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At Annapolis Smokehouse & Tavern, creative food with a smoky twist

Smoke 'em if you got 'em. That might as well be the motto of the team at Annapolis Smokehouse & Tavern, the year-old restaurant where the smoke master tinkers with everything from fruit to duck.

Opened in the Bay Ridge Shopping Center in December 2012, Annapolis Smokehouse is a fun place to hang out — the staff is friendly, and during our visit the bar was crowded from the time we got there until we left, when a band was busy setting up for the evening.

But the real reason to visit is the smoky, interesting food. Though some of the dishes are more successful than others, the Smokehouse gets points for creative effort.

Scene & Decor Annapolis Smokehouse is tucked in an average-looking shopping center but inside, with red walls covered in artwork and a long bar along one wall, it is cozy and inviting.

When we arrived just before 7 p.m. on a Thursday, the dining area was about half full; twenty minutes later nearly all the tables were filled. The crowd wasn't especially young but the vibe was fun.

Drinks We settled in with a Mama's Little Yella Pils ($5) and a glass of The Show Malbec ($8) from the well-edited wine and beer lists. Both were good matches for the onslaught of smokiness we were about to encounter.

Appetizers Most barbecue joints stick to the classics. At Annapolis Smokehouse, the classics were just the beginning. We started with a plate of pulled-pork-stuffed pierogies ($8). Smoky pork, along with mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese, made a satisfying and hearty filling for the traditional Polish treat — and provided a good look at the Smokehouse's approach to food. The menu was filled with unexpected items, like pierogies, incorporating smoked ingredients.

Sometimes that was more successful than others. A salad of spinach, blue cheese and smoked pears ($14) intrigued but, ultimately, fell flat. The vegetables and cheese were fresh but time in the smoker robbed the pears of sweetness and left them with a mushy texture.

Entrees The Smokehouse Sampler ($24) covered the standard barbecue bases: ribs, pork, brisket. We loved the pulled pork, especially after we doused it in tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce, and the ribs were lovely and tender (but be warned, wet rib-lovers: they are dry-rubbed and served without sauce).

The brisket was the plate's only less-impressive meat. It was on the dry side, as brisket often is. Sides like smoky beans and creamy (but slightly under seasoned) cole slaw rounded out the large meal. It left us only a tiny bit of room for sweet, jalapeno-studded corn muffins served with honey butter.

The sampler showcased the Smokehouse's classics but the sandwiches, including the duck portobello ($14) and Eastportorican ($12), were the night's biggest hits.

The duck sandwich stacked tender smoked duck breast with grilled portobello mushrooms, melted provolone, sweet poblano-mango chutney and enough fresh spinach for a side salad. Each element was cooked nicely, and together they were fantastic.

The Eastportorican was a colossal combination of pulled pork and smoky ham served with Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard — a smart nod to the Cuban sandwich with a cute name (in honor of Annapolis' Eastport neighborhood).

Both sandwiches came with house-made potato chips, a crispy and welcome addition to the plates.

Dessert After all that meat, a heavy dessert was out of the question, but a root beer float ($6) hit exactly the right spot. Fizzy over vanilla ice cream, Delaware-brewed Dominion Root Beer provided exactly the right amount of end-of-dinner sweetness.

Service Everyone who crossed our paths during dinner was friendly and helpful — especially our cheery waitress. However, the food wasn't timed perfectly. Our drinks and appetizers arrived quickly but there was a long lag before our entrees and again, after we were finished with dinner and ready to move on to dessert.

We were enjoying ourselves, though, so the delay was easy to forgive. It's not so bad, after all, to sit for a bit after a big meal of smoky meats, watching a band set up and happy people hang out in the bar. And when the waitress finally does come to offer you a drink refill, well, that's even better.


Annapolis Smokehouse & Tavern

Back story: Opened in late 2012 by Jennifer Krohn and brothers Ryan and Steven Gaines, Annapolis Smokehouse & Tavern takes barbecue to the next level. Smoke master Robert Krohn (Jennifer Krohn's uncle) shows off his skills with a mix of traditional meats and more unexpected foods, like black beans and fruit. Chef John Jennings, formerly a longtime employee at Ram's Head Tavern on West Street, uses Krohn's smoky ingredients in creative and fun ways.

Parking: Lot in front

Signature dish: Barbecue traditionalists can't go wrong with the Smokehouse Sampler, a heavy plate filled with dry-rubbed ribs, pulled pork and sliced brisket, plus two sides (try the beans). Each table comes equipped with a variety of homemade sauces in squeeze bottles; the well-balanced Kansas City BBQ was our favorite.

TVs: Four

Where: Bay Ridge Shopping Center, 107 Hillsmere Drive, Annapolis

Contact: 410-571-5073; annapolissmokehouse.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. Sunday

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Bottom line: Expertly smoked meat and creative preparations in a festive Annapolis location

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