It could certainly be said that St. Louis is super-saturated with barbecue places, but most of the great spots are decidedly east of Lindbergh Boulevard. Andy and Dee Dee Kohn noticed this void in the west-county dining scene and set out to sate the carnivorous cravings of their suburban compatriots. The result of their efforts is WildSmoke, a fast-casual barbecue restaurant that opened this January in Creve Coeur.
WildSmoke follows a formula similar to that of the big names in town, although the trip west took off some of the edge. As a result, it has the polish of a seasoned chain restaurant: leather booths with cowhide fabric, Western-themed tchotchkes on the walls, track lighting and plasma televisions. Character is replaced with kitsch, but — like my city friends who envy the county's sprawling back yards — a part of me appreciated the creature comforts. (There is something to be said for watching the NCAA Tournament on a gigantic television.)
WildSmoke does best when it sticks to the basics. Ribs are tender, meaty and subtly smoked with a paprika-dominated rub. They have a sweetness and are flavorful enough on their own, without sauce. In fact, of the four different sauce options that WildSmoke offers, I only found one — the spicy "Tennessee" sauce — that worked well with the ribs. The others — "Sweet Root Beer," bold and smoky "Showdown," and Carolina-style mustard — all took away from the pork's flavor.
The Kansas City burnt ends were deliciously rich and caramelized, their sweet and robust flavor enhanced by the sticky root-beer barbecue sauce. Served on a plain Hawaiian roll, they made for an ideal barbecue sandwich. The burnt ends were far better than the pulled pork, which was a little tough. The beef brisket was also average — not bad, but on the dry side. Those opting for a sliced smoked-beef sandwich would be better served with the prime rib. It doesn't carry the smokiness of the brisket, but it's far more tender.
And now, a bold claim: WildSmoke has the best wings in St. Louis. That's what the judges at the annual Wing Ding competition decided last year. (WildSmoke's sister restaurant, EdgeWild, entered its dry-rubbed wings and WildSmoke now uses the same recipe.) I must concur. The plump, juicy wings are triple-rubbed with seasoning that tastes of brown sugar and Worcestershire; it coats the wings in a sticky glaze. Dipping sauce is wholly unnecessary.
I was less impressed when WildSmoke got gimmicky. The "BBQ Sundae" was basically a pulled-pork platter piled on top of itself. The dish was a heap of pulled pork, baked beans, mac & cheese, slaw and bacon that looked like an eating challenge. It was all spectacle, and the different flavors and textures melded into one big indiscernible mess. There is a market for this sort of thing (sixteen-year-old boys), but it's not for those who want to really enjoy barbecue.
A thick, crispy waffle topped with pulled chicken was advertised as having a coffee-chile rub, although it was too subtle to make an impact. It was served with such sparse amounts of chipotle sauce and spicy maple syrup that the plate was dry. (I've yet to eat a plate of chicken and waffles that doesn't suffer this same fate.) Five jalapeño slices were covered by an overcooked fried egg. I am more than ready for the chicken-and-waffle trend to die, and WildSmoke's version did nothing to dissuade me.
Sides are often throwaways at barbecue restaurants, but WildSmoke makes an effort to elevate its accompaniments. Root-beer-baked beans were sweet and spiced with chunks of jalapeños, and fried potato salad — home fries tossed with mayonnaise, red onion and dill — was an excellent interpretation of the picnic staple. A side of "pig candy" brings candied bacon so sugary it sticks to the teeth. And do not pass on a mug of WildSmoke's fantastic, vanillay housemade root beer.
I capped my meal with a slice of some of the best pecan pie I've ever had. WildSmoke's pecan pie filling was creamy and cut with a hefty amount of bourbon. The crust was buttery — shortbreadlike — and the top of the pie was brûléed to perfection.
WildSmoke doesn't break the barbecue mold, but it shows that there is still room on the crowded St. Louis barbecue bandwagon — especially for those who prefer to venture west.
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