bourbon, rye, whiskey and even gin and vodka, all made by small-scale artisan distillers. This is booze with character and much more complexity than you’d find in the mass-market brands. Chiddo has even sourced a local Texas whiskey, Balcones, made entirely from Native American blue corn.

Just don’t ask for a mixed drink. “This is a man’s bar,” he jokes. “We don’t do girlie cocktails.” Ditto with the music. While the TV monitors flicker silently to ESPN or J Sports, the soundtrack to your lunch, dinner or liquid sustenance is the blues, mostly electric but never too heavy. Like the food and drink, it’s a heady, winning combination.

One last compelling reason for making your way down to Cat Street, the meandering, boutique-lined pedestrian walkway that is now home to Smokehouse: barista caffeine. On the ground floor, underneath the restaurant, T.Y. has set up a joint venture with Nozy Coffee, one of Tokyo’s finest independent roasters. Open from 8 in the morning, it offers croissants and Danishes to go with its premium espressos, macchiatos and lattes.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.