here once was a time in Cincinnati’s storied barbecue history when Montgomery Inn was regarded as the pinnacle of divine meatiness, or so our generation is told repeatedly by our grandparents. But we know it’s the crafty pop-up dives armed with well-seasoned smokers that now get all the deserved attention. Eli’s BBQ, listed this year as the sole Ohio restaurant in Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S.,” has effectively squashed area competition. Is there a restaurateur out there with the molasses to knock Eli’s off its smoky perch?
Enter chef Daniel Wright and his latest Vine Street venture, Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ. With successful eateries Senate and Abigail Street firmly under his belt, Wright eagerly snatched up the gauntlet thrown by his friends at Eli’s, who had stepped away from a Gateway Quarter second location in favor of a Findlay Market storefront (previously, Eli’s only brick-and-mortar was in the East End).
In preparation for the challenge, Wright and his head chef, Jeremy Manis, trekked to a number of Southern barbecue hot spots to discover what it takes to make the best Texas brisket, Carolina pulled pork, Saint Louis-style ribs and smoked turkey. The result is a marriage of techniques Wright hopes folks will start calling “Ohio-style” barbecue.
My girlfriend and I arrived early enough to beat the pressing lunch crowd one recent weekday afternoon. Given Pontiac’s neon scripted sign and superbly comfortable pale blue leather booths, we felt as though we’d stepped foot inside an old, well-maintained Cadillac. A ’70s-era reel-to-reel player piped out Blues, while the bar’s big-screen TV mutely showcased ’80s movies, ostensibly pulled from Wright’s childhood.
Pontiac, named for a Chicago café where Wright and his wife shared their first date, features a quirky coupling of barbecue and Tiki-style cocktails along with more than 100 bourbon varieties, 10 draft beers and an assortment of popular bottles and cans. Signature Southern sodas like Ale-8, Squirt and Cheerwine round out the beverage menu, as well as Grape and Orange Nehi and Green River, a soda from Wright’s native Chicago.
In the spirit of its two sister restaurants, Pontiac offers a short two-sided menu of “snacks,” smoked meats, sandwiches, sides and a unique beef brisket burrito. Meats and one smoked vegetable medley can also be ordered by the half- or full-pound. Prices are a bit steeper than Eli’s fans are used to, but not unconscionably so.
We started off with the requisite Pulled Pork Nacho Cheese Poutine ($9). Wright’s braised short-rib version at Senate may be legendary, but Pontiac’s take on the Canadian drunk-food classic is no slouch. Perfect for two, the poutine was a well-balanced ratio of crinkle-cut fries smothered in a creamy, Velveeta-inspired cheese and pulled pork saturated in sweet barbecue sauce and jalapeno slices.
With just enough time to reclaim a corner of our stomachs, we were next presented with two meaty entrées served on sheets of butcher paper: a Texas-style beef brisket sandwich ($9) with a side of bacon-fat grits ($3) and a smoked turkey sandwich ($9).
My brisket sandwich sported a soft, diminutive bun dwarfed by three heaping slices of meat topped with a peppery barbecue sauce and creamy coleslaw. Holding it inches from my mouth, I could easily smell the rich history of this slow-cooked beef’s birthplace: a white-oak fueled, carefully cured smoker. I’m usually reluctant to order brisket — it’s often served tough, dry and leathery — but Pontiac’s is easily among my favorites: It is tender and juicy, with a vibrant pink smoke ring and a pleasantly caramelized outer crust.
My girlfriend’s smoked turkey sandwich was so overloaded that she abandoned the quickly deteriorating bun and proceeded to eat its contents with a fork. Its flavor was confoundedly subtle, so much so that she felt compelled to scrape away the coleslaw and slather the turkey in barbecue sauce using one of two bottles available at every table.
We both enjoyed the side of bacon-fat grits, topped with shredded cheese, chives and crispy, crumbled bacon. The distinctive corn flavor shone through while the bacon fat took a surprisingly welcome backseat.
Wright could easily have transformed barbecue, an inherently unpretentious preparation, into something unapproachably highbrow. Instead, he’s created a restaurant for the masses, an urban dive where hipsters, dweebs, geeks, West Siders and average Joes can rub elbows with one another in a harmonious, righteous fog of evaporating meat sweat.
Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.