If a dance studio and a karate dojo don't seem like the most natural neighbors for a barbecue joint, the families that appear to be driving a lot of Blowin' Smoke Barbeque's business are making it work all the same. The new Waunakee brick-and-mortar location for Blowin' Smoke is already a part of the neighborhood traffic, doing a brisk takeout business and filling up with people from all over the greater Madison area.
Blowin' Smoke's food cart has been around since late 2010, primarily serving weekday lunch at the corner of South Pinckney and East Main. The same big sandwiches served at the cart are, if anything, more intimidating here for not being restrained by a paper wrapper.
The current law of the land for dining in is Please Seat Yourself. Visitors during prime dinner hours will have to hover along the entryway and shark a table after it empties. If the small waitstaff is over-tasked at times, it's never missing in action. I'm satisfied enough with a brief stop to reassure that I haven't been forgotten.
What you may notice is that this doesn't feel like a barbecue joint yet, not exactly. The building is antiseptic and a touch more posh than one might expect, given the rustic food cart. But it is warm -- no small solace in this unrelenting winter -- and the smell of smoking meat greets diners even before they set foot in the building's entryway.
The onion rings are tops in their class, and the deep-fried mushrooms have a unique umami character -- but you can't possibly be here for vegetables. (Okay, maybe you are, and there are six salads on the menu if you're so inclined. Some are even meatless!) Handmade jalapeño poppers have more in common with blistered shishito peppers than the bar-and-grill appetizer standard; split lengthwise and not deep-fried, they're modestly topped with cheese and a sliver of maple-smoked bacon. Bacon -- now we're getting somewhere.
The basic sandwiches are meat-on-bun -- pick from chopped pork, brisket, ham, chicken and turkey, sourced from UW Provisions -- with sauce on the side. Fancier options include what some might recognize as daily specials from the cart side. The Kansas City Blues and Jazz, pork with jalapeño cream cheese and french fried onions, tempers sharp heat with smooth richness; sliced brisket is perhaps a touch too crumbly but fills the Reuben amply; and there's no arguing with the delicious excess that is the Three Little Pigs, stuffed with pork, pit ham and more of that maple-smoked bacon, plus chipotle mayo.
The shocker of the sandwich menu was the Chicken Cordon Bleu. Ham and Swiss are known commodities, but the chopped chicken was startlingly juicy and flavorful, making a convert of pretty much everyone around my table. Chicken is also on display in multiple delicious presentations on the smoked chicken trio plate; this appears on the new dinner menu along with larger portions of most of the meats, plus a combo platter called the Chief.
Less barbecue-ish dinner mains, like steaks, a burger and grilled salmon fettucine Alfredo, have been slow to roll out. This is due, owner Robert Bishop says, to beef prices and the overwhelming popularity of the barbecue menu. Look for them as specials.
If you ever staked out Blowin' Smoke's corner of the Square on Thursday or Friday for the sought-after rib or burnt ends specials (respectively), you're in luck: Burnt ends are available after 5 p.m., and ribs are on whenever the restaurant is open.
There's plenty of meat on each bone of the half- or whole-rack portions of these pork spare ribs, with excellent bark and silky soft fat. Any of the sauces will do you right, but I'd lean toward the sweet original over the spicy or extra spicy, to let the meat and rub really sing.
On one visit, my burnt ends were good, not great -- a little lean. But on another, they were, without question, the most spectacular bites of barbecue I've had: tender hunks of brisket sandwiched between bark and fat, the essential elements of Kansas City burnt ends. Eat them as they come, or with any of Blowin' Smoke's sauces. Even at their least remarkable, they're still great. But at their best, they're truly revelatory.
Those who make the drive out will discover what the families who live nearby already know: Blowin' Smoke will feed you, your family and your friends quite well, though sometimes you'll have to be willing to wait. And I have to admit to feeling a certain amount of relief in the success of Blowin' Smoke's storefront, for one reason: I no longer have to issue the qualifier that the area's best barbecue comes from a cart. It comes from Waunakee.