There was already a line forming when I approached Tha Smoke Shack, a food truck decorated with cheerfully colored winged pigs flying down its side. It's parked in a used car lot at the corner of St. Michael's and Cerrillos, next to a cord of wood and a coal-black smoker that vaguely resembles the caboose of a train. Turns out that wood came a long way. Every two months owner Michael Baker makes a pilgrimage to Texas to pick up a truckload of split dried oak logs.
"That pile there came from a tree that was over 15 years old," he tells me. "Then they season it for a year and a half. A lot of people in the Southwest use mesquite, hickory and apple, stuff like that, but I don't do that. Mesquite has a harsh taste, and gives too much smoke."
Using the right wood is one of the fundamental steps in creating some of the most mouth-watering traditional Southern barbecue Santa Fe currently has on offer.
The oak in question is used to fire the smoker, which has an inner tunnel connected to the fire box. It funnels smoke towards a chamber that bounces it back towards the food being cooked above the burning logs.
"It gives it a more even smoke," Baker explains. Inside are rows of gleaming, foil-covered containers of brisket, pulled pork, chicken, turkey legs, baby back ribs, spare ribs, sausage and onions. The meats are dry rubbed and placed in the smoker to slowly cook in their own juices. Depending on the cut, it can take almost a whole half day—the brisket and pulled pork take up to 10 hours. Baker likes his ribs to practically melt off the bone, so he dry rubs them twice during cooking to get the right texture. "This is backyard barbecue, not competition barbecue, which is when you bite into it and the meat stays on the bone," he explains to me.
On average, almost everything ranges from $8 to $13, with a half rack of ribs going a little higher for $15 and a full rack for $32. "You can come here on your lunch break and get a good meal for $10. We're not here to break your pocket," Baker says cheerfully from behind a window, wrapping an enormous turkey leg up to go. "We're just here to fill your belly up and put a smile on your face." Depending on the day, there are also sides of cole slaw, baked beans, loaded baked potatoes, cornbread muffins, sweet potato pie and collard greens.
Baker's day is a rigorous cycle of cleaning and cooking, not to mention caring for two boys, one of whom has cerebral palsy. The Bakers moved here in 2015 because the climate suited his son's condition better than their central Florida hometown of Bartow. In the beginning, however, he was homeless for two months, and he worked at a McDonald's and a Shell gas station for two and a half years. All the while, he saved up the money to achieve his dream, which culminated in the opening of the food truck last May.
"When I moved here I told my boys we're going to be okay," Baker recalls. "My son was like, 'Dad, they don't do barbecue here'—and I told him that's right, that's what's going to set us apart from everybody else. We'll be the first black Southern barbecue in Santa Fe." I ask him if I can quote him on that, and he says it's okay. "I don't want to offend anyone," he says with a laugh. "But sometimes I ask people, 'Did you pull over because you saw a black man outside cooking barbecue?' And they always say yes."
I sample the half rack of ribs, and from the second I open the hot tin foil up to the third napkin I use to wipe the sauce from my fingers, I can't put it down. They are perfectly tender, the sauce is vinegary and slightly sweet, yet slightly spicy—and comes on the side, rather than slathered on the meat. The chicken and turkey legs are equally tender, served alongside the same sauce. "I feel that when you put barbecue sauce on the meat you're trying to hide something," Baker explains. "You want to taste the meat, then you add the sauce."
The sauce in question is a family recipe, handed down through generations. "My grandpa started doing it 60 years ago, and he told my dad and my dad didn't tell anybody until he was on his deathbed. And then he told me. A week later he passed away," Baker says. "He said I finally deserved to get it." He also plans on debuting a cinnamon apple green chile barbecue sauce in the coming weeks, hiring more people, and hopefully expanding to a storefront in the future.
"My dad owned a restaurant called The Silver Spoon, and we called it a juke joint because you could go dance and have a beer and eat all at the same time," Baker reminisces. "That's how I want it to go here. I want something small that feels like home."
Tha Smoke Shack
St. Michael's Drive and Cerrillos Road, 303-8808
Noon-7 pm Tuesday-Saturday. Cash only.