Restaurant Review: The Pit Boss
Hanging over James Anderson's chin is a slender gray and white strip of a goatee. On his chest proudly rests this hard-won honor: Pit Boss.
As Anderson expertly labors at his elaborate barbecue food cart and the potent scents of smoldering hickory and sizzling meat begin to reach my nose, I start to think of his goatee as a sort of barbecue stalactite - the solidified accumulation of a lifetime spent above pigmeat-drippings-propelled streams of fragrant smoke.
The scene is a parking lot in front of a dinky "Super Food Mart" convenience store in Clintonville. As country music rides in on the alluring fumes from Anderson's extra-large cart, and a dozen or so locals and hard-hats eagerly queue up for his 'cue on a beautiful autumn afternoon, Anderson explained to me why he gave up his gigs in actual brick-and-mortar restaurants by frankly stating: "Barbecue is an art, not a craft. It's not trainable; you simply can't teach an $8-an-hour cook to make this stuff properly. I was tired of babysitting a staff - so I went back to basics, back to my roots: one man, one smoker."
In other words, it's not the economy, stupid, it's the barbecue. Anyway, watching Anderson through a scattering haze of appetite-arousing smoke while he prepped my order with a lean physical efficiency, I thought that in a different era, this guy might well have been a retired gunslinger.
But Anderson - aka Smackie (as in, he'll talk smack about his food) - is not retiring, he's just taking his show out on the road. And if "Smackie" sounds familiar, it should - that was the name of the authentic barbecue restaurants where Anderson formerly was pit boss.
Now this lone smoky ranger is selling his uncompromised barbecue - a full menu of it - from a mobile setup currently parked at Pacemont and High streets. And the stuff is fantastic. Oh yeah, and cheap.
My favorite meaty bits were the rock-star ribs (a big sampler for $5). Those lovely bones were juicy, perfectly chewy (slightly) and like all the Pit Boss proteins I tried, sporting the perfect aroma of smoke. I also dug the tender, delicious and very generous pulled-pork ($4) and beef brisket ($6) sandwiches.
But while the almost-hammy rib tips ($6) tasted good, they were extra chewy and advisable only for those who travel with dental floss in their pockets. All of the Pit Boss sauces were tangy, thick, nicely balanced between sweet, tart and spicy, and just terrific.
Sidewise (all $1.50), the not-overly-sweet baked beans ranked highest, though the soupy, big-leafed (but not vinegary) greens were great as was the crunchy fresh picnicky slaw. Anderson usually sells homemade fruit cobblers ($3) too, but was out the day I visited him - which only provides me with an excuse to visit that smokin' cart yet again.
The Pit Boss cart at Pacemont and High streets is slated to operate through the winter, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every Thursday through Sunday. For up-to-date info, search for "Smackies Tracker" on Facebook.
For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog Under the Table at ColumbusDiningGuide.com