When I was a kid, in the fall my dad would load up the Country Squire and we'd head to Louisiana to catch our fill of blue crab. Catching them was as easy as lowering a chicken neck on a string into a roadside canal and pulling it up quickly as soon as the line jiggled. We could fill a 54-quart Coleman cooler in about an hour on the same pier where local families were filling black lawn and leaf bags -- they lived close enough that they didn't need to put the crabs on ice. Before we'd drive home to suburban Dallas, we'd stop for a crawdad boil or bowls of red beans and rice (which I picked around in favor of the spicy Cajun sausage) at some small-town restaurant -- but barbecue was never on the agenda. These days, my quest for slow-smoked flavor in the metro area has my radar dialed in to St. Louis, Memphis, Texas and South Carolina, so a little joint like Brooks Smokehouse and Catering had escaped my notice -- until the aroma of Ronald Brooks's cooking caught my attention at a local brewery.
At Chain Reaction Brewing, when I spotted the rough wood and corrugated tin trailer that Ron Brooks mans when he's not with his wife, Louella, in the little restaurant they run out of their house in Aurora, I tried some ribs and a couple of sides -- but didn't have time for a full meal. So I vowed to seek out that trailer again.
I caught up to the mobile smoke shack a few weeks later at Strange Craft Beer Company. From the smell of wood smoke a block before I even hit the parking lot, I knew Brooks had the smoker cranked up. Brooks says his meats spend twelve hours in his smokehouse back home before they go anywhere, so the small smoker in the trailer is just for warming and finishing -- and I suspect also for cheap advertising.
Louisiana barbecue, at least in Brooks's hands, consists of a light but spicy dry rub over pork shoulder, pork ribs, beef brisket and chicken -- the usual Southern barbecue standards. But there's also smoked catfish on the menu, as well as alligator (leg, tail and sausage). His sauce is thinner than Memphis-style sauce (but still thick enough to be served on a plate instead of in a bowl), not very sweet, and tangy with tomato.
Brooks serves his brisket sliced to pencil thickness, not chopped; the cut I had was lean and a touch dry as a result, but it was tender and full of smoky flavor and pulled apart easily with no need for a knife. The pork shoulder was also cut into thick slices and was firm, juicy and yielding, with a pink smoke ring beneath a spicy crust. I ate mostly with my fingers, smudging my glass of Strange farmhouse ale -- an excellent foil for the rich meats. You could be dainty and use a plastic knife and fork, but you'd have to abandon those when you got to the ribs, anyway, so there's really no point. The ribs had been cooked to a toothsome chew, not mushy or falling off the bone, and the glossy surface hid meat pink from smoke all the way through.
I've said before that sides in a barbecue restaurant are mostly just fillers -- but not here. The Cajun influence elevates these sides above bland Midwestern fare. Brooks serves dirty rice moist with broth and studded with ground beef. He calls his creamed corn maque choux because it's more than just creamed corn: Garlic, butter, cooked-down onions and smoke -- maybe from bacon fat or maybe just from proximity to the smoker -- blend to give the sweet kernels added depth. Baked macaroni and cheese offers pan-crisped edges and a creamy interior.
Brooks Smokehouse, whether the mobile version or the restaurant in the Brooks home in Aurora (fully licensed and regularly inspected, Brooks assures me), also offers Cajun dishes like po' boy sandwiches, etouffee and gumbo.
But while I enjoy just about every aspect of Louisiana cuisine (except red beans and rice -- I never got past my childhood hatred of kidney beans), it's the smell of wood smoke rising and spreading, beckoning across neighborhoods, that tells you to sit yourself down and fill up on the good food two people worked hard to produce. Barbecue is like that -- it's not a lazy man's craft. You don't get great results by setting a timer and walking away. My lack of experience with Louisiana barbecue doesn't get in the way of understanding, even tasting, the effort, dedication and long hours that go into creating food so special.
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