When it comes to barbecue, side dishes can steal the show

“I didn’t know a thing about barbecue other than I liked to eat it when I started smoking meat,” says Ian Russell. Which is precisely why he found it exciting.

“The barbecue was foreign and unknown. It was the mystery. It was a blind spot. I didn’t learn about it in culinary school. And that was a big part of my drive when I started the company.”

The company, Smoke & Donuts BBQ, began as a tent-bound pop-up in 2017. Russell made the transition to food truck pretty quickly, but such small spaces don’t lend themselves to a glut of experimentation. And so when plans for their brick-and-mortar location began to coalesce, he and his team took to some serious R&D, and Russell returned to things more familiar: the sides.

“This is where I could pull from Mexican, French and Central and South American cuisines,” says the Culinary Institute of America grad. “The sides were an area that was more comfortable for me. It was easier to jump in and play around.”

And the roster at his Milk District barbecue joint, which opened in February, is plenty playful, even with all the familiar faces. Because Russell, amid not only his barbecue fandom but legitimate research, has long realized that since the meat is always the star, the sides often suffer. He’s almost empathetic, in fact.

“I think there are reasons,” he says. “The meat takes a lot of attention, time, effort and detail to get it tasting exactly the way you want it to, so I can see why some people just let the sides become accompaniments that fill a slot.”

Javarus Brown wouldn’t say that about his sides, but not because he’s bragging. Most of them are his grandmother’s recipes. And Granny (now the namesake of Granny’s Southern Smokehouse, Brown’s St. Cloud joint) did not cut corners.

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“You can’t not have them,” says Brown of side dishes. He grew up eating most of them at family gatherings. And to anyone who would question their importance — Brown often finds himself reminding folks on barbecue forums that there’s more to the craft than the meat — he might point out that folks often walk into Granny’s and order five pounds of corn casserole the minute they open.

“It’s our No. 1 selling side (it was also his favorite growing up) and people are always wondering what it is,” he says.

Once they taste it — “it’s kind of like a creamy cornbread,” he says — it’s game over. “They come back and order it all the time.”

Mac and cheese is No. 2 at Granny’s and was a must for Russell as Smoke & Donuts made the jump to brick-and-mortar. But so, too, were many others.

“The thing for me that makes sides so important in a barbecue restaurant is that they give you the opportunity to have a mini-tasting of a meal. It’s an ensemble,” he says. “People really like to have the options to taste through a bunch of fun things.”

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The mac and cheese, which comes in classic and spicy versions (the latter gets a dose of housemade roasted garlic/chipotle sauce), enjoyed some early R&D on the truck and incorporates cotija, white cheddar, Chihuahua and Swiss cheeses. Other Mexican components, creamy elements, and beer (a crisp lager or pilsner, says Russell) make for a side that’s stood up as a favorite in a short period of time. Oh, and by the way, you can get it stuffed.

The round of mac griddled crisp on the flattop, folds taco-easy and wraps around pulled pork and caramelized onions.

Potatoes are a mainstay, of course, and Russell’s got options. Fries, of course, along with tallow-infused mashed spuds with gravy (one of the few sides you can’t make vegetarian), roasted and smashed red potatoes with bright gremolata (vegan unless you get ’em with burnt ends; most people do) round out the selection.

“The beef fat for our mashed potatoes and gravy is rendered from our briskets,” says Russell, noting that outside of this one, many vegetarians will pop in for a side sampler and partake of the offerings in a way that works for them. Another solid reason to make sides more than a second thought.

“We’ve never heard anything but thanks from people who are happy we have vegetarian sides,” he notes.

The corn casserole and mac and cheese at Granny’s are both vegetarian. Locals appreciate the attention, says Brown.

” A lot of places will just get store-bought mac and throw it in the smoker. Other times they’ll make it but they don’t bake it. It’s just noodles and cheesy sauce. To me, that’s just mac and cheese soup,” he says, chuckling. “It’s so cheesy, some of our regulars just call it ‘cheesy mac.'”

At press time, Brown was closing out a catering gig that necessitated sides of unnatural proportions.

“By tomorrow, we’ll have made 1,000 pounds each of baked beans, mac and cheese and coleslaw.”

That’s my apex pick, to be honest. Sides are precious real estate in barbecue. I try and reserve space for the ribs and the brisket. So if I’m going with one, it’s usually slaw, the idea complement, offering a briny, crispy, cold balance to the narcoleptic fat bomb of barbecue.

Russell agrees.

“It’s the reason we don’t put mayonnaise in ours,” he says. Indeed the crisp, refreshing Smoke & Donuts amalgam, bathed in a sherry and rice wine vinaigrette, features cukes, red and green cabbage, candied radish and red onion. “It’s more like a bright, crunchy salad.”

Brown butter green beans, says Russel, offer comfort and familiarity. He’s working on the collards, trying to figure out how to get the umami of ham hocks into the dish (while keeping it meat free). In the meantime, there’s always dessert. It’s right in the name, but it’s also a popular side.”‘The Lou’ is a classic that’s been a top seller since the beginning,” Russell says of the meat-and-candy slathered, fresh-fried donut. And this one, with a Maker’s bourbon and maple glaze, Heath bar, Hershey’s chocolate chips and burnt ends, is about as decadent as a barbecue side (I feel almost dirty calling it that) can get.

“Donuts are actually a side option when you order a board,” he explains, noting that a preponderance of folks opt-in, eschewing options like corn fritters or green-chile cauliflower in favor of their carnivorous sweet-tooth cravings.

“We’re in the hospitality business,” says Russell. “We want to make people happy.”

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Want to reach out? Find me on Twitter, TikTok or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email: amthompson@orlandosentinel.com. Join the conversation at the Orlando Sentinel’s Facebook food group, Let’s Eat, Orlando.