Over the years, the old Texas Hold 'Em BBQ location on Sunrise Boulevard felt sadder with each visit. It was always empty, especially near the end of its tenure there earlier this year. The benches in front of the brown- and cream-colored building looked lost and lonely; the only activity came from the barrel smoker pumping out dark curls over the stop-and-go traffic. The one time I did stand next to someone at the takeout window inside, they weren't ordering; they were asking for change. Today, all of six restaurants survive on that depressed strip of Sunrise between I-95 and Andrews Avenue. Four of them are chains.
In July, owner Jeremy Armstead decided to close his Sunrise store and take a gamble downtown. He packed up his collection of sports and music memorabilia that had for so long been a part of the place — like his antique Jack Johnson fight bell and his Miles Davis album covers — and hung them instead on the red-and-white walls of his new location near the Andrews Avenue Publix. Then he got to smoking.
What a difference a move makes.
Three months on, downtown lunchgoers pack the joint daily, filing in and out to the sounds of Coltrane wailing in the background. Instead of grabbing your tray of spare ribs and choosing any seat in the room, you often have to wait a few minutes for a spot to clear at the countertop running around the walls. And the 'cue just tastes fresher, likely a result of the increased volume. Though it spent five long years braving the Sunrise location hoping for a rebound, there's no doubt Texas Hold 'Em has come home.
For someone who never planned on getting into the restaurant business, Armstead took a roundabout way to arrive at this point. Back in 2002, he and his cousin Jeff started out as J&J Wings on Wheels, a catering truck dishing up Buffalo-style wings at local events. After some big successes at venues like SunFest, the pair moved into the Shell gas station at Sunrise Boulevard and Powerline Road, the same spot where the Rev. Noble Harris once operated his legendary barbecue truck. As Armstead's customer base grew, so did his menu: He slowly began incorporating barbecue into his milieu, recalling the days he spent cooking wild game in kettledrums in upstate New York as a kid. Soon, he and his cousin had developed a reputation for their slow-smoked spareribs that they used to segue into the Sunrise store. "We paid our dues out there," says Armstead proudly.
They certainly have. Now in its third incarnation, Texas Hold 'Em is a more mature barbecue joint, though the wood-thatched building with its hand-painted logo manages to retain the roadside feel of its 'cue shack origins. The old, barnyard red trailer is even parked alongside of the place, but if you want to order spareribs now, you'll have to step inside. There, you can grab a dinner of St. Louis-cut ribs, served with the membrane on (many barbecue chefs choose to remove the chewy coating on the bottom of each rack) and smoked slowly over oak and hickory; two sides and a piece of corn bread come along with it for $9.95. These ribs are some of the best 'cue Texas Hold 'Em does: moist and tender spears with a light pink smoke ring and a rich, porky finish. You could make an argument for more bittersweet hickory flavor, but their finer points outweigh it. Armstead's ribs work your teeth like a great jazz tune does with your feet: The meat doesn't so much melt from the bone as it commands you to pull it away cleanly.
Texas Hold 'Em uses a fairly mild spice rub on its ribs and serves them naked, a big plus for barbecue aficionados like me who prefer meat SOS-style (sauce on the side). Yet I still found myself dipping heartily into the plastic container of sauce. Thick and sturdy with flecks of black pepper and spice, the sauce coats the meat with a veil of sweet mahogany. Armstead describes it as a mix of different styles, drawing heavily on the thick, tomato-based sauces of Kansas City. A bastard child, yes; but it has also an astonishing amount of depth for a tomato sauce.
Wide-ranging influences are a reoccurring theme here. Armstead adopted the Texas-centric practices of beef ribs, brisket, and sausage links only after coming up with the name (his inspiration came from a loyal supporter who was huge into poker). My editor and I popped in during a busy lunch service and ordered a dinner plate of brisket ($10.95) before nabbing the only vacant spots at the countertop. We had to wait only a couple of minutes wading among the legal workers and medical professionals who filled the wide-open room before the girl at the counter called out our order. Then we dug in.
It wouldn't win any accolades in Lockhart, but Texas Hold 'Em's brisket is decent stuff — sliced into moist, half-inch-thick pieces that taste exceptionally beefy. Still, for a hunk of meat that spends anywhere from 12 to 15 hours bathing in the smoker, it wasn't nearly smoky enough for my liking. Both of us were a little baffled too by the thick strip of fat that lined each slice: Not only was it unappetizing but it prevented a good crust from forming on the surface. His pork plate ($7.25) had the same issue: It lacked the smoke flavor and textural contrast of great chopped pork but was moist and tender all the same. On our way out, we stopped by the barrel smoker parked out front and wondered how that deep, hickory perfume we smelled hadn't translated into smokier meat.
Armstead has recognized that his new customer base is more eclectic than the old, and he's modified his menu to reflect this. In addition to traditional plates of barbecue, you'll find inventive dishes like Texas nachos ($7.95), tortilla chips smothered in nacho cheese, pickled jalapeños, barbecue sauce, and either pulled pork, chopped chicken, or beef. As gut-bomb street fare, I'd thoroughly enjoy picking through the piled-high container the nachos come in — only they should swap the goopy cheese sauce for some quality melted cheddar. That, and use better chips that don't evoke movie-theater nachos. There's also a Texas baked potato stuffed with smoked meat plus sour cream and chives ($7.50), but each time I've tried to order one, the kitchen was out of potatoes. Beer-battered shrimp and Buffalo wings with a big variety of sauces appear too, as do bread bowls full of chili and Brunswick stew ($7.95).
As for the definitive pork sandwich, it's offered as a lunch special with a drink and a side for $6, but Texas Hold 'Em also showcases a more creative "all in sandwich" ($6.75). The sandwich tops either pork or beef with a mound of sweet potato fries and mayo-less coleslaw but eschews the standard sweet bun for a couple of inch-thick slices of hearty Italian bread. In all, it reminded me of a cool Southern take on a Pittsburgh Primanti Brothers sandwich — something fun to eat while admiring Armstead's quirky collection of funk album covers and vintage 1936 copy of Monopoly on display. But when I brought back leftovers to a coworker (a BBQ traditionalist), he didn't care for the bread.
There are still some improvements to be made: Side dishes are a little inconsistent, like the baked macaroni and cheese (which tends to be dry) and the collard greens (which are full of smoky bits of pork but are sometimes underseasoned and at others too salty). And Armstead might also want to whack out some of the standing room in the restaurant's hollow middle area and put in a few tables where people can sit and enjoy their ribs, preferably while listening to the complete works of Steely Dan pumping out of the sound system. But the great thing about Texas Hold 'Em is it seems to constantly be evolving. Armstead is an idea man, and his next project is getting a delivery service started (a barbecue joint that delivers in downtown could only be a success).
In the meantime, Texas Hold 'Em remains packed daily. And one thing's for sure: Lively restaurants make for good barbecue.