Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Dry Run

If Up in Smoke treated BBQ as lovingly as NASCAR, this Keller eatery would be a winner.


Up in Smoke BBQ Restaurant

& Motorsports Bar

134 S Main St, Keller. 817-431-9091.

Mon-Thu 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10:30 pm. Credit Cards: AE, DC, D, MC, V.

hen evaluating a restaurant in the ’burbs, it’s important to say right up front if the grub is worth the drive. Steven’s Garden and Grill in Mansfield is worth the trip, as is the Nutt House in Granbury. Even if Keller is a mere 20 miles from downtown Fort Worth, the food at Up in Smoke doesn’t warrant a dinner trip. But if a NASCAR fan needs a place to chow down in the middle of the day, perhaps this barbecue joint wouldn’t be such a bad choice.

The restaurant is wall-to-wall racing memorabilia. There is the homage to Richard Petty, the logo-festooned bumper, and more signed photographs of motor sports luminaries than you can count.

But we, being foodies first and NASCARians not at all, visit not for the sights but the tastes. At dinner, the only item from the two- and three-meat platters my guest and I ordered that was consumed in total was the cole slaw. It was crunchy, sweet, sour, and loaded with celery seed.

We had begun the suppertime experience with greasy onion rings and one really strangely named appetizer — Texas Toothpicks, a.k.a. a basket of curly fries with bits of crisp, fried onion and jalapeño scattered on top. The fries were standard, and the bits of salty fried onion and jalapeño tasted as if they had been unceremoniously removed from a deluxe Whataburger — extra salty and slick — and merely plopped down on our “toothpicks.” Blah.

After that inauspicious start, we approached our entrées with wariness — and our caution was repaid in full as the smoked turkey breast was moist only after being drowned in barbecue sauce. The pulled pork tasted like an overdone roast that had been cooked in an oven, not a smoker. It lacked flavor and moisture but was at least tender. Tasting the St. Louis-style ribs was the only (relative) high point in a humdrum dinner. (“St. Louis” refers to the way a butcher trims pork spare ribs — what a particular way of trimming has to do with a city is anyone’s guess.) Since these St. Louis delicacies were some of only a few things we liked, we were disappointed that the mixed-meat platter came with only three 6-inch ribs.

We ended dinner with dessert — apple cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The dish was inordinately uninteresting. It reminded me of the Dutch oven cobbler made by scout leaders on a camp out, canned filling with pre-made crust. Unfortunately, camp-out cobbler has the advantage of being consumed in the wilderness by famished kids, not in a restaurant following a mediocre meal.

By now I bet you’re wondering about the brisket. Up in Smoke’s version gets one thumb up, one down. It was moist and smoky at lunch, dry as dust at dinner. If looks mattered in barbecue, however, both servings would have gotten a pick-up line from me. Both looked delicious, with quarter-inch-thick smoke rings around the edges of the meat. Too bad taste matters, too. The late-day brisket had almost no discernible flavor whereas the luncheon serving had the lusty, smoky beef flavor you’d wish for.

The one lunch item that really surprised was the smoked catfish. The fish had a black pepper and paprika taste combined with a nice hint of smoke. The inch-thick fillet was moist but not mushy and came apart in large flakes like perfectly poached white fish. It is served as a platter but would be terrific on a bun with a schmear of dill-pickle tartar sauce and a squirt of lemon.

The cheeseburger we also ordered at lunch was ordinary. The patty was generous, appropriately thicker on the edges than the middle to cook evenly, and it had a good, hearty texture and flavor. But the choice of cheese summed up the Up in Smoke experience: In all cases, you’re limited to ... yellow American.

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