The Shack is smokin' in the Third Ward
Drive past the most eagerly anticipated new restaurant of the new year, and if you blink, you could miss it. Smoke Shack, tucked between two much larger buildings on Milwaukee Street in the Historic Third Ward, blends right into the scenery.
The two-story structure looks like an old time Milwaukee neighborhood bar and residence. A small wooden sign, illuminated by a single light, is the only external identifying feature of Joe and Angie Sorge's new venture.
But slip inside and you enter a world quite unlike anything else Downtown. Barbecue is the fragrance in the air. Recorded blues is the music in the room.
And community is the style of dining. This could be Texas or North Carolina or that crossroads in Mississippi where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
Only 47 customers can be squeezed into this "shack," and you better be feeling friendly. You may be seated elbow to elbow with a stranger. Business has exceeded high expectations, and the small dining room includes a community table and three jumbo booths large enough to accommodate more than a single party.
The Sorges, who also operate Swig, Water Buffalo and AJ Bombers, have created a rustic southern barbecue environment in the middle of the Historic Third Ward. Their collaborators are Flux Design, which also is responsible for the interiors of their other restaurants, and Robert Joseph of Joseph Property Development.
Joseph owns the Water Buffalo building, on the corner of Water and Buffalo, and two years ago he purchased the modest structure at 322 N. Milwaukee St. with the intent of the Sorges opening a barbecue eatery there. MJ's, which called itself a neighborhood tavern, occupied the space at the time, and it closed when its lease expired in March 2010.
After the property became vacant, the interior was stripped down to cinderblock walls, and pieces of a Waupun-area barn were moved into it. A sliding barn door is now Smoke Shack's front door.
The restaurant's walls are paneled with the barn wood, and metal siding from the farm is also being used in Smoke Shack's interior. A hole was punched through the rear of the Milwaukee Street building to accommodate a Southern Pride wood smoker, which has a meat capacity of a half ton. While most of the smoker is outside of the structure, it is accessed from within.
New infrastructure, including gas, water and electrical service, was installed. Joe Sorge said the gutting and renovation of the building was partially responsible for the longer than anticipated delay in opening.
AJ Bombers' appearance on the Travel Channel's "Food Wars" had an unexpected effect on that restaurant, and the Sorges subsequently opened a Bombers in Madison, further postponing Smoke Shack's debut, according to the owner.
Diners sauce their own beef, pork and chicken at Smoke Shack. The meat is dry rubbed, and customers can choose among bottles of Texas (tomato based with a little kick), Kansas City (sweet and smokey), Carolina Gold (mustard base with vinegar bite) and a house sauce that are on the table. The kitchen will pre-sauce an order upon request.
"We have avoided being a single style of barbecue," Sorge said. "Barbecue is very polarizing," he added, explaining that personal preferences greatly vary.
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I like small taverns with character! Smoke Stack is every bit of that...one problem what the hell kind of place that calls itself Smoke Stack runs out of RIBS & BRISKET! Tell me one BBQ place around the country that doesn't have RIBS. When they informed us of this...I was just floored, couldn't believe. The cherry on top was when I ordered the first item on the desert menu the Beignet's and was told they weren't turning out right! Excuse me, does this mean you have them but don't know how to cook them. I had no idea how to react to that one. I ended up getting the the pulled pork which was as pedestrian as it gets. Honestly could have gotten the same sandwich at Culver's. First time there and doubt I will return any time soon.
Been to the Smoke Shack a few times now. Service was friendly and the atmosphere is great. The restaurant however is uncomfortably small and the food is average, pricey and nothing special. They charge extra for a small dipping cup of cole slaw? Really. Sweet potato fries are okay, you can find the same all over town. Also, if you have community seating then your prices should reflect that. Ribs are expensive for what you get. Too bad, it's not more like rib shacks all over the South, maybe on atmosphere but that's about it.
Not judging the food at Smoke Shack because I have not been there but Lo-Cash is right near by and way cheaper.
I've been there a couple of times to really let the experience sink in. The smoke shack looks good on paper. New BBQ joint in Milwaukee, nice decor, fresh smoked meat, etc. In reality there is nothing really worth standing in the small waiting area for. Expect a wait as the place has extremely limited seating. If you do go and there are only two of you expect another couple to be seated with you. Depending on the time of day your options may be limited. Ribs and Rib tips for example are only served after 5pm and in very limited supply. My last outting there they "ran out" at 5:45pm. I was informed by my server that another round would be up at 7. Indeed it was and I was one of the fortunate people to get a rack of the baby back ribs. You choose from 4 sauces. 3 bbq and 1 mustard. None really stood out to me. The ribs were fair at best. Part of the problem is that you have such a narrow window to get these ribs that they have a lot to live up to. I'd be surprised if I found anyone who told me they were worth the hassle. The brisket was good. I got it in sandwich form my first outting there. The sweet potato fries were a nice side but nothing to write home over. It's really not hard to find these types of sides anywhere else. The garlic mac was fair. Overall I was looking forward to a new BBQ joint in town. I can't help but feel this is a missed oppurtunity. The seating is poor. There is no real wait area. As we opened the door to survery the situation we were scolded for having cold air in. Well its february and there is no place to wait. Limitations on what could be considered the hallmark attraction on a BBQ menu is limited to the point where most people wont be able to get the ribs. All in all it's not really worth trying to find parking for such a medicore experience.
Place is way too small. As an owner, you should know the city has been craving a BBQ place and to open a joint with 49 seats? Idiotic if you ask me, and the prices are steep. I had the brisket sandwich and it was average. Next time I'll try to chicken.
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