Flavor: Old-fashioned, wood-smoked barbecue, no fancy trappings
Ambiance: Clean, plain and cozy
A drastic highchair shortage in a self-billed "family restaurant" is a serious problem. Then again, it also proves the moniker right: Opened last fall in Swannanoa, Okie Dokies Smokehouse is nothing if not a family restaurant. On a recent Friday-night visit, approximately one out of every five diners was still in diapers.
Our one-year-old son was promoted to booster-seat status while we waited for one of the small eatery's two highchairs to come open. That premium item was lurking just out of reach at the next table, and when the young occupant's mother plucked him out of it and placed him on her lap to feed him, I eyed the newly available chair as if it were a mall parking space on Black Friday.
Meanwhile, the diners kept on coming. Waiting to be seated, young mothers struggled under the weight of infant carriers; toddlers in crisp, I-got-these-for-Christmas sneakers rode high on the shoulders of flannel-jacketed dads.
It was hard to ignore the table-coveting gleam in the eyes of the waiting families -- because Okie Dokies' dining space isn't much bigger than a freshman dorm room. But that's relative: The barbecue restaurant began life as a wee red trailer from which pulled-pork sandwiches were dispensed at regional festivals. (Remember?) And, while take-out is still a major portion of Okie Dokies' business, much care has been taken with what little interior exists. The dining room is immaculate, the wooden booths wide and polished. Even the restaurant's logo shows a brisk use of tight space. Graced with a curly tail, the "O" in Okie doubles as a pig's bottom. (So much better than that in-your-face, Miss Piggy-esque mascot who, sprawled across the outdoor sign like some porcine Mae West, announces the regionally famous Carolina Smokehouse in Cashiers. If you've been there, you know what I'm talking about.)
However, as with any real barbecue joint, it's what goes on behind the kitchen door that really matters. Eschewing the soulless gas grill, Okie Dokies claims to cook its meat over a real wood fire. And the ribs confirm the boast. On our recent visit, this signature dish told the whole story in one bite. Expertly soft and smoky, they're served only at dinner, which seemed right -- a dish this sensual should only appear after dark.
In fact, we pronounced the ribs too good to be masked in sauce. Coming from our committed table of sauce freaks, this was saying something. But Okie Dokies isn't one to fetishize its trappings. You won't find the daunting altar of dips other local smokehouses use to rack up 'cue cred (see, we know what they like in Kansas City!). The Swannanoa joint offers only four sauces: a smartingly rich "Sweet" sauce, that was the best of the bunch; a perhaps too-tomatoey "Mild"; a plain vinegar, ostensibly for purists of the Eastern N.C. school of barbecue; and a "Hot" sauce free of any intelligence-insulting, cutesy nickname suggesting how one's brains, butt etc., might be blown away by its incendiary greatness.
This sauce was just ... hot.
Like the ribs, the smoked-turkey and pulled-pork plates were expertly moist and flavorful, though the accompanying sides were uneven. The "red slaw" was bland and watery; ditto, the collards. Much better were the creamy cheese grits and the tangy baked beans, and best yet were heavily buttered new potatoes channeled straight from Grandma. Small hush puppies did for bread, making corn muffins or Texas Toast seem more desirable for their absence. A notable appetizer was fried pickles served with a smoky ranch dip.
In keeping with its sauces, Okie Dokies' service is easily categorized. The two servers working the small floor that night fell into divergent but highly recognizable types -- I'll call them Salty and Sweet. Salty, who announced to the general room that she was from the Florida Keys, poked gentle fun at the man who requested more "silver" -- "I can bring you a plastic fork" -- and pretended to get nervous when I let our baby play with my credit cards until the food arrived ("If he drops that again I'm scooping it up and going shopping").
Sweet had the glacial, sharp-cheeked beauty of a Ukrainian ice skater, the sort of unassuming young woman who's discovered by a dining modeling scout and finds herself on the cover of Vogue within a fortnight. Though much harried by the rush -- you get the feeling the restaurant never expected to do so much sit-down business -- she was ever-apologetic and unfailingly nice. Most impressively, she pointedly placed all hot plates well out of the baby's reach, a thoughtful gesture you're seldom treated to at higher-priced places.
Also unlike Asheville's more upscale down-home eateries, Okie Dokies doesn't entangle itself in unnecessary fusion exercises or other forms of culinary gymnastics. Stuffed baked potatoes and BBQ Nachos were the menu's only real innovations. And a standard trio of double-fudge brownies, banana pudding and peach cobbler comprised the dessert offerings. The brownie was merely OK, and the cobbler was considerably more than OK. We didn't try the pudding, though we should have.
Yes, true to its stated mission, Okie Dokies stays grounded in family matters, giving out big portions at easy prices. The restaurant's Coke drinks come in skyscraper-high cups, and their deal on good beer ($2.79 for a Gaelic Ale!) hearkens back to an old-Asheville eating experience, when microbrew was new and no one messed with the 'cue. Remember?
[Melanie McGee Bianchi has lived in Western North Carolina since 1992. She has often wondered where the USDA would place hush puppies on its food pyramid.]