If you don't arrive at Slap's BBQ before 1 p.m., you'll feel slapped, all right. Maybe even gut-punched. Slap's — the name is an acronym for Squeal Like a Pig — often runs out of smoked meats within 90 minutes of its 11 a.m. opening.
This has annoyed a few local food bloggers, who have written of venturing into the Strawberry Hill neighborhood just in time to hear co-owner Joe Pearce bellow, "Sorry, we're all out of food" to the hungry customers walking into the tiny shack during the lunch rush.
And there is always a lunch rush at Slap's. It's the only meal served by the three owners: veteran competitive-barbecue teammates Mike and Joe Pearce and Brandon Whipple. The metal-sheathed building (formerly Millie's Café) has just eight tables, so much of the business is carryout; between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., there's almost always a line extending from the counter to the front door and, frequently, well outside. Slap's closes each day when the kitchen runs out of meat (the burnt ends are invariably first on the 86 list). Some days, that's at a quarter to one.
Not many seven-week-old restaurants earn this kind of immediate popularity, and I can't decide if this is good news or bad. After all, when you have your heart set on barbecue, it's cruel to be sent away empty-handed. With no chance to eat Slap's for dinner, a noontime trip to Fifth Street and Central is your only opportunity, and an unsuccessful run eats up valuable time away from work. I pity the sour club of office workers who have had to return to their desks lugging a limp turkey sandwich from a chain shop, rather than a plate of nap-inducing smoked meat.
I can attest to what that brand of crestfallen looks like. On one of my visits to Slap's, I took a friend along, who could barely believe his ears when that "We're all out of food" cry went out at 1 p.m. "I was salivating for that barbecue," my friend said. I could see this for myself. It frankly made me nervous.
The meats at Slap's deserve the lust they inspire. The Pearce brothers — who were featured on the TV series BBQ Pitmasters earlier this year — are to ribs and brisket what Michelangelo was to the Sistine Chapel. They, along with Squeal teammate Whipple, are nothing short of artists when it comes to cooking beef, pork, turkey and sausage in their retrofitted smokers. Slap's is their first restaurant operation, though, and the joint conveys a seat-of-the-pants quality. As you stand in line and wait to order, you see Francine Pearce, Mike and Joe's calm mother, ringing up a tab with one hand while spooning barbecue sauce into Styrofoam cups with the other.
But I suspect that Slap's, unlike this building's previous tenant, is going to be around for a while. The meaty ribs (slightly fatty but in a way that only enriches their flavor) have a slightly peppery exterior, and the pork is lusciously tender. The house sauce, a molasses-sweetened concoction, is fine, but these ribs hold their own naked, and then some. The half and full racks aren't expensive, but Slap's also sells a single rib bone for two bucks.
The delectably moist brisket is offered as a thickly stuffed hand-held (the soft buns come from Roma Bakery), and the burnt-end sandwich delivers a memorably full-bodied flavor. The crumbly meat on the latter doesn't quite measure up to that at the more iconic barbecue joints, but it's altogether satisfying on its own merits.
The sides need a little work. The cheesy corn needs, well, more corn and a richer, less runny cheese sauce. The barbecue baked beans, loaded with pieces of meat and deftly seasoned, are the better bet. And though I like the idea of a warm baked-potato salad, the one here is perhaps too heavy on the dill and gets very mushy very quickly. The crispy fries look very good and are pretty tasty smothered in barbecue sauce, but they're a packaged product and they taste it.
But let's be real here. If Slap's can't keep up with the demand for its smoked meats, who wants the guys bothering to hand-cut french fries? What the Pearce brothers and Whipple do well, smoking flavorful barbecue meats, they do exceptionally well. Everything else will surely come in time. Not that you have to wait. In fact, you'd better get over there early.