Scene: Four friends plunge through the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. They're on the hunt for what is reputed to be the best barbecue joint in the area, Two Bubbas BBQ, and their journey is taking them far off the beaten path, past the din of commuter traffic, past vacant auto lots, and into a thick umbrella of moss-draped sentinel oak trees. They have no idea where they are going, and they are very hungry.
To a hungry stomach, any drive can seem like forever.
We were driving maybe 30 minutes, but you couldn't tell that to my three compatriots, whom I had dragged, stomachs rumbling, past no fewer than four barbecue joints on the way. With each glowing "BBQ" sign fading into the background, I could feel the pressure building in the car, like so much smoke in a barrel. They were pissed.
I can't really blame them. At the time, my buddies didn't understand the difference between merely OK barbecue, the hastily prepared stuff that's scattered across the landscape whether you're in Savannah or Fort Lauderdale, or truly transcendental barbecue, the kind whose smoky promise commands you to do selfish things to your very tolerant friends.
In about 30 more minutes, however, they would come to forgive me... and then some. Serving as emissaries for my official apology: spare ribs laden with the rich ichor of hickory, wedges of chopped pork shoulder gang-tackling an overmatched bun, an infant-sized baked potato cradled in smoked chicken meat, and the magical blue-green twilight of rural Georgia at dusk. I was in good hands.
Back home, I set out to discover what smoky secrets South Florida's less-traveled pathways have in store. Only, I ran into a bit of a snag. Despite being home to a handful of respected, long-established barbecue eateries, the tricounty area has come to be characterized as a place from which no real barbecue can grow.
Talk to any out-of-state transplant (all experts, mind you) and he or she will tell you that SoFla's 'cue can't hold a cleaned rib bone to the stuff from Texas, the Carolinas, or the entire South, for that matter. It's a frustrating mindset, though not one that's reserved solely for barbecue. Pennsylvanians know that no sun-tanned cheese steak can touch the offerings from their native land. British expats would rather boff the Queen than eat Indian on our shores. And no list of this sort would be complete without New Yorkers — the most pugnacious one-uppers of them all — who won't let our pizza or Chinese food cross their lips without challenging the legitimacy.
If you listen to these haters, you'd be better off spending your nights tucked into a Stouffer's lasagna on your couch than braving the multitude of subpar dining options available. But I've got a better theory: Florida does have great barbecue. It's just that those transplants spend too much time at home reminiscing about how much better they had it at home to discover the truly plentiful spread of food finds out there. Could it be they just don't know where to look?
Recently, underground Florida barbecue has been popping up all over the map. Last week, I visited Big Belly Jerk BBQ, a humble food truck parked in the Sunoco lot on Sunrise Boulevard and Powerline Road, and walked away with a spicy-sweet feast of jerk chicken, pork, and ribs that I couldn't finish in three days. Then I joined another group of pals on the hunt for a man who cooks 'cue out of his Hollywood home on Saturdays, selling off ribs by the rackload. You've got to know someone who knows someone, and most of his racks are spoken for by noon, but if you can snag one, it's well worth the trip. But my best find came two Fridays ago, when I stumbled across Deep Down South BBQ.
I say stumbled across it, but the reality is, you can't miss it. DDS is a 40-foot, barn-house-red trailer that ties up at the east corner of the Exxon lot on Sunrise Boulevard and 31st Avenue. If somehow you overlook the trailer, you can spot it by finding the swarm of cars parked alongside or the line of folks queuing up ten deep at its takeout window (the only option available). They're there en masse — though DDS has been open barely two months now and only Thursday through Sunday — because the barbecue concocted by owner Albert Houston is the honest-to-goodness real deal.
"Real barbecue?" you scoff. "Not in this town!" Well, my friend, Houston's baby back ribs ($12.99 half rack, $18.99 full) tell another tale: The juicy spears of rib meat are basted for nearly four hours in thick hickory and applewood smoke until a vibrant rose ring forms beneath the spice-rubbed crust. Teaming with rendered fat and tissue, the meat falls from the bone with even the slightest suggestion, yet retains its fleshy and toothsome texture. You can't eat one rib without letting out an "mmmm," pausing only to lick your fingers and the corners of your mouth.
Houston's 'cue is served with a side of his smoky barbecue sauce — a mixture that shares traits with those from Kansas City: It sports a tomato base and a sweet, honey-and-fruit flavor that pairs well with the richness of the meat. It's a fine sauce, but I find I don't need it, especially on DDS' moist spare ribs ($8.99). These puppies get the same treatment as the baby backs, only they come chopped down into two-inch-long sections and coated with a bit too much sauce. Maybe it's a great thing for folks who always need extra, but not for those who prefer their meat tasting of meat. If you're in the latter group, get it on the side and you'll be in absolute pig heaven.
Ask Houston about his craft and you can tell he's studied barbecue inside and out. The ribs are so good because he knows the tricks: He takes the time to remove the membrane, that slightly chewy coating along the underside of the bone that keeps smoke from penetrating the meat. He never brines them, because then they just end up tasting like ham. He wouldn't dream of parboiling them, a common restaurant shortcut used to cut the cooking time. Instead, Houston is exacting in his preparation, a trait he no doubt picked up while cooking chow in the Marine Corps or working on restaurant development for Marriott Hotels. It's why his number-one goal, he says, is consistency. "If I can't be consistent to the T," he says proudly, "then I'd rather not do it at all."
Houston first launched DDS in Fort Myers in 2005. Cooking "competition-style" 'cue from his big red trailer, he developed a devoted following serving ribs, chicken, pulled pork, seafood, and daily-made fixings. When he was forced to leave his well-known spot because of nearby construction, Houston looked to sites in Atlanta and at the Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale. Though he couldn't secure a space inside the Shop, he decided the area was just too ripe to pass up, so he moved into the Exxon lot adjacent to the market. His goal is to open his first brick-and-mortar store in Broward and eventually expand his concept elsewhere.
Meanwhile, we'll have to settle for ordering DDS' pulled pork sandwich ($4.99) from the raised takeout counter on his truck. I'm convinced this is the best food deal in South Florida right now: You get two inch-thick slices of buttery, garlicky Texas toast to go with a mound of dripping pulled pork so big it looks as if a forklift plopped it in the foil-lined to-go container. I could talk for days about how the shredded meat is eminently tender — though never clumping into a tuna-salad-like mash like some pulled meat does — and so wet with its own "gravy" that it needs no sauce at all. For a dollar more, you can perfect it by adding some of Houston's own mayonnaisey coleslaw on top.
You need more reasons to get up and visit DDS right now? How about the mac 'n' cheese ($1.50 with any meal, $2.50 otherwise), a velvety, heart-stopping wad o' pasta, cheddar, and jack cheeses baked until golden? Or the deep-fried seafood box ($13.99) — hardback blue crabs caked in crunchy corn meal and rolled around in garlic oil, ultra-fresh fillets of moist grouper and tilapia, and pink shrimp cut to look like some exotic flower? Braver folk may opt for the souse ($4.99), that Southern classic of odd pig parts brined and stewed. For dessert, I suggest the creamiest, richest slice of sweet potato pie you'll find, only $2.75.
About the only complaint I can muster is that there's no telephone — so instead of being able to call your feast in, you'll have to hoof it down there and wait in line for your food, sometimes for quite long. It's not inconsequential, but it's hardly a deal breaker with grub this good. Still, feel free to write me and tell me I don't know anything about great barbecue, that DDS is nothing compared to the joints you've been to in Dallas or Atlanta or Asheville. Well, go ahead and haul yourself to said destination. I'll hold down the fort here, along with a lot of other very happy Floridians.
Scene: Four friends drive out of the wilds of unincorporated Broward, hands sticky and bellies full. As a pink-hued blanket envelops the horizon, they have an epiphany: Great barbecue is neither fast nor easy. But it's always worth it.