Smoke is usually a good sign for barbecue restaurants.
That is, unless it's coming from places it's not supposed to be.
I was one of several Northsiders saddened to see Nooga-Q on Signal Mountain Road burn in a natural-gas fire last September. Less than a year later, they have the smoke under control, are featuring new, bold menu items and haven't forgotten the tender, smoky pork and sweet sauce that drew a crowd in the first place.
The menu seems fairly similar to Nooga's first incarnation. A pork sandwich is $3.75 ($4.50 for a jumbo), a hamburger is $4.50 and a BBQ Dog is $3.95. Each entree can be upgraded to a combo for an additional $2.25. The restaurant also offers a handful of salads, catfish ($8.95) and my wife's barbecue dish, potatoes topped with pork or chicken ($6.50).
What excites me most about the menu is the sliced brisket ($7.95). A good slice of brisket, while common in Texas, is a rare treat in the Southeast, and I wanted to give Nooga's version a try.
... I ordered the barbecue combo plate ($12.95) primarily to sample several meats but also because I was hungry. The plate comes with chicken, pork and two ribs. I asked to swap the chicken for the brisket but was told they did not allow substitutions. This is unfortunate because I would have gladly paid a dollar or two more for the upgrade from chicken to beef, even if my receipt wasn't headed straight to my expense report.
I was most looking forward to the ribs, then the pork and then the chicken, but after trying them I reversed my priorities. The ribs were fatty and fairly flavorless, but the pork with the sauce was slightly better than average compared to other local 'que. By itself, the pork fell a little short in the flavor department.
The chicken was what surprised me. It comes shredded and a little dry, but its smoky flavor married well with the dark, sweet sauce that was kind of a Memphis/Kansas City blend. Each meat came out wearing a conservative dollop of the sauce, which I think is better than swimming in it.
I chose macaroni and cheese and baked beans as my sides. The beans were adequate and had some pieces of pork mixed in, which is a plus. The macaroni proved to be superb with a creamy sauce and extra kick from black pepper. A friend ordered the mashed potatoes, which had a strong, unpleasant citrusy taste. Either something was wrong, or the cooks are going for a flavor they hadn't perfected yet.
If the pork wasn't enough, attractive, young waitresses seem to be a Nooga-Q staple. At 11:45 one morning last week, the restaurant was two-thirds full - with only one female customer - so apparently the strategy is working. The staff was attentive and prompt, and aside from nixing my brisket substitution I had no complaints.
The fire gave the owners a chance to redesign the restaurant's interior, and they took it from a rustic, tight, L-shaped dining area to a high-ceiling, industrial-style, wide-open eating space. The walls are shiny corrugated metal, and the tables are in a black and white checkerboard design. I'm not sure it's an improvement, but it appears there are plans to improve. They've hung a long corkboard on a wall for photos of the Nooga-Q "family." There are fewer and smaller TVs than there were in the old place, but the staff may be planning to add more as they build back their reserves.
Three cheers for the Nooga-Q owners for not giving up after the fire. It takes a lot to put yourself and your money out there like they and other local restaurateurs have done. I'm not sure whether the fire affected Nooga's smoker, but if so, the meat will get a better flavor as the smoker becomes more seasoned. Nooga-Q is already good, but it's poised to become even better. It's definitely worth crossing the river for a workday lunch - but don't be alarmed if you smell smoke.
Where: Nooga Q Smokehouse Grill, 301 Signal Mountain Road.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Price range: $2.95 (hot dog)-$12.95 (barbecue combo plate).
Alcohol: Beer only.