Ace High Saloon & Smokehouse producing finger-licking BBQ in South Lake Tahoe |

Ace High Saloon & Smokehouse producing finger-licking BBQ in South Lake Tahoe

Claire Cudahy
Ace High owners Kevin Benson and Greg Sayabalian met while Benson dealt poker and Sayabalian played.
Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune |


Ace High is offering Happy Hour specials for the whole game, starting at 3 p.m. This includes $2 off all appetizers and $5 draft and well drinks. In addition to a free — yes, free — nacho bar, raffles and giveaways will take place throughout the day.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Twelve-hour smoked brisket, bacon baked beans, creamed corn and sweet potato maple cheesecake — just the sort of fare you’d expect to find in a place like South Carolina.

But, thanks to a love of poker and smoked meat, Ace High owners Kevin Benson and Greg Sayabalian have brought Southern soul food right to northern California.

Ace High Saloon & Smokehouse opened in The Chateau at the Village near Stateline four months ago and since then has grown a cult following for its painstakingly prepared smoked meats, ranging from chicken wings and pulled pork to rib racks and brisket.

The secret is the saloon’s house-made dry rub and the hours of slow cooking in the smoker.

“One of the things we are proud of is that we use almond wood to smoke, which is not very common,” explained Benson. “People use mesquite or hickory, but that’s from other regions of the country. We get the almond wood in California. It’s kind of mild, so it doesn’t over-smoke the meat.”

As for BBQ style, Ace High sources from all over the U.S.

“We are from all over the country in style, combining Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and certainly the Carolinas,” added Benson.

Other menu items include one vinegar- and one cream-based coleslaw (“The world is divided on coleslaws,” according to Benson), potato salad, collard greens, mac and cheese, and three types of BBQ sauce (they hope to bottle and sell these soon). The bread of choice is baked by Truckee Sourdough Company.

So how did a New Jersey native and Boston-bred guy wind up opening up a BBQ joint in Lake Tahoe?

Benson and Sayabalian both moved to the area in ’94; Benson dealt poker, while Sayabalian played and ran another restaurant called Hamdogs in Gardnerville. A friendship was formed at the poker table, and five years ago, they bought a smoker together.

“We started cooking, and then we started going to events. We did Street Vibrations in Reno, and people just loved the food we were cooking. People said, ‘You should open a restaurant,’” recalled Benson.

After years of perfecting their recipes, they decided to take the plunge.

“It was kind of funny. Originally we were just going to get a small place at the other end of town and do BBQ ‘til we ran out, and somehow it turned into having this place,” said Benson of their location right in the bustle of Heavenly Village.

Filled with re-purposed décor — like two old truck beds as bar shelves — and a poker-table-turned-dining-spot, it’s easy to see how the duo’s love of rustic flair and gambling plays into the restaurant.

“Ace High is not even really a good poker hand, but it might win. We joke that we could have called this the ‘All In Saloon’ because we quit our stability and went for it all,” explained Benson.

“We cashed out everything we owned,” added Sayabalian.

The poker theme doesn’t stop with the design; the menu features a slew of specialty cocktails like the Full House Margarita, Texas Hold’em Mule, Lucky 777, One Eyed Jack and Royal Flush. The house-made Bloody Mary mix rimmed with Ace High’s dry rub is a customer favorite.

With four months of business under their belts, Benson and Sayabalian agree that it’s been quite the journey to get Ace High to where it is today.

“At the end of the day it’s hard work, and you’re married to it, but it’s rewarding,” said Sayabalian.

“It’s something we love, and we are happy to be able to bring to everyone here,” added Benson.

Ace High Saloon & Smokehouse is located at 4125 Lake Tahoe Blvd., Suite K, in South Lake Tahoe. Free parking is available underneath The Chateau at the Village.