A Brief Overview
Southern cooking, at its essence, is comfort. Comfort for both body and soul, and a place for people to come together in an environment, created as much by the food as anything else, and share experiences. Fueled by salt and fat, southern cooking is not a tame cuisine and takes a skilled and sure hand to wield it well. A chef must walk the path of authentic southern cooking lest they move towards unflattering imitation, slathered in store-bought barbecue sauce, reliant on little more than sugar to mask the clear lack of flavor. It is unexpected then, at least to me, to find something so outlandish as a Southern-style smokehouse located here on Orcas Island, especially in the building that once housed what was perhaps “just another American-Italian semi-fine-dining restaurant”. While I came away from my meal somewhat conflicted, certain things were never in doubt.
Clarity, however, eludes me when examining the intricacies of the ownership of the establishment. Despite this fact, even a passing observer can see that the guiding visionary force behind Matthew’s Smokehouse and Deli is Chef Mathew Carpenter who can be seen busily working away in the kitchen as you approach the counter to order your meal.
A side note about counter service: Counter service is a double-edged sword for many establishments. What you gain in a streamlined process of ordering, and the reduction of necessary staff that accompanies that decision, is tamed by the very real expectation that prices will reflect the lack of service and that the service they do provide will be all the better. The design and flow of a restaurant becomes critical if one is asked to attend to their own needs, and is also expected to have a tolerable experience. If there is one thing hungry patrons lack, it’s brainpower.
After ordering at the counter we were given a number for our table, and we left to find a seat. There were plenty to choose from. I recommend sitting on the deck rather than on the lawn.
We began with the “Loaded Fries”. The culinary equivalent of a gruesome car crash that somehow, despite all the odds, you come away from unscathed. A combination of cheese sauce, black beans, chopped brisket, BBQ sauce, bacon, pickled onions, jalapeños, & balsamic drizzle. Is your head spinning yet? As a dish it doesn’t seem like it should be good, but it works. Don’t be intimidated, they’re worth a try. A single portion was more than enough for two of us, and most of it went uneaten, not because it wasn’t good, simply that it is quite large and because it came out about 90 seconds before our mains.
I, on the recommendation of the (vegetarian) cashier, had the ribs, supposedly one of their best sellers. You select two sides along with your choice of meat from the list. I chose Mac-and-Cheese and Potato Salad, again, some of their most popular dishes. This is where my night began to turn.
Unfortunately, and there is no way around this, the ribs were very dry. Note: the use of the term ‘very’ here is intentional and should convey more dryness than ribs that were simply dry. While the addition of one of their three house-made barbeque sauces (Kansas City, Campsite, and Carolina) helped, they do not fix the problem altogether. The flavor of the ribs was quite good, but it appears wasted on texture that can’t keep up. If you are someone who subscribes to the idea that a barbeque place is made or broken based on their sauces, you will like Matthew’s Smokehouse. The sauces were easily the best part of the meal.
This brings me to the first (and better) of the two sides. The mac-and-cheese was sadly not on par for what a Southern Style barbeque place should be serving. To me, southern Mac-and-Cheese can come in one of two forms: an unctuous and creamy dish, rich and unapologetic or baked and hearty. This was neither. While not what I would consider bad, it was certainly a let down.
Finally, the potato salad. Suffice to say, you would be better off buying some from your local market. Undercooked potatoes and enough celery and mustard to mask the flavors of anything else were the final nails in the coffin that was my main. The sides seem to be an afterthought rather than something to elevate the star of the meal.
My companion, for the record, had a much different experience.
Dessert has the ability to save an otherwise disappointing meal through the richness and lavish pressure it provides. It is not clear to me, even after dining there, whether Matt’s Smokehouse serves any kind of dessert. On the night we dined none was available except some cellophane-wrapped brownies which, not being at a bake sale, we opted out of. Matthew’s was not saved by dessert.
Following the meal is where, for me, Matthew’s was at its best; and in the evening of a late summer’s day we found the true heart of Matt’s Smokehouse. Perhaps not the food, but the atmosphere that inspires both deep and enriching experiences spent in the company of friends or family. The deck of a historic local building and an incredible view of Deer Harbor. The serenity and peaceful atmosphere created is worth the trip by itself. The food can improve, but isn’t dining about more than just the food?
I would be inclined to give Matthew’s Smokehouse a chance at redemption. I do not believe I was given even close to what they are capable of delivering, and even if the food remained disappointing upon my return, the experience is worth the trip anyway.
When Matthew’s Smokehouse hits its stride it will provide the island with some much-needed comfort through Southern food.