First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at email@example.com.
Restaurant-hungry Fair Oaks was thrilled in 2013 when the roadhouse-like Mighty Tavern opened in the building that was the 20-year home of the worn-out French veteran La Bohème. The locals lamented when the tavern closed last December, even though the quality of the food and service had become iffy.
Now the Smokey Oaks Tavern has taken its place, opening July 5 and bringing with it a custom-made smoker and a chef who knows how to use it.
“We did a total rehaul of the place,” said co-owner Blaine Santos. “Our vision was a neighborhood bar and grill where families can eat for a reasonable price and (sports fans) can watch a game at the bar.”
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Directing the kitchen is chef Dennis Sydnor, whose résumé includes Grange, Red Rabbit and Ten22. “I honed my barbecue skills at J.B.’s Grill (in Sacramento),” he said. Catch him on an episode of the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” in late November.
Menu: Most of the dishes have a connection with the smoker out back, where Sydnor takes an ax to split oak and applewood logs for fuel. Long-cooked brisket, pork, chicken and turkey show up in appetizers (dirty tots with smoked pulled pork, cheddar, green onions and BBQ sauce), salads, sandwiches (the Smoked is stacked with turkey and chicken breast, bacon, avocado and more on a garlicky grilled French roll) and entrees (brisket is a best-seller).
“We’re going to get smokier with smoked jalapeño mac ’n’ cheese and baby back ribs,” Sydnor said. Coming too will be fried chicken and “at some point” braised greens, red beans and rice, chicken sausage gumbo soup, seafood gumbo and jambalaya. Seldom-seen beef ribs left the menu because of their high wholesale price.
Non-smoked items include hummus, shrimp lettuce wraps, and a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich with peppers (OK, they’re smoked), heirloom tomato, avocado and onion crisps.
Price point: Nothing to panic over at $8 to $14; the smoking process takes time and labor.
Ambiance: The interior has been revitalized from dark and gloomy to bright and cheerful, with natural light showcasing the glossy stamped-tin ceiling, new floors, fresh paint and reclaimed wood slats from an old barn. Gone is the stinky carpeting and the glass wall that separated the two dining rooms (it was re-purposed in the bar area). The restaurant is airy and inviting.
The bar was literally raised off the ground for more comfortable seating and modernized with handsome touches, including a granite backsplash. Two TVs were added for sports-viewing. The TV in the dining room is volume-off, with piped-in music instead (blues and rock when we visited).
Drinks: The specialty-cocktail and wine lists officially will debut at the grand opening Aug. 20. Ten of the 12 taps are devoted to local craft brews.
Service: Enthusiastic and well intentioned, yet someone had difficulty figuring out the tea-to-ice ratio for iced tea (three different-size glasses were involved during the process).
First impressions: Surprisingly good, given that kinks are still being worked out (such as the sourcing of better bread). The star-of-the-show Tavern Burger is a thick patty of brisket and bacon, ground together, cooked and topped with cheddar cheese, crisp bacon and big fixin’s. It arrives at the table with a wood-handled knife stuck in its middle to keep it from falling apart.
Other good things: banh mi fries (daikon, carrot and herbs with tender smoked chicken breast), caprese salad (the excellent garlicky house-made pesto sauce elevates a standard seasonal item), crispy smoked half-chicken (juicy and tender, with a marvelous corn-cucumber-tomato salad splashed with garlic vinaigrette) and a Cuban sandwich on grilled “Cuban” bread that came close to being the real thing.
The cornmeal-crusted shrimp were crunchy and moist on the shrimp po’ boy, but got lost under the thick bread and smothering condiments, though the house-made pickle chips were four-star. We’ll go back for the brisket plate.
Try it if: Smoked meats prepared with attention to detail are near the top of your food chain.
Forget it if: Your food chain is missing a few links, especially protein.
Smokey Oaks Tavern
Where: 9634 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily Mondays-Saturdays
Information: 916-536-9330, www.smokeyoakstavern.com