Generally speaking, shopping malls do not inspire greatness. Or even goodness, for that matter. So as I drove into Novato's Vintage Oaks Shopping Center and passed Target, IHOP, Party City and Gymboree in search of the Southern Pacific Smokehouse, my expectations were low.
But set inside a big, black freestanding 9,000-square-foot building that was formerly home to a Shane Co. jeweler, Southern Pacific Smokehouse lies at the edge of the mall, as if it wants to stand apart. And it does.
Fresh-faced chef Ryan Barnett turns an appealing menu of American food, the best of which spends hours in the depths of the hulking smoker that looks like it came from the boiler room of an old Navy destroyer. It's a big, bulky contraption with stainless steel panels and a firebox that can hold an armload of wood. Hickory is the fuel of choice, and prevailing westerly winds waft the scent over the mall.
Best of all is the pulled pork. The shredded meat scores on both flavor (smoky, yes, but not overpowering) and texture. Pulled pork can easily dry out in lesser hands, but the pork that emerges from the kitchen here is downright juicy. It's great on its own ($17) or piled between toasted buns for a sandwich ($13). The vinegar tart slaw helps to set off the meat.
The baby back ribs ($17–$25), crusty with savory herbs and spices, cleave from the bone with the faintest flick of the wrist and reveal the same moist, flavorful, porky goodness.
Minding a pork butt for eight hours in the smoker requires patience and a careful eye, lest it dry out. Chicken is less forgiving. The shorter cooking time and lower fat content means the difference between juicy and chalky is just a few minutes. Southern Pacific Smokehouse steers well clear of the line to produce excellent wood-oven-roasted chicken ($18). Leg and breast are moist and flavorful.
Reaching deeper into its Southern pride, Southern Pacific Smokehouse offers a good shrimp and grits ($21), fat shellfish cloaked in a thick but not heavy-handed shallot cream sauce. The kitchen also does a solid burger ($14).
For starters, don't miss the chicken wings ($7); the harissa-rubbed wings were the plumpest I've ever set my teeth into.
The bar deserves special recognition, especially for the selection of American whiskey and rye—and professional bartenders. The restaurant contracts with Kentucky's Evan Williams distillery to make a special batch of bourbon just for them. It's great in the Imperial ($11) of the bar's signature Manhattans, and you've got to love a bar that pickles its own vegetables and quail eggs.
The restaurant itself is a handsome place, a mixture of comfortable booths and tables facing the open kitchen. On the other side of the restaurant is a separate live music venue and events space, and there's also a spacious outdoor patio.
Southern Pacific Smokehouse has plans to open other locations, perhaps moving into other malls. But for now, before the restaurant becomes a chain, enjoy the decidedly un-mall-like experience of this Novato newcomer.
Southern Pacific Smokehouse, 224 Vintage Way, Novato. 415.899.9600.