What’s in a name? Sometimes, a lot.
In this day and age, we’ve all gotten a little jaded by advertising. When a business changes its name – or “re-brands” as it’s often called – we get suspicious. “What’s really going on?” we think. “What’s really changed?”
So when I sat down with Mike Markowitz, owner of Hickory Kitchen, formerly Smokin’ Lil’s, I was itching to ask the question. Mike bought Smokin’ Lil’s from the well-known restaurateur Lily Salvatore in January 2010 and changed the name this past spring to Hickory Kitchen. But before I give you the answer, you’ve got to get to know Mike a bit.
“I’ve always had an affinity for food,” says Mike, who grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, taking the bus into the city on weekends to hang out with his Hungarian grandmother in the kitchen. He learned cooking and life at her elbow, and learned to be adventurous in the kitchen. Career choices led him into marketing, then retail, for many years, where he learned business skills. But he was always a foodie. “I was always the ‘premier’ cook in the house,” he says, “my kids would take weird stuff out of the fridge and I’d always make something good out of it. I love the adventure, and from being around food so much, I learned what’s good and what’s not.”
After owning a local Manhattan Bagel store for six years, Mike wanted to spread his wings. That’s when he bought Smokin’ Lil’s, Doylestown’s only barbecue restaurant. Mike liked the barbecue but wanted to expand the menu. He started adding more vegetarian options – like a portabella mushroom sandwich, and a portabella quesadilla; a grilled vegetable quesadilla; a vegetarian patty sandwich with Asherah’s Gourmet burgers; and the popular La Jonba Wrap – a veggie patty with portabella, jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, grilled veggies and maple chipotle sauce. All for under $7.95.
He also made some improvements to the barbecue menu, and started offering a broad variety of sandwiches (quesadillas, turkey club, crab cake, chicken salad, and barbecued meats), salads, Angus burgers, chili and side dishes like cornbread, sweet potato fries, fried kosher dill pickles and leaf lettuce wraps, and, dare I say it, pulled pork cheese fries (someone has to do it). I’ll get to the barbecue later, but there’s plenty of it, and it’s good.
But as broad and varied as the menu is, Smokin’ Lil’s just says barbecue. And that was the problem. After a year of expanding the menu and improving the food, people still thought of the restaurant as a barbecue house. “That’s when the light when on,” says Mike, and he said to himself, “We have to change the name.”
“When I was growing up, it was like, whatever happened in life, the kitchen table was the sanctuary,” he explains. It symbolizes home and family. So when you enter the cozy restaurant, you’ll see the walls covered with large photos of families gathered around kitchen tables. And they look so real, like they could have come out of any family’s photo album.
That warm feeling also comes from Mike’s views about customer service. “You’re coming into my house,” he says of the restaurant. He takes the time to learn about his customers’ families, businesses, friends. “That’s why I’m in business,” he adds, “I want to create an environment that people want to be in.”
So in May of this year, Hickory Kitchen was born. A little of this, a little of that and “something for everyone” is their motto.
Let’s talk barbecue. Mark and I love it, and we eat it wherever and whenever we can – Kansas, Memphis, Texas, North Carolina, and yes, even Bucks County (don’t get snotty, now). We have some good barbecue in Bucks County, and it sure is closer than Kansas City. And Hickory Kitchen is a great place to start.
First of all, they let the ribs speak for themselves. By that I mean they don’t slather sauce all over them, but let you do the honors at the table with an assortment of BBQ sauces. The pulled pork is chunky, with a nice smoky taste, also not doused in sauce. The chicken is moist, with a sealed in taste, the way BBQ chicken should be. Collard greens – also the way they should be, but not too salty like so many places do it. The cornbread is moist and sweet, just holding together long enough for you to pop it in your mouth, and the sweet potato casserole, well, let’s just say you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving anymore. Go for it.
You can have the BBQ meat any way you want it – 2-way (2 meats), 3-way, 4-way, sandwiches, on a roll, in a quesadilla, on bread, in a wrap, or even, on a salad. The meats include brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken, sausage, smoked ribs, wings, and half and whole chickens. If none of that grabs you, try the Angus burgers, the turkey burgers or, even, a hot dog. There is a long list of comfort food sides, like “Mac N Cheese,” macaroni salad, potato salad, cole slaw or beans with meat. And, of course, biscuits. [For the full menu, see the Hickory Kitchen website.]
Did I mention breakfast? Yep. Hickory Kitchen does breakfast on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If you thought the cornbread sounded good (it is), how about pancakes made from the same batter? Oh my. I can attest to how wonderful they are, as well as the Texas Breakfast Wrap – 2 eggs, pulled pork, BBQ sauce, tomato, onion and Monterey Jack cheese.
Suffice to say, there is “something for everyone” at Hickory Kitchen. You’ll find them at 9 West Court Street, just near the intersection of Court and Main Sts. in Doylestown. The restaurant seats 30 inside and 8 outside (April – October), which is a fun place to sit and watch Doylestown go by. You can find out more online at their website, or give a call for take out at 215.348.5170.