By Elana Schor - 12/02/11 12:55 AM EST
Toted by throngs of carb-craving partygoers along 18th Street NW, the jumbo slice is cheap and portable, but far from sufficient for diners seeking a hearty meal that pairs well with a beer instead of requiring four or five pints to look inviting. Long elusive for frustrated AdMo residents who steer clear of their own main strip, that latter goal is now attainable at Mellow Mushroom and Smoke and Barrel — two new spots delivering quick pizza and barbecue that buries bad jumbo-slice memories.
Smoke and Barrel, by contrast, is the hyper-local makeover given to the top floor of Asylum, the venerable heavy-metal dive bar that drew an unexpected following with its vegan brunch. Its proprietors have not forgotten their meat-free roots, dishing out smoky tofu tacos and a savory sweet-potato burger, but the star attractions are dusky, hearty rounds of brisket and pork shoulder served with artisan beers and bourbons.
Located across the street from one another, the kitchens share an inadvertent common goal of boosting Adams Morgan’s culinary credibility. Part of that begins with décor more desirable than the street’s fluorescent-lit pizza joints, which at Mellow Mushroom means sideshow-style wall art, small but bold white globe lights, and other circus-themed touches. At Smoke and Barrel, dark wood and exposed brick strike a moody, masculine tone so effectively that the setting risks outclassing the paper-lined plates on which many dishes are served.
Beyond looks, each spot offers bang for the buck, both in portions and quality. The small pie at Mellow could easily serve two women, thanks to its sturdy crusts — best ordered with a pesto or oil-and-garlic base — and liberal use of rich sauces. The apotheosis of its pizza is the Red Skin Potato, a kitschy riff on T.G.I. Friday’s potato skins that drizzles creamy ranch aioli over salty nubs of bacon and smashed spuds on a carpet of cheese.
A two-meat, one-side plate of Smoke and Barrel’s Arkansas-bred, wood-powered fare also fills a pair of smaller bellies with ease. The pork shoulder is the best of the four meats, its ends perfectly crisped with the meat brimming with sweet-but-peppery brightness. Among the sides, don’t miss the baked beans that bring bacon into the mix for a textural counterpart to each spicy, saucy bite.
In the second tier at Mellow Mushroom are serviceable but unadventurous hoagies, both warm and cold, and nontraditional but beautiful calzones that stretch pizza dough into a hollow moon shape packed with cheese and toppings.
Customers without the inclination to build their own calzone are ill-served by the fairly predictable blends (simple steak and chicken) on the menu. Choosing from the pay-per-ingredient list instead cannot help but yield a winning combination — think piquant jerk chicken, pineapple and banana peppers for a trip to Jamaica or basil, sun-dried tomato and parmesan for an intensely Italian bite.
At Smoke and Barrel, the espresso-rubbed brisket easily takes second prize, its musky coffee-ground coat enriching the depth of the delightfully lean meat but in need of a shot of sauce for moisture and spice. Fortunately, both the brisket and the chicken — available in dry, wet or combination “muddy” varieties — stand up well to the robust tomato sauces provided at each table.
Few celebrations of meat and cheese are complete without a beverage to wash them down, and both of Adams Morgan’s new grown-up spots come to the rescue with a top-notch selection of about 20 draught beers. Smoke and Barrel ups the ante with inventive twists on the boilermaker that blend one shot of whiskey with a pint of beer, while Mellow Mushroom makes hop-haters happy with a respectable wine list.
The two spots are both blessed with knowledgeable and good-natured servers, with one staffer at Mellow issuing a welcome offer for free pizza if the restaurant’s computerized payment system failed to come back online in more than 15 minutes. Even the kitchens’ low points are similar: Ground meat falls flat in a greasy sausage at Smoke and Barrel as well as a dull meatball appetizer at Mellow Mushroom.
Yet the one-off Smoke and Barrel offers better side dishes than its franchised neighbor, particularly a zesty, caramelized sweet-potato home fry and crunchy nuggets of fried okra. Diners seeking company for their slices at Mellow Mushroom should turn to the salad menu, where well-designed Greek and Caesar plates can also be put to shame by a build-your-own option.
Perhaps the most memorable of Mellow’s nonpizza plates, many clustered under the in-character menu heading of “Munchies,” also functions as its best dessert. A trio of velvety-rich hand-rolled pretzels, served piping hot for the ultimate carbohydrate hit, includes a cinnamon-honey blend decadent enough to split in half for a sweet finale.
On Smoke and Barrel’s short dessert menu, try the roasted banana pudding redolent with musky sweetness and balanced on the palate by crunchy vanilla wafers. If you’re looking to stun a meat lover into satisfied submission, however, nothing matches the kitschy kick of a maple crème brulee studded with (of course) bacon bits.
Just remember, as you relish the short hop from these two new Adams Morgan hangouts to the adjacent pubs, they might not reach the gourmet heights of Georgetown or Penn Quarter’s finest — but they do ring a death knell for the jumbo slice.