Not long ago, finding well-prepared casual food--not to mention a decent beer list--along Adams Morgan's 18th Street wasn't easy. Enter John Andrade, owner of the 20-year-old dive Asylum, who converted the street level of his bar into Smoke & Barrel, a barbecue-beer-and-bourbon destination, hiring a chef from Arkansas and compiling a beer list to rival the one at his other place, Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights.
The low lighting makes eating here feel like dining inside a whiskey barrel, an effect reinforced by the boozy aroma. Service is casual but attentive and knowledgeable. While the menu--slowly cooked meats served on their own and in sandwich rolls, taco shells, and egg-roll skins--is uncomplicated, many diners may want some guidance when it comes to the brews, curated by beer expert Sam Fitz, and Kentucky whiskeys, of which there are more than 25.
Smoke & Barrel's sweetish house sauce is unlikely to win favor among heat seekers, who may find themselves reaching for the squeeze bottle on the table marked "spicy." Smoked sausage is the star among the meats, but the most successful dishes often show up on the side. Bacony baked beans work well, and fresh cabbage shines through a simple slaw. Appetizers are strong, too, including a trio of smoky wings--try them "muddy" with both sauce and dry rub--and bacon-wrapped jalapeño-shrimp poppers, a delicious example of what can happen when real ingredients show up in junk-food-inspired dishes. There are also, believe it or not, ample meatless options, including vegan "wings" made from seitan, a smoked-tofu sandwich, and a rich veggie chili.
Dinner at Smoke & Barrel isn't transcendent, but if this is the direction Adams Morgan bars are moving, we may soon be spending more time in the neighborhood.
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.