Given the scarcity of true quality barbecue in Las Vegas, every new opening of a barbecue restaurant tends to be newsworthy. For fans of good barbecue, it’s impossible not to get excited by any new entry into the field. Perhaps that next one will join the short list of places that get it right, adding another tiny oasis of smoky goodness to the Valley. At the same time, memories of past disappointments remind us not to get our hopes up. So when I arrived at Pot Liquor Contemporary American Smokehouse in Town Square, it was with a mixture of hope and skepticism.
The most promising thing about Pot Liquor is its head chef. Doug Bell is a veteran of several local restaurants, including Michael Mina’s StripSteak and the short-lived Heraea in the Palms. On my first visit, he excitedly invited me into the kitchen to see the smoker, a massive machine slow-cooking huge sections of ribs, brisket and pork with a blend of peach, hickory and mesquite wood. It’s an impressive sight.
Unfortunately, while all of the meats I’ve sampled have been better than what you’ll find at most places in town, none has been truly great. My dry-rubbed spare ribs had a beautiful smoky flavor, but it was overpowered by an overabundance of the salty rub. The brisket, too, had a perfect level of smoke, but the meat was a little dry. (You can compensate for that if you make sure you get a segment of the juicy exterior fat in every bite.) The pulled pork, on the other hand, is incredibly juicy … but a little bland. And while the grilled chicken is pretty good, it’s not smoked.
Bell may just have to tinker with his recipes a bit. He’s a chef, after all, not a pit master.
And it’s that chef’s experience that makes Pot Liquor worth a visit, despite the mildly disappointing barbecue. Because the menu is packed with incredibly creative non-barbecue items that are, for the most part, exemplary, with a number of standouts all coming from the appetizer section.
My favorite so far has been the grilled prawns with boudin noir. The contrast between the delicately seasoned shrimp and the house-recipe sausage is wonderful. Even those who are generally turned off by blood sausage should give these links a try. The same goes for the stuffed trotters. The pigs’ feet are sliced thin, seasoned, breaded and fried. If nobody told you what they were, you’d probably assume it was just small schnitzel. But the sweet, brandy-braised apple sauce they’re topped with takes them to another level.
Another winner is the pork belly over grits. Yes, I know we’re all tired of pork belly these days. But Bell prepares it perfectly. And the creamy grits—mildly flavored with a touch of Vermont Cabot cheddar—blend beautifully with the sweet sauce drizzled atop them. Deviled eggs, another far-too-trendy dish, are also done extremely well here, topped with a smattering of crispy pork cracklings.
The typical barbecue side dishes are generally successful. I love the Hoppin’ John (a traditional black-eyed peas and rice dish), as well as the rich, creamy mac and cheese. And the mildly seasoned collard greens, rich with smoked pork, are yummy (as they should be in a restaurant named after the liquid left behind after you boil the greens). The fries, however, are your basic frozen variety, accompanied by an Alabama white sauce that does little to elevate them.
The décor is that same artificial converted warehouse theme I see in nearly every new casual restaurant these days. Some whimsical pig-themed artwork, however, does add a bit of personality to the played-out motif. The staff is friendly and attentive, and all of my food came quickly. Yet, none of that changes the fact that Pot Liquor definitely doesn’t qualify as a great barbecue spot—at least not yet. But it is a great casual restaurant with some above-average barbecue. Now, if only every other barbecue spot that’s disappointed me in this town could say that, I’d be a much happier critic.
Al’s Menu Picks
- pork belly with grits ($10)
- stuffed trotters ($11)
- grilled prawns with boudin noir ($13)
- small brisket with Hoppin’ John and mac ’n’ cheese ($19)
Pot Liquor Contemporary American Smokehouse
Town Square, 702-816-4600. Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two $30-$65.