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Behind the stainless steel cook line that spans the entire west wall of East Coast BBQ is a square smoker the size of a smart car — and nearly as clean-burning.
Where most barbecue joints scattered across South Florida employ smokers that burn thick, resinous logs of wood, this $10,000 rotisserie smoke box is powered by quarter-inch pellets. The pellets, held in a hopper above the smoker's back end, look like the sort of bedding you would line your kids' rabbit cage with. But they're actually made of compressed oak and hickory sawdust. A few cups of them will burn as long and produce as much flavorful smoke as a couple of big, wooden logs. When they're spent, they'll leave behind only a teaspoon or two of ash.
This marvel of modern technology would seemingly have no place in a barbecue restaurant. After all, barbecue is as ritualized a cooking method as we have in America. Its traditions harken back to an era when smoke and time were the best tools we had to render tough, inexpensive cuts of meat into something edible. Those folkways have evolved over the years, creating the dozen or so distinct types of barbecue that are practiced with reverence in places like Memphis, Tennessee, and Lockhart, Texas. What East Coast's owner, Dave Audet, has done is combine the efficiency of modern barbecue science with a traditionalist's mentality. The results speak for themselves.
Take Audet's St. Louis-cut spare ribs, for example. Order a half or full rack ($12, $18 with two sides), and he plucks the meaty sections fresh from the oven, dewy and glistening. He gives each rack a quick turn on the grill, using only the slightest burnish of his tomato-based barbecue sauce, and sends the racks out on an unassuming white plate. Bite through the crunchy layer of caramelized bark covering each rib, and you'll find the kind of juicy, smoky interior that competition judges fawn over.
It would be tempting to call Audet's modern smoker an easy shortcut to industrial 'cue. But his methods are as exacting as a barbecue veteran's. Audet is a retired charter boat captain who spent more than 20 years leading fishing trips up and down the East Coast (the inspiration for the restaurant's name). His exploits are framed all over the restaurant's walls: There are pictures of him there — tall and stocky with a boyish smile — holding up sport fish and posing with customers like Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Even before Audet hung up his poles to open East Coast, he was a student of barbecue, practicing the craft with a collection of old-fashioned smokers he's kept in his backyard.
One of the great things about East Coast is, in the two months since it opened on the corner of Federal Highway and McNab Road, Audet has continually refined his output. I've eaten in the bright, all-white restaurant a half-dozen times now, and each visit, the meat has gotten richer and smokier. Audet is extremely proud of his work too. I've seen him on numerous occasions invite customers behind the spotless kitchen line to show off his smoker and explain his methods in exacting detail. When he opens those wide double doors to expose his rotisserie, the collection of meat cooking low and slow puts a childlike expression of wonder on their faces.
And what a collection it is. East Coast produces a wide array of barbecue staples, from pulled pork to smoked turkey and everything in between. In the traditionalist vein, there's Texas-style rope kielbasa, intensely rich and as brick red as a firehouse wall ($9 dinner, $7 sandwich). To go with that is sliced beef brisket, another Texas trademark. Sliced and served on a soft, slightly toasted roll ($10), this brisket is hearty and smoky; on a dinner platter, though, you can really appreciate its beauty. It sports a smoke ring so thick and red that it looks painted on with a magic marker.
Surprisingly, one of my favorite East Coast dishes — besides the ribs — is the turkey. I've turned a host of friends on to the stuff, and they've all agreed: This bird is legit. The turkey is brined until it's full of juicy flavor. After a turn in Audet's oven, the breasts are sliced into long, half-inch-thick slabs, each pearly white with tinges of pink along the edge (which indicates good smoke contact, not raw meat). To serve, Audet drizzles a tiny string of sauce on top, leaving each piece of pristine flesh practically naked. The meat is so tender and succulent, you never think once about adding sauce.
That's what's so cool about East Coast: For a place that employs such modern technique, Audet has a very old-fashioned reverence for barbecue tradition. Usually when I eat out at a barbecue joint, I have to ask the chef to hold the sauce on the side. (That's because most restaurants tend to drench their 'cue, so instead of tasting the quality of the meat, you get only oversweet sauce.) At East Coast, it's the other way around. The platters and sandwiches of slow-cooked meat come with little, if any, sauce on them. Instead, you get a squirt bottle on the table that you can apply yourself. The sauce itself is a hybrid, halfway between Kansas City sauces made with lots of spice, and the sweet, heavy stuff you find all over South Florida. It's not my favorite sauce ever, but then again I never really use it. The meat is just too good on its own. Audet is working on a few new sauces (including a Carolina-style mustard sauce) for those who like a little variety with their 'cue.
East Coast's sides ($2 each) have the same minimalist approach. For example, Audet's pit baked beans aren't at all like the kind you'll get at ubiquitous chain eateries such as Shorty's, Park Ave., or Smokey Bones (located just down the road and, sadly, busier). The beans are savory — not sweet — and have no tomato added. Instead, they're made with just a few ingredients, which Audet gladly shares with anyone who orders some: onion, butter, and thyme. After tasting these beans, I feel like my baked bean worldview has changed. I honestly can't understand why people would ever add molasses or sugar to beans when this simple method makes them so mildly sweet, spicy, and rich.
Other side excellence: Potato salad made with only a touch of mayonnaise and mustard is equally simple and outrageously good. East Coast's sweet potato fries, too, employ the best damn cut in the world — the waffle cut — and the results are crunchy and savory. The only side I found lacking was the mac and cheese. On some visits, the penne pasta was coated in a creamy, peppery sauce that tasted like it came straight from a Southern kitchen. On others, though, the pasta was just lazily coated in melted cheddar and not much else.
Still, East Coast has a ton of upside. The restaurant is large and clean and the staff is friendly. What Audet really needs are more customers: Because of the nature of barbecue, you have to cook food well in advance and plan for how much of it you'll sell. The restaurant's location — tucked into the far west corner of an east-facing strip mall on Federal Highway — makes it hard to see from the road, so it's been reliant on foot traffic so far. But as the word gets out and business becomes steadier, I can only see the old-fashioned barbecue improving. Thanks to a touch of modernity, no doubt, mixed with plenty of deep-rooted tradition.