When my family and I walked into Smokemasters Ribs ’n Pollo for lunch, my heart skipped a beat. This little joint at the tail end of a multicultural Lilburn shopping center held such divey promise.
I loved that Smokemasters — open three weeks on the day we visited — looks like a barely rehabilitated nail salon, complete with dusty rose walls and plastic flowers.
I loved the minimalist menu that features owner Percy L. Square’s dual passions — barbecued ribs and Peruvian-style charcoal-broiled chicken — and little else.
I was charmed by the squishy, supermarket-issue sandwich bread Square used to assemble our rib tip sandwich, even if it wasn’t Sunbeam.
It was when Square reached for a squeeze bottle of high fructose corn syrup-laden Sweet Baby Ray’s that my heart sank. Store-bought bread is one thing. But a barbecue joint that doesn’t concoct its own barbecue sauce just feels wrong.
Nevertheless, when we tried the bone-in ribs, we found ourselves reaching for that sweet stuff. The dry-rubbed ribs were, well, dry. (They did manage to be tender, though, thanks no doubt to a proprietary elixir called Tenda Rub, of which Square is the inventor and sombrero-wearing purveyor.)
The good news is, those slightly stringy bones were the only disappointment on our table. The rib tips — fattier, juicier and more devourable than the bones — make for a voluptuous sandwich-eating experience, especially if you order some fruity, coarsely-cut cole slaw and pile it on.
The real star at Smokemasters is the chicken. If you’re a northern Virginian missing the Peruvian pollo that has proliferated there, this dish will give you a Proustian pang. Square was once a Virginia lawyer who noted the long queues outside a pollo joint near his office. Eventually, it inspired him to make a meaty career change and a move to Atlanta, where he has re-created those beloved birds.
They are very tasty, indeed — charry, herb-crusted and juicy, with just the right pinch of salt.
The pollo is served with two different versions of the essential “green sauce.” I’ve had some that are more cilantro-driven, but Square’s are all about the jalapeno. One sauce is creamy and aromatic, with a nice little kick. The other is chunky, more of a relish than a sauce, and it’s super-spicy, giving the chicken a beautiful burn.
If you’re up the road and craving some ’cue, Smokemasters’ rib tips will do. But it’s the pollo that’s worth traveling for — with perfectly cooked black beans, snowy white rice, fluffy-crisp cottage fries and that fresh, addictive cole slaw on the side.