Photo by Tenaya HillsA young, radical Latino would reasonably share little with Wally George—the coffin-dodging TV conservative—but I know we agree on at least one thing: Mr. Smoke BBQ and Polish Restaurant is a multi-ethnic revelation.
A portrait of Wally vouches for our concordance. Prominently displayed at the Anaheim restaurant is a picture of the legendary Hot Seat host—probably taken when he was 96—wearing his trademark off-blond wig, flashing a toothy smile and an eternally turgid thumb-up. It's signed, "To Mr. Smoke: You're the best! Your friend, Wally George."
How Wally could possibly eat any food here defies physiology. Polish cooking and barbecue are notorious for their digestive-tract devastation, and I, possessor of an elastic stomach, cannot finish a Mr. Smoke meal even after fasting for three days in anticipation. I think Wally's brittle intestines would burst with half-digested foodstuffs—pierogies, kielbasas, ribs—if he so much as smelled the approach of Mr. Smoke. Regardless, Wally endorses Mr. Smoke, and so should you.
Before you ask: barbecue isn't native to the Polish diet. The restaurant opened a couple of years ago, seeking to introduce the county to a proper barbecue ambience. This explains the restaurant's cavernous layout, which recalls an Old West tavern with a stone floor and high wooden ceiling. While you chomp at cooked pork, pig statues—cheerful simulacra—stand around and stare intently.
During those early days, Mr. Smoke included a smattering of Eastern European cuisine almost as an afterthought. But Anaheim's large Slavic community found the eatery, thankful, perhaps, they no longer had to drive to Eagle Rock's renowned Polka in search of ethnic eats.
Since then, Mr. Smoke has become a gathering spot for Orange County's Poles, expanding to include produce, Polish-language television and—as Wally's picture emphatically indicates—even more excellent cooking.
Let's return to the barbecue for a bit, starting with the sauce. It's a sturdy, slightly sweet relish that tattoos itself on your lips. The sauce produces baby back ribs whose hickory heaviness Chili's scientists are currently in a lab trying to reproduce. The chicken is a bit tough, but the spare ribs do no wrong. The fried shrimp host crackling skin and a pinkish interior whose freshness is accentuated by the sauce.
All barbecue options come with the anchors of any Polish feast: stinging sauerkraut, indifferent beets and a giant mashed-potato glob flecked with garlic bits. These three side orders taste fine when accompanying the barbecue offerings, but next to the Polish part of the menu, they taste of polkas and mazurkas.
Most of the Polish choices at Mr. Smoke are meat-based. Sorry, vegetarians: you're limited to one alternative, but it also happens to be the great Polish pasta pierogi. These dumplings usually feature meat (the beef and pork pierogis are particularly good), but Mr. Smoke's non-meat choices are remarkable. A potato-and-cheese sort unleashes pastoral images; the sauerkraut-and-mushroom shocks with its bitterness but quickly redeems itself with a rush of warm acidity; the spinach-cheese-and-mushroom pierogies are better still.
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But meat is king at Mr. Smoke, where you'll find more prime cuts than at a firefox fund-raiser. The golonka (marinated oinker hocks) chews well enough but steps up to the next level with an accompanying mustard that brings out the pork's delicate flavor. The cutlet sobieski continues the pig parade; it's a tender, breaded loin crammed with onions and mushrooms bound with a thick cheese and infused with chicken broth. And make sure to order the antrykot, a breaded pork loin that's fried and attains an almost schnitzel-level intensity of taste. Those last two dishes just might make you reconsider your disavowal of animal crotches.
When I take a guest to Mr. Smoke, I direct them to the goulash. Goulash is Hungary's national dish, of course, but centuries of conquest have created a fairly common Eastern European cuisine. The Polish version of the Hungarian standard is cooked close to rare, but Mr. Smoke's use of spices (in addition to the traditional paprika) will quickly dissipate that just-killed taste. The goulash shines on its own, but order it as part of a Hungarian potato pancake. Here, the fine pork slices are cooked with cheese on top of a golden-brown potato patty that is simultaneously crunchy, chewy and divine.
And, yes, Mr. Smoke serves kielbasa. Good ones, too. Just ask Wally.
MR. SMOKE BBQ AND POLISH RESTAURANT, LOCATED AT 2610 W. LA PALMA AVE., ANAHEIM, IS OPEN TUES.-FRI., 11 A.M.-9 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., NOON-9 P.M. (714) 827-9074. BEER AND WINE. DINNER FOR TWO, $6-$30, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.