If you're heartsick and weary with being marketed to, and advertised at, and having your life packaged and sold so that bloated conglomerates can better feed you lines instead of decent food, then I've got a brick hallway you need to hang out in. It's at Papa Tree's Smokehouse, it's about eight feet long with a window where most orders are taken to-go, and it's where I was reminded of the hope for humanity through observing a simple thing: the rhythm of a restaurant that cares about people.
Even in the pouring rain one day, the space was repeatedly emptied and filled with people grabbing lunch on the go. With owner Bill Herman's daughter at the counter, a few guys talked about how it was their friend's first time, capping a taste with, "Told you — that's some good sauce." Two guys came running in, one shoe-less because he couldn't find his sandals but saying, "I'm still hungry." A group of blue-collar types traded laughs with the kitchen, talking about bartering ball-caps made in the U.S.A., or some work on stainless steel, for barbecue — or for nothing "because you guys have hooked us up so many times." Another dude made small talk while he waited, telling me how long he's waited to get his buddy in there to try the pulled-pork sandwich ($5.25).
Let's be clear here: This is a small outfit in the corner of a dead Conway's Red Top, along an unfriendly stretch of blacktop. But Herman knew exactly what I was talking about as soon as I asked.
"Here we are on Circle, with tons of cars, people honking and going fast or whatever, and they'll come in here and they can just talk," says the owner, a former roofer who turned 64 last week. "And they'll talk to other customers, they talk to us; and they come back and they call us by name. It's just such a small-town, friendly thing here right in the middle of the city."
It sounds corny, but it's legit. I spent maybe 40 minutes in there total (because the seating consists of two stools and a counter, plus an outdoor picnic table), and I still couldn't miss the vibe. The parking barely consists of a few spaces and some negotiable driving room, but people come anyway, in work trucks and minivans and Mercedes sedans.
And I can't even say all the food was to my liking. Our pound of sliced brisket ($13.50) was moist, but still pretty overdone; a half-rack of pork spareribs ($10.95) brought very soft, though delicious, meat with nary a speck of bark; and the side dishes were uniformly one-note, with potato salad, coleslaw and pinto beans tasting of mustard powder, cabbage and cumin, respectively.
But the sandwiches arrive on a chewy bread with either a beautiful, custom regular sauce or a punishing habanero version. The piles of pulled pork are succulent, while the slamming beef-pork sausage is made in-house and comes in connected links. Grab the smoked meatloaf ($5.25) for some sticky-sweet sumptuous consumption, or the smoked salmon ($8.95) on Fridays. The rib tips ($6) might actually taste over-smoked, but they're as pop-able as pig candy, and both the smoked wings ($5.95) and quesadilla ($4) filled with your choice of meat make for a quintessential quick lunch.
So, maybe take a break from being the digital product, or making 300 times less than your boss, or nuking your food, and go eat something made by somebody who's trying to feed you and not eff you over. It's pretty nice.