Eats and stuff at Smokey's in Dana Point

A large, leafy tree stands in the middle of the room. Near the queue to the register, there are two booths made up as jail cells, complete with metal bars and wanted posters.

It's corny. It's kitschy. It's the kind of interior design cribbed straight out of the Walt Disney playbook on Western theming; a cartoony, fun, Frontierland-version of the Old West, intended to disarm and put you into a playful mood conducive to eating lots of BBQ.

I didn't need any more convincing. BBQ was already on my brain. Why, after all, would I drag my friends to Dana Point to Smokey's House of BBQ if I wasn't looking forward to a night of sinking my teeth into a rack of baby backs, stripping meat from bone, licking my sauce-sullied fingers.

Unfortunately, despite the open kitchen that boasted a steel-grated, platform roasting rack that can be lifted and lowered into a pit of fire; I am still waiting for my night of BBQ bliss.

But first, the good.

The chile con queso ($4.99), which duped our group of Californians into thinking we were ordering a bowl of chili with cheese, was actually chile with the "e" -- a dish any Texan would recognize as an appetizer similar to nachos. We loved it anyway.

Triangles of fried tortilla -- perfectly rigid and addictively crunchy -- were piled on a plate and drizzled in a silky, spicy, cheesy sauce that bordered on Cheez Wiz and fondue. Grilled corn nibblets, diced chile, and messy dollops of sour cream and guacamole rescued it from being mistaken for movie theater nachos.

Then there were the catfish fingers ($6.99); fried bite-sized pieces of fish, breaded in just enough cornmeal to protect the flesh from drying out in the hot oil. Dunked into a searing remoulade, each nugget was easier to eat than popcorn and just as fun.

We would've laughed off the side of "Gourmet Mac & Cheese" ($5.99) for its oxymoronic title, but it pleased our resident mac-and-cheese connoisseur. Though, admittedly, she hasn't met a mac-and-cheese she hasn't liked.

My other tablemate, who ordered the tri tip po' boy ($12.99), couldn't stop eating the hot, lightly-battered, and freshly fried sweet potato fries that came with the sandwich; and I couldn't stop stealing them.

The baked beans that came as a side to my main course was sugary enough to rot your teeth, but also strewn with bits of pork. It begged to be eaten out of pie pans, around a campfire, reenacting my favorite scene from Blazing Saddles.

But like Will Smith's Wild Wild West, the baby back ribs ($22.99) it accompanied let me down. As with the film, expectations ran high. All signs were pointing to greatness, but ultimately, on this night, with those ribs; it lead to mediocrity.

And at Smokey's, there were actual signs; big ones in bold print that all but promised meats that were slow-smoked; meats that would be fall-off-the-bone tender and flavorful. What I got for dinner was neither.

Even though they were the meatiest bones I've ever seen, it took a concerted effort to work that meat off the bone. No amount of teeth tugging could coax all of it off. By the time I gave up, ragged patches of it hung on like barnacles on a ship.

It's as if it wasn't cooked slow or long enough, leaving the full, lip-smacking potential of the meat's collagen untapped and the flavors muted. But what I missed most on the rack I had this night was the caramelization, where the sugars and fat combine into a tasty, brown-and-black crust.

I went back to scarfing spoonfuls of their wonderful baked beans, hoping that Smokey's (which has only been open a few months) will get better soon, and chuckling again about Blazing Saddles. Now that was a good movie.

Smokey's House of BBQ (949)495-0720 32860 PCH #4 Dana Point, CA 92629


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