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The sweet perfume of molasses and slow-burning hickory wood punches you in the face when you step inside Elliot Wolf's new restaurant, Red Cow, near the impossible-to-navigate intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Federal Highway.
As you take your seat in an apple-red chair, you don't realize that first shot was part of a one-two combination. If the mouthwatering scent of barbecue is a jab, the price of a plate of slow-cooked meat here is the uppercut. A fair 18 bucks gets you a heaping plate of shiny pork spareribs whose meat falls from the bone with little prodding. Every delicious bite contains a lavender-pink smoke ring and thin ribbons of rich fat.
For $21, you can dive face first into an "Eat Meat Combo" with two kinds of meat and two sides. The stacked beef ribs — hulking dinosaur-sized bones — have the salty, smoky crust you expect from barbecue. And inside is meat tender and juicy, like a high-priced steak. A lick of pomegranate barbecue sauce is a touch too sweet but pairs well against the bold flavor of Wagyu beef. Even the torn pieces of off-white chicken thigh, pulled from one of the birds spinning in a rotisserie toward the back of the red-brick and corrugated-steel-wrapped restaurant, offers the decadent smoky richness of well-done 'cue.
1025 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Since the place opened May 20, Wolf, who also owns Coconuts, G&B Oyster Bar, and the Foxy Brown, said he and staff continue to think about, and struggle with, pricing.
"We think we're giving a pretty good deal," Wolf said in a telephone interview. "I don't want to scare people away, [but] if you look at Tom Jenkins' menu and other menus around town, you get what you pay for. They chop the beef and leave a huge fat cap."
There is no doubt the meats emerging from Red Cow's hulking diamond-plate smoker are worth every single penny. When it comes to the $20-plus Eat Meat combos, it's nearly impossible to finish every scrap of food that comes on the stainless-steel trays. It's equally hard to avoid licking fingers clean of sweet sauce and salty rub.
Briskets and pork ribs spend two days absorbing a dry rub before hitting the smoker for at least ten hours. The meat for a "Pork-Strami" sandwich (topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and spicy mustard) brines for more than ten days before going in.
"Nothing is done in a day's time," says Texas-born chef Steve Shockey.
Before opening the restaurant, the team cooked test batches — using almost 1,000 pounds of meat over three weeks — to learn the ins and outs of its new smoker.
The machine is made by J.R. Manufacturing out of the appropriately named Mesquite, Texas. It doubles as the restaurant's centerpiece, sitting under a red neon "MEAT" sign. The M flickers on and off, a subconscious reminder to "eat meat."
"We were just eating it and giving it away," Shockey says, "trying to figure out what we were doing and what people liked."
During the costly, time-consuming process, the beast yielded its small secrets.
The men found that the highest shelf inside the smoker and its outer edges are often the hottest parts, making those spots ideal for smoking briskets rather than ribs.
They tested how much wood to use, how to get it burning, and what ratios of hickory and cherry produced the best-tasting bites.
"Barbecue is a funny thing," Shockey says. "People are very opinionated and have their own ideas, and here in South Florida, you have everybody from different places." Making everyone happy, he adds, is like "walking a fine line."
But he tries. If you're partial to the briskets and dry rubs of Texas, Red Cow's got you. The beloved pulled-pork shoulders of the Carolinas are on the menu too — and a bottle of vinegary sauce sits on each table, along with a sweet-molasses-and-tomato-based sauce that would be a hit in Kansas City.
Wolf and Shockey say they see Red Cow as a restaurant that serves barbecue rather than as a barbecue restaurant. Still, other dishes couldn't clear the high hurdle set by the slow-smoked meats.
For instance, the jalapeño and cheddar sausage inside a smoked link sandwich ($10) is closer in texture and flavor to a hot dog than a sausage. It's not split lengthwise in the kitchen and is a bit messy to eat, the accompanying peppers and onions, along with any barbecue sauce, falling out of the back end of a soft hoagie roll. The Burnt Ends Shepherd's Pie ($17), studded with perfect cubes of brisket ends, came out too salty when I tried it.
However, the day's daily smoked fish dip ($13) — meaty swordfish studded with tomato and bacon and served with tortilla chips — is a smart combination. It offers the smoky flavor you look for in barbecue without any of the stomach-stretching pain that follows eating an ungodly large portion of meat. An avocado salad with a grapefruit vinaigrette and a sweet watermelon salad with a jalapeño vinaigrette offer something on the lighter side.
There's even a "No Meat" combo ($14) that allows diners to combine four sides. It's a fair offering for the wayward vegetarian who stumbles inside. Definitely try the crispy outside/fluffy inside hush puppies, the sweet and smoky baked beans, and the creamy, garlicky cauliflower puree that easily stands in for mashed potatoes.