“Hey, Fred!” is something you'll hear at least once while at Smokey Fred's in Orange, and it's not just because the guy behind the counter is—you guessed it!—Fred. People want to shoot the shit with him, since he's a gregarious fellow who looks as though he left his post as an SEC football defensive coach's for this: back-slapping, ball-busting, frank yet genuinely caring of each customer. And those customers quickly become regulars, not just to hear him talk about the status of that day's rib tips (“They came out extra tender today!”), but also because Fred is conducting an audacious experiment from a tired Orange shopping plaza.
Barbecue in Orange County is a notoriously iffy proposition, usually helmed by men who think they're 'cue masters after a layover in Charlotte and encouraged by an unknowing public who think a slab of meat engulfed in a treacly sauce is just how the good ol' boys eat it in the backwoods of Virginny. Smokey Fred's ups the ante by proclaiming itself the master of four distinct barbecue traditions: Memphis, Carolina, Texas and Kansas City, all about as similar as Coto de Caza is to Stanton. Carolina gets repped in the form of an unsauced pulled-pork sandwich tarted up by a great coleslaw; on the side is a piquant carafe of vinegar sauce, like a thicker Tabasco. Memphis shows up in blocks of rib that slip off bones as though water off glass; the KC sandwich is the only oversauced thing here, but that's because the city likes its 'cue sweet and spicy. And Texas makes its presence known with charred brisket and a plump Polish kielbasa. Heck, Fred will even throw in a Louisiana link just for the hell of it. All the meats are spectacular—soft, strong, plump, chewy. Fred (who's the cashier, cook, waiter and host, so be patient) also preps great sides—all that's missing is pecan pie. And regardless of tradition, Fred prepares everything low and slow, knows that grilling is the enemy and a light flame is his best friend. Eat it in a bun, eat it off a plate, take pounds of it home—it doesn't matter. Fred's is as close to actual Southern barbecue in this county as the glory days of Burrell's.
The only thing I'm not a fan of is the chili—too watery, too weak. But chili ain't barbecue, so go with what Smokey Fred truly knows—and when you finally get to know him, don't forget to yell you-know-what.