332 15th Ave E
Smith is tough to find. If you’re driving along 15th Ave E on Capitol Hill, you might miss it because the sign is so goddamned, motherfucking tiny. It’s a metal sign that’s maybe 6 by 12”. I always thought that a place of business would want to be visible, but I suppose I’m wrong. If it’s a tiny sign they want, I know an electron microscopist who can construct a sign made of rhodium atoms on a carbon background. This sign would be about 0.000000154 meters long, plenty big enough to be seen from the street.
But the outside of Smith isn’t the most puzzling part of the place: the inside is plenty weird, too. I’m a bit confused about what Smith is trying to do with its interior design. It’s dark, with varnished wood and tan floral print wallpaper everywhere. Taxidermied deer heads and ducks, and a bunch of naively painted portraits (including a crude painting of JFK!) stud the walls. It’s got a Wild West vibe, which is too bad because the Wild West was obviously a fucked up place. If movies are to be believed (and of course everything in the movies is accurate to within 1/ 100,000th of one percent), then the American West circa 1880 was a place filled with horses, saloons, gunfights, card games, and of course whores, all packaged in a couple Victorian storefronts on a dusty street in the middle of Assfuckville, Arizona. If Smith is trying to approximate some mythical Western stereotype, they don’t quite nail it. They need some card tables, some dude in a vest and arm garters plunking out Scott Joplin and Stephen Foster on a badly tuned upright piano, and whores. And syphilis.
What about the food? I might have been distracted by the tiny sign and strange décor, but the food is pretty solid. Duck rillettes, a smooth paste made from pureed duck meat, was $7 and was served in a glass jar, sealed with an ivory slab of creamy duck fat. The rillettes had a rich roasted duck flavor and came with a couple grilled bread slices, some cornichons, and a tiny ramekin of grainy mustard. Salt cod fritters ($6) weren’t that great. You got 6 of these fried balls of salty fish. They tasted like fish sticks, and were served with a zucchini and dill dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was very creamy and fresh tasting, and was much better than the thing that was supposed to be dipped into it, which was a goddamned shame.
The poutine was similarly disappointing, although not because of the price: $6 gets you a half order of cheesy gravy- coated French fries, piled into a gigantic mound the size of a man’s head on a full 12” dinner plate. I would sincerely hate to see a FULL order, although I suspect a full order of poutine is what killed John Candy. The fries themselves were okay, glistening richly with beef demiglace, but the coagulated rubbery cheese, which you could easily use to seal a bathtub, left something to be desired. Poutine is one of those things about Canada I just don’t understand. Just like the way I don’t understand how that socialist wonderland of the North, where health care is free and hookers, pot, and codeine are legal, can produce such shitty music (especially Nickelback, AKA the Auschwitz of Good Taste).
But enough about Nickelback and its boring artificial angst, since everyone knows Canadians have no angst; it’s one of many products they must import from the good ole’ USA.
On to the marrow bones: $9 gets you 3 huge chunks of beef bone the size of a brontosaurus femur, scathingly hot, the melted marrow bubbling up over the top of the bones like lava from a volcano. Spread onto the accompanying grilled bread, this luxurious beef marrow tasted like butter made of meat. The small side salad of mixed greens that comes with the bones has a light, tart dressing that cuts cleanly through the greasy beefiness of the marrow.
Just as delicious as the marrow bones was the chickpea, tuna, chorizo and arugula salad ($8). The aforementioned ingredients peeked out from a huge pile of baby arugula, dressed in a little olive oil. The chickpeas were obviously canned, and the batons of Spanish chorizo were a bit superfluous, but I won’t hold a grudge because the tender, oily, flaky tuna was the best canned tuna I’ve eaten in the USA. This is a solid fucking salad, and this dish could have only been more Iberian if they served it on a weirdly shaped, wavy plate, or put squid ink in it, or topped it with a cloud of some sort of flavored foam.
I was less impressed with the golden beet salad ($8). The name is deceptive because there weren’t that many golden beets in this salad: it was mostly chicory, with bleu cheese crumbles and hazelnuts. The chunks of the eponymous beets, when they made a rare guest appearance, were underdone, and the bitter chicory really knocked the flavor out of whack. When you could get a bite of the beets, cheese, chicory, and hazelnuts together, the flavors balanced nicely, but getting all of that shit together into one forkful was like herding cats.
The Cuban pork and ham sandwich ($8) featured a thin filling of black forest ham and pulled pork shoulder with caramelized onion and sliced pickles grilled and pressed on panini-style bread. The meat was good enough, and the pickle slices were an interesting twist, but the bread was a bit leathery. What really made this sandwich awesome were the chips that came with it: they were razor thin, lightly salted, and shatteringly crisp. These fucking chips were so thin they were TRANSLUCENT. The chef must have cut them with one of those infernally sharp microscopic glass knives that geneticists use to dissect cells. If I had such a blade I could vanquish my enemies with ease, slicing them into thin prosciutto slices and layering their flesh onto a sandwich of PURE REVENGE. But this isn’t about my enemies, or the delicious sandwich their deaths would make (the revenge sandwich also comes with chips, but they unfortunately aren’t as good as Smith’s chips); this is about Smith’s spectacular potato chips. Apparently you can get them by themselves for $3. Forget the Cuban sandwich; GET THESE FUCKING CHIPS.
We finished with the steak ($14). For this price you get a few grilled sirloin medallions atop discs of fried potato, with a side salad of mixed greens and chicory. The steak had a nicely seasoned grilled crust, and the salad was okay, if a bit aggravating with all the chicory in there, but what really got my attention were the potatoes: like the house made chips, they knocked it out of the park. The potatoes were sliced into ½” rounds and fried. The outside was super crispy, while the inside remained as steamily gauzy as the best baked potato you’ve ever eaten. Whoever’s cooking the potatoes at Smith knows exactly what the fuck they’re doing.
Smith is a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, with a side of awesome potato chips. I don’t quite get the western theme, especially since the food isn’t as “western” as you’d expect: I kept looking for venison, or rabbit, or some kind of stew on the menu but of course none of those things were available. Still, the food is delicious, and although it seems that Smith is primarily a bar, they obviously didn’t treat the food as an afterthought. With its weird décor, generous and competent bartenders, reasonable prices, and potato chips so delicious I wish I could puke them up right now and eat them again, Smith has earned the unlikely distinction of being my FAVORITE BAR (on 15th Ave E). Not since the Jack in the Box commercial about midget cattlemen has someone so perfectly captured the VERY ESSEENCE of the American frontier. Yippee ki- yay, motherfuckers.
Rating: 8 “Die Hard” quotes out of 10