You know you’re a food snob when you insist on baking your own corn bread to go with takeout. But I am not talking about just any takeout, hastily ordered and picked up at the end of a long day. I’m talking about Southern barbecue, as in smoked spareribs with homemade sauce and pulled pork sandwiches, from some of the best barbecue joints in South Florida. Mike and I finally got tired of driving by these long-running bastions of barbecue, slowing our car to a crawl to inhale the aroma of meat cooking in their outdoor smokers. I guess we always hesitated to try them for ourselves because we feared the disappointment that might come after planning our feast, bringing it home and finding that South Florida barbecue doesn’t live up to the hype. Fort Lauderdale isn’t really “the South,” after all.
To avoid the emotional trauma of bad barbecue, we decided to approach our pork-laden dining experiences with cold, hard empiricism. We would methodically sample the goods at three of the most celebrated BBQ joints within easy “takeout radius” of our condo, treating each meal as an opportunity for culinary observation. At the conclusion of this research period, we would rest assured knowing that we left no rib un-sucked, or failed to consider any top-secret family recipe for barbecue sauce. We could bring home barbecue from our favorite dive with confidence, certain that we were chowing down on the best baby back ribs that our sunny little beach city has to offer.
Like I said, this is no ordinary takeout, and the setting in which you eat good Southern barbecue is very important to your enjoyment of the food, itself. We planned our pork project to coincide with the first three Saturdays of the college football season. After our typical lazy weekend morning and trip to the gym, Mike would go for the takeout at one of the three restaurants on our list, returning around noon when the first football match-up had just gotten underway. I would stay behind making cornbread and arranging stacks of paper towels on the table. Having created the perfect ambience in which to enjoy our barbecue, we had to have the perfect beverage to wash down bites of tender pork coated in smoky, sweet or spicy sauce. In our opinion, tall cans of Budweiser have the right light body, crisp finish and hoppy, yet neutral, quality typical of the best American lagers. It complemented the food from all three barbecue joints nicely. I’ll give you the recipe for the corn bread next time, but here is what we found out over the course of three delicious and intense weeks of feasting on South Florida barbecue:
If you live in Fort Lauderdale, you have to know this place. Located on US 1, south of Las Olas, Tom’s has probably never spent a dime on advertising. The deep, smoky aroma of their meat comes on like a Siren song in whichever direction the wind is blowing, pulling people into an abyss of the most complex, so-good-you-could-drink-it, barbecue sauce. Tom’s serves our favorite, baby back ribs, while only the larger spareribs were available at the other two restaurants. Tom’s meat and the addictive sauce were so good that we were tempted to end our research there. The little ribs had the right balance of tender meat and sticky, slightly chewy edges. The flavor of the pork was not overtaken by the wonderfully aromatic, woodsy taste of the smoke. I know I have used the word, “smoky” too many times already in this post, but that is also the best way to describe the medium-thin, savory sauce. The delicate smoke was balanced by a deeply flavorful, not tongue-searing, peppery spice. Tom’s should not have bothered with the bun on their pork sandwich. It was little more than a vessel to hold the most tender, lean and delicious pieces of chopped pork loin you’ll ever find. If for some reason, you lack the energy to pull the meat off the ribs with your teeth, just order the sandwich and toss the bun.
Just south of the intersection of Davie Road and State Road 7, the Pig is the greatest distance from our home, but the restaurant’s reputation demanded a visit. It has been in business and run by the same family for over 30 years, during which they’ve managed to accumulate hundreds of pig-themed tchotchkes that adorn the walls of this shabby country diner. Having more modernist tastes, I prefer the fiddlin’ neon pig in the front window. Despite being known for traditional Southern barbecue, the pig had the least traditional menu selection of the three. People sat at the counter eating hamburgers and there was no array of standard sides like baked beans and cornbread, not that I would have ordered it anyway. The well made pork sandwich at the Pig consisted of finely chopped smoked pork, lightly sauced and spilling out of a small, unseeded bun. With its spicy, flavorful meat in perfect balance with the fresh bread, it was the best pork sandwich of the three. The sparerib platter came with a superfluous side of fries and half a hoagie roll, toasted and buttered. The ribs were pleasingly chewy on the inside and sticky on the outside, but they lacked the complex smokiness of Tom’s. The sauce at the Pig looked homemade, yet reminded me of thinner, less spicy Tabasco in color and flavor. It was very peppery, but lacked the depth of the smoky brew at Tom’s.
On Oakland Park Blvd., the smoking grills outside Jack’s have caught our eye many a time. Since this restaurant is the closest to home, we had our fingers crossed when we did our tasting. Unfortunately, this place made the least authentic and, more importantly, least delicious barbecue. Unlike the other two restaurants, Jack’s serves alcohol, so we knew something strange was up. They offer a selection of southern sides, but I’m willing to bet that those things lack as much soul as Jack’s barbecue sauce. It tasted like a supermarket brand to me, a bit sweet and not at all complex, though slightly thinner than your standard bottle of Bull’s Eye. The pork sandwich looked a lot like the one at the Pig, but the bun was so large and fluffy (and also a bit stale) that it overtook the meat which was too tough and fatty. The huge order of spareribs, while very meaty, just did not have much flavor. I kept dipping them in the ho-hum sauce, but that was a futile hope. Though the meat was tender, it was missing that toothsome, chewy quality and crisp surface that comes with slow, Southern smoking. The ribs tasted as if they had merely been boiled and coated with sauce.
In the end, we got exactly what we wanted: a place to satisfy our occasional craving for barbecue, and the knowledge that we would be indulging in what we think is truly the best in town. While the Georgia Pig will certainly do the job, especially if you love a great pork sandwich, Tom Jenkins is where we’ll be going for the smokiest, tastiest ribs in Fort Lauderdale. That is unless we run across any other barbecue places that compel us to reevaluate the findings of our research. If you want to weigh in your favorite barbecue place, I'd love to hear from you.