Just outside the entrance to Carolina Smokehouse Grill, a pile of hay bales is a not-so-subtle visual cue, inviting you to step inside and forget about the Walmart-anchored strip mall where the restaurant is located. Yall come on in, they seem to say, where the times are simpler and the cookin is country.
Any concerns that the place youre entering might be a kissing cousin to a Cracker Barrel are allayed as soon as you step inside: nary a grinning pig or swatch of gingham to be seen. Instead, you find a simply furnished dining room, with framed photographs of old farm buildings and a handful of antique tools hung in neat rows on ivory walls. To the right, a granite-topped bar dispenses a modest selection of beers, wines and spirits.
The menu takes its cue from the restaurants name, though the Smokehouse fare ventures across state borders to include everything from ribs and brisket to appetizer offerings of smoked shrimp and chicken wings. By and large, though, the list remains true to form with a selection that explores the Southern repertoire from old-fashioned chicken and dumplings to trendy fried pickle chips.
On paper, that is. In terms of execution, the food is all over the map.
Chicken wings, which get a light rub of cinnamon and brown sugar before being smoked and finally deep-fried to order, get things off to a promising start.
Fried green tomatoes come close to the mark, with alternating layers of house-smoked mozzarella providing a welcome contrast to their cornmeal-crusted tang. The only jarring note is a generous topping of a tomato jam whose tartness competes with that of the green tomatoes.
Smoked shrimp are undistinguished, with little if any discernible smoke flavor. Sweet potato cornbread, served in a miniature cast-iron skillet, wasnt even lukewarm when I ordered it. The knob of maple butter that fell onto the skillet when I removed a wedge of the cornbread didnt melt.
The bumpy ride continues through the entrees. Crackly, crusted fried chicken is a winning option, at least for those who favor dark meat. The breast can be dry.
Shrimp and grits score with properly cooked shellfish and creamy, bacon-studded cheddar grits. The light sauce is tasty, too, but its so soupy and theres so much of it youll likely find yourself flagging down your server for a spoon.
A grilled, 12-ounce rib-eye came out medium-rare as my dining companion ordered it, flavorful enough but on the chewy side of chewy-tender. It was, as he aptly put it, a good Ponderosa Steakhouse steak.
Aficionados will point out that Carolina Smokehouse Grills Eastern North Carolina chopped BBQ is anything but. With a medium-coarse chop and a brown sugar-sweetened sauce, its reasonably tasty nonetheless.
Barbecued pork spareribs, available dry-rubbed or sauced, can be hit or miss, depending on which end of the rack youre gnawing on. If its the thicker, fattier (hence, juicier) end, dry rub is all youll need. If its the thinner, less meaty (hence, drier) end, youll be asking for more sauce.
In any event, Id steer clear of the brisket. The fact that it comes already heavily sauced is a clue as to just how dry the beef is.
Most entrees are served with your choice of two sides. Fried okra and waffle-cut sweet potato fries are worthy picks. So are the collards, as long as you like them on the sweet side (the kitchen clearly has a thing for brown sugar) and old-fashioned creamy mac and cheese.
You might even consider going all in and ordering the skillet-baked mac and cheese entree, tossed with broccoli and bacon, and topped with tomato jam (it works in this case) and your choice of grilled chicken or shrimp.
Desserts are homemade, and usually include a couple of cobblers (recently blackberry and peach) and a banana pudding thats dense and rich enough to share.
Carolina Smokehouse Grill is the third restaurant venture for Matt Naugle, who previously owned Sambuca Chophouse in the same space and opened WatersView on Lake Gaston in 2006 after retiring from the Internet business.
In talking to Naugle, its clear that hes eager to iron out the new-restaurant wrinkles at his latest venture.
In the meantime, the smoked wings alone are worth a drive to Wake Forest.
Carolina Smokehouse Grill
11216-102 Capital Blvd., Wake Forest
Cuisine: barbecue, Southern
Rating: *1/2 (one and a half stars)
Atmosphere: casual, with an understated Southern accent
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: enthusiastic, some still learning the ropes
Recommended: smoked wings, fried chicken (dark meat), desserts
Open: Lunch Friday-Sunday, dinner nightly.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection
The N&Os critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * * Extraordinary * * * * Excellent. * * * Above average. * * Average. * Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.
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