J&R Manufacturing, based in Mesquite, boasts a repertoire of broilers, rotisseries, and wood-fired ovens. Thirty-three years ago, J&R opened its doors selling only its ‘Oyler’ Barbecue pit, but that’s not the one that caught Kenny Bowers‘ eye. No, the smoker now stationed at Kenny’s Smoke House is six feet tall, bright red, and filled to the brim with hickory smoke.
“It’s like the Cadillac of smokers,” Bowers says with a smile. “It’s all-wood fueled; we don’t use any gas, and it’s got electronically-controlled dampers to maintain a consistent heat.”
But it’s not the smoker itself that is the star of the show at Kenny’s Smoke House – it’s what’s inside that counts: from both pork and beef ribs, brisket and pulled pork, the smoker at Kenny’s is bringing Bowers’ barbecue to The Shops at Legacy, and in an environment a little more refined than to what barbecue enthusiasts might typically be accustomed.
With dark wooden walls made from old Maker’s Mark Barrels and a red-brick back wall that hints at a whisper of industrial chic, Kenny’s Smoke House – and yes, that’s the same owner as Kenny’s Woodfire Grill, Kenny’s Italian and Kenny’s Burger Joint – opened in January to much fanfare. The decor and ambiance are appropriate for lunchers of all types, from business lunches to family affairs. And while its comfortable, inviting atmosphere, broad menu options, and selection of cocktails and bourbons may initially belie its function as a barbecue spot, Kenny’s Smoke House is, Bowers insists, first and foremost a barbecue restaurant.
“Think of it this way: generally speaking, before places like PF Chang’s existed, the only types of places you could get Chinese food were mom-and-pop type places that didn’t have a lot of atmosphere,” he says. “When people think of barbecue, they think of a sort of dive-like place. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to a barbecue joint or shack or some place that has no seats – that’s how it’s traditionally been served over the years – but I like to be waited on when I eat. I like a drink. That’s my way of looking at it.”
And with Bowers’ take on atmosphere, it’s no surprise to see the approach he takes with barbecue. The brisket, which like all other meats is dry rubbed, is smoked for more than 12 hours, and is tender enough to serve in relatively thick slices. The pulled pork and ribs are given a slightly different treatment, while the beef ribs are a class of their own.
“Each thing is a little different. The brisket, for example, is in the style of how it is cooked in South-Central Texas, which is where that method originated,” Bowers says. “But Texas isn’t really known for pulled pork, so we do ours in the style of North Carolina – a lot of people talk about Memphis for pork, but in Memphis they use a lot of charcoal, and don’t get a whole lot of smoke. That’s why we prefer to go with the North Carolina style. And then with the beef ribs, well, most people don’t do beef ribs because they’re difficult to deal with, they’re expensive, and they’re messy. But if they’re done right – and they take seven hours to make – they’re worth all the effort.”
But while Bowers was intent on finding an option for all barbecue lovers, he didn’t exclude those who might be looking for something a little less heavy than a slab or pile of smoked and seasoned meat. Grilled chicken and salmon are lighter options, while salads vary from Caesar to Ahi Tuna. The price point for dinner is commensurate with an upscale restaurant; entrees hover around the $20 mark, specialty cocktails at half that, and lunch options typically stay under $15 (for meat and a side). It’s an all-inclusive barbecue experience, no doubt, but in a different setting entirely.
“It is basically barbecue but in a modern, full-service environment. And we have other things; we have a hickory grill, like at the other restaurants, so we have things like grilled fish and things of that nature,” Bowers says. “That way, if you’ve got a table of three or four people here for a business lunch and one of them doesn’t want barbecue – or is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat – he or she can still get something that tastes good and is well made.”
Odds are if it comes out of the red smoker at Kenny’s Smoke House, Bowers has put in a lot of time getting it to taste like it does. The brisket, for example, took years to hone, and even now that he’s got the method down, it’s not so easy just to tell someone how to do it.
“It’s one of those things that’s a very touchy-feely, interactive process,” he says. “There are certain recipes that you can give someone and just say, “Follow steps A, B and C and you’ll get the result you’re looking for.” Brisket’s not like that. The smoke is a flavor, but the fire is in there as the actual heat source, too; it’s all about trying to find the right balance of smoke flavor.”
And balance is really what Kenny’s is all about: bringing a different approach to barbecue while staying true to the ideas of traditional techniques and approaches – all in a different environment from a typical barbecue joint. From thoughtful cocktails to salmon and caesar salad, Kenny’s brings his style of barbecue to a place appropriate for its upscale feel, and as long as that red smoker keeps doing its job, the barbecue will always be the star.