Ruddell’s Smokehouse is proof positive that good things come in small packages.
The diminutive business occupies only 250 square feet, but its view is one of endless summer.
Situated steps from the beach just south of the Cayucos pier, the smokehouse boasts an iconic California setting, especially in the months when the sunny sands and surf are packed. There’s no indoor seating here, just a few tables outside, so plan on takeout.
“Smoker Jim” Ruddell’s first career as an auto repairman lasted 30 years, but he’s been smoking things (in a culinary way) since he was a kid. Eventually, he built a full-size smoker in his backyard, and — with the help of his wife, Kathy — what had been just an occasional hobby began to take on a life of its own.
Ruddell credits Kathy with finding the Cayucos location and launching his second career in December 2001. The smoke signals were evidently loud and clear, because since then Ruddell’s Smokehouse has garnered attention from Sunset Magazine, Coastal Living Magazine, the Food Network’s “BBQ with Bobby Flay,” and Rachael Ray’s food blog.
Obviously, unless you’re ordering a veggie option or a kid’s quesadilla, everything here is going to be smoked.
Fittingly, the emphasis is on seafood, and Ruddell’s signature fish is albacore. His expertise with his electric smoker is spot on with this type of tuna, which is best showcased in one of the tacos.
However, don’t expect a Baja-style taco — you’ll find a recipe for making those yourself on Ruddell’s website, but these tacos are served in a grilled flour tortilla and topped with a slice of tomato, shredded carrot, chopped romaine lettuce, and diced celery and apple.
Other tacos depend on availability. Salmon is usually an option, and a recent daily menu also included ahi, ono and shrimp, plus pork and chicken for landlubbers.
Often, the same items are also available as hearty sandwiches on a soft roll with mustard and mayo and topped with the same ingredients as the tacos.
You can choose from a couple green salads as well, and be on the lookout for smoked oysters and the smoked ahi jerky, a recently added item that’s proven very popular.
In sourcing his fish, Ruddell has a longtime association with his fish broker that ensures product quality, a relationship that’s key because everything comes to him already filleted and portioned due to the small size of the smokehouse. That goes for oysters too, which arrive pre-shucked from Washington State “because we just don’t have the room to be cutting down whole fish and shucking our own oysters.”
Even the smoker itself is only about the size of a standard residential refrigerator, so during busy months it gets fired up almost daily, with Ruddell relying on his lifetime of experience to do the smoking. There are no written recipes for the amounts of spices, sugars and herbs he uses, but rest assured there’s no liquid smoke (a product usually frowned upon by purists).
Though Ruddell may have made his mark with seafood, applying his method to cheeses such as cheddar also sets him apart. As he explained, “if you look at the labels of most smoked cheeses, 95 percent of them will be made with liquid smoke.”
Despite the small size of the entire operation, Ruddell’s has a retail deli case with a wide array of items already packaged and ready to take home. Again, the selection is subject to availability, so it’s a good idea to order a few days ahead if you have a special request.