It's been bang-up year for the Gaslight Group's Brian and Jennifer Huskey.
The couple operates five different restaurants and watering holes around Savannah, and most of them have experienced tremendous transformation in a short amount of time. Their seminal spot, B. Matthew's, was shuttered for weeks last summer as crews revamped the interior of the historic building. Midtown eatery Blue Turtle Bistro saw its bar area expanded and electrified. The 5 Spot took over a sleepy corner of Habersham Village and debuted to instant success last December. And a few weeks ago, the entire operation of Blowin' Smoke hopped from downtown to the former Sol location in the Victorian District.
In fact, the only venue that hasn't been completely redefined is Gaslight's neighborhood bar, Abe's on Lincoln.
"Abe's sits there and minds its own business," laughs Brian. "But the rest of them are completely changed."
Blowin' Smoke has not only undergone a physical metamorphosis but an identity shift as well. The Huskeys opened the barbecue joint on MLK Blvd. in 2008, intending for it to become an anchor in the imminent revitalization of the western business district. It quickly became a local hotspot with its live music and epic cornhole tournaments, though the renaissance of their surroundings moved at a more molasses pace. When the opportunity arose to buy the building on Habersham and 33rd streets, Gaslight pounced.
"We gave it five years on MLK. But the lease was coming up, and we didn't own the space," explains Jennifer. "We've had our eye on this place for a long time."
It's no wonder: The main dining room is surrounded on three sides by glass garage doors, turning the entire restaurant into a glorious patio when the weather suits. The Huskeys have added a low fence around the property to keep children corralled and parents relaxed, and the courtyard, with its colorful Day of the Dead iconography, has plenty of room for summertime cornhole contests. Rebaptized as Blowin' Smoke Southern Cantina, the Huskeys' latest enterprise is already packed with locals and drawing tourists from downtown.
The move also comes with a whole new menu concept, one that keeps Southeastern favorites like pulled pork sandwiches ($7) and "Flintstone" beef ribs ($15 half rack) but incorporates the Southwestern flair so beloved by Sol's former customers.
Sums up Brian: "We've unpainted ourselves out of the barbecue corner."
Standout small bites include Tostones (fried green plantains served with house mojo sauce, $4) and the Smoked Poblano Pepper, stuffed with smoky pulled pork and queso fresco, a meal in itself ($4). Housemade chips can be simple with fire-roasted salsa ($3) or a total indulgence with guacamole, sour cream and meat ($10). Don't worry, fried pickle fans: Blowin' Smoke's original cherished appetizer remains ($5 half order, $9 whole.)
An assortment of soups and salads are options for lunch or a light dinner, as are the tacos ($3-4): Starring boldly-seasoned seafood or lip-smacking crispy pork or ropa vieja, each taco comes topped with a choice of chipotle, lima crema or ancho mole sauce, making for endless combinations of flavors. Also on the lighter side are the "samiches," including the vegetarian Spicy BBQ Tofu and the Black Bean Cake (both $7.)
The Huskeys' insist on keeping price points low, and even big plates like the Smoked Brisket, a massive stack of pecan-smoked beef served with a choice of two sides, is just $14. Also evident is the couple's awareness of healthy choices: Dessert includes fresh fruit with honey, and there isn't a chicken finger in sight on the kids' menu (the dip-the-veggies-in-the-lime-sauce option is bound to be a hit with the 5 and under set.)
But make no mistake, Blowin' Smoke remains true to its barbecue joint roots. All the meats are slow-braised on a corner of the patio by resident smokemeister and Brian's brother, Todd Huskey. Though the move hasn't been without its bumps, he's adjusting to the change.
"The kitchen is a lot smaller, so that's a challenge, but I think we've figured it out," says Todd.
Todd shares the fires with classically-trained Neil Youngblood, a former chef at Alligator Soul who sports the word "debrouillard"—French for "resourceful"— tattooed on his forearm. Together the pair meld the flavors of the Southeast and the Southwest.
"He's barbecue, I'm Mexican," grins Youngblood.
Also redesigned is Blowin' Smoke's bar menu, offering plenty of reason to while away many an afternoon with a signature Honey Jalapeño Margarita or a Cilantro Martini (destined to be the cocktail of 2013; you heard it here first.) A selection of south of the border beers meet the spices of the food, including Negra Modelo on draft.
After the months of construction, chaos and tangling with the city's permitting department, the Huskeys seem remarkably mellow, sipping coffee as the breeze wafts under Blowin' Smoke's half-open garage doors. Now that its five spots are up and running and packed with hungry, happy people, can Savannah expect a sixth notch in the Gaslight Group's formidable belt?
The Huskeys raise their eyebrows at each other and exchange one of those husband-and-wife looks that reveals there's been plenty of discussion around the topic.
"We're done," says Brian with a smile. "Really."
"I feel like we've had a lot of accomplishments this year," adds Jennifer. "We want to give ourselves some time to relish them."