The smell of smoke leads you by the nose to the neon cowboy boot dangling off the corner of the newly spiffed Henry Whyte Building in Ballard. You’ve arrived at Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen, where booze meets barbecue and a host of other Southern-inspired vittles.
Owners Nate Opper and Zak Melang, of Matador fame, got the atmosphere just right, whittling a brick-walled urban warehouse into something resembling a stylish barn. Wood dominates the décor, some of it rough, like the exposed rafters, some of it beautifully crafted by the owners themselves, like the marquetry paneling and the polished, metal-strapped, riveted slabs that serve as tabletops.
Behind the bar, shelves stocked with whiskey rise tall and triangular against 15-foot windows that face — appropriately — west. More spirits fill a monolith topped with TV screens in the center of the bar’s horseshoe curve. With roughly a hundred whiskeys, it’s a list of daunting magnitude, but you can sample and compare some of them via selected “flights.”
There is music in the air, oldies and plaintive cowboy tunes, something you notice only when the house isn’t packed. For a somewhat quieter experience, head for the heated, glass-enclosed side porch that, come warmer weather, will be open to the fresh air.
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The menu road-trips through Dixieland with many attractions along the way. A plate of spicy fried chicken — dark meat only — impressed with its crackling jacket and, on the side, a giant buttermilk biscuit and fabulous coleslaw spiked with horseradish. A mound of crabmeat crowned a bowl of seafood gumbo, its light-brown Creole roux bolstered with shrimp, crawfish, okra and andouille.
Shrimp drizzled with a scorching red chili sauce atop grits creamy with smoked cheddar sets a new standard for delicious decadence, followed closely by macaroni and cheese — elbow noodles engulfed in a pimiento-cheese melt.
Mac and cheese tops a roster of notable sides, among them collard greens loaded with bacon bits, double-wide onion rings encased in crunchy cornmeal and moist cornbread with a delicate crumb.
You get a choice of two sides when you order ribs or barbecue. I found those spice-rubbed meats underwhelming. The “Smoke Master Platter” ($35 for two) held succulent baby backs and a moist chicken breast, but also mushy beef brisket, chewy pulled pork and a nearly incinerated hot link. Copious amounts of sauce helped quell the oppressive smoke. Every table has a caddy of five to play with, all house-made and sharply etched with vinegar, each with a different level of sweet and heat.
Four steaks are on the menu, too — a pricey anomaly on an otherwise inexpensive card. If I had to choose between the $40 Kickin’ Boot T-bone and the $12 Kickin’ Boot burger, I’d opt for the burger: ground sirloin, Jack cheese, smoked green chilies, a thick tomato slice and a dash of habanero sauce sitting tall on a soft brioche bun.
Sandwiches are so jampacked, getting them to your mouth intact is a challenge. The catfish po’boy crams lots of cornmeal-crusted fish, hot peppers, shredded lettuce and spicy mayo onto a long, skinny Tall Grass Bakery brioche roll. That same excellent roll can’t quite get a grip on slippery sausage links flecked with jalapeño and oozing cheddar, especially when they are piled high with coleslaw and chow chow, a pickled condiment imbued with mustard-seed heat.
Plate clean, hands dripping, I asked for extra napkins. The server delivered a stack saying, “We’re a barbecue house. We go through lots.” Yet each time I had to ask.
Though personable and responsive, service lacks focus. The wait staff tends to socialize in the service area, peering at computer terminals in groups, while food sits under heat lamps at the kitchen pass-through, drinks languish at the bar and customers wait.
Waiting isn’t too onerous when most are kickin’ back libations of some sort. After a meal filled with smoke and fire, consider soothing your weary tongue with cool, creamy sweet-potato pie for dessert. You might even chase it with a shot of rye.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.