Carousel BBQ Brings Down Home Southern Cooking to South Florida
It's 4 o'clock on a lazy Sunday afternoon when a young man dashes from his car, up the short flight of steps, and through the doors into Carousel BBQ in Deerfield Beach. Almost breathless, he slaps both hands on the order counter and asks the woman at the cash register if there's any pulled pork left.
"Sorry, but we just ran out," she says, a bright smile her own way to soften the blow of bad news. "We'll have more tomorrow, though."
It's a familiar situation at the newly opened restaurant, where — for the past two months — chef-owner Leroy Jones has been cooking his Memphis and Georgia-style barbecue and Southern soul food in the former Lil' Ole Caboose space.
A South Florida native and graduate of Florida State University, Jones says he never took any culinary courses. Instead, he began cooking in his early 20s.
Carousel got its start with Dora McElhaney, a Georgia native (and lifelong friend of Jones' mother, Ruthie) who cofounded the original Carousel as an ice cream shop on NW Ninth Street in Fort Lauderdale. For many years, McElhaney was in the business of making cakes and ice cream but later added heartier fare: Southern-style dishes she'd learned to make from her mother and aunt like collard greens, green beans, and candied yams. Her specialty was barbecued ribs.
A regular contestant for the city's Ribfest, she took home four first-place finishes during her time at Carousel, including her last in 1996. The next year, McElhaney partnered with Jones, and together they moved the business to Pompano Beach, where they continued to cook for many years, melding the best of both families' secret recipes to create the Carousel BBQ menu.
When McElhaney passed away in 2011, Jones sold the brick and mortar restaurant and opened Carousel as a food truck. For several years, he was stationed at Australian Boulevard and 25th Street in West Palm Beach, where he grew a loyal following.
"Certain sides, like the baked beans and green beans, I learned to make from my mom," says Jones. "The other half, like the ribs, I got from Ms. Dora."
Today, the Carousel trucks are off-duty, sitting idly in the parking lot where Carousel BBQ reopened off Powerline Road in late March. The restaurant is a partnership with the building's owner, John Vrchota, a longtime fan of Jones' cooking. When Vrchota asked Jones if he wanted to take over the rust-colored, train-shaped building, the idea was not only to revive the space with a new concept — but also one that is sorely lacking in that section of west Broward County. Inside, the space has been fully renovated, including a walk-up order counter and several tables. With a nod to the menu's offerings, the space offers two distinct elements: one-part family-style barbecue joint, one-part South Florida seafood shack.
The Carousel menu is simple and straightforward: barbecued meats, fried seafood, and sides that can be mixed and matched in lunch- or dinner-sized portions. During a busy lunch rush, the kitchen will plate racks of spare and baby back ribs, pulled pork served with buttered and toasted slices of white bread, and baskets of fried shrimp and conch. Jones prepares everything himself, meats slow-cooked for hours at a time in the restaurant's new propane and wood-fired smoker out back.
Although the pulled pork is the most popular dish, the baby back ribs are still the menu highlight, says Jones. On a busy week, the restaurant will go through about 90 pounds, each rack rubbed down with McElhaney's special blend of seasonings before being cooked. If you like them wet, plastic squeeze bottles containing a homemade Georgia-style mop sauce are set at each table, delivering an extra tangy kick with notes of clove, orange juice, apple cider vinegar, and brown sugar.
Jones' own signature dish, the garlic crabs, are prepared to order. Drenched in potent marinade and coated in a light breading, the crabs are deep-fried in hot oil, rendering them a golden brown. Served six at a time, the crabs arrive on a platter stacked atop one another, still sizzling beneath a crisp breaded shell. The meat beneath is hot and moist, heavily laced with garlic.
The best part about Carousel may not be the barbecue or the seafood, however, but the sides, from the giant squares of baked mac 'n' cheese that arrive with a thick crust to the slivers of scalloped and brown-sugar-sweet candied yams.
"Every day, we go through most everything we make," says Jones. "Nothing sits more than a day. You can taste the freshness in every bite, and that's what keeps them coming back for more."
For generations, Southern cooks have been making green beans by adding pork, and Carousel is not one to buck such a tried-and-true tradition. After a long, gentle simmer, the beans are drained, satiny soft and saturated with a rich, pork-infused flavor. Despite their faded pea-green pallor, they're one of Ruthie's best dishes.
Another Southern staple, collard greens, are known for spending the better part of the day languishing in a pot of hot water with a ham bone. At Carousel, they're cooked until the bitterness is leached from each leaf, the stems are soft, and the greens are glossy and tender. From there, each batch is blanched and dried, rendering collards that are soft and sweet, with a touch of vinegary tang.
Arrive early enough and the Carousel dessert case may still be full, with offerings like McElhaney's buttery-dense lemon pound cake. Jones' single-serve sweet-potato pies are often the first to go, however, and it's not unusual to find him baking dozens at a time to meet the demand.
When an older woman arrives later in the day looking for one, Jones shakes his head. The pies won't be ready until tomorrow, he says. The woman looks disappointed but promises she'll be back.
"A lot of what makes this place successful is thanks to Ms. Dora," says Jones. "Carousel has been doing this for a long time, but we're hoping this location will put Deerfield Beach on the map for good barbecue."
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