As soon as you step through the door at Smoky Oak Taproom, you notice a thick haze in the air, and your nose is hit with a tempting aroma. A smoky bar and grill is a rarity in these days of indoor smoking bans, but Smoky Oak fills the bill in the absolute best way: from the red oak and hickory wood that fires the restaurant's barbecue cookers.
Smoky Oak blends sports bar with barbecue joint. The big dining room wraps around an L-shaped bar, and there are plenty of booths and tables inside to handle a big crowd. The brown wood has a worn but cozy feel to it, and there's an automotive theme at play. Retro tailfins top the back of each booth, complete with an Indian head taillight, and the booths are lit by green-shielded auto headlights. A big plastic replica of a Corvette front-end sits atop the lowered roof over the bathrooms, and it's joined by a dozen racing wheels, too.
For appetizers, Smoky Oak offers up sports bar fare with a few barbecue twists. The beer battered onion rings ($6) are big and doughy, and they're fried crispy and golden brown the way they should be. While they sell wings in your standard mild, hot, and "smokin' " buffalo style, you can get them slathered with barbecue sauce, too ($6 for a dozen), and the Smoky Oak Red BBQ sauce is a tangy, delicious way to garnish a wing. The pancake-flat potato skins ($7) look a little funny, but one bite reveals a splendid morsel that combines pulled pork with cheddar cheese and a dark, smoky chipotle barbecue sauce. Other intriguing selections include the stuffed jalapeños (three for $9), which are filled with crabmeat, wrapped in bacon, then roasted on the barbecue smoker, as well as carnita-style tacos (two for $7) that come topped with pulled chicken, smoked pork, or even chorizo.
The appetizers are tempting, but you don't want to overdo it, for the barbecue plates are hefty enough to challenge even the biggest appetite. The selection is broad, including pulled pork, pulled chicken, beef brisket, smoked pork sausage, St. Louis-cut ribs, and "High Life" beer can chicken. You can get a sandwich combo with one side ($6 for pork or chicken, $7 for brisket), a regular platter with two sides ($7 for sausage, $8 for pork, $9 for brisket), or — if you haven't eaten in a week — a large platter with an extra portion of meat ($10 for sausage, $10 for half a beer can chicken, $11 for pork, and $12 for brisket). The dry-rub ribs come on their own platter (half-slab $12, whole $18) or in tandem with pulled pork ($16) or in a full-on sampler with ribs, chicken, sausage, and pork ($26).
The barbecue is as good as your nose would lead you to believe. The pulled pork is tender and mildly smoky, with nice bits of the "outside brown" mixed in. But they pale in comparison to the ribs, which are exceptionally smoky and have great pink tinges at the edges of the meat.
All the barbecue is served without sauce, though there are four different styles to choose from on the table: a Texas-esque "red rib sauce," a sweet Carolina mustard, smoky-hot chipotle, and "Wilber's Hopped Up Vinegar" — a spicy vinegar concoction fired up with red pepper flakes like they serve in Eastern North Carolina. The red sauce is just right for the deep smokiness of the ribs, while the mustard-based sauce — as good as any you'll find around town — proves the superiority of the yellow stuff for pulled pork.
And the portions are big. A regular pulled pork platter will strain your waistband, and the rib-and-pork combo platter, with its softball-sized mound of pork barbecue and seven bones worth of ribs, might do it in altogether. Even the kids' meals are huge: the chicken finger plate is a reasonable $4 and has three massive strips that look more like full breasts than tenders.
The side items, I must admit, are a bit of a mixed bag. The potato salad has the flavors and textures all wrong — potatoes not quite tender, the dressing a little too runny and overloaded with the flavor of pickle and celery seed. The blackeyed peas are bland and mushy and could use a little vinegar or bacon to pick them up. The collard greens, on the other hand, have a delightful sweet vinegary sparkle to them, and the handcut French fries are superb — golden brown, crisp, and salty.
Not everything is perfect in the area of service, either. Low and slow is good when you're cooking barbecue, but not when you're serving it. The restaurant seemed understaffed for the Saturday lunch crowd, and every part of the meal — from the appetizers and entrées to refills on the drinks — left us waiting, patiently at first and then long enough to become impatient.
But, it's a small price to pay for massive mounds of tasty, reasonably-priced barbecue, and the 16 beers on tap and another 50 in bottles just up the ante. The good folks out on James Island have long been in need of more barbecue options. Smoky Oak Taproom, located in the heart of things off of Camp Road, has arrived just in time.