Even longtime residents have trouble finding Highland Drive. If you’re driving north on Interstate 15, exit at Spring Mountain Road and bear right. If you’re driving south, though, you’d better know how to use your GPS.
But the ongoing search for the Highland Drive exit has recently been incentivized by the presence of our city’s finest barbecue joint, Rollin Smoke. This modest spot is run by two brothers from Arkansas, John and Trey Holland. They use hickory and other hardwoods, the way Prince does a guitar. This ’cue is the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” of meat—it’s poetry in blue smoke, a carnivore’s wet dream.
Am I being hyperbolic? Sure, but I’ve also been waiting for great ’cue since I moved here in the late ’90s. Oh, there have been a few bright spots: Both the Salt Lick in Red Rock Resort and Rub BBQ in the Rio showed initial promise. But both restaurants—outposts of renowned barbecues in other cities—were faded copies of the originals, and neither lasted long.
Rollin Smoke has been open nearly a year with little fanfare, and just gets better as the months roll by. There are lines nearly every day at lunch, and the small parking lot is filled to overflow. Don’t come here if you’re in a hurry—this cooking is low and slow, and the kitchen is in no mood to compromise.
It’s a small place, with stainless-steel tables, walls fashioned from unfinished wooden crates and linen-lined basket light fixtures. There is a complex, mild sauce in squeeze bottles on your table, along with the mandatory roll of paper towels. Rip a few off. You are going to need them. This is meaty, messy ’cue, slathered with sauce. It took me a few visits to realize that there was a spicier variety available, and now I’m hooked on it. My learning curve is slow. I must have eaten here five times before I thought to ask them not to chop up the brisket in my sandwich. I like it so much better sliced.
Actually, all the meats here are tender, smoky and full-flavored. The beef rib is huge, crusty and almost medieval. Baby backs are fall-off-the-bone tender. First I poo-poo’d the hot link when I found out it was merely a beef link from Larry’s Great Western Meats, a nearby butcher. But after eating it a few times in that spicy sauce, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
One of my friends is nuts about the Outlaw Burger, a half-pound of ground chuck combined with four ounces of slow-smoked, chopped brisket, gooey American cheese, fried onion straws, lettuce and tomato on a yeasty bun. It might be great, but for me, it’s overkill.
Besides, if I ate one, I wouldn’t have enough room for the outstanding side dishes. Jalapeño-studded cornbread—a thick square that comes topped with a golf-ball-size glob of melting butter—isn’t cloyingly sweet, like what you’d get at a Marie Callender’s, but rich, mealy and satisfying.
Kickin Baked Beans are gloppy, half-liquid, sneaky spicy and extraordinarily complex. They might be too spicy for the uninitiated palate, but for me, it’s love at first bite. I also managed to taste the jalapeño cole slaw and bacon potato salad, both beyond reproach, and a crusty peach cobbler for dessert.
If you get lost trying to find it, just roll down the window and let the smoke guide you.
Rollin Smoke Barbeque
3185 S. Highland Dr., 836-3621. Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Thu, 10 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Fri-Sat. Lunch for two, $$15-33.