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Monday, January 08, 2018

The Q is Capital

From the Smoker Dept.: The reason I no longer get out to barbecue joints these days is because I’ve got my own smoker going in the backyard often enough to keep me contented. But I’m delighted to see that Capital Q, reviewed below a decade ago, is still going strong. All that seems to have changed is the pricing.


THE BARBECUE REVOLUTION CONTINUES. We of the innocent northeast grew up believing that barbecue was a verb, an activity that took place over a grill fired by fluid-impregnated charcoal briquets (developed by Henry Ford as a byproduct of Model T production). Alongside the endless parade of burgers and wieners appeared chicken parts, slathered in sweet sauces, and ribs of pork or beef. With the proper know-how, you can grill chicken and ribs into excellent meatstuffs. But it’s not, applying the word as a noun now, barbecue.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Sample the pulled pork at Capital Q Smokehouse for a taste of the real thing. This is meat as tender as it can get, yanked off the pork shoulder (in butcher’s parlance, the butt), served with or without some manner of sauce. Its tenderness comes from many lingering hours over not-too-hot woodsmoke, enough time to require day-in-advance preparation. When your local barbecue joint confesses that it’s out of this or that meat, it’s another sign that they’re making the real thing.

Such was not a problem the day we visited Capital Q Smokehouse, the little eatery in the Ontario St. space once occupied by Emil Meister’s Market. There were ribs, there was brisket, there was pulled pork. And there was a parade of tasty side dishes to round out the meal, all of it fulfilling a dream of chef-owner Sean Custer.

“I love cooking fine French food,” he says, referring to the years he spent in New York and other cities purveying fine dining, “but barbecue is more fun.”

Capital Q quietly opened in September, and word quickly spread among aficionados. I was stymied a couple of times because I couldn’t get it through my head that the place was closed on Tuesdays – but that has changed now (nothing to do with me), and the place operates every day but Sunday. [Note: This has since changed.]

You can see the small-market legacy in the eatery’s railroad-flat layout. A service counter dominates the front room, where a very few seats sit by the picture window. Have a look at your side dishes, sweating over steam behind a display glass. Mashed potatoes, collard greens, sweet potatoes candied with maple glaze, rice and beans, macaroni and cheese and fried okra are among those offerings; rich cole slaw, french fries (regular spuds or sweet potatoes), hush puppies and cornbread also are offered.

Buy your meal by the plate (which in this case means a large styrofoam container) and you’ll get cornbread, cole slaw and your choice of another side thrown in, and you can add yet another for just a buck.

Pricing on those plates makes it easy to do so. A pulled pork platter ($7.75) presents more meat than you should consume at one sitting, or so I told myself and then disobeyed. Because of the lengthy cooking time, the meat can’t be coated with anything that will burn, so it’s a dry rub of aromatic spices that enhances the delicious smokiness.

The default presentation puts a tangy vinegar-based sauce alongside the meat, North Carolina style, and there’s also another Carolinian sauce that incorporates mustard into the brew. Custer is an Oklahoman, and salutes that state with a ketchup and molasses-flavored sauce, the kind of sauce with which we’re most familiar.

I wish I could name a favorite. I wish I could find within myself the food-critic fussiness to pass so particular a judgment. But I’m such a fan of variety, and the sauces are so well seasoned, that I can only recommend you try each one and delight in the differences.

The palate is proving to be a more complicated flavor gatherer than was once thought, and the recently-acknowledged fifth sensation, umami, only supports the need for a good sauce to be kinetic. As it rolls along the tongue, it hits every one of those receptors, hits it with a snap and takes over your mouth for a good, long time.

There’s less of a dance from the meat alone, but the slow process of smoking spreads the fat content, and fat on the palate provokes a wonderful prolongation of flavor. Although leaner than pulled pork, the richness of Texas-style brisket ($7.75 on a platter, $6.50 on a bun) will linger, so try it first without the sauce.

Most of the meat is available by the platter ($8 or so), as a sandwich (about $7) or by the pound. There’s chicken, of course, available in different sizes; St. Louis cut ribs (the brisket bone is removed), moderately spicy chili, chicken-fried steak and even cornmeal-breaded catfish. And be sure to try the house-made garlic pickle.

Custer lucked into a space with its own built-in smoker back behind the kitchen, a to-die-for assembly that allows him to prepare many, many pounds of meat at a time – so chances are you’ll find whatever it is you’re craving whenever you stop by. There’s an easygoing charm to the place exemplified by the laid-back owner, who finished a chat with me by declaring, with a laugh, “But it’s not life or death here. It’s just smoked meat.”

Capital Q Smokehouse, 329 Ontario St., Albany, 438-7675. Slow-smoked ribs and brisket, pulled pork and more, with lots of tasty sides. Very limited seating. Serving Mon-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sat 11-10, Sun noon-9.

Metroland Magazine, 2 August 2008

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