A Little Ribbing

Life After Doomed Location?

by Robb Walsh

Pok-e-Jo's Smokehouse
1603 W. Fifth St., 320-1541
11am-9pm daily
closed Sunday

s it the concept, or is it

the location that makes an enterprise successful? As the former owner of a retail business that went South, I have faced this question in a very personal way.

So when the first two restaurants at Pok-e-Jo's current location went out of business, the old question popped up in my mind again. Were they just ill-fated businesses, or is this a bad spot? The address is 1603 W. Fifth, across the street from the El Arroyo which seems to have done pretty well over the years. But El Arroyo is a charming little collection of wooden buildings perched over the running water described by its name (El Arroyo is Spanish for "the ditch"). Conversely, the location in question might be described as a metal quonset hut set in the middle of an asphalt parking lot.

The first to come and go at this location was Ballyhoo's Fish Tacos. If you asked the former proprietors of this restaurant what happened, they would no doubt blame me for having played some role in their demise. I love San Diego-style fish tacos, and I encouraged Ballyhoo's to fry their catfish crispy and serve it on crunchy tortillas like they do in San Diego. It turns out they were from California and knew all about the fish tacos there. Their concept was a healthier fish taco with no fried ingredients. I found the result tasteless and mushy. When I drove by the place shortly after the review, I saw a sign outside that read: "Walsh -- Come back when you don't have a cold."

The second restaurant to fail at this address was High Cotton Barbecue. They can't blame me; I gave them pretty good reviews. But there was something disjointed about the business. You had to stand in line twice, once for food and once for drinks and the delay was annoying. The interior was dark and uninviting. And their concept of barbecue styles and sauces from all over the nation seemed better suited to a state with a more open mind about barbecue. We are Texans; if we wanted to eat pulled pork and vinegar sauce, we would move to North Carolina.

Now a third restaurant has opened at the ill-fated spot. Pok-e-Jo's Smokehouse is another barbecue joint, but it is one with a track record. I used to eat at the Pok-e-Jo's which was located north of the end of Mo-Pac while I was employed in the high-tech corridor. The location was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but hordes of white-shirted IBM executives and others desperate for barbecue flocked through the place every day at lunchtime. I remember that the ribs were always good and the place ran like a well-oiled machine.

That location is gone now, but Pok-e-Jo's goes on. They have opened a new restaurant in Round Rock on I-35, and another near the Arboretum on Great Hills Trail, as well as the West Fifth Street location.

My eating experiences at the Pok-e-Jo's on W. Fifth were probably unfairly colored because in the same week that I ate twice at Pok-e-Jo's, I also made the pilgrimage out to Kreuz Market in Lockhart, the holy shrine of Central Texas smoked meat. Let's just say that Kreuz Market has better brisket and leave it at that.

But let's be honest. Who, except freelance writers and other quasi-unemployed folk, has time to drive 45 minutes to Lockhart and 45 minutes back just because the brisket is better? Well, okay, the sausage, smoked pork chops, and the prime rib aren't bad either, but still it's an hour and a half in travel time.

West Fifth Street on the other hand is right down the street for most downtown workers. And now that Pok-e-Jo's has cleaned up the old quonset hut and installed some porch seating, the ambiance has gone from dismal to downright pleasant. The thing that harried business lunchers will appreciate most about Pok-e-Jo's is that it still runs like a well-oiled machine. You walk in, place your order, and sit down to eat within minutes. The staff is very friendly and quick to right any wrongs, like an empty pickle bin or a lack of jalapeños.

The ribs are excellent ($6.95 plate/8.25lbs.), and Pok-e-Jo's smoked pork loin is very good, too ($6.95 plate/8.25lbs.). For a quick, convenient barbecue lunch, this is about all we can ask. On the down side, I must confess that every time I've tried the brisket, I've been disappointed. I'm not crazy about the sausage either. Both have been dried out when I've eaten them. The beans are okay, and the potato salad will pass, but the cole slaw is awful. It seems to have been ground up in some sort of machine that turns cabbage into sawdust. Maybe Pok-e-Jo's will get these problems solved as the location matures, meantime stick with ribs and beans.

Still it's inspiring to see a restaurant move into a two-time loser location and turn it around. If there's any eatery that has a chance to turn this spot into a raving success, I think it's Pok-e-Jo's. There aren't many places to get a decent plate of barbecue downtown, and until we formally adopt the Mexican siesta system, which would allow all employees a three-hour break at noon, there's just not enough time to drive to Lockhart on your lunch break. n

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