Written and photographed by Morgen Sechler – 6/23/2020
Nearing the corner. Knowing that when I make it around, I’ll be swept up, submerged in a smell that settles into your stomach. Half a block away now, when the bright neon yellow paint that cased the edges of this modest building are not as visible as in memory.
Smoke Berkeley BBQ is a Berkeley neighborhood staple.
Crafting, Perfecting, and loving traditional Texas BBQ. Smoke Berkeley has been in the same building since 2011, a small-scale but significant place, that now unfortunately rest under a large, dark, banner. The building is being prepared for demolition. Smoke Berkeley needed to go, so they moved. Working out of the back of a bar’s kitchen was not their first plan, but when Spat’s bar in downtown Berkeley reached out, it seemed like a perfect match.
Eager to reach this new location, hoping that it will be as good as I remember. Parking on a different street, walking around a different corner, that smell hasn’t changed! Even better than the memory. Instantly noticeable from down the block. Thanks to a massive banner hanging under Spats sign, reading Smoke Berkeley BBQ, with a lighter tone than the other. The space feels grand, almost ball room like.
Walls that continue upwards almost with no end, adorning a variety of different original paintings, classic pieces and bright neon signs that remind you, you are in a bar. Deep red hues flooding over curtains, ceilings, and vinyl booth seating that runs along the walls each side. Getting the sense that this room has stories, memories, has seen its fair share.
The air is still, that smell is so distractingly delicious that everything else seems to fall flat in comparison. Taking a peek around the register, there’s billowing steam, deep red -on theme- BBQ sauce inlaid into the counter, for handy access of course and a single man moving so quick, expressing with joy,
“Oh yeah! I can throw a little chicken in there!”
This is a place where the goal is for the food to resonate with you, for you to feel apart of the bigger picture as to why they’ve perfected their craft.
Then I hear a call, my name echoing through the massive hollow space. Hurrying over to the counter, cannot wait, the excitement for this food is overwhelming. Here it is, in a sturdy, grocery brown paper bag, the iconic dollops of grease creasing the corners of the bottom, already spreading onto your hands. Opening up the clear take out container lined with grease, filling with steam, I can’t wait to dig in!
The first bite, the first dip in that glorious sauce! Suddenly transported to a family backyard BBQ in the middle of Texas. Laying in a lounge chair with your double stacked dixie plate on your lap. Juices of fatty layered brisket, immensely peppered pulled pork, and bright red-hot links mistakenly spilling over into the grass. Smoke is real BBQ.
They understand the commitment to making this level of BBQ. They have been displaced from their home, they have been uprooted from their past, they have been prematurely sympathized with from their loyal customers. Even through this turmoil they can still uphold the excellence of their food. That is good BBQ.
There is a lesson within Smoke Berkeley BBQ. The power and capabilities a good, warm, handcrafted plate of loving food has is immense. “A good homecooked meal”, is not a popular phrase for no reason.
Smoke Berkeley has defied the struggles, stood by their food and used their love of their dishes to go against what one would have expected the inevitable closure and the ending of their business. Smoke Berkeley is a true story of perseverance and the beauty of how a home cooked meal can bring anyone and everyone together. Their story is outstanding, inspirational and impressive but wait until you try their food!