It's a historical fact that food and politics make dangerous bedfellows. One slip-up on the long trail of gastronomic photo-ops can be disastrous, as evidenced four years ago when Republican primary candidate Gary Bauer fell backward from an elevated platform while trying to flip a pancake; embarrassing media replays of the event forced him to drop from the race a few days later. Kerry clearly squandered his chance with the cheesesteak constituency, but it's not too late for the patrician geek to capture that all-important bubba barbecue vote. Here's how he can do it: Send a team of anonymous campaign operatives to places like Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City and Harlan's in Texas and have them observe local barbecue etiquette. In turn, they can tip off their boss so he seems like a regular guy during obligatory campaign grillhouse stops. But they'll probably have to make a few adjustments in translating the bubba decorum -- nobody wants to see his prospective president wiping barbecue sauce from his mouth with a shirt sleeve.
Eric's Bar-B-Q Co. in Pembroke Pines would provide an apt showcase for the senator's newly polished rib-eatin' skills. The spacious ranch-style décor, a mix of raw wood rural with bright Western murals, would photograph well and capture the requisite home-on-the-range ambiance. No one will confuse the barbecue here with that of Arthur Bryant's, but Eric's fare is fresh, hearty, and tasty, and the low prices would save the campaign cash that could be put to more serious political purpose -- like, for instance, mudslinging.
My own entourage and I began our meal at Eric's by sharing a bunch of the "startin' foods," including a basket of warm, lightly honey-sweetened corn bread. The small, rectangular loaves were moist and eminently munchable but not special enough to warrant ordering them à la carte, as each entrée comes with a serving. I wouldn't recommend starting with the chili either, as the tomato- and beef-based stew was inedibly salty. Two other appetizers were much better, but both were marred by inferior commercial dipping sauces -- a weak and watery tartar sauce alongside otherwise fresh, cleanly fried, cornmeal-crusted catfish fingers; and liquidy blue cheese dressing accompanying Buffalo wings. Diners are offered a heat preference running from mild to hot for their wings (note to Kerry: Do not request mild.). We chose the fiery version, prepared as usual with a drenching of piquant pepper sauce. Beer-battered onion rings were thick, hot, and delicious.
I remain noncommittal on the appetizers, but main plates and platters were clear winners. Eric's doesn't authentically slow-cook its meats from morning to night, but mesquite chips manage to permeate the offerings in a convincing manner. Ribs get my vote for best main course, both the tender baby backs and the bigger, chewier, and more flavorful, dry-rubbed, St. Louis racks. Barbecued chicken was rewarding as well, crisp of skin with exquisitely juicy meat. Thin strips of brisket, pork loin, and turkey breast are also imbued with a potent, naturally smoked flavor.
The meats here come modestly basted in brick-red barbecue sauce that upon first taste seemed like a jarred, supermarket brand. Turns out it did come from a jar, but one with a homemade label: Eric's Original Bar-B-Q-Sauce (there's a bottle on every table, and you can take one home for $3.99). Altogether a decent product, appropriately spicy and not too sweet, but its pungency relies on a dose of liquid smoke instead of the infusion of barbecue scraps that makes a made-on-the-premises sauce so satisfying.
There are some other main courses, like barbecued mahi mahi, but I believe these are mostly for those noncarnivores who find themselves sitting in a barbecue joint against their better judgment. Wine aficionados will feel no more at home here than vegetarians, and though there are a few reds and whites available, ordering a bottle would be like asking for Swiss cheese on a Philly cheesesteak -- bona fide bubbas imbibe only beer with their barbecue. The regular lineup of bottled beers is on hand, along with pitchers or iced 16-ounce mugs of Honey Lager and the stouter Shiner Bock.
There are bargains galore at Eric's. Prices for "plates," which come with the choice of one side dish, run from $4.49 (a quarter chicken) to $9.99 (ribs); "platters" bolstered with more meat and an extra side, cost a few dollars more. Combo meals constitute an even better deal: Two main courses and two sides for $11.49 to $14.99, the price differential determined by whether you choose items from the low-end column, like brisket, pork loin, or mahi mahi, or classier options such as ribs, shrimp, or an eight-ounce New York strip steak. Standard barbecue sides include solid if unspectacular baked beans, potato salad, cole slaw, French fries, green beans, and corn on the cob.
There are more money savers still: During early-bird specials that run from 3:30 to 6 p.m., you can get that same strip steak (which you may not want to do, considering it was rather tough) with salad, side, soda, and soft ice cream for $8.99; the same price applies to ribs, shrimp, and catfish. Daily specials go even lower -- on Wednesdays, the steak sells for $6.99, and on Tuesdays, half a barbecued chicken is just $4.99. Service is commensurate with the prices, but in all fairness, good service in a barbecue joint usually requires only that the waiter place the food down in front of you without getting any in your lap. In that respect, the wait staff here did just fine.
Eric's does a brisk takeout business, which at lunchtime means plenty of sandwiches -- just about anything you can order as a dinner comes between two halves of a bun. I sampled a barbecue pork loin sandwich, an overly bready affair that needs to be plumped with much more meat; at the least, the bun should be downsized. There's a whole menu section devoted to stuffed potatoes too, but whatever appeal these overwrought spuds ever had disappeared sometime during the Reagan administration.
Candy apple pie, Oreo cookie mud pie, and sweet potato pie comprise a nice, concise offering of desserts. Unfortunately, on both our visits, they were out of all three. Luckily the soft-ice-cream machine was working, as a free cone is available with every meal and provides a cooling salve for a torched tongue. I hope the senator from Massachusetts knows how to properly lick a cone of frozen custard -- it would be a pity if, after mastering his barbecue-eating technique, he blew the photo-op by sloppily plopping his scoop of ice cream onto some poor reporter's shoes. Come to think of it, maybe Kerry should send a scouting team to Dairy Queen too.