For most Americans, summer is synonymous with barbecue. Where I grew up, that meant grilling in the backyard. But as countless purists have drilled into my head, grilling ain’t real barbecue. Besides, the last thing I want to do on a 110-degree afternoon is stand over red-hot coals. So I find myself on my quest for good ’cue in a town with a notoriously limited selection.
That search recently brought me to a rather desolate stretch of Highland Drive better known for strip clubs than restaurants. There, directly adjacent to the Diamond Cabaret, you’ll find a no-frills hole in the wall known as Rollin Smoke Barbecue.
As you pull into the parking lot, you’ll notice the two large outdoor smokers. Inside, there are two small dining rooms, with the menu printed on the wall. During the busy hours, customers line up out the door to place their orders from a man standing at a tiny host counter. No matter how busy the place is, the host always finds time to chat — talking to repeat customers about their last visit, greeting first-timers and sharing stories about whether the dishes they’re ordering come from his mama’s or his grandma’s family recipe.
The menu here is pretty large. It starts with the basics like brisket, pulled pork, chicken, hot links, three types of ribs, catfish and shrimp, available in various plates, sandwiches, po’ boys, sliders and wraps. Fifteen side dishes include everything from hush puppies and mac ’n’ cheese to bacon potato salad and jalapeno coleslaw.
Then there are the more unusual options — some of which sound intriguing, others a bit questionable. There’s a hot dog smothered in brisket, cheese and onion strings. The Outlaw Burger takes that concept a few steps further by topping a beef patty with brisket, onions, bell pepper, onion strings, red cabbage, slaw, lettuce, tomato and cheddar. The barbecue sundae is a scary-looking concoction of coleslaw, beans, mashed potatoes and meats layered in an ice cream sundae glass. And it goes on from there.
The prices are reasonable. Sandwiches will run you $8-$9. Plates run from $11-$20, but some of those are combo platters large enough for two or three people. If you’re really hungry, an all-inclusive all-you-can-eat deal is available for $25 a person.
I’ve tried five of the sides, and they were all quite good. I’ve also tried four of the basic barbecue meats: spare ribs, chicken, pulled pork and hot links. Each had the rich, smoky taste I look for in good barbecue. The links also packed a nice kick under that smoke.
Unfortunately, they all arrived at my table drenched in barbecue sauce. The house sauce is good here, if a bit too sweet for my taste. But that isn’t the point. Any sauce, no matter how good, tends to overpower the beautiful smokiness of the meat. That’s why so many barbecue pros insist on serving the meat dry, with sauce on the table to use as needed. My host admitted he and his family debated whether to remain traditional or show off the sauce of which they’re so proud, and opted for the latter. In my opinion, it was a bad call, but one that’s easily remedied by simply asking them to hold the sauce when you place your order.
Sadly, I forgot to heed that advice on my second visit. I’d come to try the smoked meat loaf, and it was worth the return visit. The meat loaf, piled high on mashed potatoes and topped with fried onion strings, probably would have stood on its own in any Southern restaurant without the benefit of three hours on the smoker. But that smoke transforms it into one of the finest meat loaves in town. But since I failed to ask them to hold the sauce, I had to scrape a pile of it off to really experience how good the meat is. No problem — lesson learned, and I won’t make that mistake again.
While I’m not always a fan of the way Rollin’ Smoke assembles its product (that burger sounds like an atrocity), the base components here are all top-notch. If you’re looking for good barbecue this summer, pay it a visit.
ROLLIN SMOKE BARBECUE 3185 S. Highland Drive, 836-3621. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.