By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Feb 06, 2012 at 5:03 AM

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.

All of the meat comes from humanely-raised animals that are free of hormones and antibiotics, according to Sorge. Smoke Shack is buying whole Berkshire hogs from a source in Black Earth, Wis., and the demand for ribs at the restaurant has been outstripping supply. A single pig only has so many ribs, the restaurateur points out.

Sorge was meeting with suppliers in one of the eatery's booths when I arrived at the Shack for a chat with him. The goal is to get more Berkshire hog ribs into the smoker.

Smoke Shack makes its own smoked sausage from the pigs and uses Black Angus beef for its brisket.

The restaurant's menu reveals smoking times for the different meats and cuts served. If your eye stops on the pulled pork, you will see it spends 13 hours in the smoker. Beef brisket gets 10 hours; ribs are smoked for 4 hours.

A full slab of baby back ribs is the most expensive menu item at $29. Among the entrees, a half chicken or half pound of sausage is $14. Pulled pork costs $14.50, a half pound of beef brisket is priced at $18, and a pound of bone-in short ribs is $24.

Two combo platters are $27 and $28. Ribs are served only after 5 p.m.

Dinners are accompanied by corn bread and a side, with choices running from barbecue restaurant traditionals to such intriguing items as fried corn on the cob, creamy braised leeks, and seasonal roasted vegetables.

Sorge is especially proud of the corn bread, which is home baked. "It is more cake than bread. We mill our own corn. It is sweet and delicate," he said.

The corn bread is the responsibility of a new pastry chef who has been hired to service all of the Sorges' restaurants. She creates desserts for Smoke Shack, including beignets ($4.25), bourbon praline cake ($7.50), seasonal fruit crumble ($7.50) and gooey bacon bourbon brownies ($7.75) made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, and yes, bacon.

Purple Door Ice Cream has developed a special flavor, whiskey, for Smoke Shack, and it is served alone ($4.50) and with a slice of pecan pie ($8.25). The local company's vanilla bean ice cream accompanies the fruit crumble and bacon bourbon brownies, and can also be purchased alone ($3.50).

Other unusual items on the menu include pulled pork nachos ($8.75), candied bacon and sweet potato fries ($7.25), fried tomato salad ($7.25) and roasted poblano corn chowder ($3.50 and $5.50). A selection of sandwiches served on a potato roll features pulled chicken ($9.50), pulled pork ($10.50), beef brisket ($13.75) and a brisket sloppy joe ($11.50).

Vegetarians are offered two sandwiches – roasted portobello with fontina cheese, grilled sweet onion and arugula ($9.50) and the wheat gluten product seitan with onion and arugula ($8.50). Both are served with the house barbecue sauce.

All sandwiches come with slaw and a choice of kettle chips or sweet potato fries.

Befitting a roadhouse barbecue joint, Smoke Shack's bar specializes in bourbon – 10 choices – and beer from bottles and tall boy cans. "We have been thoughtful in our selection of bourbons," Sorge said.

Wine drinkers can choose among three reds and three whites available by the glass.

Smoke Shack opens daily at 11. Its capacity will nearly triple when it can seat customers at picnic tables on an outdoor deck.

A second indoor dining area will eventually be opened on the restaurant's second floor. All menu items can be carried out.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.