Steel Smokin by Southern National
360 Dauphin St.
Mobile, AL 36602
I have been waiting for this moment. This is the day when I can finally get out and actually review a restaurant again. It never seemed fair over the past few months to turn a critical eye toward any business hanging on by a thread, fighting an uphill battle, understaffed and understocked, trying to make ends meet by serving curbside and delivery.
If you’ve left a negative Yelp or online review, or stiffed someone on a tip during this time, then you are the lowest of the low. I don’t care if you got into a fistfight with your server — there is a lot of pressure on restaurants right now. You can get snarky after things chill out.
I applaud all of those who’ve kept us fed. Some employees aren’t coming back. Some operators aren’t coming back. Some restaurants aren’t coming back. But some are just altering their concept to suit the times.
I felt I was ready for this column to get somewhat back to normal, and finding a spot wasn’t as difficult as expected. It was time for Baby Henry’s first haircut, and I was due my annual, so the wife booked us appointments at Identity, downtown on Dauphin (thanks, Chelsea), and a short walk to Southern National reminded me of their pop-up restaurant, Steel Smokin.
Never had it? This is Chef Duane Nutter and FOH man Reggie Washington’s stab at barbecue. It sounds a little crazy when you think of a James Beard nominee opening a barbecue spot, but Reggie says that was the initial plan before Southern National took over. The barbecue concept was originally going to be at Brookley Field with promises of domestic flights. Once the duo realized it would be a couple of years before things got rolling, Southern National was born.
So here we are. In the midst of a global crisis, something amazing arises.
Opening in the courtyard from 3-7 p.m., we ran home knowing our dinner plans were locked in. Ordering by phone, we asked for our pickup time to be at 5 p.m. sharp. I wanted to try as many different meats and sides as we could, and found the menu economically easy to accomplish that.
We started with a rib plate ($16). Three bones is a lot of meat. I was impressed with the smoke ring as well as the tenderness. Sauce free, I found the pork to be slightly sweet, but smoky, of course. Katie and I guessed curry powder, but Reggie, a chef in his own right, tells me it’s the cumin I’m tasting. The incredible barbecue sauce on the side wasn’t like any in the area I’d recall. Bottle it, boys.
The two sides accompanying the ribs were my choice of collard greens and Johnny cakes. I’m a turnip lover married to a collard woman, but these were as good as any greens I could remember. The Johnny cakes were smaller, pancake-sized savory cakes with more cornmeal than flour (if any) with tiny flecks of green onion. This was my cornbread for the greens. I didn’t even add pepper sauce.
Smoked wings ($11) were the talk of the town. It was about half flappers to drumettes, though I’d have paid more for all flappers. If this place keeps popping up, they will be a heavy contender for “Best Wings” at the Nappies or any other award ceremony. Who needs blue cheese or ranch when you have this barbecue sauce?
Again, with two sides I had to try Reggie’s baked beans. I asked Reggie how he convinced Duane to let him put his name on the menu, but he explained that some of these recipes came from a barbecue joint he used to have in downtown Atlanta. You know the saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These beans would be hard to improve upon.
The potato salad had a good creamy mustard mixture to it with finely chopped celery. The potatoes, although done, were very firm. I snickered thinking of these competition cooking shows where they always say the scallops were cooked “perfectly.” I guess these potatoes were cooked perfectly, too. I’m also told when they pull the potatoes they add bay leaves and salt. It’s the little things that add up.
I’ve grown weary of pulled pork sandwiches. I love them, but I loved them too much for too long. After a few too many, I found myself more interested in the Alley double cheeseburger ($13). I know the irony is I have definitely had more cheeseburgers than pulled pork sammies in my life, but I couldn’t help it. Name your top five burgers in this town. Add this to your list. Thin patties with American cheese and bacon keep this burger manageable from a size standpoint, but it is the pickled onion that delights me most.
What side could go better than the best tater tots in town? What makes them so great? I don’t know. There is something delicately sweet, almost cinnamon to them. I hated to put them in ketchup, but still did so.
I’d had every side but two. I added a golden raisin slaw for good measure. This is a non-mayonnaise slaw that is, well, classy. The acclaimed star of the “side show” is their tomato-cucumber salad. I wish I could speak on it, but that’ll be my return trip.
The name comes from their original Brookley concept, playing off the steel shipping containers Mobile is known for. They kept “Steel Smokin” since they decided to “steel smoke,” and I hope they will “steel” be here a long time from now.
Duane and Reggie seem to be joined at the hip. We are unclear of a Southern National return date at the moment, as much of Mobile’s fine dining looks to be on hold, but as long as these two are serving something, this city is fortunate. Fine dining, barbecue — why paint a line between the two? This is fine barbecue.
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