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Old Crow Smokehouse at Pacific City in Huntington Beach is a sports bar by day and a honky-tonk by night. Throughout the afternoon, nearly a dozen televisions are tuned to every sport imaginable, from professional baseball to college wrestling and horse racing – something for everyone, I guess. Come nightfall, music and drinking become the focus as country-Western bands take the stage. And even when there’s no band, a well-curated country-music soundtrack authenticates the honky-tonk vibe.
It’s an upscale and somewhat corporate take on a rustic barbecue joint, sort of like Lillie’s Q in Brea but slightly less fancy, more redneck kitsch. The comparison is apt since both concepts got their start in Chicago, with Orange County being the first venture outside the Windy City for either company.
Old Crow is far and away the best restaurant to open thus far at Pacific City. The corporate chef is Tony Scruggs, a self-taught cook who competed on television’s “MasterChef” a few years back.
Scruggs’ barbecue is probably best described as Chicago-style with influences ranging from Tennessee to Arkansas. Is it as good as Lillie’s? It comes close. This is indeed true barbecue, low and slow, with lots of smoke. You can smell the smoke from the street before you pull into the parking lot, something that must drive the neighbors crazy but makes me very happy.
Ribs are the heart and soul of Chicago barbecue, and these don’t disappoint. There’s a pleasant sweetness from brown sugar in the dry rub, and the meat pulls easily off the bone. That said, I still prefer the brisket and burnt ends. The kitchen here understands the importance of fat in barbecue, as evidenced by the inch-thick ribbon of it wrapped around the brisket.
I liked the burnt ends so much the first time around that I came back and ordered them again, only to be marginally disappointed with cubes of meat that were neither exactly burnt nor the ends, but juicy nonetheless. The sausage, the pulled pork, the beer-can chicken are all very good.
The kitchen’s weakness is side dishes, a few of which are downright bad. My 5-year-old nephew makes better mac and cheese than what they serve here. The coleslaw is so wet it could pass for soup. And I’ve never been able to force enough iced tea into my throat to wash down the dry, hard cornbread. But the green beans are fine. And the french fries, most importantly, are genuinely awesome. They’ll smother the fries with pulled pork if you wish, but I don’t see the point in that.
I mentioned this is a honky-tonk, right? Keep that in mind as you adjust your expectations about the slow-as-molasses service. To the casual observer, it appears that anyone can be a waiter so long as you’re a girl and look sexy in a short skirt and cowboy boots. They all have great attitudes that can best be described as blissfully blonde. The quality of service can make me feel like I’ve stepped into a “Hee Haw” sketch, except I’m not in on the joke. Guys seem to be relegated to busboy and bartender roles.
I wish I could tell you about the desserts, but I rarely save room for pie whenever barbecue is involved. There’s a pie on the menu called Toasted Smokes that sounds delicious, a graham-cracker concoction with chocolate and marshmallow cream. If you have better stamina than I, please tell me how it is.
OLD CROW SMOKEHOUSE
Rating: 2 stars
Where: Pacific City, 21022 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach
When: Lunch and dinner daily
Don’t miss: Brisket, ribs, fries
What to skip: Mac and cheese, coleslaw
County health inspection: Not yet available online
Cost: Appetizers $7-$13, sandwiches $11-$12, entrees $13-$25, desserts $4-$9.
Parking: two hours free.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some note-worthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordin-ary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambiance and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.