A mastery of smoke is one of the things that separates humankind from monkeys. It's too bad, then, that there's been a distinct lack of wood smoke in Seattle restaurants. Still, one of the advantages of Seattle not being an established barbecue town is that Northwestern lovers of fire and meat don't get pinned down chasing a canonized regional barbecue tradition, like they do in North Carolina, or Memphis, or Texas. Northwest restaurateurs have the freedom to sell whatever kind of barbecue reminds them of home (or even an imaginary home down South), and in my endless quest for the perfect takeout dinner, I've recently checked out two new entrants into Seattle's growing barbecue scene.

Since barbecue joints often serve as scouts in underrestauranted areas, I wasn't surprised to see that one of the first restaurants in the "new" South Lake Union was Slo Joe's, a pert barbecue shop owned by Joe Jeannot, who is also, improbably, both a sommelier and a hot dog vendor.

Inside Slo Joe's, the willful homeyness gets a little out of control. There are redwood picnic tables, a basketball hoop, Astroturf, and a barbecue filled with ice and Miller Lite. The effect is canny without quite being effectively campy, but it's a pleasant enough environment, helped along by the quasi-Spicoli types who cheerily manned the counter. They were enthusiastic about their meatstuffs, and happy to hand out a sample as they suggested what I should put in my combo meal ($24.95 for a three-way, with 1 1/2 pounds of meat and three sides, plus cornbread).

Slo Joe's barbecue bears the admirable hallmarks of very low and very slow cooking—a distinct but gentle mesquite smokiness and utterly tender meat: submissive brisket, collapsing ribs, shreds of pulled pork. The house sauce is a mixture of the seemingly exclusive Texas, Kansas City, and Carolina styles. I found it a hair cloying, but complex in a hoisinish way. I preferred the Carolina-style sauce that was the day's special: It had a clear astringency that complemented the pigginess of the pulled pork.

Slo Joe's does well with its sides, especially a fresh corn salad with red peppers and dark-crusted, not-too-sweet cornbread. Red beans and rice are fine, but since they are mixed with more of the sauce, they don't give you much of a break from the meat.

Unlike Slo Joe's, Jones Barbeque has already established itself as an alpha dog in Seattle barbecue, and not too long ago, it opened a big place in ever-gentrifying Columbia City. With four retail outlets now, Jones has little to prove, which shows in the décor: a simple room, painted the color of barbecue sauce, with a fireplace burning to remind you just how your food was cooked.

Jones makes an excellent sauce. It's also on the sweet side, but hops up and down on your tongue with controlled tanginess and fire. But such liveliness has the awkward talent of revealing the limitations of the meat. The high-stepping sauce stood in contrast to Jones's sturdy, somewhat lifeless brisket and chicken, and competed oddly with rather Germanic juniper-studded hotlinks. However, Jones's giant rib bones, smoked with very Northwestern cedar, are just fatty and melting enough to mate well with the sauce, and on another visit, I'd happily stick with them. (A three-way at Jones is $21.95 for 1 1/2 pounds of meat, plus two sides. Cornbread is $1.25 extra.)

Support The Stranger

Jones has a lot of classic Southern extras, including a suave macaroni and cheese—just the thing to mellow out jittery barbecue flavors racing around your mouth (their collards, however, are less forgiving, with a fair dose of ham hock, chili, and vinegar that makes you reach for a slice of sweet cornbread to calm things down). I also found newfound respect for sweet potato pie ($2.75)—rather than marshmallow sweet, its filling was just right, with bright lemon highlights. I loved it, even if I scooped the mash right out of its stolid salty crust.

Seattle might not yet be a place for a barbecue pilgrimage, but it's good to see that restaurateurs seem more willing to brave fire and building codes to get us our smoky meats, because there is no more promising takeout in the world than a Styrofoam clamshell filled with a slab of ribs and a sheaf of brisket slices. recommended