Blue Willy's Bring Smoke and Love to Oakland Park

Blue Willy's brisket platter.
Blue Willy's brisket platter.

"Pork rib plate with collard greens and mac 'n' cheese... two-meat combo, a double order of May's cornbread... jumbo rack and half-chicken to go!"

It's the sound of a typical lunch rush at Blue Willy's Barbecue, where the cashier barks out orders as she works the interminable line behind the restaurant's butcher-style counter. It's been this way, nonstop so to speak, since chef-owner Will Banks reopened his bustling barbecue business in Oakland Park six weeks ago.

This particular summer afternoon, the line of eager patrons snakes jaggedly through the entryway, out the door, and into the parking lot. They look, seemingly famished, at the man cutting a fresh slab of brisket.

A family at a nearby table already has its food, but some members stare bewilderingly at the brown-butcher-paper-lined plastic trays piled with food before them, unsure how to begin. The patriarch of the group unceremoniously digs into his spare ribs, blissfully feasting with bone in hand, fingers slicked with grease and stained orange from the roasted-on rub.

Specifically, it's Texas barbecue, meats such as beef brisket and pork spare ribs prepared the same way Banks' grandfather cooked them at the family's butcher shop-turned-restaurant.

"Back then, it was just brisket, sausage, and beef ribs," Banks says. "No sauce, no sides. Just a sandwich."

Banks will tell you how it was, but he won't give up any details when it comes to how he cooks his meat. That's understandable. Recently, his entire concept — including many of his recipes, right down to the decor and even his sign — was replicated by ex-employees at his former location in Pompano Beach. The experience has made him cautious.

For now, you'll have to make do with the obvious facts, what Banks says begins with the quality of the meat, which is why he has used the same purveyor for years. It's also one reason his 'cue remains consistent and some of the best in the tri-county area, from the meaty spare ribs to the juice-dribbling brisket.

In 2009, Banks left a 25-year career in technology to cook. Armed with nothing but his grandfather's recipes and years of experience behind his own smoker, he traveled to the West Coast, where he and his brother ate their way from Seattle to Los Angeles in a few days — not for barbecue, however, but for food truck research.

"Originally, I had planned to open a restaurant, but the economy was so bad there was no way," Banks says. "It took me six months to get it figured out and up and running. Back then, no one was serving brisket the way I was."

Banks remembers the early days, linking up with the first roundups and keeping busy with catering events. From there, he found the truck a permanent home in downtown Fort Lauderdale. As the business grew, so did the digs, with a move to his first brick-and-mortar location in 2013 in a strip mall — one with serious parking limitations — in Pompano Beach.

Today the business has found a new location in a standalone building that once housed a Pollo Granja on Commercial Boulevard. A quick drive from I-95 and just a stone's throw from Dixie Highway, it can accommodate the hundreds of patrons that visit each day. A towering Blue Willy's sign marks the spot, impossible to miss.

There's more parking too, although Banks says there are some days when even 35 spaces doesn't feel like enough.

And the menu? It's the same one he's been serving for close to a decade, ten items in all. Five well-constructed staples deliver subtle surprises, underwritten by an abundance of smoky flavor, and five sides pair with them perfectly. Though he won't divulge the basics of his rubs, the elements are so well balanced it's easy to discern most of them — paprika, cayenne, cumin, salt, and pepper. Their scent, mixed with that of meat, will cling to your fingers for hours after you leave.

The only secret Banks will share: to rebuke the notion that simplicity breeds monotony.

"By now, most of my family is bored to death of barbecue, but these people," he says, motioning to the tables full of feasting patrons, "they couldn't wait to get in the door for their Blue Willy's fix. We were fielding hundreds of calls a day [during our relocation], people asking, "When will you be open?' It's been a madhouse, and I couldn't be happier."

Blue Willy's pork rib platter.
Blue Willy's pork rib platter.

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Blue Willy's still has that ridiculous line out the door, especially Thursday, the only day Banks serves his smoked pastrami. Thick-sliced, ruby-red, and coated with a peppercorn-crusted rub that will find its way into every crevice of your teeth, it might become one of your favorite things to eat — especially when its piled onto a doughy onion bun, topped with coleslaw, and dunked in Banks' thick, grainy mustard.

But it's not barbecue. Instead, it's his grandfather's recipe, one perfected during his leisurely retirement days in New York, the navel plate cut of the brisket, brined and smoked into a glorious, fat-ribboned hunk of meat.

"He was that crazy Texas guy with his giant smoker in the middle of Queens," Banks says. "He made the pastrami the way the old-school New York delis first made it."

If you want Texas barbecue, the meat is, of course, the dominant motif: pulled pork, spare ribs, brisket, and Kreuz Market Texas jalapeño cheese sausage.

All of it's smoked in Banks' hickory-fueled monster, a well-seasoned piece of equipment that's been running almost 24 hours a day for nearly 24 years. The only day of rest is Monday, when it's cleaned; then it's fired back up that night for Tuesday service.

Pork may be the preferred barbecue east of the Mississippi, but in Texas, beef is king, and beef brisket is what Banks does best. His comes out moist and smoky, blanketed in a dense blanket of spices charred black from the smoker, and rendered tender enough to cut with a fork.

Make no mistake, though: Banks knows what to do with the hog too. His spare ribs, often considered the Holy Grail of good barbecue, remain this food critic's favorite in these parts. They boast a mélange of flavors, from the pasty spice rub that stains the meat (and your fingers) a rust-colored red to the delicate kiss of hardwood smoke and the distinct flavor of perfectly cooked pork. The juicy, fatty meat is so tender it tugs cleanly off the bone, no scraping or sucking needed. If you so choose, you can end it with Banks' grandfather's tangy, vinegary-sweet barbecue sauce.

The requisite side dishes include collard greens, which Banks perfected with the help of an employee's grandmother. Originally from Georgia, she spent weeks on the truck teaching a Texas boy to make chewy yet tender greens.

There's cornbread too, his crazy Aunt May's recipe. You can find the same one served in restaurants across her Alabama hometown, where she's been making it for decades. It's dry more than chewy, a texture that won't cake on the roof of your mouth but instead breaks into crumbles when you bite in, revealing nubs of corn here and there. And there's no cloying sweetness that some cornbreads possess, perfect for dredging the tang of barbecue from your breath.

"It's nothing special, really," Banks says, a devilish grin appearing beneath twinkling blue eyes. "It's all made with smoke and love."

Blue Willy's Barbecue
1190 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park; 954-224-6120. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

  • Brisket with two sides $15.99
  • Pork ribs with two sides $11.99
  • Sausage with two sides $11.99
  • Pastrami sandwich $14.99
  • Collard greens, pint$4.75
  • May's cornbread $1.50

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