The ramshackle fronts, thick hickory smoke and menus scribbled on chalkboards are telltale signs of a true barbecue joint.
It seems simple enough.
Often the more nondescript a restaurant looks the better the barbecue. Besides the smoke does most of the talking.
This brought me over to Brooks BBQ No. 2 in Lexington, Ky.
This somewhat hidden treasure is located on New Circle Road (East), just past Eastland Parkway. It can be easy to miss things out this way as they get masked behind all the horrible chain restaurants and stores.
Brooks took care of that problem by painting the exterior of the place a burnt Crimson Tide red, with black awnings, and the name emblazoned in white.
It ain’t fancy looking but it jumps out from the crowd, as does their brand of barbecue.
The original Brooks is down in Sheffield, Ala., adjacent to Muscle Shoals, and was founded in 1963. The Brooks family has been smoking meat for a long time and knows a thing or two about making succulent pork, beef and chicken.
The restaurant owners describe their style as “north Alabama,” which fits being Brooks No. 1 is only about 20 miles from the Tennessee border. This style has a pronounced hickory-smoked flavor and what particularly sets it apart from other styles is the traditional basting sauce is mayonnaise-based.
You don’t taste this in the flavor but it tenderizes the meat, giving it a creamy decadence.
I came to try the beef brisket, which is in short supply around here. There is good pulled pork, decent ribs and chicken, but little to no brisket done properly. That’s something more often found throughout the southwest and over in Kansas City.
What Brooks does blows all the competition away. It’s mouthwateringly delicious.
I highly recommend eating their sandwiches the way they intend, in order to get the full taste explosion.
The two things to determine first are size and heat. The sandwiches come in regular or large, and are topped with “Brooks’ special slaw.”
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never been a big fan of putting cole slaw on top of my barbecue. I’ve always felt that if your ‘cue is good enough it can stand alone, and putting a mess of cole slaw over it just suppresses the flavor. North Carolina is big on putting slaw on its bbq, but it can have beneficial results since they tend to serve pulled pork in a vinegar-based sauce.
Brooks’ special slaw is rough-cut carrots and cabbage, crunchy and dense, not soupy, with a slightly sweet quality and a uniquely orange hue.
I wanted Brooks’ best shot so I went for a jumbo beef sandwich with hot slaw.
It came out wrapped in wax paper, with a toothpick holding it shut. The sandwich doesn’t appear imposing, but pick that sucker up and it has some weight. Brooks takes their brisket and chops it up into big meaty chunks so it can be piled onto a large hamburger bun. The slaw on top holds everything together.
There are two sauces to choose from if you want your barbecue wet. One is like a spicy ketchup, the other a more yellow mustard color that has a tart vinegar burn. I went with the latter and poured a small container over the top.
I wanted to devour that sandwich without taking a breath, but showed some restraint, and put it down in between bites to savor the flavors.
There is a wonderful smokiness to the beef, thick and substantial, that commingles with the spicy slaw. The two even each other out and create a whole new flavor as one. The sauce just kicks it up a notch and swirls around in every bite.
Barbecue is a sublime pleasure. It’s low-fi comfort food, but there is an art to making it really well. Some people like to compare barbecue to pizza and sex, in that no matter the quality it’s always somewhat good. I beg to differ. Once you know what good barbecue is there’s no reason to touch bad, and there is a lot of that around Kentucky, with that thick, sweet, Kraft-nasty sauce slathered all over it.
Brisket is a more difficult meat to cook than any variety of pork. It distinguishes a restaurant, and Brooks does their barbecue up right.
Their pulled pork is also delicious, but the brisket is outstanding. Though I enjoyed the pork enough to want to come back and try a rack of the ribs.
As far as sides go, I’ve never troubled myself with them much. I’m one that would rather get two sandwiches and skip the sides honestly. The potato salad was pleasant enough. It comes skin-on and with a creamy dressing. The beans looked good, and the mac n’ cheese is popular.
Next time I might give Brooks’ dessert a try. I saw a lemon pie that looked enticing, and being that I most recently lived in New Orleans, that bread pudding with bourbon sauce sounded mighty fine.
There is plenty of parking available and seating space inside this affordable, no-frills restaurant. Heather waited on me and the service was great and she’s super friendly. Stop by soon to give this family owned and operated joint a try, Brooks BBQ No. 2 will leave you hankering for a return visit.
771 E. New Circle Road | Lexington, KY | 859-523-7529 | Hours: 11-9 Mon.-Sat. | Menu