Barbecue has gained a strong presence in the Des Moines area. It's not a place that you'd first think "barbecue" when describing the city, like you would Memphis or Kansas City. But over the years, there have been many good barbecue places in and around the area. There seems to be a number of them popping up over the past 3 to 5 years. I've been told that I have to go to Jethro's BBQ, Flying Mango, and Woody's Smoke Shack to try the barbecue at those places. But, once again, my good friend Jeff "Burph" Versteegh suggested I try a place that he's all too familiar with, Smokey D's with three locations in Des Moines.
Smokey D's is named after Darren Warth who had headed his own competitive barbecue team for a number of years. Warth has won a number of awards for barbecue at prestigious competitions such as the American Royal in Kansas City and the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Invitational in Tennessee. Like many of these competitors who have won loads of awards working the competitive barbecue circuit, they eventually open their own place to let the public try some of their winning barbecue recipes. In 2007, Warth - along with partner and pit boss Shad Kirton - opened their first barbecue joint on NW 54th St. They soon opened up two other downtown locations - one in the skywalk near the Ruan Center, and the other at 12th and Locust in the Allied/Nationwide building. My buddy works at Nationwide, so he eats at the Smokey D's at least once a week.
Business boomed at the smallish Smokey D's on NW 54th St. and it became apparent they needed more room. Last September, Warth and Kirton took over a building just north of Interstate 80/35 on 2nd Ave. in what was, I believe, an old Western wear and tack store next to the Big Barn Harley Davidson, a Des Moines landmark for travelers rolling along the interstate. They gutted the place and turned it into a restaurant, complete with a main dining room and a bar area that also serves as a dining area. It was at the 2nd Ave. location that I had my first encounter with Smokey D's (see map).
I got to Smokey D's at a time that I thought would be advantageous to get in before the noon rush - right at about 11:30 a.m.. However, a long line had already formed snaking around the main dining room and back into the bar area. It looked to be a 15 to 20 minute wait to get up to the counter to place my order. If there were this many people in line by 11:30, I figured this must be some pretty good barbecue. And it seemed like they were really moving the line and people were already done and leaving tables open. I always figured that I could just eat at the bar if it was too packed by the time I was looking for a seat.
As the line moved along and came around the corner into the home stretch for ordering at the counter, this is where I got a close up look at many of the trophies and plaques that Smokey D's had won over the years at various barbecue competitions. Kirton won a big award last year being named the winning Pitmaster on the BBQ Pitmasters program on The Learning Channel. He won $100,000 and the Kingsford Cup. Not to be outdone, Warth won the Best Pork invitational category at the American Royal this past year. Smokey D's tomato-based mild barbecue sauce was also judged to be the 6th best at the American Royal and their hotter barbecue sauce got 13th place. Between the two, Kirton and Warth have combined to win about 30 Grand Championship awards on the competitive barbecue circuit.
The menu at Smokey D's is on a sign board directly above the counter where you place your orders. Now, be forewarned - you can't order beer at this counter, you have to go into the bar and order directly from the bartender. That was a little confusing to me at first, but it was actually pretty painless to do it that way. This allowed the people at the front counter to deal with food orders.
Smokey D's had the regular things you'd find at most barbecue places - beef brisket, chopped pork, pulled chicken and burnt ends. They also had sliced smoked turkey, something I don't run into all that often at other barbecue places. Of course, there were the normal sandwiches featuring the meat they make, as well as a number of mouthwater side dishes that you could order to go along with your meal.
As I like to do at most barbecue places that I'm visiting for the first time, I wanted to try the brisket and the chopped pork. The dinner platter allows you to choose two different meats (the lunch platter is one meat only) as well as your choice of two sides. I always have to get baked beans for one of my sides and Burph told me that Smokey D's mac and cheese was "pretty good." So that's what I ordered - brisket and chopped pork, baked beans and mac and cheese. A piece of garlic bread comes with the platter. The lady at the cash register gave me a little table card with a number on it to place near me so they'll know where I'm at when they bring my order out.
I made my way to the bar to get a beer and decided to just sit there. I got a Bud Light from the bartender and waited for my meal. When it came out I was surprised at how much food $9.95 got you. The baked beans and mac & cheese were served in little styrofoam cups with the chopped pork and brisket off to the sides. I tried both a piece of the pork and the brisket without putting any barbecue sauce on them and they were both very, very good. The pork was tender with a little smokey taste to it, the brisket was also flavorful, but not quite as tender as the pork.
I tried a little bit of the Smokey D's mild sauce and I have to say it was, "Eh!" It definitely didn't trip my trigger at all. The spicy barbecue sauce had a little bit more zip to the taste, but it still wasn't what I would call a world class barbecue sauce.
I added some of the spicy sauce to the beans to help zip them up a bit, but I've had baked beans that were much better at other barbecue places. However, my friend undersold the mac & cheese - it was outstanding. It was creamy with chunks of ham and some jalapeno peppers in it. I was sitting there eating it and thinking, "Geez, there are so many ways to do mac and cheese." Smokey D's mac and cheese was a hit.
Now, I don't know if it was because I had an early morning breakfast meeting or what, but my taste buds just weren't dazzled with my overall meal. I got full quickly and had trouble putting more than a dent in my food. I'm sorry to say that I think Smokey D's sauce was pedestrian, at best. I've got a fridge full of barbecue sauces that I've picked up around the Midwest that blow Smokey D's sauces out of the water. The beans were also average, but I will say the brisket and the chopped pork on their own were outstanding. Tasty, succulent, nice flavor without too much smoke in the meat. Maybe it was best to enjoy the meat without the sauce.
This is not to say that Smokey D's is not a good place to eat. Other than the sauce and the baked beans, their brisket and especially their pork was very, very good. And the mac & cheese was some of the best I've ever had and that includes mac & cheese made with gourmet cheeses and added with lobster meat at some fine restaurants I've eaten at over the years. The awards Darren Warth and Shad Kirton have garnered over the years are very deserving. It's no wonder it was a 20 minute wait before noon to get food at Smokey D's.