There is power in the smell of true barbecue, and Sweet Lucy's Smokehouse is the ultimate proof.
How else to explain the success of a venture born inside a used truck parked in an obscure corner of Northeast Philadelphia?
Perhaps it was simply a reflection on the scarcity of authentic Southern barbecue in our region. But word of a real pit prospect spread as surely as the dulcet billows of hickory smoke settled over the land. And that truck - fully capable of driving to the masses - rarely bothered to leave the fixtures-store parking lot where it puffed away in the shadows of I-95.
Two years later, owners Jim and Brooke Higgins had such a following, they were able to carve a real restaurant out of a section of that Gershel Bros. fixtures store (conveniently owned by Brooke's dad, Larry Gershel). And ever since they opened in February, that industrial stretch of State Road just north of the Cottman Avenue exit off I-95 suddenly doesn't seem so obscure anymore.
True barbecue has that kind of power, to stick a bright pin on a map of previously uncharted territory. But when you walk through Sweet Lucy's door and an ambrosial warmth wafting from the big Southern Pride smoker literally weakens your knees, there is no mystery at all as to why it's well worth the drive.
So few restaurants in our area actually slow-smoke their ribs that it is always a treat to eat someplace that takes it seriously. There have been other worthy additions in the past year, such as the quirky Smoked Joint in Center City and Famous Dave's Barbeque, which isn't bad for a chain. But we can never have enough.
And Sweet Lucy's has a straightforward roadhouse appeal that seems neither trite nor overly funky - with worthy cooking to match.
The room itself is casual but appealing, a friendly counter-service operation with a spacious dining room ringed by picnic-table booths and upside-down wash-bucket lights (both salvaged from the Delaware Avenue's ill-fated Sammy's). Cheeky pig paraphernalia, an ice-cold tank of sweetened Southern tea, and a country music soundtrack lend the converted warehouse, with its exposed brick walls and stripped wood beams, a convincing down-home motif.
But really, all I need for great barbecue is a good smoker and a handy roll of paper towels. And Lucy's reliably puts these to good use. To my surprise, however, it is not the fine pork specialties, but the chicken that stops me cold.
Jim Higgins uses brined four-pound roasters, and gives them a good spice rub before their five-hour tour through the low-heat oven. But as they rise and fall on a rotisserie inside the smoker, they are constantly basted by the fat drippings of ribs and pork butts that share the carousel. The result is almost indescribably good (though I'll try), a bronzed bird so completely succulent and tender that your teeth glide in slow-motion pleasure through its juicy flesh.
"Oh, dark meat I love you so!" exclaimed the friend to my left, a native Tennessean, who deftly stripped the thighs to the bone. The white meat, though, was just as good. A starter of smoked chicken wings quickly disappeared.
Is there better barbecued chicken in the city? I think not.
Whether there is better pork barbecue is still an open debate. Sweet Lucy's finest pig dish is the pulled bone-in butt, cooked for up to 16 hours over green hickory, carefully hand-pulled, then splashed with a spicy vinegar in the style of the eastern Carolinas, where Jim went to college. I savored those tender strands of tangy meat, probably the best of their kind around, but can't fathom why Sweet Lucy's buries its porcine treasure inside the huge puff of a bulky egg bun.
I liked the ribs here quite enough - extra-large baby backs called loin backs that clung to the bone just enough to show their smoke. And yet, like some of Lucy's other barbecue, the flavors here were a little restrained - certainly far more soft-spoken than the swaggeringly smoked spareribs over at the Smoked Joint. I appreciate Lucy's diligent preparations, which have almost a purist, textbook flavor. But sometimes, and especially with barbecue, it's a flair for the eccentric that gives a pit its personality.
For once, in this regard, I think a sauce adds serious value to the meat. Higgins describes his concoction as stylistically somewhere between western Carolina and Tennessee, tomatoey but not too tart, with a delicate sweetness and present-but-subtle spice. It is an elegant sauce, indeed, a lively, balanced, deep-red brew that finally gets those wallflower ribs to dance.
Even more sauce is needed for the somewhat bland brisket, which isn't as tender as it could be. But smoke is all that's needed for the fine kielbasa, whose snappy brown casings take on a sweet burnished shine. The spice-steamed peel-and-eat shrimp seemed vaguely out of place on the meat-centric menu, but we loved them anyhow as a starter, especially with a dip in horseradish-zapped cocktail sauce.
For its sides, Sweet Lucy's also plays by the book, with unflashy preparations that satisfy nonetheless through careful cooking and good ingredients.
The mashed sweet potatoes are silky and rich, and avoid too much candy spice. The braised collards are vegetarian - thus no pork-boosted oomph - but they are braised to tenderness over 21/2 hours. The corn bread is light and fluffy. "Grandmaw's macaroni" salad is tweaked with green olives.
But it's the baked beans that most lingered in my memory, cooked from scratch with molasses and garlic, then studded with nuggets of shredded pork and beef. Real smoked meat, true barbecue, can even add power to a pot of beans.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.