Downtown a few years back you might have run into a young woman selling sterling beef brisket, pork loin, and sausage from a cart in the plaza across from the Mitchell Courthouse. Paula Szczepanek's food was lovely, and she was fun to talk to, and then she wasn't there anymore. The chowhound word was that she was looking for a permanent base.
Now, Szczepanek has surfaced at Cross Street Market, with a modestly decorated stall at the eastern end, next to Fenwick's Fine Meats, named Smoke. Smoke might turn out to be the best local food news of the year--the kind of giant advance or major gap-filling that makes a city better. (Please, next, pho.) Beef brisket, pulled pork, pork loin, spare ribs, and chicken are all smoked in house (with "no boiling," the abracadabra for the barbecue set), with sauces and sides made from scratch. The Louisiana Lightning sauce is made from toasted pecans, Dijon mustard, and smoked serrano and jalapeņo peppers. There's pork fat in the baked beans, smoked butter and smoked salt on the corn on the cob, and drool on the back sit-down counter.
Szczepanek picked up her smoking skills while recuperating from knee surgery (and getting bounced from her tech sales job)--daylong smoking being the ideal cooking technique for the wobbly. At Smoke, which opened in early July, Szczepanek gives both free rein and due credit to her assistant, Shawn Lagergren, a Louisiana native and 17-year veteran of Baltimore-area kitchens, whom she found, quaintly, through a newspaper classified. The two are a dream match, both hard-working and passionate, and just competitive enough with each other to keep things, well, smoking.