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Soul success: Mix of beer, Southern-style barbecue and sides a winner for Nexus Blue Smokehouse

The smoked half-chicken at Nexus Blue Smokehouse is served with spicy pickles. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

With the 2019 opening of Nexus Blue Smokehouse, Ken Carson returned to his roots.

Carson grew up in the South Valley and worked in banking before making an unlikely move into the restaurant business in 2011 with Nexus Brewery & Restaurant on Pan American Freeway north of Montgomery. The combination of soul food and beer proved successful, and Carson went on to launch a taproom on the West Side in 2016.

Then came Nexus Blue Smokehouse, and even after the West Side taproom closed, Carson found himself running the biggest African American-owned business in New Mexico by number of employees.

The nearly 2-year-old Nexus Blue Smokehouse occupies the historic Elks Club building on Broadway near César Chávez SE. The club was one of the few safe gathering spots for the city’s African American community in the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Nexus Blue Smokehouse’s proximity to Isotopes Park and UNM’s sports venues made it a popular place to go after games, until the pandemic hit.

Now, a Saturday night finds things positively drowsy. The barren parking and the empty dining room would be a little sad but for the appetizing aromas of smoked meats wafting out from the kitchen.

Nexus Blue’s menu is considerably more focused than those of other barbecue places in town. Smoked meats are served in family-style meals, combo plates and by the half-pound.

A half-chicken ($8) came out of the smoker with skin the color of mahogany. The meat underneath was smoky and moist. I could easily imagine buying a few pieces every week for dinner, lunches and snacks.

A half-pound of Nexus Blue’s burned ends, pieces cut from the point end of the brisket and given extra time in the smoker. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Nexus Blue is one of the few places in town where you can get burned ends ($11), the succulent bites made from the fatty, tough point end of the brisket. These trimmings were once treated like unwanted scraps until cooks realized that saucing them and returning them to the smoker for an additional hour or so would further break down the tough connective tissues and melt the fat.

Nexus’ half-pound serving contains a mix of fatty and lean cubes. You get crisp, savory bark in every bite, along with a charge from the sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce.

Nexus Blue’s Enterprise sandwich features hot links, brisket and pulled pork over coleslaw on a hamburger bun. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Nexus’ other meat offerings can be sampled in one of the more formidable sandwiches in town, the Enterprise ($11). Pulled pork, sliced hot links and brisket are served over coleslaw in a hamburger bun spread with roasted red and green chile. The meat components were excellent, the brisket and mildly hot sausage moist, the pulled pork cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth consistency. The only off note was a bottom bun that was pretty soggy by the time I got home. It would be better to serve the bun on the side for takeout.

An assortment of sides: potato salad, coleslaw and collard greens. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The usual roster of barbecue sides come with a few tweaks, such as the bacon and red chile that are cooked into the collard greens, leaving them with a little extra salt and spice. The coleslaw ($3.50) is lightly sauced, letting the crisp vegetables shine, and the potato salad ($4), mixed with hard-boiled eggs, is worked until it is more silky than chunky.

One of two desserts offered at Nexus Blue, biscuit bread pudding ($4), is a treat that traces its origins to Southerners looking for something to do with leftover biscuits. Nexus’ version is a big block of dense cake with a light vanilla flavor. The shareable portion is topped with sliced almonds and served with a bourbon sauce.

Nexus has won numerous awards for its cream ale honey chamomile wheat and other beers, and you can get them to go in growlers or four-packs. The winter seasonal beers include a hoppy German fest beer and a brown ale with pumpkin spice. The latter is toasty, nutty and assertive enough to stand up to the heavy, spicy food.

I ordered and paid online, and the food was waiting for me when I arrived 15 minutes later. Be sure to ask for extra barbecue sauces before you leave. I found that the regular sauce had quite a bit of heat, but there’s a spicier version for stouter palates.

Perhaps no genre of food evokes social occasions like barbecue, so eating it nowadays feels a little melancholy. But with COVID case numbers dropping and the vaccine rollout underway, the day when places like Nexus Blue Smokehouse are filled with diners grows ever closer.