Barbecue is about absolutes. It's either some of the best you've ever had or some of the worst. When it comes to the grill in the South, even in South Florida, there is no middle ground.
Unfortunately, more often than not, the barbecue I've sampled 'round these parts has fallen into the "worst" category. Barbecuers frequently neglect to put together the components that make for succulent grilled ribs and chicken, rich baked beans and refreshing cole slaw, crisp fried potatoes and flaky biscuits. Good barbecue adheres to certain principles; bad barbecue ignores them.
But after stuffing my face at Mrs. Smokeys, a two-year-old rib joint in the Sawgrass Mills area of Sunrise, I discovered the other side of the local spectrum. Mrs. Smokey, a.k.a. Elisa Caplan Hight, doesn't just follow the rules for excellent, real pit barbecue -- it's as if she wrote them.
Of course, unlike other kinds of chefs, who publish their recipes, real barbecuers don't. The reasons? Well, the differences between one tomato-based sauce and another, for example, may be very slight -- a bit of nutmeg in this one, a drop of lemon juice in that one, or a higher-than-usual concentration of molasses -- and competitors could steal customers by replicating a successful recipe. So Hight keeps her trio of zippy barbecue sauces strictly secret. I thought I detected cloves in the sweet, tangy stuff coating the ribs and chicken, but I can't swear by it. I know I ingested a host of chili peppers -- even the medium version is plenty spicy, and the menu warns to "eat hot at your own risk." Though you're jeopardizing a couple of taste buds and tear ducts, the endorphin rush that comes from eating such piquant fare certainly compensates.
Page two of Mrs. Smokeys hypothetical handbook is all about smoking. Not cigarettes or cigars, but pork and beef. Hight and her husband, Rodney, smoke all the pork, chicken, and beef on the premises, using various woods including oak, hickory, and mesquite. Your hair is likely to smell for days after leaving the restaurant, which can get, well, smoky. And the color of the meat takes on a reddish hue, as do your eyes, as a result of the wood smoke. So keep in mind that, just this once, it's all right if your pork is a little pink; if you order the chopped combo platter, you can bet it will be. The meat was supple, smoky, and delicious. The slippery nuggets of pork and beef were juicy and free of unnecessary fat, the helping complemented by celery seed-flavored cole slaw and golden brown tater tots.
Technically the smoker ensures that everything is precooked before it hits the grill. Which is OK with barbecue aficionados, who know that the longer the ribs cook, the more chance the sauce has to sink in. As a result of this double-cooking process, white-meat chicken can turn out a little dry; but dark meat, which has more fat, remains slick and moist.
Pre-preparation does make sense, though, considering that Mrs. Smokeys is a walk-up-and-order kind of place, with a drive-thru on one side, a seat-yourself dining room on the other. Chicken breasts and legs and slabs of pork ribs are usually simmering on the grill, meaning they're ready immediately. Our rib dinner, six meaty monsters, was a little cold, so we asked for more fire; warmed up, they were supple and zesty. A full order of baby-back ribs takes a little extra time, but it's worth the wait. Ours were so tender, the meat fell off the bone as fast as Demi Moore strips for a movie. And talk about a rack.
Another Mrs. Smokeys edict: Everything is homemade, from side dishes to desserts. We were particularly impressed with the chunky chili -- which contained so much steak and kidney beans, a cup of it would have sufficed for dinner -- and the tart key lime pie topped with fluffy meringue. Hight also bakes a buttery, candied pecan pie, and her barbecued beans are slow-stewed with bacon. Even corn, roasted in the husk, was a delicacy, the tiny yellow kernels popping between our teeth. Hight does bend her rule for two items, the fried biscuits and the tater tots, which are brought in by a purveyor. But the quality of the biscuits and the potatoes is unquestionable, partly because Hight deep-fries them in oil as clean as the gleaming floor.
What Hight knows most about barbecue is probably something she didn't want to learn: The best barbecue is born from personal hardship. Very often successful barbecues, which are fairly cheap to operate (all you need is a grill, sauce, and meat), take root on street corners or on people's porches before blossoming into full-scale restaurants. Starting in 1979, Hight ran a string of barbecue restaurants in Manhattan before returning to South Florida, where she had grown up, in 1988. She and her husband opened Mrs. Smokeys at the location of a former Hot 'n' Now -- a drive-thru burger joint -- in March 1996. They spent $100,000 on the renovation, maintaining the restaurant as a walk-up, fast-food business. But "nobody turned their heads to look," Hight said of the location, which is separated from the road by a lake and overshadowed by the buildings of Sawgrass Mills. Sales were poor.
The Hights decided to add a dining room, where patrons could eat in true Western style. After securing a loan for $200,000, they commissioned an artist to carve the backs of chairs with portraits of cowboys, Indians, and horses. Lacquered pine tables and booths were brought in, and an authentic water pump was installed so that customers could wash up. (Don't fear -- there's a bathroom on the premises as well.) A custom-made model-train track was put under the eaves of the restaurant, enabling a train to toot and whistle its way around the eatery. But just as the building was coming together, the loan fell through. "When you're under construction, you might as well be closed," Hight said. "We couldn't pay the mortgage for five months. We were under foreclosure."
What saved the business was a telemarketing miracle. The Hights' credit card company called to ask if they wanted to increase their credit rating. They jumped at the chance and finished the dining room last January. "Business quadrupled instantly. Now the arena [the National Car Rental Center] is coming, and we're doing fine," Hight told me.
Mrs. Smokeys is doing more than just fine. The 60-seat restaurant was jumping the weekend night I visited, and, when winter sets in, the 35 outdoor seats will most likely be full as well. It could be that Elisa Caplan Hight got lucky with a few good recipes and a smart location. But I think her success has more to do with the most important rule of the barbecue business: Have faith.
And keep it in the family. If the woman handing you your jumbo lemonade isn't Hight herself, it's her mom -- the woman who made the woman who makes Mrs. Smokeys work.
Mrs. Smokeys. 1970 Sawgrass Mills Cir., Sunrise, 954-846-0550. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m, Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m.
Bowl of chili
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Chopped combo platter
Key lime pie