While on vacation in the Lake Okoboji region, my buddy, Craig Evert, told me about a place that he really likes called Smokin' Jakes in Arnold Park. (see map) "They have great brisket, man," he gushed over drinks one night when we were at their house. "It's the best barbecue in the lakes region." Heck, we found out Smokin' Jakes may be the ONLY barbecue in the area. One afternoon for lunch, we decided to give Smokin' Jakes a try.
Smokin' Jakes is owned by Linda Geske, who also owns the Table 316 steakhouse and cabaret in Arnolds Park (one of the few restaurants in the area we didn't try on our vacation). It opens at 11 a.m. and stays open until - sometimes - 4 a.m. for the late night bar crowd looking for an early breakfast - and they're kind of famous for their early, early morning breakfasts.
Smokin' Jakes isn't much more than a glorified corner tavern with a bar, tables and booths. It's not fine dining, but you wouldn't expect that from a place that serves barbecue and late night/early morning breakfast. Actually, I didn't see much evidence that there was any smoking apparatus on site. I figured they must smoke the meat elsewhere and bring it in to the restaurant. Antique pots or jugs were on shelves above the booths on the west wall of the place. I never did figure out the significance of those while we were there.
We took a seat at a table along the short wall in the middle. Our server that day, Julie, was also the bartender. I got a beer and Cindy got iced tea. Looking through the lunch menu, I was sort of disappointed to find out that they didn't offer any type of a sampler platter, or even a choice of a barbecue platter - it was basically sandwiches only for any barbecue. (The dinner menu does offer a variety of barbecue plates including ribs, smoked pork chops, brisket, chicken and turkey.) I was a little disheartened when I realized that I couldn't try a couple of different barbecued items. They did have what they called "rib morsels" on the menu, basically rib appetizers, but I didn't feel like getting any of those.
In addition to the sandwiches at lunch, Smokin' Jakes also has a number of soups, salads and appetizers including their "chicken drummies" - small chicken legs with your choice of 10 different types of sauces. Their sandwiches included grilled chicken, a smoked club that featured smoked ham and turkey (that really did sound interesting to me), and a BLT with smoked bacon. Oooo.... That almost had me.
I finally decided upon the brisket sandwich - I figured that I could just east the brisket on its own with out the bun. I got an order of fries with it. Cindy ordered the Philly Chicken sandwich - a smoked chicken breast with sauteed onions and green peppers and topped with Swiss cheese. (You can also get the Philly Beef sandwich with brisket.) She got a side of cole slaw.
Our sandwiches came out less than 15 minutes after we ordered. My sandwich featured three layers of somewhat thick cut brisket lying inside a hoagie bun with a small container of barbecue sauce in between. The fries were thick cut steak fries, so that was a plus. But the presentation wasn't much.
The taste of my brisket was good - nothing special. The meat was tender and juicy, but it tasted more like an oven roasted beef than a good smoked brisket, somewhat confirming my fears that they may not have a smoker at all. The thick barbecue sauce had a sweet and smoky flavor to it. It was good, but I wouldn't call it outstanding. The toasted hoagie bun was used more to tear off pieces and dip it in the barbecue sauce. I asked Julie for more sauce as I also used it on the steak fries, which had the perfect crunchy outside and soft inside.
Cindy said her Philly Chicken was "good". She said the breast did have a smoked flavor to it, sort of like how I do chicken breasts on the grill at home with indirect heat and a little bit of mesquite or cherry wood smoke. The cole slaw, which I believe was homemade, was "eh!" in Cindy's book. "I've had better, but it's not bad," she said.
Although I was disappointed that I couldn't try something other than a sandwich for my barbecue choice for lunch, Smokin' Jakes was all right. If it's the only barbecue in the lakes region, then its fine for what it is. But any type of competition that would come in with good barbecue would give Smokin' Jakes a run for their money. Compared to other places I've tried in larger cities, it's average, at best. But for Arnolds Park and Lake Okoboji, it's fine. Just don't expect world class barbecue when you go in.